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Community-led housing can be a game-changer

Alex Whitcroft

Architects can be the facilitators of this growing sector that aims to deliver affordable homes along with wider community benefits

Low Impact Living Affordable Community (LILAC) in Leeds was able to prioritise pedestrian and child-friendly spaces, as designed by White Architecture.
Low Impact Living Affordable Community (LILAC) in Leeds was able to prioritise pedestrian and child-friendly spaces, as designed by White Architecture. Credit: Rob Crawshaw

Development of our cities is all too often shaped by top-down developers and funders rather than local authorities and local people with a long term outlook. Land is treated as a commodity and development primarily as a mechanism for extracting wealth rather than providing homes. Value is judged on profit generated, not social benefit. Uniqueness of signature cladding seems more important than genuine social diversity. And, most people can’t even afford these homes.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Community-led development provides a serious alternative to top-down, speculative housing. This means that residents and/or local people are integrally and meaningfully involved throughout the design and delivery process and then take a long term formal role in the ownership and management of the development, with community benefits protected in perpetuity.

The modern community housing movement dates from Scandinavia in the 1960s. Today, it is a diverse sector, from radically affordable infill schemes in London to high-density ‘baugruppen’ projects in inner-city Berlin; leafy cohousing developments in the USA to the housing co-ops now accounting for an amazing 23% of Zurich’s new housing. Even these four examples start to show the range of possibilities that differently structured housing development can lead to.

With a funding commitment from central government and the support of progressive local authorities, the community housing sector is set to see significant growth over the coming years.

A better model?

So, why might community-led development be a better model? Fundamentally, the nature of the ‘client’ changes, and with it the project’s priorities. The bottom line is no longer how to extract the most profit from this land, but how do we create the most community benefit and the best homes.

With house prices outstripping just about every other economic metric we have, the possibilities for building affordably are one of the most significant departures from the speculative developer model. With volunteer time and sweat equity, self-build/self-finish, the reduction or removal of developer profit, the potential for grant or impact finance, and end users steering design and spending decisions, the community-led model can significantly reduce delivery cost and increase affordability.

Strongly linked to affordability is the need to achieve high urban density to accommodate our ever growing population. Many of us know only too well how controversial high-density schemes can be. However, it’s not necessarily density itself that people object to as much as having it foisted upon them. With community engagement at its core, community-led housing may again provide a way forward. One such example is St Ann’s Redevelopment Trust (StART), a group of residents and workers in Haringey, London, who have gained community support for redevelopment of the former St Ann’s Hospital at double the density of the previous developer-led proposal. The plan to deliver 800 homes, rather than the previously proposed 450, uses the increased density to raise the percentage of affordable homes from 14% to 65-100%, explains StART’s Amy Dunnigan. If the scheme can deliver on these aspirations it will be a truly remarkable achievement for UK community-led housing.

There is also the potential to provide considerable social benefit, building resilient communities and neighbourhoods. Because the end user, the ‘client’, is an engaged group of living, breathing human beings rather than a theoretical average buyer, schemes can be tailored to the needs of residents and locals.

Community-led housing models such as cohousing (Springhill Cohousing, Stroud, for example) incorporate shared amenities alongside individual homes to provide the physical infrastructure required to enable their communities to flourish. Typically, shared amenities are provided in the form of a ‘common house’ with communal living space, space for community socials, meals and meetings, a kitchen for group cooking and sometimes laundry facilities, guest rooms, children’s play spaces, or even a workshop. Often this community infrastructure shapes the layout of the whole development, as with Jystrup Savværk in Denmark, where homes and a common house are arranged under a single roof opening onto a central community garden. Projects sometimes choose to provide amenities for the wider community too. Examples include Berlin’s R50, arranged as a dense block surrounded by a public garden; StART which, with the loss of the local hospital, plans to incorporate healthcare and wellbeing services; and Cohousing London, which aims to provide community event and work spaces.

Housing with community at its heart: the common room in cooperative housing at River Spreefeld designed by Carpaneto Architekten, Fatkoehl Architekten and BARarchitekten.
Housing with community at its heart: the common room in cooperative housing at River Spreefeld designed by Carpaneto Architekten, Fatkoehl Architekten and BARarchitekten. Credit: Andrea Kroth

The UK is starting to wake up to intergenerational communities. There are benefits, as residents of the St Monica Trust found when they shared their lives with a group of four-year-olds. However, many mainstream developments do not provide enough diversity or adaptability in their dwellings and so residents are transient, preventing resilient communities from forming and contributing to a growing problem of loneliness, especially for older people. In contrast, many community-led projects, like Saettedammen in Denmark, are intentionally intergenerational; homes and neighbourhoods are designed to provide for community members throughout their lives and encourage day-to-day interactions between all age groups.

It's not just older people who suffer from isolation. More and more, our cities are failing to provide on-the-doorstep places for children to meet and play safely, leading to isolation which ‘both parents and children pay the price for’ says Frederic Laloux, a resident of Ithaca Ecovillage in the US. Conversely, many community-led developments, including Ithaca and LILAC IN Leeds, prioritise pedestrian and child-friendly spaces at their heart.

Other schemes are tailored to the particular needs of a specific community, such as the delightfully named ‘OWCH’ (Older Women’s Cohousing) in Barking, London. A community of over-50s women, it is completely pedestrianised, has fully accessible and adaptable dwellings, shared facilities in a common house and a community garden and growing space instead of private gardens. Others provide support to marginalised groups, such as Zenzele (Bristol), Fusions Jameen (Lewisham, London), and London Older Lesbian Cohousing.

Sustainability measures are also often high on the agenda when residents are put in the driving seat, including low-energy buildings and renewable energy generation (such as at Lancaster Cohousing), shared and/or electric vehicles, and healthy low-impact materials. In Germany, Freiberg’s Vauban quarter, a community of 5,000 people in what is often considered the greenest district of the greenest city in the world, shows how community leadership can deliver world-class environmentally friendly developments at a large scale.

The evidence is compelling: if we empower the people who will live in the housing that we design, they will make decisions that create the most community benefit and the best homes.

Architects as facilitators

To support and participate in this emerging sector, architects need to understand and embrace the unique process, the new roles and skills required and the governance systems that shape such a deeply collaborative and community focused way of thinking and building. For example, the key role is facilitator rather than traditional architect explains Ted Stevens, a trustee of RUSS.  ‘It’s a very different skill set – organising people, listening and enabling. With this new model comes an exciting opportunity for communities and design teams to engage on a whole new level, inject much-needed innovation into UK housing, and design adventurous and socially radical homes and neighbourhoods – meeting the needs of the people who live in them, and the generations to come.

Alex Whitcroft is a director at KIN and Bere Architects, focusing on sustainable and community-led developments with expertise in Passivhaus. Previously, he was architectural lead at the WikiHouse Foundation.


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