Don’t know your neighbours? No one to rely on? Find the area outside your front door forbidding? Maybe you need cohousing.
Two of the world’s leading architects of cohousing were at Nesta yesterday as part of its Age Unlimited programme, to talk about a movement that began in Denmark, has spread to the US, and is now exciting a lot of interest in Britain. Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant – Chuck and Katy to their friends – talked about the particular benefits to older people of living in communities of 20-30 households, in which cars are kept to the periphery, in homes that residents have designed and that share some communal facilities.
Cohousing differs from other attempts at communal living in that there’s a strong emphasis on privacy. The residents don’t have to share religious or political beliefs. Typically, there’s a common house with a shared kitchen and sitting room; whatever else the residents decide to share (a laundry, a children’s area) is entirely up to them. They don’t live together, but they do eat communal meals on some days, taking it in turns to cook, and they do have to attend meetings to manage their neighbourhood.
Chuck made the point that research shows time and time again that there are three key factors associated with longevity:
- Eating right
- Staying active – preferably with low impact exercise
- Staying connected
– and that it turns out that this last one plays a large part in promoting the other two.
He described cohousing as ‘doing housing with people, rather than for people’ and identified four key factors that run across all cohousing projects:
- Residents play a key role
- The design facilitates relationships
- There are extensive communal facilities, the aim of which is always to make life more practical, convenient or fun
- Neighbourhoods are entirely self-managed.
The best cohousing for older people
The question I was left considering was whether intergenerational cohousing or so-called ‘senior cohousing makes more sense for older people. The original cohousing schemes in Denmark, now 40 years old, were intergenerational but the first development entirely for 50-80 year-olds has also now been going strong for 25 years.
Chuck suggested that children always alter the dynamic of a group: bring a two- year-old into almost any situation and within ten minutes, everyone will be focused on the two year-old. It may be that older people hearing groups of teenagers making a noise in the communal square would be reluctant to ask them to be quiet.
On the other hand, one can see that communities entirely made up of older people might become a bit draining. My general starting point tends always to be anti-ghetto.
Katy’s view is that it’s a choice. ‘I’m currently working on a joint intergenerational/senior cohousing project at the moment and people of the same age are going into both of them. It doesn’t have to be either/or.’
I’m hoping to look into this, at least to resolve the question on a personal level, if not definitively….
The Older Women’s Co-Housing group in London has been trying to develop a neighbourhood for 50-plus women for 12 years, and a number of the women were at Nesta yesterday talking very interestingly about the reasons for their preference for living in a community of older women.
How to do it in an urban setting
The other thing that bothered me was that the few cohousing projects that have succeeded in Britain have been in rural areas. You need a fair bit of land for 30 homes and, as someone who built her own house in London, I know how impossible it can be to find even a small plot that hasn’t been priced out of reach by commercial developers.
So there’s an issue of practicality in overcrowded areas, which might be helped by using existing buildings and refitting them. But blocks of flats tend to be too big. A hundred households is generally reckoned to be too many for the direct democracy necessary to cohousing.
This seems like an area that needs investigation: what can be done to adapt cohousing to overcrowded urban settings? Sarah Berger, who lives in The Community Project, one of the few cohousing schemes to have succeeded in Britain, talked with enthusiasm about the rich cultural and social life she has as a matter of course in her community near Lewes in East Sussex. As part of the UK Cohousing Network, an unbrella group set up to help other groups, she says that until now, ‘very few have got off the ground. But they keep coming forward. The demand is relentless.’