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.
La Borda: Infrastructures for sustainable living, now more than ever
By Carles Baiges* and Cristina Gamboa**
Without a doubt, society was caught completely off guard by the pandemic and the lockdown, including the community of La Borda. La Borda is a housing cooperative born in 2012, which is part of the bottom-up transformation of the industrial premises of Can Batlló, as a collective response to the need for housing in the city of Barcelona. An alternative to access decent, stable, non-speculative, collective-owned and self-managed housing.
The cross-generational community of La Borda is formed by 60 people (49 adults and 11 children), grouped in 28 living units. The building, which was designed through participation of the future inhabitants, has a total surface area of 2.950m2 distributed over the living units and community areas, for example, a communal kitchen and dining-room, a multi-purpose room, a laundry, two guest rooms, and outdoor spaces to hang out the washing and for leisure.
The initiative began with concerns about and wanting to take responsibility for promoting social, economic and environmental sustainability. But, as resident Joana G. Grezner highlighted: “We anticipated that the house and its inhabitants would face the climatic emergency and the energy collapse, but never that it would come in the form of a global pandemic”.1
We anticipated that the house and its inhabitants would face the climatic emergency and the energy collapse, but never that it would come in the form of a global pandemic.
Resident of La Borda Joana G. Grezner
The lock-down landed into a young community, without a long experience of conviviality, after a year and a half of communal life, and even some areas without finishing the self-build tasks. Because of that, it has been necessary to experiment through a trial and error process. The unstable and changeable situation, with contradictory information and indications, required a process of constant learning and evaluation. La Borda had to create new protocols while transforming spaces with new programs.
The ingrained self-management of the project has been the starting point to take control, in front of a severe confinement established by the Spanish government with an authoritarian attitude without attending to diversity or the most vulnerable.
The government of Spain legislated strict confinement regarding everyday life during most of the state of emergency, prohibiting children from leaving the house for months, and any non-essential activity for adults, including walks and sports. At some point, restrictions even included the use of communal areas of collective housing, demonstrating once again how the regulations are designed with a reductionist and standardizing view of housing and co-living. With its lack of definition, the law prohibited any use of sports areas of luxury housing blocks, as well as the terraces of small residential buildings with no access to outside spaces. Or, as in the case of La Borda, parts of the house that have been taken from the individual home to share with other housing units.
La Borda, as a collective space, has allowed its inhabitants to exercise a greater degree of self-control and co-responsibility as an individual, and as part of the community. Space to discuss the imposed protocols, to express the different needs and experiences. Even so, we self-criticize that some spaces for debate arrived too late, and the different perceptions of risk of each person have not always been taken into account.
There have been many reflections from professionals, politicians and society in general about how this situation can change the conception of housing: spatial quality, light, relations with the outside, with your neighbors. It would be interesting to see how many of the dynamics that were revealed during this period in many communities have been maintained after the confinement. For instance helping our neighbors to do the shopping, conversations from balcony to balcony, or the use of community spaces.
Unlike the majority of the existing housing stock, which was designed as an aggregation of individual dwellings, in this case it is especially relevant to analyze how a building designed to generate interaction behaves in a period of isolation. It has been an acid test for the potential of intermediate spaces (that are communal, between public and private). The intensive expansion of uses beyond the limits of the housing unit manifest the needs and potentials of these spaces. Spaces to practice sports, to be with others while maintaining safe distances, to enjoy the sun and the outdoors, so that children can play and interact with others… Also adapting the building to new needs. For example, the rooms for guests(which could not come now) and the units of people who were confined in other places became workspaces for parents who had to telework and needed a quiet space. Or, in later phases, the communal dining room served for the collective care of the youngest members of the community.
Even so, the transformative potential is not given by space, as Stavros Stavrides rightly points out (in the book Common Space) in revolutionary or utopian experiences such as the Soviet collective housing projects. We must give importance to build collective housing projects from the community. In La Borda, flexible formal and informal care protocols have emerged spontaneously, as a response to specific needs or as a decision by work commissions or the assembly. This leaves room for multiple ways of dealing with the situation (with people’s fears, their needs, individualities, etc) around care in a broad way: additional cleaning, sports (individual and collective), film sessions, shopping, food, conversations, concerts… While always keeping a safe distance. Also, when it was possible, this included self-organized collective care of children between parents and other people from the community itself.
New moments have also been introduced to verbalize and share what we feel. The emotional rounds to check the state of each person and how each one was facing the risk have been very well-received. And stable but informal meeting spaces for those who needed to express their experiences, in the form of an open meeting around coffee some Saturday afternoons announced in advance.
