Sharing and cooperative practices for local sustainable development: the urban village communities in Seoul. The case of the Sungmisan Village.

Sharing and cooperative practices for local sustainable development: the urban village communities in Seoul. The case of the Sungmisan Village.

In Seoul the village movement is exploding as a form for a sustainable local development and a model for commons-based services for the neighborhood.

To solve problems like poverty, imbalance between the poor and the rich and between the rural and the urban, as well as social injustice, social exclusion and marginalization, the Seoul Metropolitan Government  bet on the “urban community village”, a community-driven form of development, and created the Village Community Movement (VCM) and the Seoul Community Support Centre (SCSC) to provide important initiatives on alternative ways to promote sustainable development, not only in economic and environmental terms, but overall in social and  relational terms. The village is considered by the government a new framework for rebuilding the entire country and the VCM and the SCSC are the tool used to develop local capacity through citizen participation (Park, 2013). Stressing the autonomous decision making and the strength of local networks they seek to facilitate community participation. They can be considered a form of community building based on participatory, bottom-up and multi-sector approaches that aim to involve local people to solve common problems using a system of interaction and interrelation that fuels the social life (Wolfram, 2017).

The belief that this kind of local model could work comes from the success story of the Sungmisan Village (Sungmisan Maeul),  a small neighborhood in northwest Seoul of about 700 families whose adventure begins in 1994. These families fought to save a nearby forest from development (Mt. Sungmi), forming in this way a community that together decided to create an alternative form of care for their children. Around 20 double-income couples unsatisfied with the educational offer coming both from the public and the private sector and disappointed with the materialistic and individualistic approach of the society, decided to join and start an independent kindergarten for their children (Lee, 2010). They launched the  “Woori Childcare Center”, the first childcare co-ops for neighborhood families, followed soon by the “Nareuneun Childcare Center”  and in 1999 by another after school cooperative. The active involvement of parents created from the beginning a strong team spirit and attracted new residents that shared the community-minded childcare philosophy of “raising our children together”.  In 2001, after the success of these childcare co-ops, and recognizing the importance of sharing common values, the community started a consumer co-op for eco-friendly goods and along the way it formed clubs for almost everything: parenting, studying, gardening, hiking, photography, and more… and it started to host regular concerts, festivals and theatrical events in the neighborhood. Through the consumer co-op the Sungmisan Village expanded its connections with local residents and today it counts more than 5,500 members, representing a reference point for all the community life. In addition, from 2001 and 2003, the sense of belonging inside the community became stronger fighting to stop the waterworks project since the government wanted push urban redevelopment (Park, 2013).

Following the cooperative model during the years many different new cooperatives has born: a restaurant, a village cafè, a sharing kitchen, a cohousing building, cooperatives for elderly, to promote culture, to protect the environment, etc.… these cooperatives circulate funds and products, allow co-production, consumption, and distribution and create new job opportunities for the community residents; at the same time they enable the reorganization of the community around networks of reciprocity and solidarity, showing how the revitalization and the enhancement of the communities can come from the joint work inside the cooperatives  (Lee, 2010).

But the most important and successful project realized by the community, which solidifies the community life itself, was the creation of the Sungmisan Village School in 2004. It is the first K-12 grade alternative school in Korea (from elementary through high school) and it represents a concrete alternative to the traditional public school education, in which peer and collaborative learning, mutual responsibility and mutual support are the core values. Alongside traditional topics, students learn organic farming, pottery, and other skills from community members, many of them elders. In this way, residents feel that the school is their schools since they are actively involved. As reminded by Shareable.net with a focus on sustainability, healthy food and connectedness, village schools are more than educational institutions—they’re hubs for learning, sharing, growing and community-building”. This school represents the most important infrastructure for the village since it provides 20 years of pre-adult education; it is a remarkable approach to education and it is part of the village as well the village is an explicit attempt to return to a pre-modern vision of social relations (Pastreich, 2012).

Inside the Sungmisan Village decisions are taken during official meetings by consensus and not by the majority, meaning that people continue to discuss until everyone reaches a consensus. It can be considered a kind of “let’s get to the bottom of it” discussion; even if it seems an inefficient way of making decisions that take a lot of time and energy, on the contrary, it is an effective way of mediating differences of opinion respecting everyone involved and recognizing differences. Discussions continue for a long time but people in this way gain awareness and empathize each other. Alongside the official meetings there are also other opportunities for discussion: the after party, informal moments in which to review and alternative from other perspectives, to find a creative solution, to discuss minority topics or arguments that didn’t find space during an official meeting (they are always debated at the next official meeting). In addition, also the chatter, the informal communication, is very important. It gives additional information, integrates the official communication, supports the building of consensus and it is very useful especially for the new villagers (Yu, 2012).

The success of the Sungmisan Village has inspired numerous urban villages around Seoul. To date have been created more than 1700 urban villages thanks to the governance model implemented by the Seoul Metropolitan Government and based on the VCM and the SCSC. “Urban villages rekindle a lost sense of community and, through village schools, provide a way for young people to grow up in a hands-on, educational community rather than an overly-competitive and isolating learning environment” (Johnson, 2015). Today it really represents a concrete way to rebuild relations and social ties in a mega city where usually people have lost any sense of community, cannot rely on local solidarity networks, don’t know their neighbors and live in an isolated and individualized way. Neighbors who share the needs of everyday life, in fact, enhance solidarity trying to solve the problems together, they create mutually beneficial networks and this is what a village is all about.

***

Johnson, C., 2015, How One Neighborhood in Seoul Sparked a Movement of Urban Villages, Shareable.net [https://www.shareable.net/blog/how-one-neighborhood-in-seoul-sparked-a-movement-of-urban-villages].

Lee, K., 2010, “Creating Urban Reciprocal Community Economy Network by Cooperative Solidarity -The Case Study of Sungmisan-Maeul in Mapogu, Seoul”, in South Korea Cooperative Association, vol.28, n.2, pp. 143-171.

Park, T., 2013, “Empirical Study Of Sustainable Community Development In South Korea: A Special Focus On Village Community”, in OIDA International Journal of Sustainable Development vol.6, n.2.

Pastreich, E., 2012, Sungmisan School in Seoul: A remarkable Approach to education, Circles and Squares [https://circlesandsquares.asia/2012/05/27/sungmisan-school-in-seoul-a-remarkable-approach-to-education/].

Wolfram, M., 2017, “Village Communities and Social Innovation Policies in Seoul: exploring the urban dimension of grassroots niches” in N.Frantzeskaki, Castán Broto, V., Coenen, L. e Loorbach, D. (eds), Urban Sustainability Transition, Routledge, New York and London.

Yu, C. B., 2012, Relations, Communication and Cooperative Operation. Case of Sungmisan Village, Brixtongreen.org [http://www.brixtongreen.org/seoul-city-visits-brixton-green-social-innovationmayor/].

***

Per far fronte ad alcune delle principali problematiche che affliggono una grande metropoli come Seoul (isolamento, emarginazione, alienazione, povertà…), il Seoul Metropolitan Government sta scommettendo sul modello dei villaggi urbani comunitari. Le parole chiave sono partecipazione attiva dei membri della comunità (di solito un quartiere), approcci dal basso e multi settoriali, iniziative di stampo cooperativistico, processi decisionali autonomi e community building. Un esempio di successo, che ha inspirato lo stesso governo coreano a supportare questo modello di sviluppo locale, è il Sungmisan Village, una comunità collaborativa coesa, resiliente e sostenibile nata nel 1994.