The growth of cohousing in Europe

Sweden's Stolplyckan
Sweden's Stolplyckan, above, rents out its common rooms to
public healthcare companies during the day.

While community living is not a new phenomenon, one must acknowledge that with the success of cohousing, the idea is being spread for the first time on a global scale. If globalization tends to destroy cultural variation, the flexibility of cohousing has allowed it to resist that trend and to adapt to people’s needs in different cultural contexts. A look at how cohousing is being implemented in Europe demonstrates that idea.

In Europe, countries can be divided into two groupings: the Nordic countries, including Denmark, Sweden and Holland, which pioneered cohousing more than 30 years ago, and the Mediterranean countries, including France, Spain and Italy, which are only now beginning to realize the advantages of cohousing. We’ll focus on the first group, and then glance at the second.

Denmark

As many readers know, cohousing began in Denmark. The first cohousing community was built in 1972 for 27 families, close to Copenhagen, by a Danish architect and a psychologist. They had been influenced by Bodil Graae’s 1967 article, “Every child should have 100 parents.” Since then the cohousing movement has spread rapidly, and today 1 percent of the Danish population – about 50,000 people – live in cohousing. It is important to note that the Danish experience has much benefited from a trial-and-error approach to cohousing. Dwellings are now much smaller in size than they were 30 years ago, while the common areas have become much bigger as a result of learning from different cohousing experiments.

Even more striking is that the new generation of cohousers is getting much “greener.” Munksoegaard, close to Copenhagen, is probably the best example. There a hundred families live together in structures that have been built with the highest respect for the environment. For instance, their five common rooms are all built of straw bale construction. This material is used not only for its excellent ability to insulate noise and heat, but also because, as one of its founders, Jytte Abildstroem, explains, “you do not only buy a house, you also build it with the other cohousers.” The future residents actually construct the homes they will occupy. This is a key element to the creation of a powerful team-spirit during the first years of the cohousing life. “Fri og Fro” (Free and Happy) is another relevant experiment. It is one of the several Danish cohousing villages completely made with straw bale construction. There is a simple reason for building such villages, explains Fri og Fro’s cofounder Niels Nielsen: “We can pay for the house in five to seven years, and this helps us reinvest our money in other projects for the community.”

Sweden

Denmark’s neighbor also has a long-standing community movement tradition. The idea of “popular houses,” in which several families lived together, had already appeared in the 1930s. But it was the Swedish feminist movement that played a key role in the ‘60s to promote cohousing as a way to share common chores more equally between the genders. Today, the association Kollektivhus Nu (“Cohousing Now”) is successful in promoting the idea across the country.

The particularity of cohousing in Sweden is that most of the properties are state-owned, whereas in Denmark they are private initiatives. As Bjorn Palmqvist, a resident at Stoplyckan, the biggest cohousing community in Sweden, says: “The major motivation to build these houses back in the 1970s was of a political nature. It was part of a large societal project of [an] active welfare state and the state invested a lot to make this happen. Today the political wind has changed however. Recently built cohousing [communities] are now also privately owned.”

Stoplyckan is a good example of what state-owned cohousing looks like: more than 400 people live there, and the cohousing is divided into 184 apartments in 13 buildings. It is important to stress that in Sweden most cohousing is built vertically which differs greatly from Denmark or the USA where cohousing often look like small villages, built horizontally. The Swedish advantage, however, is that they are right in the center of big cities.

Moreover, the public side of a cohousing community like Stolplyckan is that cohousers share some of the common rooms with public healthcare companies. The companies rent the common spaces – the dining room, sport rooms and other facilities – until 6 pm. After that, the cohousers have use of the common spaces, renting them for a very small price. This reduces the high cost of maintaining large common spaces, and ensures that they are used by diverse groups and individuals. Another key advantage of Stoplyckan is that the elderly and those with various challenges are also encouraged to use the common spaces so they are less segregated.

Wandlemeent
One of Wandelmeent’s clusters, a common characteristic.

The Netherlands

The Netherlands' first cohousing (“Centraal Wonen”) was built in the mid-70s. Today there are more than 100 Centraal Wonen projects in the Netherlands. With regard to its architecture, Centraal Wonen tend be village-like communities, resembling the Danish types of houses rather than the Swedish vertical buildings. On the other hand, if one looks at the property structure, they are very often funded and rented by public authorities, as in Sweden.

Besides these similarities with Denmark and Sweden, The Netherlands have created a particular type of cohousing model, which is based on the organization of large cohousing communities into clusters of 5 to 10 units. In fact, half of the cohousing projects in the Netherlands are subdivided into clusters. Each of these has its own common facilities and the right to choose its new members. However, there is one commonly shared building for parties, meetings and the like. The best example is probably Wandelmeent, built in 1977 and close to Amsterdam, where about 200 people live.

The cohousing phenomenon is now extending to the rest of Europe, namely France, Spain, Belgium, the UK and Italy. In Italy cohousing has especially benefited from terrific mass-media coverage in the past year. Italy is significant because two types of cohousing organizations have emerged there in the last few years. The first, Cohousing Venture, is closer to the U.S. model of a cohousing consultancy firm that provide families with architects, lawyers, team facilitators and more. The advantage of this model is that cohousers can move in after a short period of only two years. The downside, as some point out, is that rent is set at market price in a country where speculation has reached terrible heights.

As a result, a second type of cohousing organization has appeared: CoHabitando and CoAbitare. These are both non-profit companies created as a response to Cohousing Venture. Here the advantage is that families can find cheaper solutions, although the whole process might take as long as four or five years instead of the two years proposed by Cohousing Venture. The Italian case is nevertheless interesting as it illustrates the flexibility with which cohousing operates, namely that it can be adapted to people’s desires, needs and financial means.

One interesting observation that can be extrapolated from the European experience is that across the variety of country-specific approaches to cohousing, cohousing for the elderly is booming across Europe. This is a positive sign, as the biggest challenge for cohousers in the years to come will be to ensure that elders will be integrated as fully as possible into the larger society. As the European experiences show the highly adaptive nature of cohousing can offer society a more sustainable alternative.

Related pages: Living in Cohousing

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