Is This Some Kind of New-Age Commune?

Talk of strong community bonds and emphasis on nature have you thinking “commune!”? Housing for Wellbeing is not about creating communes. Nor is it an attempt to return the population to a shared agricultural existence. It is simply a desire for neighbours to have the opportunity to come together more often, to get to know each other, and in the course of doing so, form friendships, reduce isolation and be a source of support for each other. It has the aim of creating more access to nature in urban housing because viewing concrete, asphalt or general dullness all day is terrible for psychological wellbeing. And yes, part of access to nature means providing the opportunity for small scale urban farming to those who want it, as there are many health benefits from working directly with nature in this way, and from the hyper-local and organic food it provides.

 Communal garden, yes. Agricultural commune, no.

Communal garden, yes. Agricultural commune, no.

This project takes a lot of inspiration from the co-housing model, another term that sometimes arouses low-level anxiety in people. Co-housing is not co-living. In co-living, several people or families share one house. In co-housing, residents have private units or houses forming a cluster of homes, which then share a large part of the outdoor spaces and usually also share a common house with additional amenities. They come in many varieties, from low-rise apartments in dense cities, to mix of apartments and single family homes in smaller towns, some focused heavily on being environmentally sustainable, other catering to a specific demographic such as seniors. Co-housing has the spirit of a co-op in that residents usually maintain the shared spaces, but they typically own their private homes under a condo or strata framework (in co-ops, residents do not own their units; they have shares of the corporation that owns the whole building). Architect Grace Kim recently gave a fabulous Ted Talk describing co-housing and how it can make you happier.

Including co-housing under its umbrella is the term “pocket neighborhood”, popularized by architect Ross Chapin (who also wrote a great book on it). A pocket neighborhood is as it sounds - a small pocket of homes within a larger neighbourhood incorporating the same principles of central, shared outdoor spaces. Pocket neighbourhoods come in even more varieties than co-housing, clustering as few as 4 homes around a central garden. While the co-housing model is adamant about its success being dependent on each housing development being resident led, Chapin demonstrates examples of the same benefits being brought forth through careful designs by the architects and developers. A space designed for greater social interactions and shared effort naturally also draws people who can see its benefits, leading to its success.

 Third Street Cottages designed by Ross Chapin (in Washington).

Third Street Cottages designed by Ross Chapin (in Washington).

A common misconception is that these concepts are geared towards those reasonably well-off. Interestingly, I also come across the opinion that only those with fewer economic choices will be drawn to these concepts. In reality, pocket neighbourhoods and co-housing developments cover a wide range of housing options, from affordable housing developed with help from local governments (and also without), to mixed-income housing offering a variety of dwelling types, to market rate units. What sets them apart from other housing is how the space is used and the desire of the residents to know their community.