( Photo: A cohousing projects in Zurich)
Cities have been incredibly important to our economic development and made the distribution of resources, such as drinking water, much simpler and more economical. However, urban habitation also brings several challenges. For instance, the rising property values have made it nearly impossible for many young people to get onto the property ladder. Another growing concern is how urbanisation might affect our mental health status. Loneliness is sadly a fact of life for many urban indwellers.
A solution to this might be co-housing. Co-housing is when multiple people come together and live on a larger piece of land together. While so far, it might sound similar to apartments, there is a crucial difference: common spaces. Common spaces are areas intentionally designed to foster social relationships for residents with each other. Here, we will explore the topic of co-housing together with a specialist in the field, Greer O’Donnell from Urban Strategist. We will look at the challenges and benefits of co-housing as well as explore why it is growing in NZ.
The history of co-housing
The history of co-housing began in Denmark in 1964 (1). The idea was to build a more supportive living environment in the outskirts of Copenhagen (1). ‘Supportive’ means helping families with their potential challenges: social isolation. To achieve this goal, architects created shared spaces for the residents, such as vegetable gardens, playgrounds and most of all, a community building. This community building is often used as a library or a function room for music or workshops. A key aspect of utilising this community building is to share meals, in some communities three times per week.
Co-housing groups tend to be likeminded people. It can be people that want to have inclusive lifestyles, people with a fear of loneliness, people that share a common interest in a particular sport and many other possibilities. Though this doesn't mean everyone will turn into your best friend, what it does mean is you will be able to share things you enjoy doing with similar-minded people.
Loneliness in an urban setting
My wife and I were transferred to the UK just before the birth of our son. We completely underestimated how the social aspects of life change once you have a child. And we were lucky that there were a lot of young parents and baby groups in our neighbourhood, which allowed us to feel connected and supported during the early stage of parenthood.
Studies have shown that in the US and UK cities, only a third or less of the people know the name of their direct neighbours (3,4). And in urban Australia, one person only knows, on average, 5.7 people in his/her local area (5). We can assume that for many people in NZ cities, the number will be similar.
Life has its’ challenges. High-stress works, troublesome relationships or uncertain future; all of them can make us feel trapped or helpless. And we have to deal with the problems on our own. Without social connection, it would feel even harder to go through those hurdles. A 50-year study that was published in the American Journal of Public Health stated that there’s a clear correlation of social connectedness and how long we live (6). The social connectedness here does not mean a virtual relationship, but about the close connection people formed within their community. Interestingly, after 30 years of the study period, researchers indicate, when people had less connection with the community due to some social changes, their health deteriorated. Especially in men under 65 years of age, the experiences of heart attacks rose sharply (6).
What are the benefits of Co-housing?
It is better for our mental well-being.
Co-housing is thought of being able to create communities, better families and community values (2); which help us deal with life and its challenges. It forms a social network that is built by people spending time with each other and sharing time, ideas and emotions with others. Sharing our feelings, positive or negative with others has been found to be able to help make us feel better and be healthier (7,8). On top of that, sharing our emotions will also create meaningful relationships with others (8).
Meaningful relationships help us feel connected and less lonely. People in close-knit communities will look after each other and check to ensure the other is well. The big hope is that we all find friends to live with, share ourselves and our hobbies. And most of all, the opportunity that co-housing brings is that we would all live longer and better.
It is better for our finances.
Co-housing also has economic benefits. For starters, people are more able to afford to get onto the property ladder. Globally, a co-housing unit tends to be more affordable than buying in the open market. In co-housing projects, often several resources are shared: books, music instruments, cars and tools. The sharing activity means that everyone can have access to a wide variety of material things without the need for a lot of space or capital to buy it.
Our imagination only limits ways of sharing in co-housing communities: a community gym, washing machines and gardening tools are all ways to save the individual money and make better use of our resources. A good example would be, parents could take turns to look after all children within the community, giving every other parent a well-deserved break.
It is better for our environment.
Sharing resources means less raw materials need to be mined; car-sharing will save CO2 emissions; one extensive garden is still often smaller than 20 small ones. A smaller land area is making the distribution of services like water and electricity easier and more efficient.
