Introduction to Solarpunk

In the 21st century, as the problems of climate change, resource depletion and environmental degradation have become ever more apparent, many movements are looking for a sustainable and healthy future for our world. In this era the vision known as Solarpunk offers a beacon of hope and inspiration for a world getting ever so closer to ecological collapse. The Solarpunk movement is driven by a deep-seated belief in the power of community-driven change and the symbiotic relationship between humans and nature. Furthermore, this movement emphasizes the incorporation of nature-based solutions, such as green roofs, urban agriculture, and vertical gardens, to enhance biodiversity, improve air quality and mitigate the urban heat island effect.

The term “Solarpunk” was first used in a blog post made by an anonymous author in 2008 titled “From Steampunk to Solarpunk” in which he took inspiration from the Beluga Skysail, a hybrid cargo ship that uses sails to supplement engine power. He compares it to steampunk from which Solarpunk was derived. It envisions a world where steam technology and Victorian technology is not pushed aside by oil-based technologies. A Solarpunk world in comparison is a near-future sci-fi utopia where renewable energy sources like solar and wind power have become the predominant energy sources and people have focused on becoming self-sufficient in terms of food and everyday necessities. I think this snippet from a blog post made by the user going by the alias of Missolivialouise encapsulates the idea of a Solarpunk utopia well: 

“A world in which children grow up being taught about building electronic tech as well as food gardening and other skills, and people have come back around to appreciating artisans and craftspeople, from stonemasons and smithies to dress makers and jewellers, and everyone in between. A balance of sustainable energy-powered tech and environmental cities'' (Missolivialouise 2015).

One of the central beliefs of Solarpunk is the idea of reimagining our relationship with the environment. It advocates for a shift away from the consumerist mindset that is most common in modern society, encouraging people to prioritise collaboration, empathy, and environmental care. By fostering a deep connection between individuals, communities, and the natural world, Solarpunk seeks to create a more resilient and fair society.  

In addition to advocating for sustainable infrastructure and energy systems, the Solarpunk movement places a strong emphasis on community-oriented design principles. This involves fostering inclusive and accessible public spaces, promoting local and collective decision-making, and prioritizing social equity and well-being. By prioritizing the needs of the community and creating spaces that facilitate social interaction and collaboration, Solarpunk urban planning aims to cultivate resilient, vibrant, and thriving urban environments.

This topic is important to me because I think that following the ideals of Solarpunk can better the world in a plethora of ways like moving away from fossil fuels, transitioning to sustainable energy, making cities more inviting and bettering the wellbeing of humans overall. That is something I think we people living on this planet desperately need if we want to thrive together with nature.  

Historical Development of Solarpunk

The principles of Solarpunk urban planning encompass a wide range of sustainable and community-driven approaches to city design. Emphasizing the use of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. Solarpunk urban planning aims to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels and mitigate the impact of climate change. When talking about urban planning in relation to Solarpunk the main idea of it is building landscapes that integrate the natural world with renewable technologies. Solar panels on buildings, many windmills on the horizon and infrastructure that merges seamlessly with the nature around it. Unlike many urban environments today, Solarpunk values the needs and well-being of people and the environment. Solarpunk uses concepts like permaculture and incorporates nature into nearly everything like buildings, public places etc (Winterhalten 2023).

Jugendstil (2020) outlines key principles of Solarpunk urban design, highlighting the following fundamental elements:

  1. blending traditional and high-end technology and practices;
  2. sustainability through good design;
  3. circular modes of production;
  4. integrated food and energy production;
  5. public transport and sustainable mobility;
  6. energetically efficient homes.

One of the best examples of Solarpunk architecture is the Earthship which I will talk about in the next chapter.  

What are Earthships – and are they the future of sustainable living? |  House & Garden

Appendix 1: Phoenix Earthship at the Greater World Community in Tres Piedras, Taos, New Mexico. Ricardo DeArantanha.  

Origins and Philosophy of Earthship Design

The Earthship is an architecture style that surfaced in the late 20th century to early 21st century and was the brainchild of architect Michael Reynolds (Earthship, 2024). They are designed to be passive solar earth shelters which maximise solar heat gain through south facing windows. Partially buried in the earth, it minimizes heat loss and provides a sustainable, energy-efficient living space (see Appendix 1).

