Seminar One: Reflections

Reflections on the first seminar, by Helen Jarvis

The first seminar in this series of six events took place over two days at Newcastle University; 11th-12th December 2014. This springboard event was intended to set the scene for the series, largely by introducing a measure of historical, international and UK regime-specific context and also by examining some of the key concepts and terminology involved. This was always likely to be a daunting task and certainly it proved to be greater than could be resolved in a single event. In this respect the first seminar arguably began a dialogue that will need to be further developed over subsequent events as well as by using digital platforms to continue discussion threads in-between seminars too.

  • Chris Coates charted the historical origins and continuing legacy of communal living in the UK.
  • Lidewij Tummers introduced numerous European case-studies to illustrate the way cohousing has emerged world-wide as a similar but place-specific reimagining of close-knit communities and as an urban strategy.
  • Further international insight was provided (virtually) by Greg Rosenberg on Troy Gardens, a US Community Land Trust.
  • Jo Gooding reflected specifically on the slow and uneven growth of community-led development in the UK.
  • Becky Tunstall addressed the role of housing welfare policy in the UK, drawing attention to the subordination of housing policy to economic policy the impact this has had on housing supply, quality and affordability.
  • Thomas Weber drew attention to an emerging peer-to-peer sharing economy that simulates the kind of relations of trust that associated with co-present, enduring interactions (as in cohousing).
  • With reference to the notion of a graduated ‘diffusion of innovations’, parallels could be drawn between developments in the sharing economy (early adopters etc.) and innovations in communal living- as noted by Chris Coates previously.

In the UK context, particular ambiguities derive from conceptual slippages between cohousing and cooperative housing and the discrete claims that each make to collaboration, sharing and communality. Whereas cohousing represents a socio-spatial concept that does not specify (or preclude) any single means of purchasing or holding property over the long term, a tenant ownership cooperative is defined by its tenure, while this does not by itself specify or preclude a particular size or form of living arrangement. Indeed, with the minimum provision of private and common facilities and sufficient community size and scale to support community dynamics, a housing cooperative can look and function much like a cohousing ‘intentional neighbourhood’. Yet, in England, the vast majority of housing cooperatives deliver units of affordable housing rather than a neighbourhood scale of development. The picture is very different across Europe, as we learned from Lidewij Tummers’ presentation.   Likewise, some UK cohousing (e.g. Lilac) further define themselves in legal and financial terms through non-profit cooperative ownership. Yet, until very recently, especially in England, it has been very difficult for would-be cohousing groups to co-create an intentional neighbourhood without raising funds through individual owner-occupation. Of course, the picture is especially complex in the UK where opportunities for community and non-profit housing vary across four different jurisdictions of devolved policy-making- England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. There are also at least four types of housing cooperative (short-life, self-build, tenant management and tenant ownership) and significant disconnect between these recognised entities and the aspirations and motivations of grassroots groups looking to realise a vision of collaboration and communality on a neighbourhood scale.

The suggestion that one community-led housing entity can look and function much like another has prompted policy-makers and practitioners in the UK to refer in rather sweeping terms to the potential growth of an overall ‘community-led housing’ sector. In turn, this has prompted membership networks and advocacy organisations representing different types of community-led housing (including cohousing, cooperative housing, self-build and community land trusts), to call for a strategic alliance and this way to send a coherent message to relevant local and national authorities concerning the support needed for the sector to grow. Jo Gooding touched on these issues and concerns in her presentation which disaggregated the umbrella term community led housing in terms of competing motivations, outcomes, popular perceptions and public and private interests.

Fixing on the common denominators can be constructive in political terms but ambiguous terminology and efforts to speak in one voice for many constituencies can threaten cherished distinctions between different community types and the motivations that drive their formation and evolution. This is why in this first seminar it was so important to gain an appreciation of historical and geographical distinctions as a frame of reference for the allegiance that many grassroots groups clearly feel and express toward a particular ideal of communality. It is crucial to cultivate rather than to crush this attachment and impulse because it is what motivates and drives people to form community groups and commit the time, energy, ideas and assets that are together the essential ingredients of all community-led development.

The first seminar raised a number of issues for round-table discussion. Discussion concerning the potential outcomes and influence of the series was animated. To some extent this reflected frustrations associated with the ambiguous terminology. It also pointed to the need to structure the conversation to clearly differentiate general from particular debates, international knowledge exchange from national politics and policy detail, and issues of grassroots motivation from the drive to increase housing supply by whatever means. There was general consensus concerning the need to mobilise robust comparable data for particular projects, models and the sector as a whole. This is essential in order to distinguish self-interest (bubbles of happiness) in community-led housing projects from public gains (e.g. to carbon reduction, behaviour change, learning how to improve community resilience and care for older and younger vulnerable populations within intentional neighbourhoods).

In short, the first seminar posed many questions for further discussion. There will be scope in subsequent seminars both to continue to this dialogue of general understanding and to shift our focus between discrete aspects of thinking, process, impact and outcome.

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