Cohousing is becoming more popular in the UK but to date only four communities have been set up in London. Nikita looks at the OWCH in-depth and options to expand this way of living in the capital.
Cohousing, also known as community-led housing or intentional communities, have a certain utopian glow. Though certain features will be unique to each community, they are collaborative forms of housing, allowing residents to be in control of their living arrangements. In a way, they embody the idea that housing isn’t just a fundamental human need and right, but also a decision about how we want to live and according to what values or principles.
Though an established model in Europe, particularly Scandinavia and the Netherlands, cohousing is a relatively young concept in the UK. According to the UK Cohousing Directory, there are 21 known and established communities in the country, four of which exist in London. However, it is steadily growing in the UK, with 34 being developed and 14 forming their membership.
During our research for our recent report on housing for older Londoners, we found out about the Older Woman’s Cohousing (OWCH) group, the UK’s first senior cohousing community-based in North London. There’s a thrill to finding a community like OWCH, a group of women over the age of 50 in control of the way they live and their narrative of what ageing can look like. Their residence made up of 17 leasehold flats and eight for social renters operates through a consensus decision-making process that reflects values such as maintaining a structure without hierarchy, co-operating and sharing responsibility. The particular design of the residence, a T-shaped layout of private homes laid around shared facilities and a large communal garden, give physical meaning to another key value: balancing privacy with community.
Yet as idyllic as this model seems, how easy it is to make happen? The women at OWCH are upfront about the challenges they have faced. For one, land in London is scarce and expensive. As we’ve highlighted, high land prices are one of the barriers for building more of the specialist housing that London needs for its ageing population. Not only does cost act as a barrier for communities, but it also means that developers are more likely to prioritise building homes with higher returns such as general needs and student housing. By contrast, in countries such as Germany and Sweden, where this model is more popular, land is made more accessible through support from municipalities that offer city-owned land at reduced prices to cooperative housing groups. Another barrier to creating a cohousing community is time. First established in 1998, it took OWCH 18 years to finally move into their residence. In those years, the women got to know each other and establish the dynamics, systems and procedures that allows them to thrive as a community. Likewise, their set up requires that everyone is reasonably self-dependent and able to contribute to the functioning of the community, something that isn’t possible or desirable for all.
Even so, OWCH are confident that the principles of cohousing can and should be transferred. Their homes were designed collaboratively with architects from Pollard Thomas Edwards, allowing the community to co-design a home that reflects their need for support and care as they age. Centre for London’s recent manifesto on public involvement in planning also highlights the importance of working with local people for better homes and places. Of course, this is easier said than done. For cohousing communities to work well with architects and developers, they need to have good decision-making processes in place. In turn, these communities also need support to get set up in the first place. As cohousing gains popularity in the UK there is increased interest in it at the policy level. In 2016, the government set up a Community Housing Fund to support the development of community-led housing, one which in 2018 included a separate programme for London.
To talk about the options for cohousing in the capital is not necessarily to champion this model over all others, but to widen the possibilities of housing and living. It is to take certain principles, such as co-production, sustainability, care, agency and diversity and consider how they may inform the types of affordable homes that gets built in London. When given structural support it is to make “the good place” possible for those who seek it.