Living together, but apart: what can we learn from a pandemic that took over the world?
Since the outbreak of the COVID19 pandemic last March, people across the world have seen their lives turned upside down, not only by widespread disease, fear and death, but also by radical changes in the way we live. Words like “lockdown” and “quarantine” have entered our daily conversations; the 1,5 metre distancing has become a new canon that measures our movement; invisible corona-shaped particles dictate our every action. Working from home, previously shunned by employers, has suddenly become the norm. While those of us who are fortunate to live in adequate housing have welcome the opportunity to avoid lengthy commuting and spend more time with our partners and children, homeless or inadequately housed people have seen their situation worsened by the pandemic. The already stark inequalities and structural deficiencies in the housing market have become more acute. At the scale of the city, advocates of compact cities and density have started to rethink the viability of these principles in a post-pandemic world. Overall, scepticism towards anything that reeks of social proximity and physical contact is becoming the new discourse. So, where does that leave living forms that rely on sharing spaces and activities, such as cohousing, coliving, and other forms of collective living arrangements? We set out to answer this question by asking the residents of these housing projects about their own experience. From informal exchanges, we have heard about common challenges they face, but also about new opportunities to show solidarity and mutual help, and come up with creative solutions.
In this blog series, we will present short accounts from residents of collaborative housing projects in different parts of the world. They will reflect on challenges, opportunities, solutions but also about what we can learn to improve the planning, design and management of collaborative housing in the future.
Community During Crisis: Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing and the Challenges of COVID 19
By Grace Kim*
I live in Seattle, Washington at Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing, a community of nine families – 17 adults and 11 children. My community was featured as an antidote to loneliness in a TED Talk that I gave in 2017 which has been viewed by almost 2.4 million people around the globe. Cohousing is an intentional neighborhood where people know and look after one another. People have their private homes but also share indoor and outdoor common spaces. Prior to the pandemic, we ate dinner together every other night, as well as sharing many life celebrations together. We also shared household items, camping gear, and a couple of households share a vehicle. While we have our own homes, we have 900 square feet (~83 square meters) of shared space in a Common House where we have a dining room to seat 32 people, a larger kitchen than in our home, a storage pantry, guest room, shared laundry machines, and bathroom.
The main challenges that the pandemic has brought about for my community can be categorized to physical, social, and economic.
To safeguard the health of 28 people living in one building, we decided immediately that we would not allow outsiders into the building. Delivery people were allowed to leave packages inside the front gate on a table that we set up as a physical barrier to cause people to stop and read the sign posted asking for deliveries to be left. In the few instances that repair people have had to enter the building, their arrival is announced in a group text so that people know that outsiders are in the building.
We adopted a cleaning protocol twice a day for every touch service to be disinfected with bleach – from the entry intercom and front gate handle to the handrails in the stairway and elevator call buttons all the way up to the rooftop garden.
We have a shared laundry room in our Common House that four families use (other families had installed laundry in their homes). We stopped using the use of this laundry area to avoid cross-contamination and the community purchased new washers and dryers for the four households.
One family had their college-aged child return home and since they had six people living in a 850 square foot (~79 square meters) home and a parent working remotely from home, they were granted exclusive use of the guest room, bath, and a portion of the Common House.
When the pandemic caused our Governor to issue the “stay at home” order, people became very worried. Everyone had different levels of information and concern – based on time available to research and personal health conditions. We used Zoom for our meetings from very early on, meeting twice weekly to share information and check in on each other. There was much to discuss and we worked out the physical changes in those first months. After a few months, we moved to weekly meetings and in the summer we transitioned back to our usual monthly meetings.
About three or four months into the lock-down, a couple of the households were experiencing severe loneliness from the isolation, so a couple of the families opened up their “bubbles” to include those individuals. This allowed those individuals to have dinner with another family; to watch movies and visit in person.
While we decided to discontinue meals immediately, we have found ways to share common meals in small groups on the rooftop garden (though instead of having a meal prepared for you, everyone brings their own meal). We have used our outdoor balconies to help us celebrate birthdays, play bingo, and socialize. The courtyard has been a place for the smallest children to play (with masks on). Various community members have organized movie watching nights on the rooftop – setting up a projector and large screen. Our garden has given purpose to an adult who lost her job during the recession and produced a bountiful harvest. The harvesting has been aided by the children and provided for the whole community throughout the spring and summer.
