Have been back in Berlin since May (here till end of October), for research purposes. No, really. I’m a recipient of ESRC funding to do a PhD looking at cohousing in Berlin, specifically what can be learned from groups of older people coming together and creating their own housing projects. I did a short study of two such groups in London in 2015, but both were in the development phase – I wanted to look at groups who were actually long-established and living together. And also spend my entire summer in Berlin*.
I first came across cohousing for/by older groups, when one was being built right across the canal from me when I last lived here. I quickly and incorrectly assumed that:
a) all cohousing was created for and by older people, and
b) that the one I’d seen was just one of loads that existed in Berlin
Cohousing turned out to be for people of all generations (although it’s not quite as simple as this, as I will be exploring at some later date). And the one example of a specifically older group turned out to be one of… only two in Berlin. Thus these are the two Berlin examples that I have selected. To be fair, there do seem to be a large number of cohousing projects done by older groups that are in progress and likely to open within the next year or so, but that’s no use when you want to look at how it’s working out in practice.
Anyhoo, what is cohousing? Good question. It’s an intentional community (intentional neighbourhood is a term often used) where a group has come together to live in individual dwellings, but clustered around a common space. It’s nota commune. The ‘intentional’ bit comes from an agreement by all involved that they will work to actively maintain a community, with regular events, sharing a meal together weekly, and so on. It’s better described here.
My question of ‘what might the UK learn from examples in Berlin?’ is perhaps slightly undermined by the strong tradition of community-driven housing that already exists in Germany (and Berlin in particular). Here there’s a lot of different forms of housing – legal, financial social and architectural that make up a kind of ‘field’ of alternative community housing, and cohousing often overlaps with some of these. As one background element to my own research, I’m exploring some of these – the following is an attempt at describing a couple, just some thoughts rather than a full or accurate description:
- A Baugruppe [‘Building Group’] – essentially where a group gets together and commissions or builds their own housing development, just how they want it. Self-funded private Cohousing often uses this model, and could in principle be done more in the UK, but but in Germany there’s more of an established legal model, specialist lawyers and other specialists etc, who make this a relatively common thing.
- A Genossenschaft (= co-operative, sort of) – these have a long tradition in Germany / Berlin, and form the major part of what we in the UK would view as social housing, similar in some ways to housing associations, and which often receive(d) state funding.
- A ‘new-generation’ Genossenschaft – often overlapping with Baugruppen, a group come together and sets up a housing co-operative, raising their own funds, with the co-op owns the land/buildings, and everyone rents. Each co-op member/renter has a right to their tenancy in perpetuity, and the rent is theoretically lower as no external owner is making a profit. Cohousing could use this model too – it’s arguably closer in practice to Community Land Trusts in the UK.
In the case of one of the groups I’m looking at, it’s none of the above – the group rents apartments in an existing housing estate (better than that sounds), along with an additional apartment that they rent jointly as a communal space. It therefore exists essentially as an idea more than a physical form, but socially seems to work very well.
You might be thinking this all sounds a bit Scandinavian (it is) and seems like a good-idea-in-principle-but-not-my-sort-of-thing-really. I can understand that. But the aspect that appeals to me personally is what it might offer as we get older – a group of friends, or at least amenable acquaintances – who are proximate, who you can do stuff with or drop in on without having to travel miles, and who can support each other when family are (increasingly) far away.
The questions I’m asking are rooted in sociology and gerontology (How does it work out in practice? How do we differently negotiate the exigencies of later life through such communities?) which was… something of a struggle for a while, as it’s not my background.
*Ha ha, I said to friends in London, I’m off to spend an endless summer in Berlin, enjoying proper ice cream and al fresco electronic dance music, while you all remain in London moaning about the weather and going to work a lot. Not so. It has been raining in Berlin since late April**, and shows no sign of stopping as I write this in July.
**I’m exaggerating, but not a lot. The weather has been much better in London. But I have eaten some good ice cream, and also some clubbing, things no longer possible in the UK capital since all ice cream outlets, clubs, pubs, decent bars, markets, sports facilities, public swimming pools, parks and libraries have been redeveloped into thirty storeys of luxury apartments***
***By which we all now, of course, mean shit apartments. But with a concierge, gym, Cafe Nero and Sainsbury’s local cluttering the ground level in place of a decent public realm. Or an ice cream shop.