In this guide, we explain what 'alternative-building' entails. We provide examples for activists, and we give you some advice on how to make more impact within the solidarity economy.
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🤔 Not to be confused with 'alternative buildings': We're creating alternatives for capitalism here, not looking for alternatives to regular brick & mortar buildings.
What is alternative-building?
Alternative-building is about creating new things that often challenge current society. Instead of trying to change society from within, you build alternatives that allow people to step out of society into a new one.
An example of the former (not alternative-building): organise a protest to pressure the local municipality to build a community garden.
An example of latter (alternative-building): get some people from your neighbourhood together and turn an empty plot into a community garden yourself.
Alternative building in activism can take many forms, depending on the specific goals and values of the activist group in question. Some common examples of alternative building in activism include creating community gardens, setting up communal living spaces, and constructing off-grid homes. For inspiration, check out more examples below!
The aim of these strategies is to replace existing systems with new ones, or at least to create pockets of autonomous self-governing safe-spaces for individuals and communities. The most radical examples of the use of these strategies are seen within the autonomous provinces and municipalities such as Rojava (Autonomous Administration of Northern Syria) or one of the Rebel Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities, but various types of intentional communities and communes such as Freetown Christiania in Denmark or farming communities fighting Monsanto in India use strategies that also fall under this category.
Seed Sharing Networks
Activists can establish seed sharing networks to foster biodiversity, strengthen local food systems, and challenge corporate control of seeds.
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Activists can set up free stores or "give away shops" where goods can be exchanged without any money, thus challenging traditional consumerism.
Mutual Aid Networks
These networks enable communities to self-organize around shared needs and resources, fostering cooperation and community resilience.
Direct Trade Organizations
Activists can facilitate direct trade between producers and consumers, bypassing exploitative middlemen and promoting fair trade principles.
Activists may rally community members to support local, sustainable agriculture by setting up farmers' markets.
Activists may come together to form food cooperatives that support local farmers and offer healthy, organic food to the community, rather than relying on large supermarket chains.
Also check out:
Transport Sharing Programs
These initiatives promote sustainable transportation and create a sense of community, challenging dependency on fossil fuel-powered vehicles.
The earliest well-known community bicycle program was started in the summer of 1965 by Luud Schimmelpennink in association with the group Provo in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The group Provo painted fifty bicycles white and placed them unlocked in Amsterdam for everyone to use freely. This so-called White Bicycle Plan (Dutch: Wittefietsenplan) provided free bicycles that were supposed to be used for one trip and then left for someone else. Within a month, most of the bikes had been stolen and the rest were found in nearby canals. The program is still active in some parts of the Netherlands, e.g., at Hoge Veluwe National Park where bikes may be used within the park. It originally existed as one in a series of White Plans proposed in the street magazine produced by the anarchist group PROVO. Years later, Schimmelpennink admitted that "the Sixties experiment never existed in the way people believe" and that "no more than about ten bikes" had been put out on the street "as a suggestion of the bigger idea." As the police had temporarily confiscated all of the White Bicycles within a day of their release to the public, the White Bicycle experiment had actually lasted less than one month.
Quote from Wikipedia
Community Land Trusts
Activists can establish land trusts to ensure long-term affordable housing and prevent displacement due to gentrification.
These are community spaces that offer resources such as libraries, meeting rooms, and event venues that are run on principles of mutual aid and voluntary participation.
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Open Source Software Collectives
Activists may create and maintain open-source software, promoting digital freedom, collaboration, and resisting big tech monopolies.
Alternative Education Systems
Activists might create alternative education programs or schools that teach values such as sustainability, respect for diversity, mutual aid and social justice, to name a few.
Free Online Education Platforms
Offering free education resources challenges the commercialization of education and helps democratize learning.
Activists can create local currencies to stimulate local economy and reduce dependence on mainstream financial systems.
Activists may establish community-owned and operated credit unions to offer financially inclusive services and to challenge traditional banking systems.
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Activists may set up self-sustaining communities that promote and practice ecological sustainability, permaculture, and communal living.
Instead of working in traditional hierarchical businesses, activists might form worker cooperatives where decisions are made democratically, and profits are shared equitably among members.
Activists can setup communal workspaces promoting cooperation, shared resources, and non-hierarchical structures that contrast with traditional corporate environments.
Community Healthcare Services
Activists can setup community-driven healthcare services that provide free or affordable care, rather than depending on the mainstream healthcare system.
