Saturday, October 6, 2012

Cohousing and other innovative habitats

Having a neighbour babysit, a friend around the corner to drop in for a cup of tea, no noisy cars and choking exhaust fumes, shared dinners, communal gardens... where is this utopia? 

At the September Discussion Group we spoke about cohousing. Cohousing is an intentional community, meaning a group of people plan and manage shared living arrangements that generally comprise private homes and some shared facilities, such as gardens, kitchens and recreational spaces. The idea originated in Denmark in the 1960s by groups of families that were dissatisfied with the existing housing options, and sought to establish a living arrangement that would meet both social and physical needs. The idea has risen in popularity in recent years, particularly in the promotion of 'eco-villages' that also seek solutions to environmental concerns by sharing energy needs and reducing people's reliance on cars for transport.

Australia's cohousing communities are listed on the cohousing website, which provides details of the two currently operating in Perth. SomerVille EcoVillage is in Chidlow, and is set in 162 hectares. It comprises 10 clusters of residences, each with a car-free common area at the centre, and a 20-hectare car-free zone in the centre of the village. Owners can purchase land in the community and must build their dwellings to specific sustainability requirements, and the community also has shared gardens, farms, laundry and living areas. Pinakarri is in Hamilton Hill, and has a land area of less than one acre with 15-20 dwellings. It is funded by both public and private funds, and offers affordable rentals as well as private ownership. Again, it has shared gardens, farms, laundry and living areas as well as holding shared meals on a self-rostered basis and a monthly open house community dinner.

These innovative habitats seek to address a range of social and environmental issues and are based on the premise that by working collectively individuals can achieve more than they would otherwise. In the midst of Perth’s current housing crisis, with only 2% of rental properties vacant, such projects could not be timelier. However, cohousing does not necessarily have to involve spending large sums of money to buy into a cohousing estate or even the collective ownership by a group (which can be problematic as a result of the legal issues associated with shared ownership- this should become easier if the new cooperative law is passed in state parliament). Sharehousing can be a way of creating intentional communities, with weekly dinners or Mojito Mondays providing a social event for housemates. Choosing to rent or buy a property in close proximity to friends, family, and work/study locations is another way of intentionally designing your living arrangements around social, environmental and consumption concerns. Taking down fences between properties (obviously with your neighbour’s consent) is also a means of structuring your living space so you can share it with others.

However, these options may not available to everyone, particularly our newest Australians. The First Home Project is a unique and inspirational form of cohousing, where a family of three have sought and received community support and funding to buy a large property that can fit three families at one time to provide medium term accommodation and an inclusive community for recently-arrived refugees. 

So if neither a 3x1 in Perth’s rolling suburban sprawl or an inner-city dog-box are appealing or affordable, perhaps cohousing offers some alternatives.