Building together, trusting together

(This article was published, in Dutch, in the Volkskrant of 19 June 2023 and can be found here)

The Netherlands has about 4,000 citizen collectives. They have their own ideas on how to keep their homes, care and energy up to standard and restore confidence. Officials have yet to get used to this unconventional approach.

By Margriet Oostveen


They wanted to build an affordable, climate-neutral village where everyone would take care of each other. They sold their comfortable single-family homes and moved into construction sheds on the outskirts of Boekel, Brabant, for four years. There they went to work with a contractor.

They had three large circles with a total of 36 social housing units designed. In their village nobody would about asylum seekers: from the very first drawing board they reserved living space for two status holders. They also wanted to take care of the elderly and sick.

The initiator, Ad Vlems, was a system administrator in Tilburg. His wife Monique is an account manager. They started a citizens’ collective. With a few other families, they put their whole lives into the project. Then they crowdfunded and found subsidies.

Now ecovillage Boekel is a fact. Everyone has moved in, the status holders have arrived, and four people for whom the collective provides informal care. Its own energy supply is running, the food garden is green, the community center is progressing. ‘Last year we had 1,100 people visit with one tour a week, this year we are giving two such tours every week,’ says Ad Vlems. He has already been invited to Brussels three times to give a presentation at the EU Economic and Social Committee, and he now advises the Ministry of Transport and Public Works. Last month, they won a European sustainability prize.

Other municipalities want to know how to support citizen collectives like the one in Boekel “without killing them” with too much bureaucracy, because they grow “like mushrooms. This in the words of Godfried Engbersen, professor of sociology at Rotterdam’s Erasmus University.

He was speaking Friday in Eindhoven at a day for citizen collectives organized by Collective Power, the platform set up by Professor Tine de Moor of the Rotterdam School of Management to study citizen collectives and at the same time help them move forward. It is estimated that the Netherlands already has more than 4,000 of them.

Engbersen attributes the rapid growth to what he calls “the low-trust society”; a society where trust in government is low. ‘Because to work together you have to trust each other, and that is where something is going wrong between the government and citizens.’

The 4,000 Dutch citizen collectives now consist of some 1,400 housing cooperatives where people rent or buy, develop or manage homes together. There are 705 energy collectives with their own windmills or solar panels; 646 bread funds where self-employed people insure each other in case of illness and just under 1,500 care cooperatives with everything from nursery to assisted living with care, by self-employed people hired by the collective. And then there are dozens of agricultural cooperatives, in which citizens support farmers in sustainability, for example.

Covid was not the cause of the low confidence, says Engbersen, who is leading a study on the social impact of the pandemic. ‘Covid was the contrast agent; it made visible problems that had existed for a long time.’

Take the “demolition in the social domain” that the government caused before by closing or divesting numerous facilities, he says. Many citizen collectives know how to organize things better to maintain housing, energy and care and restore mutual trust. ‘The question now is what is a good public infrastructure for that,’ Engbersen says. ‘Because you are not average.’

Complicated language

The members of citizen collectives who have come to Eindhoven are mostly middle-aged white people who have continued their education. But as in the eco-village in Boekel, they don’t seem intent on keeping their privilege to themselves. In a workshop for energy collectives, volunteer energy coaches tell how in Haarlem they help fellow townsfolk understand the complicated language of sustainability (“sometimes I have to explain what ‘subsidy’ means”). Many here are familiar with the website, where you can type in words to test whether what you want to say is understandable to everyone.

The main goal of most collectives may be self-interest, but the secondary goal is often to strengthen togetherness and a network that people dare to rely on again. During a break, Wilhelmina Hoedjes of energy collective Weert Energie explains how the 550 members save up the profits from their solar farm to pay out as an energy subsidy to Weert’s minima. ‘The municipality would arrange that, because they are not allowed to tell us who it concerns because of privacy laws. Only the municipality still hasn’t distributed the money,’ says Hoedjes.

Civil servants often have to get used to the unconventional approach of citizen collectives, there is a lot of grumbling about that in Eindhoven. ‘But the government also has to ensure legitimacy, predictability and legal equality,’ explains administrative expert Karin Geuijen of Utrecht University ‘as the devil’s advocate’ once again. ‘That is of course the double of bureaucracy’.

Ten years ago, in the traditionally poor Afrikaanderwijk neighborhood in Rotterdam, residents founded the Afrikaanderwijk Cooperative, which provides them with, among other things, its own workshop, cleaning service and catering, work they can no longer count on elsewhere. All 100 or so members thus receive an income from the cooperative. Co-founder Annet van Otterloo says soberly to a room hanging on her every word: “I grew up with the idea that the government takes care of you. We have many people working in the cooperative who now see the government as a danger.’