Two families who own beach homes have offered these to all members in the community to use. While this was always the case, due to travel restrictions, families are using these resources more frequently now. And another benefit of people not traveling, is that people have been home more this summer, bringing us all closer together.
“About three or four months into the lock-down, a couple of the households were experiencing severe loneliness from the isolation, so a couple of the families opened up their “bubbles” to include those individuals.”
We started a “community support fund” in the past four months —a pot of money that only the treasurer has knowledge of. Anonymous donations can be made to the fund. And households can request money from the fund (with no questions asked). The intent is that if anyone is experiencing financial hardships, there was a safety net without questions asked. The treasurer was tasked with reporting the balance of the fund on a regular basis so people knew whether it needed replenishing, or if there were any funds that could be requested. As of our last meeting, there was a balance of $8,000.
“We started a “community support fund” in the past four months —a pot of money that only the treasurer has knowledge of. Anonymous donations can be made to the fund. And households can request money from the fund (with no questions asked).”
Early on, one my neighbors had set up a basket full of snacks and water at the front delivery table. The snacks were for the delivery workers, knowing that they weren’t able to stop at their usual coffee shops or convenience stores because many were closed and also the fear of additional exposure. During the first couple of months she asked others to pick up snacks on our grocery store visits. But after a while, when we realized our common meals would not resume for a while, we decided to use some of our common funds to pay for these snacks for these hardworking “essential workers”.
Since our “stay at home” order started, the U.S. erupted in protests around the murders of Black lives at the hands of our law enforcement. Of the many protests around the country, a very large protest sprang up outside our doors – largely televised and known to the nation as the “CHOP”, the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest. These national protests were a collective awakening of White minds in around our nation, and within my own community. While the fear of coronavirus hung like a heavy cloud over us, me and some of my neighbors did take to the streets to demonstrate in support of Black Lives Matter. Had we not been in the midst of a pandemic, its likely most of the residents would have gone out. We started having deep and difficult conversations about race and privilege.
“The one thing I have learned about my community during these past seven months is that we are resilient. We have learned that our collective wisdom is greater than our individual knowledge.”
And now the skies are filled with smoke, causing our Environmental Protection Agency to declare our air quality as unhealthy. So now we’ve lost our opportunity to meet together outside. This is a foreshadowing of what will come when the weather turns cold, so we are planning for what that might mean.
The one thing I have learned about my community during these past seven months is that we are resilient. We have learned that our collective wisdom is greater than our individual knowledge. We have been consistent about communicating with each other and helping each other. Our social capital continues to build as we continue to have hard conversations and explore difficult topics like race and allyship. We continue to show compassion for each other as our life situations change.
While urban planners and land developers are talking about dramatic changes for the future – a return to separation and lower density (aka single family homes) and reductions to transit. These are not the answers for the future. In fact, I would argue that proximity is good – increased density of 4-5 stories in height means people can walk or use bikes to access daily needs and services. They can walk up and down the stairs rather than relying on elevators. They might know their neighbors so they can help keep each other safe. But regardless of whether located in suburbs or the urban center, cohousing is a clearly a solution for community resiliency and re-building our fractured communities.
*Grace H. Kim is an architect and co-founding principal of Schemata Workshop, an award-winning architectural practice with a keen focus on building community and social equity. Grace is also the cofounder of Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing, a collaborative residential community which includes her street level office and a rooftop urban farm. She walks the talk of sustainability – leaving a small ecological footprint while incorporating holistic ideals of social and economic resilience into her daily life.
Collaboration in home isolation: the resiliency of collaborative housing in Italy during COVID-19 lockdown
By Liat Rogel* and Chiara Gambarana**
Collaborative housing projects in Italy are small in number. One can speak about many spontaneous and natural collaborative situations, but cohousing and recent urban collaborative housing count about 40 projects. Our organisation HousingLab conducted a research about those 40 projects back in 2017(part of them can be seen in our online map) . Understanding who lived there, what spaces and activities were shared and what legal frameworks were used helped us to realize the value of those experiences. We ended up defining them as innovation labs for the housing market. We found out that people living in collaborative housing were more open to trying out new things, such as ways of producing/saving energy, integration strategies, small economies, etc.
