Denmark’s oldest still existing community can be found on a big plot of land just north of Roskilde and feels alive and blooming 40 years after its start. Over 85 adults and many children live on the lands of a beautiful old mansion. Unique to Denmark, the community was started from a very idealistic social viewpoint concerning community life and still today has a shared economy in place. At Svanholm hey collectively run a milk farm, organic vegetable production and their own kindergarten. It is a beautiful example of a community managing to evolve over time, while staying to the original, idealistic values of communal living. I spoke with community member Jeanette, who has lived in Svanholm for over 15 years. She explained to me how, as all projects, Svanholm evolved and changed over time, but the collective vision to live sustainably in community is still strong today.
In 1977 two families posted a newspaper advertisement looking for people to start a social community together. The had an ideological vision of realizing an exemplary community of social living and sharing. This gathered a group of hundred interested people who together went in search for a plot of land. They found their future paradise in the centre of Zealand. After managing to get a communal loan almost quadruple the amount of their own savings, they could start their commune in 1978. Now, 40 years later, 30% of the members have been living in Svanholm for over thirty years, and nine of the original founders are still living here. Showing it is a nice place to live. When they came to Svanholm, the community members started living in small communes within the existing farm buildings, but over time this has shifted more to every family having their own apartment in the communal buildings. Families did crave a bit more personal space than originally envisioned. Recently they decided to have also a burial on site, to enable former community members with a strong connection to the site to find their final resting place here as well. In the reunion group of former and long time community members, held every other month, this is much appreciated.
At Svanholm they communally run a kindergarten on site for kids from 1 to 6 years old. Many kids from the wider region also go here because their parents like the beautiful space in nature and community vibe this kindergarten offers. Many of the employees are also community members. The organic milk farm is also run completely by community members. Only the ice cream from their milk is made by another farm just three kilometres down the road. There are also communally managed vegetable gardens for organically growing food, of which they sell quite a lot in the boutique and other place. Jeanette herself has fifty square metres of strawberry beds which she looks after.
The original idea of the community was to completely share all economics of the farm and members, which they successfully did until about twelve years ago. From the start, all income of inhabitants went into the collective, and everyone got an equal monthly allowance back. This counted for inhabitants making a living on the community farm or kindergarten, but also for community members working on jobs outside the village. All communal costs and facilities were paid from the communal money so as an individual you had little expenses left. Jeanette explains me that really everything is paid with the communal money, which is a big relief of stress. The community doesn’t just cover the expenses for the houses, it also covers the costs for the farm, the thirty shared cars and their maintenance, having a daily cook for evening meals, administration and much more. Jeanette, manager of the community boutique is especially happy with the shared administration, which means she does not have to do her taxes herself.
Twelve years ago they changed the system a little bit, to make members more motivated to keep high-paying jobs. They installed a 20/80 system, in which every member keeps 20% of their income to themselves and gives 80% to the community. This system is now still in place and functions well. Jeanette explains to me that about 20% of the communal income comes from activities in the community (the vegetables, milk, kindergarten, etc.) and 80% from the individuals with jobs outside of the community. Several community members get a salary from the communal money for working on the community enterprises. For me, the potential of having a shared economy in community is that it takes away the fear of financial stress or stress about food and other needs. It thereby opens up space for living according to your intrinsic motivation.
Communal life and decision-making
The community nowadays attracts a lot of people interested in becoming a part of the community. Svanholm has become popular for the possibility of living in close connection with each other and nature. Jeanette says it is mostly two groups who wish to become a part of the community. It is either young families from Copenhagen or other cities that which to live more in the countryside. The advantage of living in Svanholm in the countryside, explains Jeanette, is that it is not as lonely as having your own farm because you are part of a big community and have the support and social life you can also find in the city. The other group that is attracted to living her are single adults. With this, Jeanette says, they have to turn down many applicants because they are too old and they want to keep the community-spirit young and full of energy. With a third of the members having lived here for over thirty years already, this is very important she emphasizes.
Decisions are all being made with full consensus, which is quite impressive for a community of this size. They have monthly meetings on every last Tuesday of the month. Here, proposals that have been prepared by a specially elected group of community members, are decided upon. There is no right of veto for individuals: if a person really cannot live with a proposal, they have to join the committee that made the proposal and spend time developing a compromise. So, all decisions are made with support of the entire community. Roughly 60-70% of community members come to the monthly meetings and actively take part in the decisions. When I remark that this is quite a high percentage, Jeanette explains to me that this is partly because a while back they decided to have a fixed ending time of the meetings. After 9.30 o’clock no decisions may be made anymore. This helps to keep tempo in the meetings.
The community is completely heated by a wood chip incinerator. They use only wood chips from their own 120 hectare large, sustainably managed forest. Hot tap water is also created with this incinerator, together with some additional solar boilers on some of the roof. In the beginning they had a Sterling engine in the community, chosen because it could make both heat and electricity at the same time out of their wood chips. However, the engine never really worked properly and in the end they decided to switch to a regular incinerator and find a different solution for electricity. They now generate all the electricity for the community as well as the farm with two collectively owned windmills that are just a bit down the road. The windmills are already quite old and when they will have to be replaced the dream is to build one larger windmill that can also provide renewable electricity for the wider region. They also have plans to put solar panels on the many sheds of the farm.
The entire community gets its own water from a well in their forest and they also filter the waste water on site with a sand filter. They separate all their waste. The only thing they do not yet have solved in their community is their compost which is picked up by the municipality. They do not want to use the compost on their own vegetable beds, because this increases the changes of vegetable-sicknesses spreading. In the future they hope to find a solution for this. For transportation, they share thirty cars which they soon hope to replace more and more with electrical cars.
Right now, the boutique is relatively quiet as I talk with Jeanette, but she explains to me that in summertime it is very busy here. She just hired a second person to help her out in the boutique that sells all their communal products and some other regional, ecologic products. I would love to spend more time here and experience more fully what community life is like on a daily basis but Jeanette has to serve some more of the very popular ice cream to her customers. To me, Svanholm is an exceptional community to have successfully implemented a shared economy and grow and change over time without perishing to the conflict which is inherent to a shared and idealistic vision for communal life. It is an inspiration that other economical models while living in community are possible.
Read more about Svanholm here: https://svanholm.dk