The philosophy of Earthship design stems from integrating human habitation with the natural environment, drawing some inspiration from indigenous building techniques. Earthships are based on the idea that human homes should function as ecosystems. A lot of recycled materials like tires, glass bottles and aluminium cans are used to make thermal mass walls that provide both insulation and structural integrity. Furthermore, these homes have rainwater harvesting, on-site food production and feature passive solar design, reflecting a commitment to reducing environmental impact while encouraging self-reliance and resilience. The principles used in the construction of earthships contribute significantly to the broader conversation about sustainable urban planning, because they strongly correspond with the core values of the Solarpunk movement and represent a regenerative and positive vision for the future (see Appendix 1).

Application of Solarpunk Principles in Modern Urban Planning

The integration of Solarpunk in urban planning requires a holistic approach that considers various aspects of sustainability and community development. An important contribution to this integration came from Guenther Moewes with his book 'Weder Huetten noch Palaeste', which serves as a programmatic manifesto for designing and constructing longer-lasting buildings in line with Solarpunk principles (Lehmann, 2011). In the context of the Solarpunk movement, urban planning becomes a tool for fostering a sense of connection to nature, promoting environmental stewardship, and creating cities that are both sustainable and liveable for generations to come (Salvatierra, 2020). Although Solarpunk urban planning has yet to reach the front stage in the global scene there are still plenty of examples of it in the world today.

The first one I am going to talk about is the Kailash Ecovillage in Portland, Oregon, which is a community house started by Ole and Maitri Ersson who wished to create a model of sustainability in the city (see Appendix 2). The community has around 50 residents, and they often host work parties, art projects and more to help build the residence’s interconnectedness. All inhabitants engage in sustainable practices like organic gardening and local food production. They have many individually managed gardens but also shared gardens available for residents. The community used local sources of energy and water like solar panels and wells. All residents are encouraged to use as little energy and resources as possible. They also use permaculture inspired methods like recycling, up-cycling, composting etc in their everyday lives (Covarrubias et al, 2010)

Rundown apartments reborn as food-forest coliving Agritopia – *faircompanies

Appendix 2: Kailash Ecovillage

In 2019 Kailash Ecovillage’s proposal for a community ecological sanitation system was approved. The ecological sanitation system is essentially a composting toilet and urine diversion system which was installed into every living unit. The composting toilet processes human excreta into sanitised compost and urine. That helped them to build better topsoil and allowed their gardens to become self-sufficient in nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and other trace elements. A research article published in Ersson and King (2019). As it was shown that the system cost every resident about 200 dollars. In the first week the compost toilet saved about 723 litres of water which calculates out to 37,596 litres a year, also, the system produced about 4.3 cubic metres of compost a year. One may think that odour could be a problem with such a setup, but the research article states that no odour complaints were registered and in fact, several users remarked on the lack of odours. The article also pointed out that the community’s experience with the system was very positive, because a sustainable nutrient flow, previously wasted, was now put to good use and because the compost produced by the system has significantly enhanced soil fertility and tilth (Ersson and King, 2019).

The second example of existing urban projects inspired by Solarpunk that I am going to mention is the Edge office building in the Netherlands (see Appendix 3). It is an instance of architecture and intelligent building design. It has been officially recognized as the world's most sustainable office building receiving the highest sustainability score ever recorded by the Building Research Establishment (BRE) a global evaluator of sustainable constructions.   

The Edge Is the Greenest, Most Intelligent Building in the World

Appendix 3: Edge office building

One of the Edge’s groundbreaking features is a smartphone application that connects users to the building identifying their preferences, for lighting, temperature and even parking. Based on these preferences it adjusts the environment accordingly. The design of this building is by PLP Architecture.

Through its integration of technologies, the Edge creates an adaptable and clever environment that offers a new working experience centred around sustainable practices. This remarkable structure serves as a model for combining sustainability and technology to establish a user focused built environment.

BedZED - Wikipedia

Appendix 4: BedZED eco-village, Tom Chance

One notable example is also the redevelopment of the BedZED eco-village in London(see Appendix 4). BedZED implemented a range of sustainable practices such as energy-efficient building design, renewable energy generation, and water conservation measures (Appendix 4). This holistic approach to urban planning not only reduced carbon emissions and resource consumption, but also created a vibrant community that prioritizes social cohesion and engagement (Lehmann, 2011).