Independent Media Outlets
To challenge mainstream media narratives, activists can create independent media outlets that provide alternative news and analyses.
Artists can form collectives to createand showcase subversive art that challenges mainstream tastes and discourses and promotes alternative narratives and points of view.
Renewable Energy Communities
Activists might form communities that solely rely on renewable energy sources, promoting environmental sustainability outside of current energy infrastructure.
Nonviolent Conflict Resolution Training Centers
Activists can set up training centers to teach people methods of nonviolent conflict resolution.
Civilian Defense Forces
Rather than a military that operates based on violent conflict and hierarchy, activists might create community-based defense forces, where community members themselves are engaged in their own protection. This could include self-defense training, street patrols, and neighborhood watch groups, ensuring the safety of their communities without relying on police or military forces.
Local Peacekeeping Groups
Activists can also form local peacekeeping groups, which are tasked with resolving conflicts within the community through mediation and negotiation. This not only offers an alternative to traditional military and law enforcement but also emphasizes community engagement and creation of lasting peace.
Activists might establish forums for respectful dialogue between people from different religious backgrounds to promote understanding and peace, rather than division.
Social Justice Congregations
Religious congregations could focus their services and activities on social justice issues, offering a different narrative to traditional religious doctrines that may perpetuate harmful beliefs or stereotypes. Such congregations can become resource and support centres, empowering the less fortunate and disadvantaged groups in the society.
Check out SolidarityNYC for a list of local initiatives.
Dependence on existing institutions
The more the social safety net in your country is institutionalised, the less motivation people might have to organise themselves. Often, in 'developed'* countries, citizens are used to the government being responsible for solving problems. People might be more likely to address their frustrations to the government, instead of working together with fellow citizens to come up with solutions. In other words: even if existing institutions do not work, people still expect those institutions to improve, rather than creating something new from scratch.
'Developed' is deliberately between quotation marks here. It does not mean 'better'. Quite the opposite: People who live in countries where the government more regularly just does not function at all might be more inclined to take matters to their own hands And this is a good thing. It can be a better environment for alternative-building tactics to flourish. There is more room for new initiatives by citizens to succeed, as there is no competition with institutions that work for some (but not most).
What is a solidarity economy?
The solidarity economy includes a wide array of economic practices and initiatives but they all share common values that stand in stark contrast to the values of the dominant economy.
Instead of enforcing a culture of cut-throat competition, they build cultures and communities of cooperation . Rather than isolating us from one another, they foster relationships of mutual support and solidarity. In place of centralized structures of control, they move us towards shared responsibility and democratic decision-making. Instead of imposing a single global monoculture, they strengthen the diversity of local cultures and environments. Instead of prioritizing profit over all else, they encourage a commitment to shared humanity best expressed in social, racial, economic, and environmental justice. You can learn more about what a solidarity economy is (and isn’t!) from the Solidarity Economy Principles and Practices website.
What are "commons"?
"Commons" is a term used in various social movements, typically referring to resources that belong to or affect the whole of a community. The term originates from the traditional understanding of commons in pre-industrial societies, where resources like land, water, and forests were shared and managed collectively by all community members.
In modern usage, 'commons' has been expanded to include digital assets, like information and software, to public and social goods, such as public spaces, education, healthcare, and more.
The key concept behind 'commons' is the idea of shared ownership, use, and responsibility. It rejects the idea that everything must be privatized or commodified, and instead, advocates for a more cooperative and inclusive approach. This term is often used in environmental activism, digital rights movements, and various other social and political campaigns.
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Scaling up: local initiatives are cool, but how do we make sure alternative-building does not stay a small thing on the sidelines, but becomes something that actually challenges the status quo in meaningful ways? Small projects only create justice on a small scale. How do we make this happen everywhere? And how do we balance that with our aim of avoiding top-down structures?
Privilege: How do we make alternative-building work for everyone? What is the point of a community kitchen if only privileged hipsters visit the place? How do we avoid 'helping the needy', and empower marginalised people instead?
Power: As long as you are not a threat to the status quo, law enforcement will happily let you grow your crops in your community garden. But what about when the economic interests of the agricultural industry are under threat? Probably, only then, your alternative-building actually becomes a meaningful form of activism, instead of a fun hobby. But what will happen when you challenge the status quo? How do you defend yourself against the police when your squatting activities are criminalised? Do you quietly do your alternative-building and hope those in power do not notice you, until it is too late to stop you? But how then do you tell others about your activities, so you can scale up?
