Collaborating On Community

One of the articles in Living Together (IC#29)
Originally published in Summer 1991 on page 59
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute

Of the many new books surveying the development of cohousing and related European housing forms, Dorit Fromm’s Collaborative Communities, published by Van Nostrand Reinhold (1991), is perhaps the most useful single source on how to do it yourself. It provides information and guidance on everything from creating a sense of community, to choosing a site, to structuring building ownership. Fromm is an architect and planner living in San Francisco, CA, and is currently researching a book on eco-villages. The following are sample excerpts from the book. Contact the publisher for information at 115 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10003.

EUROPE AND THE US

European examples attest to the many benefits of living in collaborative communities – security, friendship, sharing of tasks, and a good environment for children. "That’s all very well, but would I want to live there?" questioned a working mother at a talk on collaborative housing [in the US]. Her concerns were the greater possibility of conflict within the group and a loss of personal freedom. She is not alone in her fears of interdependence. A magazine article on new housing, specifically on redesigning the suburbs, received this comment: "With all its obvious drawbacks, the single house on a suburban lot allows more control over one’s territory…. The American Dream is not just a box on a lawn. It’s a chance for a small portion of creative independence."

FINANCING

The local government is conspicuously absent in the development of most of the US examples, unlike most European models. European developments receive direct government support. The Danish government provides very good terms for cooperative developments, and the Dutch and Swedish governments subsidize rental cohousing. But lack of government support in the United States has required communities to rely on their members’ resources…. The US is far behind these countries in housing options for low – and moderate – income residents.

COLLABORATIVE ATTITUDE

In collaborative development, a sense of community appears long before walls have been built and the legal papers signed… The development process begins by forming the individuals into members of a core group. They commit themselves to meet regularly. Each member of the group takes on some of the development tasks and can influence many of the decisions made. Together, the members talk about their needs and find a way to fulfill them. Through this struggle to develop the housing, members begin to share a common history.

[The collaborative attitude] is a process in which people switch from an individual mode of thinking to one of an awareness and care of the group. Wanting to become a cohesive group does not create such a group (as witnessed by the number of groups that break apart) nor do people divide into those who naturally have this attitude and those who do not. Rather, it appears to be a process that involves the active participation of all members – their finding an way of working together through conflict.

THE PROCESS

There are three basic ways to develop [collaborative] housing:

1. The group members decide to take on the entire housing development process themselves. They search for a site, find the financing, and design and build the buildings. Most groups do not have financial, design, or construction expertise, and they hire consultants for assistance. Nevertheless, the group directs the development and oversees the work of consultants.

2. Future residents hire a developer to buy the land, select the architect, and construct the housing. The predevelopment costs, often subsidized in Denmark, Sweden, and Holland by the government, are borne by the developer. Members lose some decision-making power but gain help in the development process.

3. The group negotiates with a non-profit housing developer to help them develop the community. The nonprofit organization owns the property and rents or leases the units to the residents. In this way, more affordable housing can be realized.

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