The local community, or more precisely, a handful of very innovative people with the support and active involvement of the wider local social network, have created local services and events typical of what we know as Reconomy in so many places. Writing an article offers a good time to ‘stock – take’ just what has been achieved.
First a bit of background: the Wekerle estate in south Budapest was born of innovative thinking, the Garden City Movement of the last century. The very essence of the concept garden city is that residential space is not just for homes, but through well designed community space and space for nature, should also give rise to a local economy, one that benefits the residents and creates the social benefits that social reformers of that time hoped would contribute to a fairer, greener society.
What a lot of historical baggage to carry – but what a great start to our story!
Photo Above: The central square of Wekerle
Photo Above; The Unique layout of Wekerle
Most living here in Wekerle are well aware of the Hungarian history attached to the Estate, the importance that its development holds in urban planning literature, and the fact that the First Minister’s whose name it bears was the first Prime Minister in this country to come from outside the aristocracy. While more and more run down, the 1km2 Wekerle Estate has recently gained Hungarian Heritage status, a welcomed development, in spite of the fact it brings rather unwieldy planning restrictions.
The wider importance it holds as an early staff-bearer of the environmental movement, as an experiment in human ecology are less well known. Neither do many know much about those early dreamers such as Ebeneezer Howard, who shared their ideas of urban planning and social development internationally, in order to make such places as Wekerle real; the backdrop to their dreaming was the evident failure of cities at the turn of the 20th century to offer a healthy quality of life to their growing populations. This is the backdrop, or perhaps the stage that was set for the myriad of local citizens initiatives found here. The Garden City dreamers were not merely planning urban neighbourhoods, but rather planning in the elements in can later interact to create local, vibrant communities.
Stocktaking our local economy
Let’s start with the most easily recognisable initiatives, the most visible of which is the local farmers’ market. Access to this space is relatively freely given by the local council, the District of Kispest, mostly due to the persistence and determination of locals demanding to be able to diversify the use of this traditional space. Food markets are an everyday experience in Budapest, each district having at least one large and well-used market hall. Our district has two, the smaller of which is part-organised by locals committed to bringing more life and more diversity to the Wekerle market, a late-afternoon and evening market that was actually set up by the locals themselves. Here you’ll find those who have traditional or small farmers’ licences and sell their own produce, everything from veggies to cheeses, honey and cordials. Smoked ham is very popular in Hungary, and many still have the (unfortunately-fated) family pig. Small-holders practicing small-scale pig-keeping produce their own sausages, smoked hams, crackling, an every-day product at every district market. We have some characters too, like Elvira, a small-holder who comes 50km with her organic produce, strange ‘healthy sweets’ and herb mixes; their ‘crack’, adds to the experience of market-going; few actually rush through, most coming here are enjoying the social experience too.
Photo above: Farmers market in Wekerle
There are other aspects to the market too: this is where people purchasing from the Zsámbók Community Supported Farm pick up their organic food box; this is where the Vegetable Commandos collect food donations for the community-run food bank. Besides the shoppers, the farmers also support the Commandos, giving their surplus at the end of the day to support the Roma families in the district whose income doesn’t stretch to fresh food.
And the Commandos? While delivering the food boxes they realised that the kids in some of the most stressed families were in need of other things besides nourishment, so they set up a Saturday School that helps with homework and – importantly – self-esteem and confidence.
Surplus: that’s the start of another story
Hungarians usually get rid of their household junk on ‘Jumble Day’, a particular day in each district where householders can put out household junk and brik-a-brak for collection for either landfill or incineration. From an environmental perspective, its criminal, heart-breaking, so anything such as a flea market that allows some of this “junk” to get redirected and reloved is very much needed. The Farmers’ market in Wekerle isn’t on daily, which gives the opportunity to use the market stalls for other events or purposes, such as a Flea Market, a regular event which we organise 4 times a year. While fun for most, this event is actually bread and butter for many and gives some of the poorer families in the area a chance to raise some cash. Interestingly, the incredibly agile woman who set up the market didn’t see this as a money-making community event, or a way to reduce waste and make use of resources, she was mostly motivated by curiosity – she assumed that if her attic was full of interesting stuff, then other peoples must be too.. How to get to see some of that stuff? Encourage them to get rid of it,.. at a Flea Market for example!
Another such “service” is the Garage Sale Festival, a community-wide event tried and tested in Wekerle; while garage sales are pretty common, there aren’t really many places where it is so well-coordinated, but in Wekerle the “Are you being served?!” local loyalty card organisers (yet another local initiative) regularly bring together over 100 families in 20-25 locations at the same time, to find new homes for their unwanted stuff. According to the organisers, roughly 13,000 – 25,000 EUROs change hands over the course of one day, a sum that made the eyebrows of more conventional business-owners in the area rise when quoted.
