Cohousing and Ecovillages
Cohousing and eco-villages are two innovative forms of settlement which have evolved since the 1960s. They have different definitions and histories.
Most cohousing groups are in urban settings, and most eco-villages in rural locations. Environmental sustainability is of prime importance for eco-villages, but this is only true for some cohousing groups.
However, there is now some interest, and a number of examples, of projects which are both eco-villages and cohousing communities. This section offers a brief definition of the two concepts.
A new approach to affordable, sustainable housing
The essence of cohousing is a combination of self-contained dwelling units with some shared facilities. Each household has its own front door and can live independently. Alongside this are shared facilities where residents can eat together when they wish, and often also a shared sitting room, guest rooms, laundry etc. The major benefits of cohousing include:
– Affordability: The shared facilities mean that individual units can be smaller and hence more affordable. Sharing transport, childcare, food purchasing and production also help reduce living costs. Most cohousing groups have some units available for affordable rent.
– Sustainability: A cohousing group can live more ecologically than a single household: for example, through car pooling, shared shopping, sustainable energy systems. Having more social contacts and some work opportunities where you live reduces the need for car use.
– Community: Cohousing creates many of the qualities of a traditional neighbourhood or small village. It makes it easy for people to socialise and support each other. It creates a safe and supportive setting, especially helpful for older people and young families.
– Autonomy: Cohousing enables individuals and households to maintain a high degree of independence: they can choose how much interaction with the wider group they want. Whilst some group agreements are essential, these are kept to a minimum.
Cohousing developed in the mid-1960s in Denmark: 5% of all Danish households now live in cohousing. This is helped by government policy support, recognising its social and environmental benefits. Cohousing developments can also be found elsewhere in Scandinavia, and increasingly in the Netherlands and North America.
Cohousing is the combination of four essential elements:
- Self-contained dwellings with shared facilities: Individual units can range from 1-room studios to 4-bed houses, but all will have their own kitchen, bathroom, living and sleeping space. The shared facilities will usually be in a ‘common house’, which can be used by the wider neighbourhood, e.g. for playgroups, meetings, parties. Shared facilities may include dining room/meeting space, kitchen, lounge, guest rooms, also a market garden, work spaces, children’s play area.
- Intentional neighbourhood design: the layout of the site will encourage social contact and a sense of neighbourhood. Usually cars are kept at the perimeter, and the layout will focus on pedestrian paths and open spaces. A cohousing ‘cluster’ is usually 10-30 households, 14-60 people, to create the sense of neighbourhood. Larger projects are achieved by creating several clusters.
- Participatory development process: Potential residents are actively involved from the early stages of design. This means that a sense of community is already formed before residents move in.
- Resident management: The overall site and shared facilities are owned and managed by the residents. The site freehold will be held in common ownership, with owner-occupiers and any social landlord as shareholders.
Cohousing in the UK
There is rapidly-growing interest in cohousing, with many new groups forming, and many individuals keen to join a project. Cohousing is also starting to attract interest from policy makers and the media, recognising its potential. For current information on establishing and forming cohousing groups, see the Cohousing Network website: www.cohousing.org.uk
- the best book on the field is Cohousing by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett (ISBN 0898155398)
- the first UK book on cohousing is: Thinking About Cohousing by Martin Field (ISBN 0-9514945-7-0)
- A good book on eco-communities generally is Creating a Life Together by Diana Leafe Christian (ISBN 0-86571-471-1)
- The UK Cohousing Network is currently reorganising. The web address is www.cohousing.org.uk
- Human scale, usually thought of as somewhere between 50 and 500 members, but with exceptions
- A full featured settlement, in which the major functions of life – housing, food provision, education, manufacture, leisure, social life and commerce – are all present in balanced proportions. This should not mean that ecovillages be totally self-sufficient or isolated from their surroundings.
- Human activities harmlessly integrated into the natural world. In practice this means that a cyclic approach to resource use should be aimed at, rather than the linear, throw-away lifestyle which has become the norm in western society.
- Supportive of healthy human development. A balanced and integrated approach to fulfilling human needs – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual – not just for individuals, but for the community as a whole.
- Successfully able to continue into the indefinite future.
The main network is the Global Ecovillage Network. A good book in this sector is Ecovillages: A Practical Guide to Sustainable Communities by Jan Martin Bang: ISBN 0-86315-480-8
The Findhorn Foundation offers various programmes about Ecovillages. For details: see www.findhorn.org.