How beauty can save the Planet

The story of how an ecovillage in Lower Saxony transformed an unauthorised rubbish dump into a spectacular ornamental lake that brings visitors from across the country

‘Beautiful places do not just happen. They are the product of public policy and investment,’

writes Richard Florida in an article for Bloomberg, exploring the link between a city’s beauty and its economic performance. A growing number of researchers are recognising the importance of beauty not just as a matter of aesthetics, but as a fundamental part of sustainability that could help us transition to a green future. As Green-design pioneer Lance Hosely writes, ‘Aesthetic attraction is not a superficial concern – it’s an environmental imperative. Beauty could save the planet.’

But what if the public policy is absent, and the resources for investment do not exist? Then it falls to individuals and communities to take proactive steps to make their surroundings beautiful. This could a garden, a roadside verge a window ledge, a community flower display, or ideally a whole neighbourhood, as an entire community comes together to make their surroundings a place worth caring for.

Or it could be a lake, like the one shown in the picture [above], called ‘The Waldsee’. From its size and its expertly-manicured gardens, you might expect it to be the work of a professional landscaping company, but it is in fact the creation of an ecovillage community in Lower Saxony called The Michaelshof. Previously, it was used as an unauthorised rubbish dump, and before that, an illegal sand mine. Now, it is a concert venue for some of Germany’s most celebrated musicians and draws guests from across Germany, who find it hard to believe that such a project could be realised by a few dozen volunteers.

For the Michaelshof community, The Waldsee is central to a project of designing a community that puts beauty at the forefront of its design: an attempt to create a home and way of life that is sustainable, spiritual, and beautiful.

The village from above

‘Centres of Peace and Love Where the Christ can resurrect’

The Michaelshof community was founded in 1984 by group of friends interested in forming an intentional community together. They were fascinated by the ideas of Austrian esotericist Rudolf Steiner, founder of biodynamic farming and Waldorf education, who spoke of the need for small communities where spiritual knowledge could be preserved against what he saw as the encroaching materialism contemporary life. These communities would grow their own food, would care for the sick and mentally ill, would be, in Steiner’s words, ‘centres of peace and love where the Christ can resurrect.’

Central to these communities would be gardens. In 2011 the Michaelshof community began to design and build a series of gardens, starting with a small fishpond in what is now the Rosengarten, and moving onto larger garden projects that now cover most of the village. They were aided by the energy and enthusiasm by a younger generation of community members, one of the first to be born and grow up there, who en masse decided to devote themselves to the growing project. Over a period of five years, the Michaelshof community was transformed, beginning to attract the first visitors from across Germany.

The animal stalls from above

‘Nobody knew what you would find if you dug deeper.’

From the outset, it was clear that the Waldsee project would not be easy. Alongside the sheer physical labour involved, such as clearing away the sand and rubbish, laying the paths and building the walls there was the danger of finding toxic material such as asbestos in the soil. Every cubic metre of soil and sand had to be checked, the results sent to a laboratory in Hamburg, and any toxic material removed, at great expense.

‘Don’t dig, you’ll get into trouble, we were told’, recalls Hans-Michael, a long-time community member. ‘Nobody knew what you would find if you dig deeper.’ There was, for example, a rumour that there was an entire bus concealed in dirt.

The difficulties seemed so overwhelming that the community were advised by the local government to try something less ambitious, like ‘planting a few trees’.

Work on the Waldsee began in Spring 2015 and progressed in typical Michaelshof fashion: around the clock, in any season and any weather. First, the decades of trash had to be cleared away. A digger would lift up a heap of earth and trash, drop it down, and then the volunteers would rush in to sort through anything that had been revealed, before another pile of dirt came crashing down. They found engine parts, sheets of plastic, nylon tights that hadn’t disintegrated at all, and hundreds and hundreds of cans.

The region’s curious geology came in use during the project. Stamitz sits atop an ‘ente-morraine’: a mix of different rock types pushed together during the last ice age by an advancing glacier. A few hundred metres from the lake there was a deposit of clay, by chance right underneath the farm’s cow stall that had been built a few years previously. ‘We took the clay when we were digging the waste cellar for cow’s waste’, explains one community member, ‘and used it to create the base of the lake. We were lucky that [the different materials] were so close.’

