During the summer of 2017, I travelled throughout France. Now I am sharing the stories of the commons I met along the way, never knowing what I would find in advance. These articles were originally published in French here: Commons Tour 2017. The English translations are also compiled in this Commons Transition article.
When I left the metro station in Vanves, south of Paris, I discovered a pretty, modern and flowery city. Just a few steps from the station, I found the porch I had been told to look for, and crossed beneath it to find the participative habitat where I would spend a week. It was a large building, nestled between the wall of the cemetery and the surrounding houses, wrapped around a tree-lined garden. Suzanne, a young retired woman, welcomed me and gave me a tour of the property.
La Fonderie is a project begun in 1984. This building was first a factory, bought by a developer forced to buy it as part of a lot, but who didn’t know what to do with it. He was delighted when the families (first 3, soon 10) offered to buy it so they could do some work and make their participatory housing project a reality.
From the beginning, the habitat was intended to save energy and be environmentally friendly, but the craftsmen capable of building a wooden frame building (more than just soundproofing) were not legion at that time. The group agreed to a compromise: the building would be made of concrete with a wooden frame, and a very nice wooden façade would be added. It was no easy task, as the building was completely twisted and the carpenter in charge of its cladding almost threw in the towel several times! All of the residents had to persuade and encourage him to finish.
After two years of work, the building finally emerged: 9 apartments from 70m² to 120m² in various shapes; a common room; two shared guest rooms; a workshop and a shared cellar; as well as a garden equipped with a compost. The only thing young couples completely overlooked at the time was the issue of aging. There are stairs everywhere. Nothing was planned to make life easier for people with reduced mobility, so it’s a question of adding an elevator in the column provided by the architect, but it wouldn’t solve the problem for apartments that are almost all duplex or triplex.
The truth is that when the project was started, the inhabitants were not planning to be doing this 30 years later! This is a particularly exemplary experience because, after all this time, the same families (with one exception) remained in the area. Of course, the fifteen or so children who grew up there have now moved away, but the original couples are there and continue to operate the common parts of the place – for example, welcoming people like me, or opening the meeting room.
What is the secret of such longevity? First, a fairly strong convergence of values eg., ecology, anti-liberalism (or, anti-neoliberalism) and practices. Most of the inhabitants of La Fonderie are also involved in local associations like the local newspaper, environmental film festival, cyclists’ association, etc. They took part in the creation of the first AMAP (community-supported agriculture) in Vanves, opening their collective compost to the inhabitants of the district. In short, they are people who are comfortable with community life and citizen involvement.
The second secret is that community life is governed by clear rules, based on unanimity. At first, there was a monthly meeting (sometimes more) to discuss all subjects. In time, the unwritten rules of common life were integrated by everyone. Today, a single annual meeting is enough to solve a number of unusual questions. Things also happen informally: in the corridors, the garden, or during the many shared meals. There’s also a whiteboard outside for “on-duty” messages.
Conflicts? Of course there were some. But they all got settled, the most effective method being… time. Today, most of the inhabitants of the place are retired, and are not always present in the building. The question of community sustainability arises. What will happen to the place? Will it be sold gradually to the highest bidder in a context where the PLU jumped 30%? Suzanne is confident that “We won’t all leave at the same time,” she explains. “It’s also possible that we can gradually integrate new inhabitants seduced by our way of life, acclimatize them and pass on our traditions.”