MELISSA FERNANDEZ (LSE)
21 September 2015
Islington Park Street Community is an exceptional case of mutual support and collaborative housing in London. While not formally recognised as such, it is probably the oldest example of a longstanding co-housing project in the capital city—abiding by all of the key social and design principles of this alternative and increasingly sought after form of living. Established in 1976, it is also a story of resilience, surviving the ebbs and flows of the capital city’s housing and economic policy waves. The community’s flexible model of self-managed communal living has successfully tackled the social isolation of vulnerable and older people, included a system of shared resources that is economically and environmentally resilient and provides a living example of mutual care in the increasingly inaccessible heart of London. Today, as Islington Park Street Community (IPS) approaches its forty-year mark, its 18 long and short-term residents face an uncertain future. Their landlord, the housing association One Housing Group (OHG), has served a ‘notice to quit’.
This report looks briefly into the history and community-life practices of this unique group to understand what is distinctive about Islington Park Street, how this translates into value beyond (but not outside of) the economic and how it may be considered a model for other London housing schemes to embrace and develop, rather than dismantle and displace.
Below are the selected headlines and conclusions.
- Islington Park Street Community (IPS) is a long-established mixed-needs housing that provides a mutually supportive permanent home for people with mixed backgrounds, needs and abilities.
- IPS is financially and socially self-managed with a robust decision-making protocol and operates a shared resources model that offers community, health and environmental benefits. Though it originated in the 1970s, its approach is consistent with the current political agenda in terms of community self-determination, voluntary action and the integration of vulnerable and differently abled people.
- Islington Park Street Community provides a model that could help those facing mental of physical challenges to sustain healthy independent living via mutual support. Housing associations should be educated in this approach.
- Public and private financial support should be sought to support this innovative, alternative form of community and to allow affordable mixed needs communities and neighborhoods to continue to thrive in London’s city centre.
- IPS could be seen as a possible model for the effective and low cost reuse of obsolete owned sheltered housing and care homes.
Conclusions: what next?
‘People do not realise how much it’s cost to get where we are.’
As with the future of so many social housing projects in London today, costs are of course central to Islington Park Street community’s current struggle against eviction. For One Housing Group, there appears to be at least a partial, if undeclared financial motivation to what Local Authority officers from Islington and other councils, as well as leading housing experts are defining as an unnecessary call for eviction. Like all housing associations, they are under pressure to develop new housing. But costs incurred are not just monetary. IPS is the result of inputs that can and cannot be quantified. It has involved forty years of care and support activity both within and outside the community, organisational and management efforts, and a living legacy of the enormous amount of work and energy that went into setting it up as a permanent community with health and wellbeing at its heart. Their community arrangement has social, environmental and community benefits—and therefore, value.
While the social assets and positive impact of intentional communities like IPS have yet to be quantified, their links to health and well-being are increasingly studied and documented. Their shared communal spaces and lack of self-contained units is also significantly more economic and sustainable both in terms of utility costs and in terms of environmental impact (equipment, gas and water use, etc.). Given these combined characteristics, any attempt to remove and decant them should at the very least be founded upon a robust evidence base that includes an economic appraisal of their social and community value.
Design is also a focal element in all intentional communities, central to the possibilities of successful group dynamics and interactions (Williams 2005). It is key to understanding how resources can be managed and shared successfully over time. Lessons could be learned from ISP in regards to the size, scale, density, and layout that supports mutual-support living and minimises the use of resources. Further studies should also be commissioned to look at the unique socio-spatial qualities of this housing site and how they contribute to sustainable communities and neighbourhoods. Supported by the Tudor Trust, the UK Cohousing Network is currently preparing a national action research and project development programme to promote ‘cohousing where you live’, retrofitting co-housing principles into existing homes and neighbourhoods. This will be done with the Housing and Learning Information Network and its partner organisations. According the Network’s chair, IPS will now very probably feature in the programme as an exemplar of good practice and learning.
Despite the government’s and society’s increasing interest in finding measures that can help alleviate some of the most pressing social, economic and environmental issues, including the supply of varied forms of affordable housing that fits diverse needs, there is a dearth of examples of successful schemes in London. Where they do exist—like in IPS—these are not being sufficiently recognised as the models that they are. Moreover, both the ideas of self-organisation in collective housing maintenance and mutual care are still considered anomalies within the mainstream housing and health discourse and practice. It is in this sense that IPS’s internal mechanisms alongside a continuous but hands-off approach by their HA constitute a remarkable example of success.