Despite the challenges, the Waldsee was completed in Spring 2016. It soon became a favourite retreat for many in the Michaelshof community, offering an escape from the busy environment of the village. Drawn by the gardens and the café, visitors started to flock to the see the Michaelshof community in their thousands, astonished by the scale and beauty of the garden project, something that fits well with the community’s vision at this time of their history. ‘The idea is to create something beautiful’, explains Olaf, a senior community member, the memory of which ‘will stay with people throughout the year.’

Another garden, called the plateau

‘Building sins soon to be legalised?’

Despite its beauty, The Waldsee has not proved universally popular. Since its completion it has been at the centre of an extended dispute over planning regulations that highlights the need for dialogue with the wider community, when planning a large-scale landscaping projects.

The conflict arises from the fact that one fifth of The Waldsee lies within an official ‘Landscape Protection Area’, where concrete is not permitted. Although the small amount of concrete now within the Landscape Protection Area has had no significant impact on the local wildlife or flora, some local residents have called for the Waldsee to be forcibly cleared away.

In January of this year, the Neu Darchau town council approved a proposal to redefine the limits of the Landscape Protection Area so that it does not include The Waldsee, which would now be included within the village of Sammatz. This proposal has been met with vocal opposition from some local councillors, mostly from the left-wing ‘Soli’ party. Soli has accused the local administration of ‘blatantly looking the other way’ when faced with the building violations. One Soli spokesperson said that the Michaelshof community had acted with ‘incredible ruthlessness’ towards people and nature. ‘Buildings sins soon to be legalised?’ read the title of an editorial in the local newspaper, pointing out that ignoring these planning violations was unfair on every homeowner in the region who had been penalised for smaller violations.

Whilst these criticisms have some merit, it’s impossible to ignore the benefits The Waldsee brings to both nature and people. Sara GroS, a biologist living in the Michaelshof community, explains that The Waldsee provides a habitat for wildlife that is rare in this part of Germany, including bumblebees, Purple Emperor butterflies, and a large population of toads. This all has a chain effect on the surrounding area, the insects providing food for the bird population, the bees helping to pollinate the flowers in the rest of the Sammatz gardens. ‘In a time when in many places insect populations are falling,’ observes one community member, ‘our insect population is increasing.’

The cafe

“Beauty could save the planet.”

Through The Waldsee and its other garden projects, the Michaelhof community aligns with a growing number of thinkers who argue that beauty is not simply an optional extra, but an essential component of a sustainable future. ‘Who throws out a thing they find functional, beautiful, and valuable all at once?’ asks pioneer of Green Architecture Lance Hosey, in his book The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design. An object might be functional, but if it is not also beautiful then people are less likely to try and repair it if it stops working. Philosopher Roger Scruton makes point that ugly buildings, once they lose their original purpose, usually stand empty, but people find a reason to make use of a building they find beautiful.

The original main building

The future: politics, education, and expansion

Concerning the future, the community has ‘big plans’, and hopes to spread its ideas to the surrounding region and beyond. In 2021, the community launched a political party, named ‘Kallieco’ after the Greek words for ‘beauty’ and nature’, in the 2021 elections they had four candidates elected, who are working to shape local policy guided by The Michaelshof’s ideas. Their recent proposals include flower displays in the local villages, and finding ways to encourage young people to move to the region.

Alongside this, the Michaelshof community has recently established ‘The Selma Lagerlof Special Education School’. focusing on ‘emotional and social development’, the school provides an education for around twenty emotionally handicapped children from the surrounding area. Here too, beauty is put at the centre of the school’s ethos. The children regularly practice music and art, and the forests and fields that surround the school are regularly used for teaching that engages in the all the senses. The Michaelshof community hopes that, one day, this school will provide boarding education to students from around the world.

The Michaelshof Community considers itself a ‘model’ village, demonstrating a way of life that values community, sustainability and beauty, and finds new and innovative ways to design their life to incorporate them.

Visitors sitting at the Waldsee