Many current co-housing communities are closely tied to the green building and living movement. But conventional building techniques are just as suitable for co-housing. While not as environmentally friendly, there is still an environmental benefit to them in co-housing communities, as the floor areas tend to be smaller.
What are the challenges of co-housing?
As with many clubs, everyone has to contribute to making it work. But similar to clubs there tend to be a few significant contributors and a few that only show up when there is a party. Creating plans to involve all people to sustain a beautiful and healthy community is vital in the success of a co-housing community.
People live in co-housing for different reasons, such as to do good for the environment, to escape the system or to avoid social isolation. Various reasons can bring tensions between residents.
As in most groups, there will likely be a requirement for community leaders to arrange the group for different tasks: gardening roster, community cooking or cleaning roster and organising the community finance etc. While this could be seen as additional work, we believe that it would save you time. It would take more of your time to do similar tasks just for yourself and your direct family.
What do we need to do to enable people wanting to live in a co-housing community?
Our society should be better educated on the science regarding co-housing and its benefits. It would ensure everyone can make an informed decision that works for them. Currently, when we hear co-housing, we often think of a couple of extreme greenies that want to get out of our economic and societal system. Better education will likely spark a curiosity to find out more and see that co-housing is a very viable option for you and me.
Fundings for co-housing projects should be more accessible. Currently, Kiwisaver, for example, is only at a later stage accessible, which means it cannot be used during the planning and design processes of a co-housing project.
Resources about potential co-housing communities could be more known. Websites like www.cohousing.org.nz have existed for a while. And now, there are other platforms that support and promote co-housing and other forms of community-focused housing, for example, www.alternativedevelopment.org.nz is one of them. People interested in co-housing can check there for opportunities and get in touch with the relevant parties.
Urbanisation brought us many things, turning us into lonely city wolves is, unfortunately, one of them. Forming or living in a co-housing community could be one of the solutions to this. On top of helping people feel more connected, co-housing also benefits people financially and assists in protecting the environment. Together with Greer, we explored ways to enable people to live in a co-housing community. Hopefully, with better co-housing education and more accessible co-housing funding available, more and more people would love to join the co-housing community in NZ.
If you are keen on finding out more about Co-housing, check out The Urban Advisory here: https://www.theurbanadvisory.com/?ref=mail
Canadian Cohousing Network, ‘The History of Cohousing’; Author: Danny Milman; ca. 1994; https://www.cohousing.ca/about-cohousing/history-of-cohousing/
Lucy Sargisson. ‘Second-Wave Cohousing: A Modern Utopia?’ Utopian Studies, vol. 23, no. 1, 2012, pp. 28–56. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/utopianstudies.23.1.0028. Accessed 1 Mar. 2020
Independent; ‘More than half of Britons describe their neighbours as 'strangers'’; Author: Emma Elsworthy; 29.05.2018; https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/britons-neighbours-strangers-uk-community-a8373761.html
The Cut; ‘A Third of Americans Have Never Met Their Neighbours’; Author: Melissa Dahl; 24.08.2015; https://www.thecut.com/2015/08/third-of-americans-dont-know-their-neighbors.html
News.com.au; ‘Australians don’t know our neighbors anymore’; Author: Kate Calacouras; 25.10.2014; https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/relationships/family-friends/australians-dont-know-our-neighbours-anymore/news-story/bfc3b974d97551bbc45e5ba81e12b286
American Journal of Public Health, ‘The Roseto effect: a 50-year comparison of mortality rates’; Authors: Egolf, B; Laker, J; Wolf, S; Potvin, L; 08/1992; Volume 82, Issue 8; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1695733/pdf/amjph00545-0027.pdf
Greater Good Magazine; ‘The Sharing Effect’; Author: Summer Allen Ph.D.; 24.11.2014; https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_sharing_effect
The Good Men Project; ‘The Benefits of Sharing Emotions’; Author: Billy Johnson II; 28.02.2011; https://goodmenproject.com/health/the-benefits-of-sharing-emotions/