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‘La vie en vert’: Green living in the French countryside

The village of Langouët in northern France is small, but it’s doing a lot to help the environment. It has funded a number of innovative projects that are eco-friendly, making the town one of the most sustainable in France. 

Mathilde Golla
In Langouët, these energy-efficient wooden houses were built with solar panels in 2011. These houses were one project out of many the village has taken on to become more sustainable.

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In the village of Langouët in northern France, la vie en rose looks decidedly green. That’s because this community of 600 residents near Rennes, the capital city of Brittany, is one of the most sustainable towns in France. Over the past 20 years, Langouët has been developing a host of green projects including a canteen that serves organic and local produce, sustainable housing, a hamlet of “kitchen-garden houses,” a garden used for teaching permaculture, a community cafe, a solar power plant, and a shared electric car. The village has gained a reputation for being a pioneer in green living, thanks in part to Daniel Cueff, mayor of Langouët and a driving force behind its transition. The town’s success also belongs to local residents, many of whom have loaned their own money to help fund projects, such as a communal learning garden where villagers can study permaculture. “Through this project we also want to create intergenerational bonds; the elders will be able to teach their cultivation techniques to the new arrivals,” Mr. Cueff says. His dream, he says, is to see every one of the villagers get involved in the projects.

This story is one of several from world news outlets that the Monitor is publishing as part of an international effort to highlight solutions journalism.

“Small is beautiful” would be an ideal slogan for the village of Langouët in northern France. This community of 600 residents, located near Rennes, the capital city of Brittany, is well on the way to energy autonomy and is aiming for food self-sufficiency, too. Over the past 20 years, Langouët has been developing a host of green projects including a canteen that serves 100 percent organic and local produce, passive social housing which uses little to no active heating, a hamlet of “kitchen-garden houses,” a garden used for teaching permaculture, a community café, a solar power plant, and a shared electric car.

Daniel Cueff, who has been mayor of Langouët since 1999, has been the driving force behind the transition. Mr. Cueff says he can rely on the commitment of the residents to get these projects off the ground – to such an extent that, even in the context of shrinking public coffers, the village has been able to count on its residents to fund its experiments.

“Anything we can do locally, we go for it,” Cueff says. “So why shouldn’t that apply to funding?” This year, the town council borrowed €25,000 ($29,000) from locals. The initiative was so successful that the funds were raised in just two days, from a handful of residents. This wasn’t the first time that Langouët’s council had attempted such a feat. In 2016, it had taken a loan of €40,000 from residents to finance part of the village’s redevelopment.

One of the loans will be used to create a communal learning garden where villagers can study permaculture, which focuses on gentle and natural agricultural methods. “Through this project we also want to create intergenerational bonds; the elders will be able to teach their cultivation techniques to the new arrivals,” Cueff explains. He says his dream is to see every one of the villagers get involved in the projects. “I wanted to contribute to the development of the village and to invest in making a reality the numerous ideas that have come out of our citizens’ workshops,” says Hélène, a Langouët resident who lent €2,000. “The project proposals do interest us as well; we would definitely like to live in a passive house,” adds the Brittany native, while getting out of the village’s shared electric car. 

From a very early stage, the local council has been active in building sustainable social housing. Langouët boasts two hamlets composed of energy-efficient wooden houses that are equipped with solar panels, built in 2005 and 2011. Cueff has been involved in eco-activism from a young age. “We’re working towards a social ecology model,” he explains, gesturing toward the 15 or so wooden houses, located at the entrance of the village and nestled against a backdrop of greenery. “Our local council buys land that we make viable and resell at a low cost so that sustainable housing can be built at an affordable price,” he says.

Each of the homeowners committed 30 days’ work on the building site, assisted by Compagnons Bâtisseurs (Building Companions), a nonprofit that fights for decent housing solutions. “It’s a way of reducing the cost of housing, but it also enables us to get to know our homes, and our neighbors, a lot faster,” explains Sébastien Longechaud, owner of one of the houses, which are adorned with brightly-colored shutters and topped with large solar panels. “We are sensitive to environmental issues and we chose to come and live in Langouët, in one of these wooden houses,” another homeowner, Jérôme Gimenez, says. “Our energy bill is low, around €200 ($230) per year for an 80 square meter (860 square foot) property,” he adds.

The local council wants to take things even further by building a hamlet of “Triple Zero” houses (zero energy, zero carbon, zero waste). Designed by a research laboratory, a first prototype named BioClim House was unveiled this spring and currently presides over a vast plot of land at the entrance of the village. Each house will host a greenhouse on its roof for growing vegetables using permaculture techniques. Langouët could soon come closer to its dream of food self-sufficiency, thanks to these “kitchen-garden houses,” along with the direct farm sales shop, which links up with producers of organic chickens.

Langouët is still a hub of ideas for new projects. “We’re aiming for energy autonomy within the next 10 years, thanks to solar panels and trackers,” the mayor says, referring to the pivoting structures that ensure solar panels are oriented toward the sun, thus increasing their productivity. He discusses plans with neighboring local authorities so he can “take inspiration from what’s being done elsewhere.”

Unsurprisingly, the village has gained a reputation for being a pioneer in the green transition. As a result, inquiries from would-be residents are flooding in. “A resident of Florida, United States, wants to come back to France and asked us if any houses were available,” Langouët’s mayor says proudly. But not every demand can be met. Future residents “will be chosen according to their level of willingness to get involved in the project,” Cueff explains. Those who wish to make this little Breton village their home will need to prove their green credentials.

This story was reported by Le Figaro, a news outlet in France. The Monitor is publishing it as part of an international effort by more than 50 news organizations worldwide to promote solutions journalism. To read other stories in this joint project, please click here.

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