When lockdown was declared in Italy due to the COVID-19 pandemic we became curious about the housing projects we had studied. Is it different to live in a collaborative environment? How will people cope with the situation? What will change? The main concerns we had were about the shared spaces that in many cases could not be used in this period of time, but also the strong isolation within a community. We contacted some of the people living in different places and asked them about their practices. Here is what we found:
Being close, also without shared spaces. Green Opificio is a new project, inaugurated in november 2018. 82 apartments sharing three community spaces and organising activities. One of the first effects on Green Opificio was the closing of the community spaces. It was considered unsafe to use them. This was challenging as most of the collaboration happens there. The community of neighbors used their digital channels (whatsapp and facebook group) to stay in touch and offer help if needed. Finally they also organised some social moments, for example, collecting during the week people’s favorite songs and playing them out of one of the balconies on Friday evening. Towards the end of lock down a local association for culture and inclusion projected a movie in the courtyard of the building.
Local purchasing. Smart Lainate is a project of 89 apartments, in a small city near Milan. A common living room and kitchen, a coworking space and a children’s space were all shut down with lockdown. The neighbors wanted to offer help to those in need of grocery shopping. They managed to reinforce local purchasing from farmers nearby, assisting both the habitants and the farmers. This activity was already happening before lockdown, but it grew in a significant way, as it became suddenly the most convenient and time saving option.
“Keeping the coffee ritual together, even if at distance, or playing songs for the neighbours on the balconies were ways to keep the morale up and struggle against loneliness.”
Like a big Family. Cohousing Base Gaia is a recent project, entirely self planned by a group of 10 families. They moved into the house just a few months before lockdown, but knew each other very well after many years of planning and implementing the project. They decided to act as a big family and lock themselves as a group. This allowed them to use the shared spaces and to have strong social relationships also in this period, avoiding isolation. Each member had to be extremely responsible and responsive in case of signs for sickness. They had no issues almost in managing work and child care because they could take turns and use the available rooms.
Taking care of neighbours. Coabitazioni solidali is an initiative where young people have access to affordable housing in a neighbourhood in exchange for volunteering hours. During lockdown, they came up with many ways to assist the elderly people living next to them. Doing grocery shopping, for example, was also an excuse to stand a moment at the doorstep and ask how they were doing. Keeping the coffee ritual together, even if at distance, or playing songs for the neighbours on the balconies were ways to keep the morale up and struggle against loneliness.
Observing these behaviours during the COVID19 crisis reinforces our view of cohousing as innovation labs. They showed extreme resiliency and ease in reinventing their situation making the best of the human relationships they previously cultivated. The community is the strength behind collaborative housing and it allows houses to become a very flexible structure for social welfare.
“The community is the strength behind collaborative housing and it allows houses to become a very flexible structure for social welfare.”
We believe this pandemic may actually be good to push towards more collaborative solutions in housing. Not only the existing ones showed they are adaptable and able to deal with crisis, but conventional housing also showed signs of innovation vis-à-vis the challenges arising from the pandemic. Indeed in many cities, people discovered their neighbours and looked for social relationships. We heard so many stories about saying hello from a balcony, offering a cake, using a public space for the first time. We hope the changes and signs of innovation in collaborative and conventional housing, may bring to a quicker change in the housing market and create demand for more collaborative housing.
*Liat Rogel, service designer and expert in social innovation. I am passionate about creative processes and developing new tools for design thinking and innovative strategies towards sustainability. As founder of HousingLab, a laboratory for urban innovation in housing, I am facilitating and coaching processes of urban housing renewal. I am the Lead Expert of the ROOF Urbact network aiming to end homelessness.
** Chiara Gambarana, service designer expert on social innovation and collaborative services. As member of HousingLab, we investigate the topic of collaborative housing through different activities, from research and information to coaching process of urban housing renewal and community building with inhabitants. Also member of Community Toolkit, a team of professionals that support the startup and growth of communities, both local and digital.
