Exploring intentional communities
Our cohort’s recent visit to a co-housing project outside of London
Half way through the On Purpose Associate Programme my cohort and I reflected on what we had learned so far and what areas we wanted to learn more about before the end of the year. Housing, intentional living and communities were a few of the topics that came up again and again.
I arranged a visit to a co-housing community a two-hour train journey from London where I had visited once before. Springhill Cohousing in Stroud, Gloucestershire, was the first new-build co-housing scheme to be completed in the UK. When I first visited on a cold November weekend I was reminded of a Scandinavian village with its cosy wooden-panelled houses and apartments right next to the city centre of Stroud.
Defining the term ‘co-housing’ is quite important as people get co-housing mixed up with the kibbutzim in Israel, communes conjuring up the Soviet Union or squatters in empty buildings that are turned into cultural centres that acquire mythical status such as the Rote Flora in my family’s home town Hamburg.
The UK Cohousing Network website defines cohousing communities as “intentional communities, created and run by their residents. Each household has a self-contained, private home as well as shared community space. Residents come together to manage their community, share activities, and regularly eat together.” The website then goes on to describe cohousing as a way of tackling isolation today and recreating the neighbourly support of the past. Co-housing communities can be inter-generational, welcoming anyone of any age and any family structure, or specifically cater for people who are older or communities of common interest e.g. for women or LGBT groups.
The origins of cohousing can be found in Denmark in the 1960s when young professional families got together to buy adjoining properties to share childminding. Now an estimated 8 % of Danish households are co-housing. The Danish co-housing concept spread internationally and was adopted in other countries, notably in the US, Canada, Netherlands, UK and Germany (look up the Baugruppen movement).
Sitting in the common room of Springhill Cohousing and listening to residents introduce the project, explain the origins and what it means to be living here, I can understand the appeal. In today’s world of increasing individualism, probably further exacerbated by living in a busy city such as London, it is difficult to be part of a community that extends beyond your family and friends or your networks through work. In my block of flats, it is rare for residents to strike up conversations in the lift on the way to work or back home. Walking through the car-free streets of Springhill Cohousing and seeing children play with each other I am reminded of the village I grew up in in Germany.
Many of the structures that have been deliberately built into this cohousing project existed naturally in my village. Every day after school and on weekends my siblings and I would spend hours playing outside with the neighbours’ kids building tree houses, playing on climbing frames or taking part in intense snow ball fights in winter. When my mother had to work longer and study for an exam our neighbour took us in, prepared lunch for us and made sure we did our homework. When I was older I earned my pocket money by babysitting younger kids in the neighbourhood or helping kids with their homework. In the summers my street would get together for the traditional summer barbeque where my siblings and I would coordinate the annual play involving all the neighbour kids.
Would I choose to live in a cohousing community right now? At the moment the answer is no. Growing up in that village I longed to live in a bigger city where anonymity was an option, where I would have access to cinemas, theatres, different foods and flavours from every corner of the world and most importantly the freedom to choose which communities to form part of.
To date, I have benefitted from creating a community that is both physical and online, but that allows me to dip in and out of it. My community today is made up of family and friends in London, my newly found friends in my On Purpose cohort in London, my network of colleagues, but it also extends to family and friends living abroad who I connect with via WhatsApp and skype and occasional visits. The visit to Springhill Cohousing in particular, as well as the On Purpose Programme, however, have forced me to think about what it means to live intentionally. Whether it is by getting involved in my local community, attending my buildings’ residents’ meetings or organising a picnic with and for my neighbours, it is small steps that need to be taken to create an intentional community surrounding one’s physical location.