Many of us barely know who lives next door, but could sharing with our neighbours be the green future for our cities? Meets the Melbournians who want to change the way we live.
Giselle Wilkinson is dreaming of giving up her idyllic backyard. She lives on a leafy property in Heidelberg; a big block adorned with veggies, fruit trees, chooks and ducks.
Wilkinson is slim and fit, bearing a healthy glow from regular gardening and bike riding. The 54-year-old co-founder of the Sustainable Living Foundation has been walking the green talk for most of her life.
But now she hopes to take her commitment even further. She is working on a development that will put her land where her mouth is. “I’m only going to give this up for something better. Better for me means as sustainable and affordable as we can possibly make it,” she says.
‘Cohousing’ is a type of a residential development where your home is one of about 16 to 30 clustered around a common house and open space.
Picture this: just home from work, you lock your bike on the racks then walk to your door, chatting pleasantly with Mrs Jones on the way. Then you check on the kids, playing with their friends in the shared recreation room of the common house. A mouth-watering aroma wafts in from the common kitchen nearby. Tonight is shared meal night. Your dinner, cooked by your neighbour, is almost ready. You pour yourself a glass of white and put your feet up.
“I reckon you do it better when you do it together,” Wilkinson says. Cohousing residents own separate, self-contained homes, but regularly share meals and some facilities like a common garden, laundry, workshop and recreation rooms. But there are no hard and fast rules. Each project is different because the residents themselves drive the planning process.
Andrew Partos spent three weeks last year touring cohousing developments in Europe and North America. “These are not communes, gated-communities or religious sects,” he says, mindful of stereotypes.
With close-cropped hair and modern black-rimmed glasses, Partos is no alternative guru. He is a senior urban designer at VicUrban, the Victorian state land development agency and is keen to stress that cohousing can fit into mainstream city life. “In Denmark ten percent of new residential development is cohousing” he says. “People buy, sell or rent like anywhere else. They retain their independence but collaborate in the running of their community.”
Denmark is the cradle of cohousing. The movement began there in the 1970s and spread through Europe and then to the USA by the 1990s, taking root in California. According to Partos, there are 80 completed cohousing communities in the USA and over 100 more under construction.
In the developments he visited, Partos found that the supportive lifestyle attracted particular people. “There is a wide range, but…they are generally well educated, with professional careers ranging from childcare and teaching to engineers, architects, lawyers and doctors.”
Partos is confident the trend will catch on in Australia, pointing to its success in North America, where people also value the privacy and independence of their homes. He says VicUrban is keen to add cohousing to its development projects. “We see it as meeting many of our sustainability objectives. We’re currently researching and finding out where it might get some good support in Melbourne.”
For now, our suburbs look very different. We are building bigger houses for fewer people; half our homes now have only one or two occupants. On the fringes of our cities we have sown rows of costly, energy intensive McMansions. Stocked with appliances and poorly serviced by public transport, our houses are taking a growing toll on the earth’s fragile resources.
But our eco-footprint is not the only concern. We are also reaping a difficult social bounty from our building habits. Our suburbs cannot help but fashion our community life. “We shape our dwellings and afterwards, our dwellings shape us,” Winston Churchill said, wisely, in 1943.
Social researcher Hugh MacKay has tracked Australians’ belief that society is deteriorating. In his latest book, Advance Australia…Where?, MacKay says we tend to blame materialism, selfishness and a lack of connectedness for our social problems. But amongst this anxiety, MacKay senses a desire for change. “Many of the changes to our way of life have had the effect of fragmenting and isolating us and, in response, there’s a new craving for a sense of belonging. We like the idea of a small village, urban or otherwise. We want to reconnect; we want to feel part of an identifiable community.”
Cohousing offers reconnection. Residents usually try to establish a vibrant neighbourhood spirit. “The greatest benefit from a community point of view that you are creating a place where everyone knows each other,” Partos says. “If there is someone sick or elderly there are always people that will look out for them. The same with children, it creates a really safe environment.”