How we could maintain a decent social life in cohousing unit Slottet in the midst of the Corona restrictions
By Bertil Egerö*
Slottet(“the Castle”) in Lund is a building created in 1924 to give good housing to poor households with four or more children. Over time the need for this type of social housing disappeared, and in 1984 it was bought by a group of people and converted to a cohousing unit. With sixteen flats, there are currently eleven adults in working age and seven minors. We, the remaining twelve persons, are retired and aged 70+ years. On the groundfloor we share a common kitchen located next to a dining room and a living room. We have two guestrooms, washing machines, a workshop, bicycle store, TV/film room, sauna etc. On the top floor there is a big room useful for table tennis and other activities, which also serves five small rooms to rent.
Slottet is ours, in the form of cooperative ownership by the 16 households. An annually elected board handles the economics of maintenance, loans etc. In addition, every adult has to be a member of our ‘social association’, where we in monthly meetings deliberate and decide on how to live, keep common spaces clean, cook and other joint matters. Joint cooking is on average done four times a week.
In early March 2020, the Corona virus began spreading over Sweden. One of the decisions taken by our government was to strongly recommend all people 70+ to isolate themselves, i.e. to go into quarantine.
Our normal meeting routines consist of monthly house meetings plus, when need appears, open “sofa” discussions that would not lead to any decisions. Now, however, we needed to find a good answer to what our government had recommended. Until then, common dinner had been served four times a week, with people sitting close to each other and enjoying the food. The dining room was also used for house meetings, where we had to sit close to each other. What to do? A few of us decided to call an informal meeting where we could exchange over how to adapt to the recommendations. Two such meetings were held, one week apart. The second was intended to verify – or not – what we had agreed in the first meeting.
My rough guess is that around two thirds of us adults were present in the first meeting. A few questioned the need for such a meeting, probably meaning that it was up to each one to change according to what that person (or family) saw best to do. But the majority felt the need for such a discussion. One person offered to take note, and a lively discussion took place. These were the guidelines finally adopted, to be followed by everyone:
1.Those working etc. outside of Slottet, called the migratory birds, and their children, should no longer use our common kitchen, dining room or living room (common washing machines etc. excluded). We 70+, the stationary birds, were free to cook for each other and generally use the sitting room for reading papers or watching TV.
2. We, the stationary birds, took it upon us to keep the interior of the house clean, the migratory birds should take care of outdoor space. The stationary should clean all banisters and door handles once a day, on a voluntary basis.3.
3. In order to minimize risks, we were not allowed to use our two guest rooms for visitors, and the stationary birds should keep their contacts with friends etc at a minimum, and always outdoors. Even the migratory birds were encouraged to see friends etc outside the house.
“Today, the system appears to work. The stationary birds occasionally cook for each other, and generously allow the migratory birds to check in to get a share of then food.”
At the end of the first meeting we who were present decided that those who hadn’t attended would still have to accept our decisions. Interestingly, no objections were heard from those who had been absent. Today, the system appears to work. The stationary birds occasionally cook for each other, and generously allow the migratory birds to check in to get a share of then food. A trampoline has been purchased to the enjoyment of all the kids who no longer are allowed to play around in the house. However, the challenge we hadn’t discussed was: how to hold the next house meeting?
The TV in the living room is a kind of computer. Our master of all technical issues arranged for a meeting with the stationary birds sitting by the TV and the migratory birds using another TV (or was it a computer?) in the common space existing on the top floor. Personally I tested using my laptop or my smartphone from a different room (in principle what the majority of us could have done but many would not master). The arrangement did work sufficiently well, but wasn’t perfect. Why not try to have the meeting outdoors, on the lawn? Two annual meetings should be held during the Spring, one by the social association (see above) and the other by the cooperative ownership association (in Swedish called bostadsrättsförening). Fortunately, weather served us well when we held them outdoors and back-to-back (see picture). The only problem was how to hear what the chair person or a member said, surrounded as we were by birds and children playing around us.
Today, three months later, we all feel that we have found the best possible arrangement: we who have to isolate ourselves can still enjoy the company of the other stationary birds, the migratory birds have to keep their risks of contagion low when they move around in our little town. One stationary couple has decided to avoid all contacts, i.e. they stay isolated in their flat. There are always migratory birds available to support them with food shopping.
