Cohousing: a model for community living, sustainability and to alleviate the UK’s housing shortage

In September 2017, Transition in Kings [Langley](TiK) — part of the Transition Network — hosted a talk on cohousing from Maria Brenton, Senior Cohousing Ambassador for UK Cohousing Trust, at our monthly Open Meeting.

Maria became involved in cohousing over 20 years ago with an interest in autonomy in old age. Her exploration of Dutch and Danish cohousing inspired the creation of OWCH (Older Women’s Cohousing). She is also a founder member of the UK Cohousing Network and the Trust, as well as being a non-resident Member of OWCH which has found a site in Barnet.

There is a growing trend towards single-person households and a consequent increase in loneliness and mental health issues. In the UK, 65% of women over 75 years old live on their own; the equivalent figure for men is 34%.

The yearning to live in a community setting is not a new one. Human beings evolved sharing common space, resources and neighbourly support, not only for physical survival and mutual trade, but also for a sense of belonging and togetherness.

Modern society values economic autonomy, often at the cost of the social connection offered by traditional communities: cohousing has been increasingly filling the gap. Each household in cohousing has an individual residence but takes an active part in the design process, consensus-based decision-making, occasional shared meals and socialising.

Cohousing communities are intentional communities — designed from the start to have social cohesion and live some areas of their lives, however small, in common. They typically establish a common social, political or spiritual vision in the process of founding the group.

Residents “look out” for each other rather than “look after” each other: cohousing is not a fully mutual-support community but close neighbourliness is part of the package. The optimum size of 24 households or 48 people has been established through experience of over 1,000 communities across Holland, Denmark, UK and the United States.

LILAC’s (Low Impact Living Affordable Community) site with the Common House at centre. Leeds, UK.

Community management requires committed time to arrange suppliers and allocate responsibility for mutual areas like the common room, guest rooms, community garden, shed, allotments and car parking area. This is no more onerous than managing a flat or house and has the benefit of economies of scale — sharing chores, resources and tools.

A community governing document provides a framework of rules covering everything from the death of a Member to policies on smoking and pets.

This way of living helps to resolve the isolation many people experience in conventional housing, recreating the neighbourly support of the past. Cohousing communities can be created in existing areas, using clusters of empty homes, or building from scratch on a new plot of land with grants and the financial and project management expertise and resources of a housing association.

Cohousing communities can be inter-generational, welcoming anyone of any age and any family structure, or specifically to cater for people who are older or are communities of common interest — women, those with disabilities or LGBT groups. They tend to consist of two thirds housing buyers and a third social renters.

Maria Brenton emphasised that planning and creating a community is a huge undertaking and not for the fainthearted. Delays to projects can be caused by managing the cohousing group, land prices, local authorities that don’t always understand the cohousing model and the difficulty of securing developer or housing association partners.

The main challenge is identifying, recruiting and keeping together a group of people with the commitment and common aims to see the project through. The group needs to establish and nurture an agreed, common vision of what the community will be.

One route through the planning and developing maze is the Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015, a Private Members’ Bill which received Royal Assent in March 2015. The Act places a duty on local authorities to keep a register of individuals and community groups who have expressed an interest in acquiring land to bring forward self-build and custom-build projects. A cohousing project group can register themselves with their local authority and get help in finding partners and sourcing land.

Often, because many cohousing communities are created from scratch, they adopt a sustainable living model. One approach is called One Planet Living from UK-based Bioregional, international sustainable engineering consultants.

One Planet Living has ten principles but builds on sustainability work carried out over the past few decades: to achieve sustainability, Bioregional helps to make it easy, attractive and affordable for people everywhere to lead wholly-sustainable lifestyles — not just green buildings, but wider infrastructure and services as well — all wrapped up in a clear narrative which people can understand.

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Jeremy is a Member of Transition in Kings [Langley](TiK) and “Food for Kings”, the new name for the TiK Food “Petal” (group), based at Rectory Farm, which aims to become a Community Benefit Society. He is a digital marketing communications practitioner with a special interest in ethical, sustainable and renewable energy organisations. He is co-ordinating the initial meetings of The Langley Cohousing Group which is forming to plan a cohousing project locally.

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Further reading:

1. Cohousing: The secret to sustainable urban living?

2. Fellowship for Intentional Community

3. Diggers & Dreamers: the guide to communal living in Britain

4. UK Cohousing

5. ‘It’s like a mini Centre Parcs!’

6. Cohousing: ‘It makes sense for people with things in common to live together’

7. One Planet Living:

I am a writer, digital marketeer, grandfather. On Medium since 2017. Write on health, self realisation and new economics.