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Global Dialogue
Earth Community Organization (ECO)
the Global Community

Valentin Yemelin and Marilyn Mehlmann

for Discussion Roundtables 3, 7, 22, 25, 26, 28, 33, 40, 54 and 55

Table of Contents

The St Petersburg EcoHouse – an example of sustainable urban community development

A story of social transformation

The scene is a massive standard concrete apartment block in the Moskovsky district of St Petersburg, Russia. Nine stories, multiple stair-wells, poor maintenance, 267 apartments with more than 500 residents in cramped apartments from the 60s. 1700 m2 of flat roof, almost as much unusable basement: not only damp but wet, with broken and unfinished walls, poor access, infested with rats and breeding mosquitoes. A high proportion of low-income, elderly residents with little social interaction transmits a general impression of isolation and apathy.

Less than three years later the house is humming. A good proportion of the residents are engaged in different environmental and social activities, including two with full-time and two with part-time jobs in the house. The stair-wells are in good condition, two-thirds of the roof is literally blooming, organic waste is composted in the basement – which has been rebuilt and rat-proofed, and which also houses experimental cultivation of Witloof endives. Heating bills have been nearly halved. A community meeting room has been renovated and decorated, and is heavily booked for meetings of all kinds, including a kind of «resident’s surgery» at which people can seek professional help with their problems.

How it happened

The EcoHouse project is based on the EcoTeam approach of raising public environmental awareness and empowering sustainable change in people's behaviour in the direction of conscious lifestyle choices.

An average cooperatively owned apartment building in St. Petersburg was chosen for the experiment. It is a brick 9-storied building, constructed in 1966. It consists of 267 apartments with 540 residents, 60% of whom are pensioners. It produces daily 200 kilograms of food garbage in winter time and 300 kg in summer time. The house has a flat roof of 1700 square meters 25 m from the ground and 600 square meters of basement.

Five teams of residents completed the EcoTeam program and then formed a core project team of 40 people. The team had many ideas of their own and also drew residents into a creative process to identify promising activities. Some undertaken to date:

* Separation of inorganic garbage, including selling some for recycling
* In-house processing of organic waste into compost, using worm culture
* Roof-top gardening producing organic food and clean air
* Energy saving, in particular by installing a regulator and meter on the single intake of district heating to the house

Separation of inorganic garbage

Empowered residents started garbage separation on a house level. Special containers were designed and installed on each floor of one block. Recyclable components like glass, cardboard, plastic and aluminium were separated and forwarded to respective processing enterprises, state or private. Thus part of the resources needed for processing of an end product of the cycle are generated and consumed within the system and part of the product is returned into the cycle.

Agreements with the Garbage Processing plant #2 and the Municipal Transportation Company "Lenavtotrans," as well as the letter of understanding with regional administration were signed. "Lenavtotrans" provided free transportation and has donated 4 garbage containers. Garbage Processing plant #2 will treat the supplied garbage from the Pulkovskaya 9/2 site separately and administration has designated a plot for garbage collecting containers. Two working places for garbage collectors were organized. Now the house itself employs residents and pays more for additional work. It is achieved by eliminating of overhead payment to municipal company.

Composting of organic waste

The next step is separation and composting of food garbage in a basement of a house with the help of red (Californian) worms. Not only this results in reduction of total waste product of the system and economy of external resources for transportation and processing of waste, but creates a component (compost), which increases system’s sustainability. It is further on used for growing of room plants, vegetation on the surrounding plot and on the roof for the rooftop garden.

Feasibility study for Module 2 "Vermicomposting" is in process of conducting. The preparatory works in the basement have been completed, partially carried out by unemployed house residents who could not pay the rent payment in full. Their rent was reduced for the amount of money they should have earned for the work.

5 kilograms of red worms have been purchased and vermicomposting process has been started. Food garbage is being collected by 20 families participating in the experiment. The waste is collected by a worker, chopped and put in boxes, stocked on top of each other. Worms eating the garbage, produce biologically active soil and move to an upper box. In 4 months the population of worms quintupled and about 1,4 tons of compost was produced. A working place for an unemployed resident was created. There is a potential for an a small business of producing the biologically active soil for room and garden plants.

The roof-top garden

The roof-top garden is one of a key components. It is highly suitable for this kind of heavily polluted urban environment because, being nine stories above ground, it has better air quality and thus more healthy produce than a ground-level garden.

Two other factors make it of interest for cities of the former Soviet Union (and potentially many others): it is not subject to vandalism, since access is easily controlled; and it is easy to implement since most apartment blocks have flat, water-sealed roofs with suitable carrying capacity.

In the EcoHouse the roof is now generating products for sale, for example currant bushes grown from cuttings. There are two greenhouses which serendipitously could be installed between two chimney stacks, reducing installation costs, and extending the growing season by raising the temperature. A part of the roof is set aside for growing turf lawn, which can then be rolled up and packaged for sale, or for greening the immediate neighbourhood of the building.

Food products from the roof were tested in the laboratories of the University of San Francisco and St. Petersburg State University and results showed their high quality.

The roof is becoming a favourite place for residents to meet in the summer, and for young people to work – being allowed to work on the roof is regarded as a privilege by young residents.