The Corona period in no way affects the economy of our cohousing unit; those who work are lucky enough not to be dismissed. We have all found a way to live with the restrictions, and I see no signs that this will be changed. What will happen if one of us falls sick and dependent on support from the health system (a few elderly could be the first) is nothing we have touched so far. Perhaps it is too sensitive to raise?
Reflecting on how we live, I realise that our organizational model is highly dependent on the spatial organisation of Slottet: there are two sets of stairs (and no lifts) serving the flats on either side of our common space. They are connected either through the basement corridor with washing machines etc., the ground floor where the collective kitchen, dining room and living room are found, or the open ‘corridor’ – in fact a big common room – at the top floor. This allows all stationary birds to make use of the ground floor common rooms, while all migratory can check in to get a plate from the occasional common stationary meals.
“…it also matters that we, the 70+, can enjoy the sound of children who play on the lawn and jump on the trampoline. A substitute to absent grandkids, their presence confirms how well we are in our cohousing unit, compared to all those living alone in the flats.”
Luckily, we are not very anxious about the Corona, and haven’t allowed it to completely dominate our lives. Perhaps this sentiment, shared by I believe all in Slottet, reflects the fact that southern Sweden unlike for instance Stockholm has very few cases of Covid19 sick or dead. But I think it also matters that we, the 70+, can enjoy the sound of children who play on the lawn and jump on the trampoline. A substitute to absent grandkids, their presence confirms how well we are in our cohousing unit, compared to all those living alone in the flats surrounding our common yard, where contacts with neighbours so often are nil.
* Bertil Egerö, born 1936, social scientist, since the early 1980’s activist in and former board member of the Swedish cohousing movement Kollektivhus NU; since 1986 living in a cohousing unit, whereof since 1990 in Slottet Lund. Member of the group that organized the First International Collaborative Housing Conference, held in Stockholm in 2010.
Talking about the resonance of the instruments and the musicians playing in an orchestra, how they join with one another in a symphony, and in the notion of sympathy, professor of anthropology Tim Ingold in a recently held conference about architectural anthropology, used two words for such a musical experience: ‘together apart’. He was not only talking about the notion of human beings and things (instruments, etc.) coming together, assembling, but also about the human activity of gathering and commonality: the feeling of togetherness, of going along together and at the same time, the knowing that each individual is on his or her own with each their instrument. This is the doing and sounds of the instruments, the collaboration, doing things together. The thoughts Ingold presented are connected to human dwelling and the making of a community. The proposition ‘together apart’ can have both positive and negative connotations, depending on whether one prefers to be together or apart, but there is something essential about it. We cannot run away from this condition of human life; maybe the best is to try to balance how to be on individual terms and at the same time being together, respecting both the need for privacy and the need for commonality.
I was born into a large family with aunts, uncles, and cousins, and a grandmother, who was in many respects the center of the family, as she was taking care of all us grandchildren. We lived quite nearby each other. At one point, I remember that two of my aunts were living with their families in the same small village as my grandmother. Therefore, we saw each other on a regular basis and did everyday activities together, for example, we were often drinking tea or dining together. When my grandfather died and at the same time, my parents got divorced, we were staying with my grandmother in her house for half a year. Helping and caring for each other on a daily basis was a natural thing in my large family. I think it was a gift of my childhood to be part of this commonality, and that it formed me as a person. I know the fun and the benefits of commonality. The motivations for researching co-housing is rooted in these experiences from my childhood. Today, we still care for each other but we live much more separated, further away from each other, and we do therefore not see each other on a daily basis anymore. This is also the case for many other people in our society: we live separated in each of our small households, with distance to our relatives and friends. Our homes, workspaces, and shopping facilities are separated. This separation of functions and spaces for living, working and other activities in daily life, is something we have got so used to that we mostly do not even question this way of living. However, people in co-housing do ask questions like this and many dissociate themselves from residential areas, where people live in detached houses divided by fences and hedges not having much to do with each other. For residents in co-housing, an important notion is to know the neighbours and have a social life connected to the dwelling, while still having space for privacy and life in each household. In one way, they seek to live together apart.
By Anna Falkenstjerne Beck
Industrial Ph.D. fellow at Danish Building Research Institute and Kuben Management