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This article is still quite theoretical. We prefer practical 'how-to' guides at Activist Handbook. Examples:
How to start a community kitchen?
How to scale up my alternative-building project?
How to get funding for my alternative-building project?
How to sustain my alternative-building project long-term?
How to deal with opposition when building alternatives?
How to make my alternative-building project more inclusive?
How to document lessons I learned while building alternatives?
Rename article / add landing pages
We should probably rename this article. "Alternative-building" is not a widely known concept. Activist Handbook is not really in the business of coining new terms. Instead, we try to use terms that other people already use, so our guides are found through search engines.
One possibility is to rename the article to 'Commons' or 'Solidarity economy'. However, neither accurately reflects the perspective we want to take, with 'alternative-building' being a category of activists tactics and strategies. In addition, it seems like a reachable goal to get an article about 'alternative-building' high in the search results, even though the majority of people searching for it does not actually mean it in the context of activism. For those who do, they will be able to find us that way as well. So instead of remaining this page, it might be better to add two additional pages about those two more popular themes, and link to this page.
What does commons stand for?
What is an example of a commons?
What are the four commons?
Why do we use commons?
commons meaning in history
tragedy of the commons
What are examples of social economic?
Why is the social economy important?
What are the aims of social economy?
What is an example of a social economic system?
Social economy characteristics
Social economy examples
types of social economy
Feel free to suggest other names...
Check out search query popularity below to see which themes activists are looking up.
What information are activists looking up about alternative building?
low (shows results about houses)
solidarity economy principles
social and solidarity economy
social and solidarity economy beyond the fringe (book)
encyclopedia of the social and solidarity economy (book)
is welfare solidarity economy
what is a solidarity economy
tragedy of the commons
what is solidarity
what is a social economy
Monthly search volume data from Semrush
A Critical Guide for Just Recovery by Movement Generation
Practices and Tools
Cooperative Economics Alliance of New York City Summary of Findings, released 4/2014
- Poster for Creatives, Download the PDF, 11×17 in.
Workshops and Talks
- This is How We Win panel discussion with Cooperative Economics Alliance of NYC
Books and Articles
Other Economies Are Possible by Ethan Miller
Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, Jessica Gordon-Nembhard
Cooperating to Replace Capitalism (Part One) by Dru Oja Jay
Cooperating to Replace Capitalism (Part Two) by Dru Oja Jay
Occupy! Connect! Create! by Ethan Miller
Towards an Economy Worth Occupying by Cheyenna Weber
A Solidarity Economy: An Overview and Some Definitions by Julie Matthaei and Jenna Allred
Solidarity Economies: Key Concepts and Issues by Ethan Miller
An Ethics of the Local by J.K. Gibson-Graham
Solidarity Economy I: Building Alternatives for People and Planet by Emily Kawano, Thomas-Neal Masterson, and Jonathan Teller-Elsberg
Building a Solidarity Economy by Annie McShiras
Sharing Power: Building a Solidarity Economy by Cheyenna Weber and Caroline Woolard
Resources for Solidarity Economy Researchers by Craig Borowiak
Oppose and Propose by Andy Cornell
Beautiful Trouble entry on SolidarityNYC
Take Back the Economy by J.K. Gibson-Graham, Stephen Healy, and Jenny Cameron
Check out our Press for additional information about our work.
TED talk: Investing in a Better World by Geoff Mulgan
TEDxHouston talk: Power of Vulnerability by Brene Brown
Highlights from Collective Courage: A Conversation on Cooperation in African American Communities with Farah Tanis (Black Women’s Blueprint), Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard (professor John Jay College and author of Collective Courage), and Esteban Kelley (AORTA Collective) courtesy of GritTV.
Occupy Workplace Democracy
Occupy Workplace Democracy was an educational event held 1/8/12 for emerging Occupy Wall Street Worker Cooperatives. Each of the resources listed here pertain specifically to member-started worker cooperatives.
Workshop Presentation and Worker-owner panel:
Nuts and Bolts Workshop presentation by Joe Marraffino and Aaron Dawson of the Democracy At Work Network
Meso-level Cooperation and OWS presentation by Adam Trott of Collective Copies and the Valley Alliance for Worker Cooperatives
Work from the following resources was reused
- SolidarityNYC (no reusable licence, we assume people trying to build a solidarity community are not by picky about copyright)