Sustainable place-shaping: Can Masdeu

Can Masdeu is an eco-community and according to their website also “a network of projects that resists the voraciousness of a city without limits to the rhythm of the seasons. An act of creative disobedience to the world of money, smoke and ordinances, noise and speed. A proposal for collective cooperation and coexistence between generations…”.

Can means “property of” and “Masdeu” comes from the Masdeu family who once inhabited the farmhouse at the center of the valley. The community is also squatted building, a social centre, residence and community garden and located in the beautiful green hills north of the Olympic stadium in Barcelona. The site covers 35 hectares as part of the Collserola Natural Park. The historical and characteristic building was occupied by international activists in 2001 after being abandoned for roughly 53 years; it is owned by the Hospital de Sant Pau.
An international group of activists spent over a year searching in Barcelona for the best location to occupy and in December 2001 they moved onto the abandoned hospital. The aim was to hold a conference to raise awareness around climate change. Can Masdeu became famous in April 2002, when over 100 national police offers came to evict 11 squatters. Using passive resistance over three days the squatters were able to hold off the police’s efforts at forced removal.
The activists occupied the agricultural and social space and since then the buildings and land are self-managed by the community in an ecological sustainable way. The goal is to reduce energy use and consumption and produce organic food in the communal garden. They also share land with their neighbours, 30 plots to 40 people, “to give something back to the community. We have more than enough land then we need. Sharing the land also gives social and political legitimacy”. Can Masdeu is supported by various organisations and mobilizes volunteers who work in different projects such as the community center, the communal garden or education as they are “convinced that the land belongs to those who work it”. 

20 Years later, 16 adults and 5 children are permanently living in Can Masdeu. It is a tranquil place where volunteers come on Thursdays to join the weekly ‘working day’, cultivating the land or doing reparation work. When I visited the site on a sunny working day in April, Martin, one of the first initiators of the community was building a grey water system together with a volunteer. While he kept working I interviewed him about climate change, leadership, values and the resourcefulness of the community.

 Martin, 57 years and originally coming from busy London is an activist and anarchist who mainly was ‘against things’ when he decided to move to Spain, 21 years ago. He build his own round tiny house, next to the large main historical former hospital, made with straw bales and mud walls, installed solar heating, and now hardly uses any fossil fuels. “The house is a metaphor for the lifestyle change we need to implement. It is not just about numbers (CO2 emissions), but also about the heart. Give people hope about climate change”. Martin is also involved in the social side of the community. Every week the community centre opens, providing information to the public about electrification and sustainable measures.
He is motivated by climate change and considers ecological and social justice the most important values, while personal wealth, security and concern about old age are values which matter the least to him. He doesn’t have children to take care of himself but feels empathy for the younger generation who faces many difficulties such as finding houses, a job and dealing with climate change.
He is one of the leaders of the community and is also perceived as such. In this role he considers values such as “making a difference, authenticity and courage” important. Martin: “I am the stereotype of the older white male who functions in such a leadership role”. Some say: Martin has a lot of power, but I don’t see and feel that, I feel sometimes powerless… I don’t want to be leader, because I want to provide information. I want to concentrate on distributing power as I am an anarchist”.

Martin contributes to the building of community capacities by giving workshops and teaching practical skills to volunteers, such as how to install a sustainable sewar system. He argues that in this stage of life he is focusing on doing things: “We need academic work but also practical elements. It is comfortable to be writing papers.. I know enough… Lots of young people all agree that we need to do something”.
What he also considers as a stereotype are the difficulties a community like Can Masdeu experiences, while aiming to be resilient and resourceful. In a horizontally organised community like this it is difficult to come to effective decision-making, and when people don’t act on community rules there are little tools to enforce these: “Within the community there are many differences in value and opinions. Lots of problems. Some people make an effort, others don’t do anything. They don’t reduce their energy use or consumption. This has no personal consequences. There are many things we disagree on, e.g. the importance of climate change or responsibility. There are also different understandings about the purpose of the community”.
In order to be a resourceful community trust is of key importance. Martin: It is important to have trust, communication and willingness to learn. Optimism is one of the most important things. However people are fearful, they come from a fearful perspective. They don’t belief in social change. Some just live here because it is cheap and easy”. Martin considers fear as an obstacle in joint decision making: ”Fear is a very powerful force. Some people say it has four times more force. Four people can say yes to something, when one person says no, then it doesn’t happen”.
Can Masdeu is struggling to ‘defend the valley’ against urbanization on the edge of Barcelona and faces a decreasing number of active permanent residents, which is an obstacle for long term resourcefulness. That’s why Can Masdeu is currently a ‘community in crisis’ according to Martin. However, he hopes that new inspiration and ideas will help. He recently went to France to the community Longa Mai which is part of a wider agro-ecological movement, and got some new inspiration there. He now considers to having an external board in Can Masdeu who can provide oversight of the guiding rules for the community, how to live and work together in the future.

Lummina Horlings


Related blogs

Voorbeeldige steden

Tijdens het inspirerende Noorderzonfestival in Groningen dit jaar organiseerde Platform Gras dialogen over Hoop. Op 21 augustus 2023 gingen twee stadsbouwmeesters met elkaar in gesprek over de vraag: wat zijn voorbeeldige steden, steden waar we met

Read More >