The emergency situation and its management have made social privileges more evident than ever, as well as the importance of mutual support networks and decent housing. Like in the 2008 economic crisis, marked by evictions, the centrality of housing and the need for stability and security have been highlighted, in the face of the precariousness of many families who have seen their income and economic activity extremely affected. In the case of La Borda, the solidarity fund, to which every adult must contribute monthly to help pay the fee to those living units with temporary financial difficulties, has been used for the first time.
Many journalists, academics and friends asked us if the confinement at La Borda was different. In response, the inhabitants, once the confinement was over, stressed that it would have been more difficult to cope with it in any other house they had previously inhabited. And back to the question about which dynamics are here to stay, some actions that did not happen previously (like the shared care of children) have continued beyond the confinement.
* Carles Baiges and ** Cristina Gamboa, inhabitants in La Borda and members of Lacol. La Borda housing cooperative is a development self-organized by its users to access decent, non-speculative housing in Barcelona. Lacol is an architecture cooperative that work with architecture for social transformation, as a tool to intervene in the immediate environment critically.
In this article, we will tell you about how we, the residents of Centraal Wonen Delft, have experienced the Corona pandemic and lockdown since March 2020. But first, let us briefly tell you about who we are and how we live.
‘Centraal Wonen Delft’ is a cohousing project founded in 1981. The building is owned and managed by social housing association DUWO. We are ca 100 residents between the ages of 1 and 74, including students, singles and couples, and some families with children… We are an association, with biennial meetings and we live in 13 different groups. Here we cook, eat, play games. etc. These groups are gathered in what we call ‘clusters’, parts of the building where we share washing machines, a bicycle storage and last but not least a garden. There is also a lawn in the middle, and next to it the central facilities, like a bar and meeting room for all residents.
The project is located in the South of Delft, as part of a large urban expansion of the city in the 1980s. In the illustration below, you can recognize the four clusters that each contain 2, 3 or 4 groups, and the dark shaded bar next to the central lawn. The clusters are each named after a different colour.
Fig 1 – Dark shaded: the central facilities; light shaded: the cluster facilities; rectangles: the group kitchens.
Fig 2 – The bar
Corona and the ‘green’ cluster
The ‘green’ cluster, where I live, (Flip Krabbendam) consists of two groups. When the Corona virus hit the North of Italy, our Italian resident just came back home, to our cluster, from the region where Corona had hit hardest. We thought, he might infect us now… because of the way we live, close to each other, it could have a devastating effect! This was just before the official ‘lockdown’ started in the Netherlands, so it was up to us to figure out how to react. But we didn’t have to worry; our Italian resident went into a self-chosen quarantine. We didn’t see him for two weeks. When we spoke to him afterwards, he appeared to be very concerned. As he said, he had seen a grim future in Italy.
Then the ‘intelligent lockdown’ came into effect. This was the term used by the Dutch government to refer to the Dutch approach to the pandemic, which basically consisted of a strong advice for all households to stay at home, and if possible, to work from home.
How did this apply to us? We were neighbours, but living together in a cluster, we also looked like big household, sharing our kitchens, a laundry room and other facilities. As a first step we decided not to invite outsiders. An exception was made for children under 12 and for the partners of two of our housemates that lived outside.
To realize the ‘intelligent lockdown’ within our ‘green’ cluster we decided not to act as a big household, but to split up into subgroups. One subgroup settled down in one of the common kitchens. Other subgroups used different common and private kitchens and avoided overlap in the use of the common bathrooms. One resident was ‘evacuated’ by his parents and stayed with them for a few weeks.
The members of the kitchen group were working on their laptops during the daytime, and had a lot of fun together. And it was good to see more people being at home, also in the other common spaces. We kept our distance, but still it felt better than the normal situation when residents would arrive at the end of the afternoon, tired, with private plans for the evening. So in a way now we could say ‘viva corona’. See illustration below.
Fig 3 – “Viva Corona”
For our scheduled house meeting we went over to the garden, where we could keep our distance. One resident was so nervous about Corona that she represented herself by using facetime. Her smartphone was put in a tree and from there she communicated with the rest of us.
Fig 4 – House meeting in the garden
Because we could keep our distance in the garden, we organized a party here. There were drinks and there was music and after some time there was also a policeman appearing at the garden gate. A neighbour had complained about the noise. It was not clear if he could give us a ticket, we were keeping the 1,5 m distance (most of the time) but we were clearly with more than three persons together. That was not allowed in public space, but this was our private garden… We didn’t get a fine. (These fines were 400 Euro per person).