Heat metering

This component includes measurement and regulation of heat and hot water. There is a difference between local tariffs, based on average data and actual consumption. Savings are accumulated and used for paying off the loan.

Tacis and the Danish company "Kamstrup" have contributed to the installation of the heat-metering equipment in the house. The company’s loan has been already paid back and residents have started to accumulate money for covering the installation costs, which they will transfer to the neighbor community as a start-up capital for installation of heat meter in their apartment building. After it will be paid, they will be returned to residents directly or used for communal purposes.

Financial incentives

The EcoHouse project has needed quite a lot of external support to get this far, partly because the work is experimental and partly because at each step of the way authorization is sought not only to do the work in this particular house but also to have this type of work authorized in principle, so that subsequent houses will have a shorter and cheaper road to travel.

The actual economics of the project – direct costs and benefits to residents – are the subject of evaluation for which material is being collected. The interim conclusion is that such a project can be highly profitable. For example, the heat metering/regulation was financed by a loan to be repaid over three years. In fact the costs were recouped over less than 18 months, and residents agreed nonetheless to continue paying heat bills at the same level as previously for a longer period, in order to be able to build up a modest fund for loans to other houses. Several jobs have been created in the house, and back debts to the cooperative association worked off through contributions to the project.

The local authorities have expressed their appreciation of the project in many ways, including paving the approach road and installing park benches – a great rarity in this type of housing estate.

External funding for the first,experimental stage of the project came from SIDA, TACIS and US AID. All modules were proved to be feasible and replicable.

Environmental incentives

An average urban multi-apartment building is an 'open' system – it consumes external resources (energy, water, food products and goods) producing organic and inorganic waste as well as a labour force, which are put to use outside the place of residence.

The idea was to 'short-circuit' resource flows and make this system less open by reduction of consumption and output of waste, 'on-site' production of some resources, and introduction of recycling schemes increasing community sustainability.

Social incentives

With the collapse of the former Soviet Union, many social networks also disappeared. Many people live in comparative isolation. The initial hopes and expectations of a rapidly rising standard of living have given rise to much frustration and/or apathy, as it becomes apparent that «Dallas» is not within reach of most people within one lifetime. The frustration in turn has led to growing problems with crime, vandalism, drugs and other destructive behaviour.

Neither the Soviet collective ethic nor the pure form of capitalistic make-your-own-life attitude are helpful in overcoming current social problems, which are further compounded by a lack of access to counselling and coaching.

The EcoHouse experiment needed to find a way to offer new, non-threatening social networks with access to an every-day, mundane type of counselling to facilitate collaboration, consensus-building and conflict handling, and foster leadership qualities. Such skills also forward the democratic process both within the house and in the surrounding community.

As a part of the project, not only have household coaches been trained, but six local trainers have also been trained and authorized to conduct coach training.

Choice of approach

The EcoTeam program was chosen as a vehicle for the experiment. It was developed by GAP internationally to empower private citizens to adopt more sustainable lifestyles. It has been successfully adapted for and introduced into Russia as a focal part of this project.

The EcoHouse project is an extension of the EcoTeam program from the household level to the level of the local community, and is an experiment in creating a sustainable development model for a multi-apartment block. It emphasizes integration of social systems, ecology and economics at this very local level. The model deals with an existing urban habitat and provides a set of measures that can increase sustainability with only minor investments.

Plans and goals

The objective of the next stage of the project is to complete development of a replicable, financially sustainable model and set of tools by

a) Development of an infrastructure for broad dissemination of the EcoTeam program

· Development and operation of a computer-based system for tracking EcoTeams and the results of participating households
· Setting up a regular newsletter for participating households and others
· Developing a simple and robust training and support package for communities wishing to introduce the EcoTeam program

b) Completion of major technical components of the prototype EcoHouse

* Organization of collection of hazardous waste from households
* Inspection and approval as prototypes of all project modules by the city authorities (sanitary control, fire inspection, architectural and engineering commissions); obtaining necessary permits
* Continued testing of basement production of chicory witloof – a winter harvested plant for vitamin and mineral supplements, in collaboration with the University of Agriculture
* Installation of garbage containers for separated garbage items in the next section of the pilot house

c) Financial analysis

* Specific and general cost-benefit analyses of i) the EcoHouse program, ii) the EcoTeam program
* Development of a sustainable domestic financing strategy

d) Development of a training and support package

*. Creation and testing of a Community Leadership Training Program, i) for those planning to introduce an EcoHouse program, ii) for those willing to go further and contribute to local politics
* Development and publication of an EcoHouse manual

e) Test

Test of the initial stages of replication in a second apartment block in St Petersburg

Meeting all mentioned objectives will permit the EcoHouse project to be replicated in any urban environment of the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe or poor neighbourhoods in developed countries. It will result in considerable savings in city budgets and an appreciable improvement of the city’s social systems and environment.

The parties' experience

Both partner organizations have a successful history of project management in the field of environment, sustainable development and leadership training. The joint, 30-month EcoTeam project in St Petersburg resulted in the forming of 43 EcoTeams in five Russian cities, training of 68 coaches, preparing six coach trainers and publishing the EcoTeam workbook.

Stage 1 of the EcoHouse project demonstrated the feasibility of a sustainable working model in an average multi-apartment block, which can be potentially replicated anywhere in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe or poor neighborhoods in developed countries.

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