COVID19 and Collaborative Housing #2

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.

Collaborative Housing Green Opificio, Milano. Movie night: community events are organised in the courtyard instead of in the common room. Movie projection with Nuovo Armenia. Foto source: https://www.facebook.com/NuovoArmenia/

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.

Cohousing Base Gaia, Milano. Cohousers spent lockdown like a big family. Foto source: https://www.facebook.com/cohousingbasegaia/

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.

Coabitazione Solidale “Filo continuo”, Torino. Young people took care of the grocery shopping for their neighbours. Foto source: https://www.facebook.com/associazioneacmos/

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. 

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*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.

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