Later on, the lockdown rules were adjusted for student houses and other types of shared housing. Now, we were regarded as a big household. But still inside the house we kept our subgroups separated.
In the garden, however, we could feel free. The weather in May was really like summer, with long warm evenings, so many evenings we sat in the garden and put on a fire. Having a drink and a lot of fun. We started at 1,5 meters distance, but as it got later, and colder, we tended to move closer to the fire, and to each other.
Fig 5 – By the fire
The use of the cluster garden triggered a renewed interest in it. So we started working in it, after all it was a safe place. Parts that had grown wild were recaptured, our chickens were fenced in, so that they would not go on adventures in neighbouring gardens, plants were planted, and the rubble that came out of the ground while we were rearranging the ‘landscape’ was disposed of in a container. Usable bricks were kept for a new terrace, and an old plan for a building hot tub was revived.
Corona and the other clusters
The central meeting room was closed, to avoid contact between the residents of different clusters. So in order to write about it, I had to make some calls to find out what happened there. But it appeared that life in the ‘red’ and the ‘yellow’ cluster was similar to that of the ‘green’ cluster. In the ‘red’ cluster there were two people infected. Of course they stayed in isolation, but housemates took care of them by making food and shopping. For an impression of life in the ‘blue’ cluster, see the text below.
Corona and the ‘blue’ cluster (by Annalena, resident of this cluster)
Our cluster has four groups that very naturally separated when the lockdown hit us. For a few weeks, the groups had no contact with each other, and an inter-group couple settled into our kitchen together, only using their bedroom and shower with great care and lots of cleaning. All groups renovated their kitchens and had a thorough spring cleaning. When the weather got better, we had meals outside and slowly, the groups grew back into one cluster with people visiting each other. We keep our distances though, try not to hug.
Some people were really afraid of the virus and isolated themselves from the groups without really telling others why. That has been accepted, but was noticed.
Nonetheless, the quarantine has affected the group feeling in a good way as well: within the four groups there is more friendship now, a deeper connection due to trying-to-work-from-home, shared meals and shared scares. We also talked a lot about neighbours, since we were here all day every day, getting closer looks into our neighbours’ lives. We now have inside jokes, movie nights and preferred takeout dinners.
What did we learn so far?
By staying at home all day, residents have gradually rediscovered their own private space, that they started to upgrade it like never before. Others rediscovered and upgraded the common garden, where they could keep distance. And those who took a small risk, by forming somewhat bigger social units in the common kitchens, could rediscover, and deepen, the relation with their fellow residents. And in the end: they started to appreciate, more than before, their contacts in the outside world. With friends, at work, in a bar, a restaurant, a movie theatre… So this lockdown can be seen as a kind of social experiment that had deepened the interest in their living environment and in each other on one hand, and revived the meaning of contacts outside the project on the other hand.
Second wave in the ‘green’ cluster
After the initial lockdown we did the same as the rest of the country, we got more and more relaxed about the virus. And then, after the summer, the second wave of the virus emerged.
At first it didn’t alarm us too much, we even had a party, all cosy being together in our common living room. But later it appeared that one of our residents was tested positive…
She was infected by her boyfriend, and to avoid contact she moved out, to stay at his place, for as long as needed. Serious busines.
Now we have had our traditional ‘Sinterklaas’ party in a special way. Normally we all come together in the common living room and give each other presents. Anonymous, with little, funny poems that refer to the receiver, sometimes in a teasing way. A great tradition, but now we had to organise it differently. We split in four subgroups, in different private living rooms, and had a ‘teams’ meeting. Before we started we had put all the presents in the common living room. From each subgroup one person was allowed to pick up the presents for his or her subgroup. The unpacking of these presents, the reading of the poems and thanking Sinterklaas took place in front of the ‘teams’ screen in each subgroup, so the other subgroups, could watch and hear.
Fig 6 – One subgroup celebrating ‘Sinterklaas’ via ‘teams’
The lockdown may have had a positive effect on us, it made us appreciate our immediate living environment and our housemates, and it showed that we took care of each other when needed. Nobody got lonely, as many people in regular houses, especially when they live alone.
On the other hand we can say that a lockdown makes living difficult in a cohousing project, especially in a project where many facilities are shared. It might be wise to plan future projects in such a way that different households can operate independently, having their own kitchen and sanitation. Or are we overreacting? Now we are impressed by the corona virus, but nobody knows if such a pandemic will ever happen again.
*Architect, resident and initiator of Centraalwonen Delft; ** Resident of Centraalwonen Delft
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.