Housing affordability is also a thorny concern across the nation, but building smaller homes and sharing resources, like the laundry, tools and gardening equipment, can significantly cut costs. Crucially, this economisation is also a big plus for the environment. Partos found “universally high” eco-standards across the estates he visited. Typically, they had low energy, water and waste needs and encouraged alternative transport, recycling and homegrown veggies. “When you have a number of houses working together you can actually do things that individually would be very difficult and expensive. You can have very efficient central heating systems, or solar hot water systems, and the cost per dwelling is significantly less,” he says.
Ian Higginbottom, founder of Cascade Cohousing, in South Hobart, knows these benefits first-hand. Begun in 1991, Cascade was the first development of its kind in Australia. Within a short bike ride of downtown Hobart, they used passive solar design techniques to build ecologically sound homes.
But it wasn’t always easy. “We were held together by a common vision to build something,” Higginbottom says. When they finally finished their arduous owner-builder creations, old clashes surfaced from unresolved conflicts years before. “I could have rung people’s necks multiple times over,” he admits. “Any time you get a group of people together, that happens, it’s a part of being human beings.
“We were very lucky that we didn’t self-destruct about five years ago,” he says. Then, about a third of the residents decided to work hard at resolving the accumulated grudges and resentments within the group. The change was overwhelming. “All the tension went out of our meetings,” he says. “People who weren’t talking to each other started talking again.”
Higginbotham is now adamant that learning how to resolve conflict and deal with people is a crucial part of living in the community. “We’ve been through a learning curve and that’s incredibly fulfilling,” he says. “If we can’t make a community work with a set of neighbours, how do we expect our governments to resolve conflict and at a national and international scale?”
Despite Cascade’s success, there are still only two others like it in Australian cities – Cohousing Cooperative in Hobart and Pinakarri in Perth. With a red-hot real estate market, financing is usually the showstopper for new developments.
Adam Tiller, from Merri Cohousing in Melbourne’s inner north, says his group has been trying to secure land for six years. “We can get the money we need, but not quickly enough.” Despite its setbacks, they still have over 300 people on their mailing list and Tiller hopes that interest from Partos and VicUrban will boost their chances of success.
Back in Heidelberg, Giselle Wilkinson surveys her flourishing veggie patch, knowing it will soon disappear – albeit temporarily – to make way for the 16 units in the plans. With the backing of the not-for-profit organisation Common Equity Housing, she and a team of friends and volunteers have secured the two blocks adjoining her house.
They hope to begin the development within six months and she understands it won’t be all smiles and group hugs. “Sometimes even living with yourself can be hard. But this is about building our community and the resilience we need to face a very uncertain future.” She dreams that her blocks will become a “little haven on the planet” with links stretching far out into the community.
One thing for certain is that Wilkinson will build a future surrounded by people. She recently heard a story from another cohousing development. “Someone said it once took them 40 minutes to get to their front door from their push bike, just saying hello to everybody. I like that, because I think slowing down is a difficult thing to do these days.”
Having your own community, and independence too
Each cohousing development is different, but the blueprint looks like this: 16 to 30 self-contained houses are clustered around a common house and garden. Residents are independent. They own their own homes and buy and sell like anywhere else, but work together to run their small community.
Sharing – things like tools, a laundry and regular common meals – cuts costs, eco footprints and the isolation of suburban living.
Cohousing kicked off in Denmark in 1972, when the doors opened at Saettedammen, the first development of its kind. For the 27 families who built it, the goal was to create a greater sense of community than they found in normal subdivisions or apartment complexes. From then on, bofaellesskaber (literally, “living communities”) sprung up throughout the country.
Inspired by what they saw in Denmark, American architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett coined the term ‘cohousing’. Their 1988 book, Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves, spawned communities across North America. Now, there are 80 completed projects in the USA and over 100 more under construction.
In Australia, although cohousing organisations exist in almost every state, only a few developments are up and running. But that is set to change.
Around the world … and closer to home