Can we add more to this story of surplus? Well, yes: the events above are periodical, and people’s desire to get rid of stuff is constant: this is where the Wekerle facebook “chatroom” comes in: an online garage sale, this is where small items, grown-out clothes, games and books change hands, generally for ‘fillerek”, a Hungarian penny… Likewise, useful materials from renovation change hands on the Wekerle Building Leftovers facebook. Books find new homes in a specially made Take one Leave One ‘Open Cupboard” on the main square…imagination has made many economic projects take off, without even realising that what they are is really a contribution to each others housekeeping.
Going a little further a sharing economy?
Metaphors: they make us or break us. One particular Hungarian metaphor rather undermines the idea of sharing stating “A shared horse has a ragged back”.
While writing about the Reconomy experience, we can’t forget that this is a very different context. This is Central Europe: here common property, the property of the people, cooperatives and volunteerism all ring differently. ‘System change” was only 25 years ago, and consumerism hasn’t lost its shine. But people do share stuff, and a few popular practices try to encourage this further. The Annual Transition Wekerle Seed Exchange, for example, or the Community-shared Branch Shredder, or the Heritage Tomato Seedling Adoption, or the shared gardens that are springing up. There used to be a Clothes Swap too, but those who set it up became disheartened, feeling that there was a fine line between swapping and being opportunistic. No point in going into details, rather the important thing is that yes, it’s important to experiment, but even more important to find what actually works for a particular community, how much of a cultural change can happen, at what pace.
Photo above; Swapping seeds at the annual seed swap
And this is where we get to the nitty- gritty of the question.
If this is what Reconomy looks like in Wekerle, can we develop it further?
We had the very luxurious opportunity to put this question to ourselves in cooperation with a friendly research group, the Economy, Environment and Society Research Group, EESRG, which spent the last two months in a EU-funded Cooperative Responsible Research and Innovation project with the Wekerle community. With representatives of all sectors of the community involved, we looked at our Niches, the Dominant Regime, we made every effort to fulfil the stake-holder Helix, and to recognise where we were on this and that axis, on this and that curve… We toured our empty retail spaces, climbed into historical Seker Attics, spray-painted, dined, focus-grouped and deep-interviewed. We have searched for common Future Visions in groups with the Vice-Major, cultural workers and fruit cordial makers, and tried to condense the essence of the process into Something that Points the Way Forward. Not, as I hope the Capital Letters have suggested, too easy.
Photo above; Touring the local empty spaces
Photo above Locals Rita and Adel at first workshop
By the end of the three planned workshops, we had no answer for the question of where to go next. The lead researcher put it in pictures for us on the last but one Reconomy workshop; “It’s like everyone has come a long distance, and come to a long ditch, and is waiting for someone to jump it”.
So this is part of our collective consciousness now: we are all lined up looking in the ditch. It’s not too great a feeling, but it’s one which many communities reach, the feeling of having come so far, having done so much, but having Not Quite Made it Yet.
Reconomy, at our scale, is largely driven by motivated, innovative, non-business minded people, those who get a buzz out of making useful things happen for those they feel connected to. Wekerle has an amazing amount of innovation, and a strong commitment to its own traditions; that community life here is made possible by the very strong culture of volunteerism; the social fabric is kept strong by the inter-connected nature of the sub-groups of communities that while they hold different identities, manage to share an Identity of Place that helps to keep underlying tensions in perspective. This “Identity of Place” seems to be our special resource, the currency that makes Wekerle able to hold its own story while allowing enough experimentation, for the story to go further.
While we may look like we are standing at a ditch waiting for someone to make the first leap, it may more be the case that those involved don’t really know ‘which finger to bite off next’, as the Hungarian saying goes. Everyone already has a load on their plate, generally more than can be easily swallowed. Committing further means less family time, more tension at work as deadlines compete, even less evenings to relax, and even more loss of own income. Taking our local economic experiments further only seems possible if the work that enables this economic development is in itself sufficiently resourced; time, that most cherished resource, is what we don’t have a surplus of and we haven’t come up with “a community-financing-our-own-pioneers” model yet. We know this community can innovate, but we don’t yet see how it can nurture and support those who are willing to go out on a limb to create something new, something of common benefit.
Reconomy, at a wider scale we can’t yet name, looks like it involves a lot more structure, a lot more coordination, a lot more focus. The Community Energy Company, the “I support Wekerle” community branding; the Heritage Caretakers Non-Profit Co., the Community Led Development Agency may be a long time coming.
This article was written by Transition Hungary