Co-living, co-housing & intentional communities

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A variety of approaches and movements have the aim to provide affordable, ecological or community housing in both urban and rural contexts. The approaches mentioned here are all centered around shared values. They are all about a group of people who live together or share common facilities and who connect with each other on the basis of explicitly stated values.

This page is part of an ongoing, open-ended online collaborative database, which collects relevant approaches that can be used by city-makers to tackle unsustainability and injustice in cities. It is based mainly on knowledge generated in EU-funded projects and touches on fast changing fields. As such, this page makes no claims of authoritative completeness and welcomes your suggestions.

General introduction to approach

A variety of approaches and movements have the aim to provide affordable, ecological or community housing in both urban and rural contexts. The diversity of housing initiatives is illustrated by the broad definition of an intentional community by the Foundation for Intentional Community : “a group of people who live together or share common facilities and who regularly associate with each other on the basis of explicit common values”, which includes ecovillages, but also cohousing, cooperative houses, communes and other shared living arrangements. What these approaches have in common is a collective focus either organized through a specific governance or ownership model like a cooperative or revolving around a community like in ecovillages.

This collection of approaches includes examples of the cooperative housing movement referred to as co-housing (as described in the TRANSIT project [1]) and intentional communities such as ecovillages (as described in the projects TRANSIT, Pathways, TESS and by Transformative Cities).

Co-housing, in general, can provide the opportunity for people to secure affordable homes, especially when this is done through community land trusts (see for example, the London Community Land Trust(LCLT) [1] for example the St. Clements project. However, co-living is also increasingly promoted as a lifestyle "of real opportunity that's yet to be found" [2], which is pursued in order to increase social networks or to stimulate inter-generational living.

Ecovillages are communities where people aim to live in harmony with each other and with nature. The Global Ecovillage Network defines an ecovillage as an “intentional, traditional or urban community that is consciously designed through locally owned, participatory processes in all four dimensions of sustainability (social, culture, ecology and economy) to regenerate its social and natural environments” (Website GEN 2017). While this definition explicitly includes traditional villages, we in this Wiki-page focus on the intentional community version of ecovillages in both (peri-)urban and rural areas.

Communal living is sometimes perceived as oppressive, a thing of the past, a sign of poverty or a lifestyle to be adopted only in certain defined periods of the life cycle (e.g. student or old age).

Shapes, sizes and applications

The concept of cooperative housing has a long history. According to the TRANSIT project (Picabea et al. 2016 [3]) the first independent housing cooperatives date back to the mid 19th century. In some countries, cooperative housing is an important part of the housing market. Although housing cooperatives can be found all over the world, the numbers vary significantly from country to country. Cooperative housing, that was studied as part of the TRANSIT project, is part of a global movement of cooperatives that has existed since 1895. Housing cooperatives can have many forms with their own characteristics and can be found in both urban and rural contexts. In the TRANSIT project two examples of co-housing were studied in depth: El Hogar Obrera in Buenos Aires City Argentina and Vauban District in Freiburg Germany. El Hogar Obrera built more than 15.000 homes while Vauban Freiburg is “a special model district of sustainable living and participatory planning” with 2000 housing units.

Like housing co-operatives, fcovillages also come in many shapes, sizes and sorts. The size of intentional ecovillage communities range anywhere between 8 to 250 residents. Read more on the Ecovillages page.

Another example of an intentional community is co-working spaces, like Impact Hub.

Relation to UrbanA themes: Cities, sustainability, and justice

Many of the co-housing initiatives and intentional communities directly address several aspects of sustainability. Some pay attention to ecological aspects of building and living, e.g. through recycling/repairing/reusing materials or the production of renewable/cleaner energy). While others focus more on economical aspects of living and providing affordable housing, e.g. through developing community land trusts. And others focus more on social aspects, such as living in a community where people share spaces.

Narrative of change

According to Picabea et al. 2016 [4], the global network of the cooperative housing movement is oriented to: “First, the movement proposes cooperation against competition. That is, their main objective is to strengthen the cooperative values and cooperation between cooperatives at local, regional and international levels. The aim of the movement is no competition and overcoming other (in terms of zero-sum game), but social cooperation for mutual benefit. Secondly, the cooperative movement despises the spirit of individual gain (in fact cooperatives do not generate profit rate) in order to activate dynamics of economic and social welfare” (p.6). Following this TRANSIT study, empowerment of communities in terms of decision making about where, when and how people want to live is part of their narrative of change.

Given the rich diversity of ecovillages across the world, It is impossible to generalise one narrative of change for all ecovillages. There is however a shared narrative used by the Global Ecovillage Network [5], which e.g. on its website claims to “envision a world of empowered citizens and communities, designing and implementing pathways to a regenerative future, while building bridges of hope and international solidarity”.

A commonality of the narratives of change for housing cooperatives and ecovillages is the need for more decentralized or self-organized systems to enable access to or the generation of housing that is more affordable, ecological or social.

Transformative potential

Similar to other initiatives like community land trusts, cooperative housing can be seen as a mechanism to produce housing and provide access to the city for low income groups. Nevertheless, due to the diversity of their manifestations co-housing or intentional communities also symbolize negotiation processes between traditional planning practices and alternative ways of planning and building like for example in the case of Vauban or Ecovillage Bergen. As such, the wide variety of projects propose alternatives to ownership structures, organizational models, planning practices, building practices and social relations between neighbors and between residents, local authorities and developers. Depending on the aim of each individual project and the actors involved they contribute to challenging the economic, ecologic and social unsustainability of the housing sector.

Illustration

In Freiburg, Germany, the City of Vauban is a special model district of sustainable living and participatory planning in which several co-housing initiatives could be realised. Starting in 1992 from a squat of ex-military facilities that was later bought by the City authorities (1994), who opened up a participatory process of co-designing and re-making the place into affordable and sustainable co-housing, together with citizens. Aspects of traffic, building, energy, nature in the city, sanitation and public space were widely discussed in the Forum and in the city. The district now comprises 2000 housing units for about 5.500 residents, having more than 70 co‐housing projects – either private or cooperative (see also the report by TRANSIT project.

Co-housing Initiatives in the Critical Turning Points-database of the TRANSIT project:

Co-housing Initiatives studied in-depth as Social Innovation Initiative in the TRANSIT project:

Additional reading

References