Solarpunk in the Context of Estonia

The European Union’s vision for a climate-neutral future by 2050 is a cornerstone of the European Green Deal (European Commission, 2019). This goal is an opportunity to create a more sustainable world. It calls for a comprehensive transformation across various sectors, from energy and industry to transportation, construction, agriculture and forestry. This plan gives the European Union potential to lead a just and environmentally conscious transition to a more sustainable world (European Parliament, 2023). In this context, Estonia faces complex challenges in achieving climate neutrality, particularly due to its historical reliance on fossil fuels like the oil shale mined in Ida-Virumaa. The transition to climate neutrality thus involves not only moving away from such in industries but also creating new job opportunities for the workers of these industries. This makes evident the need for a comprehensive approach that balances environmental goals with economic and social sustainability.  

This goal is also mentioned in the long-term national strategy “Eesti 2035” as a part of the vision of innovative, strong and responsible economy. The strategy states that “Estonian economy is responsible towards people and nature. It fosters flexible, innovative, and responsible entrepreneurship and a secure economic environment that promotes fair competition. The utilization of local resources has increased, and the use of natural resources takes into account both the preservation of biodiversity and the socio-economic impacts.” (Estonian Government 2021).

When exploring new opportunities and solutions, it is important to consider both Estonians’ liking for technology and their love of nature. These considerations align well with the Solarpunk movement which could provide many opportunities to find long-term, effective solutions. Solarpunk’s emphasis on integrating technology with sustainable living align well with these national characteristics, offering innovative ways to approach environmental issues while advancing economic and social development. Embracing the Solarpunk movement can contribute to Estonia’s sustainable development goals by promoting eco-friendly practices and innovative technologies.  

Challenges in Integrating Solarpunk and Earthship Concepts in Urban Planning

There are many challenges when it comes to building sustainable and eco-friendly cities and housing. A key challenge in incorporating Solarpunk principles in urban planning is the need for a systemic process that integrates multiple solutions and avoids sub-optimal outcomes. For example, conflicts may arise between the surface uses for renewable energy production, urban agriculture, and green solutions (Croce, Vettorato, 2019). Solarpunk has the core principle of sustainable energy but to reach that it would need a complete overhaul of the energy system we have today. We would need to get rid of all fossil fuel driven energy production methods. That is happening in many countries today, but it is still quite far from total sustainability. The second problem with realising Solarpunk in the modern world is the capitalist mindset. Capitalists always look for the cheapest way to produce something and often do not care if the product is sustainable when it is cheap. That is the same with buildings. If we want to embrace Solarpunk architecture, we must turn away from capitalism and look at the most sustainable ways to produce or build something rather than looking for the cheapest way out.    

Summary of the Research Findings

In this research paper, we discussed how Solarpunk can and is being used to move towards a more sustainable future for the world. Solarpunk is a movement that seeks to combine technology with nature and to live in harmony with it. One of the real-world examples of Solarpunk ideology are the earthship project that makes energy efficient housing with repurposed or reused materials, minimises heat loss and provides a sustainable, energy-efficient living space. Another is the Kailash ecovillage in Portland, which is a community that seeks to create an example of sustainability in the city through engaging in sustainable practices and building technologies to make the community even more green.  

In addition to these examples, this paper talks about the vital role of community engagement in the Solarpunk vision. By creating a culture of collaboration and shared responsibility, communities can become active participants in shaping their sustainable future. This approach not only strengthens social relationships but also makes sure that all sustainable solutions are tailored to meet the unique needs of each community.

Furthermore, the paper addresses the challenges of integrating Solarpunk ideals into existing urban landscapes. It highlights the need for policy reforms and incentives that encourage the adoption of sustainable practices. A combination of political support and public awareness campaigns can significantly accelerate the transition towards a Solarpunk future. This approach aims to create an environment where sustainable living is not only viable but also desirable, paving the way for widespread adoption of Solarpunk principles.

In conclusion, the Solarpunk movement, with its emphasis on harmonious coexistence between technology and nature, presents a beacon of hope for a sustainable future. By embracing the principles of Solarpunk, we can reimagine and rebuild our world to be more resilient and in tune with the environment. This vision of a brighter future, driven by community, innovation, and respect for the planet, offers a roadmap for sustainable living but also inspires optimism in the face of global challenges. As we move forward, it is this spirit of possibility and positive change that will guide us towards a greener, more hopeful tomorrow.