Toxic Sludge Pit to Model Eco-Town

One determined Hungarian mayor knows how to create recovery

Posted by Katie Marks | G+ | Jan 13, 2014
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Photo: Diana/FlickrReaders of the news in October 2010 may remember a series of horrifying and heartbreaking images from the Hungarian town of Devecser. The town was battered by a flood of toxic red sludge containing byproducts from aluminum mining that was released when a dam broke. It became an ecological disaster area, in an event that ultimately killed 10 people and injured over 100.

One person, however, saw a silver lining to the horrible incident, in the form of a major ecological recovery for Devecser.

With the town effectively destroyed and needing to start from scratch with its reconstruction, city officials could take the rebuilding in any number of ways, but they chose to evaluate green options. What's arisen a little over three years later is a model eco-village, built primarily from locally-sourced materials, with a committment to being self-sustaining. From the red-stained ashes of disaster, a phoenix has arisen, and the remodeling project is remarkable from a number of standpoints.

Mayor Toldi Tamás has worked with residents and city officials throughout the cleanup to build 87 homes, plant a poplar forest that provides a source of renewable energy (poplars grow quickly, and act as a carbon sink for the town), establish a park on the site of the disaster, set up geothermal energy systems, and get to work on farmlands so Devecser can produce its own food. Not only that, but his goal is to have the city exporting food and other products to make it not just self-sustaining, but an active player in the economy.

In addition to helping the town recover from the disaster, he's hoping to reestablish a community there. In Hungary, many rural communities have been emptied over the last several decades as people move to urban areas for opportunities. By creating a progressive eco-village, Tamás is creating an attractive destination to visit, work, live, and settle, turning Hungary's countryside into an appealing place for people to live.

The mayor's accomplishment is all the more amazing when you consider the fact that the disaster happened just hours after his election: in fact, he was still hungover from celebrating when news about the dam breaking started coming in. Another town might have buckled at the knees and never recovered, but under his leadership, Devecser didn't just come back: it thrived, and set an example for other regions recovering from ecological disasters -- the lessons learned there can be applied to other cities and villages around the world dealing with pollution and recovery.

Devecser isn't just ecologically friendly and self-sustaining. It's also compellingly beautiful, with a number of stunning architectural features. Hungarian architect Imre Makovecz actually designed the framework of the development entirely for free, a donation of services that could have been prohibitively expensive when balanced with other recovery costs. The commitment to beauty as well as practicality is an illustration that recovery from disaster doesn't have to result in bland, boring, shoddily-constructed buildings, but can instead look like an amazing rebirth.

Just as New York landscapers turned the High Line into a destination instead of an abandoned rail line, Toldi Tamás created a new, and astounding, Devecser from the remains of a ruined village.

Katie Marks writes for

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