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Ecodorp Boekel is an urban development and Living Lab that aims to inspire new forms of sustainable living. The village consists of 36 rental homes that host approximately 50 inhabitants in a rural area in the south-east of the Netherlands. In the spring and summer of 2023, Smart Forests fieldwork is carried out at this site in relation to biodiversity monitoring and digital practices. This logbook narrates general findings at this particular site.

Forest Walk - De Perekker

On March 26th we took a collective walk in the forest, guided by experienced local forester Bart. Approximately 20 Ecodorp inhabitants and family members joined as we learned about the Peelrandbreuk and the history of the forest that grows adjacent to Ecodorp Boekel. Digital practices in this forest include camera trapping to monitor ijsvogels (kingfishers, in English), a rare species in this landscape as well as online registrations of several old oaks as monumental trees . Furthermore, locals make use of digital tools such as websites and QR codes to communicate grassroots initiatives and educational programs to conserve these and other connected forest sites. These organisational practices aim to record and attend to the value of these environments to turn them into a Unesco 'geopark'.

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Forester Bart points out where the fault lines of the Peelrandbreuk are visible on the surface in a field. Later during the summer, this field may show the difference between dry (lower) and wet (higher) soil types more clearly. Image taken by Michelle Westerlaken.

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In this forest, three different types of water come together due to the Peelrandbreuk land phenomenon. Iron-rich red-orange water, black (bog-type) water, and regular river water. Image taken by Michelle Westerlaken.

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A map that is on display in the local forest. This forest is situated on the Peelrandbreuk and connected to Ecodorp Boekel. Image taken by Michelle Westerlaken.

Ecodorp Existing Relations to Digital Technologies

In further investigating digital practices for biodiversity monitoring , more knowledge about the eco village's existing relations to digital technologies emerged. Obviously, as people live, work, and reside at this site, many everyday digital practices are commonly used at this site. When it comes to digital environmental relations, many residents have a CO2 monitoring sensor in their home that sends notifications when CO2 levels increase, for example when many people are occupying the same room. Similarly, particulate matter sensors are installed outside at the eco village, in order to measure pollution levels (supposedly those that are cause by the neighbouring farmlands).

Many residents of the eco village have expert knowledge about biodiversity, especially in relation to plants. Some people can identify nearly all plants in the gardens, and others know detailed background stories of plant names and meanings. Some residents are specifically knowledgeable about local birds , while other people connect with alternative knowledge practice to use wild plants medicinally, spiritually, or for food consumption. While most residents had heard about species identification via mobile phones, most were new to their use. However, some participants were already familiar with the use of apps like ObsIdentify, iNaturalist, or Merlin, to identify local species via images or sound.

Residents also informally communicate their biodiversity observations via shared groups on Signal. Here people share pictures and stories of local newborn ducklings, or curious environmental observations, such as a dead salamander or escaped pigs .

Before the start of the fieldwork at Ecodorp Boekel, we collectively discussed possible ways of looking into local biodiversity where the biodiversiteitsliefhebbers indicated their interest in using camera traps to observe birds as well as the use of technologies to listen to bat acoustics . They are also interested in better understanding local soil biodiversity.

Land Use Conflicts

Ecodorp Boekel sits at the meeting point between different and conflicted land use practices in the Netherlands. As one of the most densely populated larger countries with the highest livestock density in the world every square centimetre of land is valuable for different stakeholders. The country has a long history of land and water management by humans due to its partial position below sea level. Conflicts around land use practices are intensified over the last years because of nitrogen pollution.

The European Union is forcing the Dutch government to follow legislation and urges the country to lower nitrogen levels. These are caused by practices including agriculture , urban development, and industry. Nitrogen affects biodiversity by encouraging specific plants, such as nettles and grasses, to grow faster and thereby lower the diversity of different plant/animal species.

The use of digital technologies and automation processes to measure and monitor biodiversity shapes these discussions, as different stakeholders use measurement practices to further arguments for different land-use practices. Strong political oppositions exist between nature and biodiversity conservation , agricultural practices, and urban development.

This satellite image of Ecodorp Boekel shows how this project is situated at the meeting point between three conflicted land-use practices: urban development, agriculture, and (protected) forest landscapes.

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Google Earth satellite image that shows how Ecodorp Boekel (on the left) is situated at the meeting point of urban development, agriculture, and (protected) forests. Screenshot taken by Michelle Westerlaken

The conflicts between these different land-uses become apparent throughout different conversations with participants. During a meeting with the local forester, Ecodorp residents aim to change the water levels in the forest, in order to increase the water supply for the project's food garden. Together they discuss ways to negotiate this with the water management and agricultural lobby that largely determine local water management.

In several other conversations, conflicts with the adjacent farmland become apparent. One morning residents advise each other to keep their windows closed to protect themselves from the pesticides that were spread across the neighbouring agricultural site that day. In another conversation, residents questioned the value of creating a safe habitat for birds as the surrounding agriculture risks making such practices pointless. Occasionally, stories from past meetings with the farmer neighbour were brought up, such as when the farmer remarked that the wild thistles growing at their shared border must be removed.

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Image of a research participant undertaking biodiversity monitoring at Ecodorp Boekel with a mobile phone application. The image shows how the ecovillage is situated next to a patch of agricultural land (on the right side of the image), as well as a forest (visible on the horizon). Image taken by Michelle Westerlaken

Furthermore, also the absence of land-use conflicts become apparent. This is region is also known to be the area with the highest amount of farmed pigs per square meter in Europe (with approximately 6 million pigs in the province of Noord-Brabant). Pig farms in the area can have more than 5000 pigs per farm. Yet, despite their impact on the local biodiversity, these animals are kept indoors and are completely absent from social life. The only pigs who are visible are the two Ecodorp residents who roam parts of the food garden. Nonetheless, the local forester explained that pollution measurements have actually indicated that nitrogen levels have gone down in recent years. The number of farmed pigs have decreased since the late 90s as well. He further explained that different wind directions on the day of measurement can highly impact these results.

In this particular area, pollution levels are also highly impacted by the local military base 'Volkel', in the neighbouring village. This is especially noticeable in the soundscape when military planes depart and land. During the time of this fieldwork, large-scale NATO operation simulations were carried out from this airbase involving multiple F16 and F35 planes.

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Making sound recordings (or interviewing?) one of the two pig-residents at Ecodorp Boekel. The two pigs were acquired to help cultivate the land, but apparently they are not so engaged in this practice. They are inquisitive and playful. Sometimes they escape, and residents are worried that their wellbeing is not always optimal. Although their lives are not perfect, they do offer a stark contrast with the millions of invisible pigs living in closed-off facilities at industrial farms in the same province. Because of these two animals (as well as the eco village's chicken coup) actively embody fragments of local land use conflicts. Image taken by Michelle Westerlaken

While residents at Ecodorp Boekel aim to create inspiring futures and sustainable urban development, it becomes clear that, within a dense country like the Netherlands, these initiatives cannot be isolated from the wider practices in their surroundings. As a Living Lab, the project is influenced not only by local participants but also by the relations with their wider surroundings. These involve many different stakeholders with conflicting aims that must be addressed as the project further develops. How can attempts at improving local biodiversity take these wider relations into account?

Peelrandbreuk

Ecodorp Boekel is situated on a local land phenomenon called the ' Peelrandbreuk '. Millions of years ago fractures in the earth's crust started to shape the landscape in this area in the east of North-Brabant. The movement between two tectonic plates sculpted a higher and a lower part of the land. Contrary to most landscapes, at this site the lower (western) area is dry and sandy, and the higher (eastern) area is wet. This is because the underground border between the two plates is so dense that the groundwater on the eastern side is pushed up. This phenomenon shapes a landscape characterised by a distinct biodiversity, and red/orange - mineral-rich - water.

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A local information panel at the Peelrandbreuk in Boekel. The illustration shows how the groundwater (left) cannot move through the dense soil of the fault line and is therefore pushed up to the surface. This causes two different types of land close together, each with different biodiversity. The illustration also shows how this fault line runs through the south east of the Netherlands (the provinces Noord-Brabant and Limburg). Illustrations by unknown creator (Gemeente Boekel, Provincie Noord-Brabant). Image taken by Michelle Westerlaken.

This phenomenon does not only create a specific landscape, but it also runs through local histories, cultural practices, and social life. The Peelrandbreuk attracts tourists, and its features help to turn forests and heathlands into protected areas. Over time, it has shaped the formation of local towns and surnames, which, due to the bogland, remained inaccessible from each other and thereby created distinct dialects and borders. Farming practices on the lower and higher parts of the land differ in their water management. In some places, the fault line visibly runs through a field of crops or vegetation where the difference between the dryer and wetter part can be observed. Water management is playing an increasingly crucial role in protecting the lower landscape from drought.

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This picture was taken on the higher part of the Peelrandbreuk, where the darker vegetation indicates the high groundwater levels. The black sensor on the left side of the image is a groundwaterlevel measurement tool. This device can be found throughout the area to measure ground water levels. Image taken by Michelle Westerlaken.

The Peelrandbreuk near the eco village is covered by a forest where different types of water meet. The red/orange water is specifically rich in iron and characterises this unique landscape. Ecodorp Boekel is located on the lower side of the Peelrandbreuk. Many conversation between locals and research participants situate around the Peelrandbreuk and possibilities to negotiate drought.

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The red/orange water is rich in minerals, especially iron, characterises the landscape around the Peelrandbreuk. Image taken by Michelle Westerlaken

Biodiversity at Ecodorp Boekel

Although ideas to develop the eco village were already formulated in 2008, practical construction at the site started in 2019. Thanks to the hard work of founders Ad Vlems and Monique Vissers, all present and past ecodorp residents, volunteers, as well as financial support from the EU, the local province, and other investors, the eco village has grown into a well-known European example for sustainable living practices. The initiative won numerous national and international awards for sustainable building, circularity, citizen initiatives, and most recently won the EUTECH Sustainable Development Goals Award.

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The architectural rendering of Ecodorp Boekel with several logos of partners, awards, and investors

In order to care for the local biodiversity, the eco village has a created a detailed biodiversity plan that is set up in collaboration with biodiversity consultants and local experts. This plan selects 10 different indicator species the residents would like to attract to their site. During the next 10 years, they aim to attract a specifically estimated growing number of animals for each of these species. The reason for these specific species and numeral estimates relate to the desire to measure and monitor these species, as well as quantify improvements in biodiversity.

biodiversity plan

The biodiversity plan of Ecodorp Boekel includes 10 different species: the common pipistrelle, serotine bat, red-tailed bumblebee, red mason bee, comma butterfly, peacock butterfly, house sparrow, starling, great green bushcricket, and azure bluet. The site aims to attract a specified number of species for each year between now and 2033.

For this case study, we are further investigating what kind of digital technologies are involved in the monitoring and measuring of this biodiversity plan. We also collaboratively question how recent digital technologies may shape the meaning of biodiversity at this site. By doing so we seek to create a multidimensional understanding of the local biodiversity that can help to develop this plan further into the future.

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