by Emlyn Hagan (& Chris Walker)
A couple of weeks ago we became prospective members of Chaco, it’s been a bit of a whirlwind really so we felt now was the time to reflect and write a blog. Chris has lived in Chapeltown for the past 15 years within walking distance of the site, I live in Kirkstall in a flat I’m renovating to sell prior to moving in with Chris.
We’ve both been aware of Chaco for many years, having encountered members running information stalls at various local events but we’d never really seriously considered membership for some reason. We both have friends who live at Lilac and lots of things about the project really appealed when we first visited those freshly installed friends in their new homes in 2013, it felt like a real community. Recently we’ve been planning for the future, talking about what we might do when I sell my flat, etc. Then, out of the blue I noticed a Facebook post from Maeve (now our buddy), a shared friend of mine and Chris’, talking about an upcoming Chaco social the following week at the flat she shares with her partner Nikoli and their baby. We decided to attend and suddenly Chaco was in the forefront of our minds.
We spent the next week checking out the website, looking at plans, discussing finances and coming up with a list of questions. We watched the video on the website and were very taken by Maureen’s enthusiasm, passion and grin. I was pretty nervous about attending the social, Chris tends to be calmer than me but it was great, everyone was lovely, we chatted to folks, Chris caught up with an old work friend (who also lives one street away), I got to wax lyrical about our campervan adventures, I got a cuddle from baby and most of the questions we had were answered. Job done.
On the walk home we decided that we should apply to become prospective members. We let Maeve know straight away and she sent us the forms, she also put me in touch with Bill so we could have a chat about the self build plots. This turned out to be a bit of a blind alley in some ways because we realised that the thing we wanted most was to be active members of the community. Within 24 hours we’d visited the site, spending a good half an hour clambering through undergrowth, peering over walls and through gaps in fences trying to get our bearings, we liked what we saw.
Chris took charge of our application form and did a brilliant job. We’d discussed what we had to offer the community (including a Canadian canoe and a tandem), our skills, experiences and interests. Next we waited……………………. Not too long though as Maeve contacted Chris a few days later to say that we’d been accepted at the previous night’s meeting. Woohoo! At the following social people were really complimentary about our application which was kind of them.
We’re working hard at keeping our feet on the ground, not getting too excited (one of us is doing a better job of this than the other), boringly, I’m acting as the voice of reason. But we are excited, it feels like a potential future is forming before our very eyes, we just need to keep meeting other members and prospective members, attend events and get involved in the community. We continue to meet lovely people at socials, all of whom we clearly have more than a little bit of common ground with, you could describe them as people we’d happy have as neighbours. We even met Maureen a couple of weeks ago, the star of the video and she’s probably even more enthusiastic in person!
We’ll write more as our journey continues
Emlyn & Chris
I’ve just spent the last three days in a field 6 miles south of Shrewsbury. This was my first experience of a Radical Routes Gathering – maybe the first of many, but next time I’m definitely taking a sleeping bag rated higher than “two seasons”. The days were warm and sunny (I’ve got a sunburnt nose), but there was a frost on the tents at night.
Radical Routes is a secondary cooperative – ie: a cooperative whose members are housing co-ops (like ChaCo) or workers’ co-ops (like the Footprint printing co-op based at Cornerstone in Sholebroke Avenue). It’s got a strong commitment to positive social change – and requires a similar commitment from its members. The main reason I went was to investigate the possibility of accessing one of their Rootstock loans that full members can apply for. However, it soon became apparent that they were offering a lot more than mere money. There was a wealth of experience and expertise on tap, and probably the main value for ChaCo would be the mutual support network and number of organisations who could help us avoid reinventing legal, financial and structural wheels, because they’ve already “been there and tried that”.
Although a lot more grass-rootsy feeling than the Confederation of Cooperative Housing (which we’ve also joined, for similar reasons), I was impressed how well the various meetings were run, and their attention to the boring basics like agendas, minutes and agreed procedures seemed to allow genuine (if sometimes slow) progress towards their goals. There were plenty of people with strong (and occasionally conflicting) views, but everyone seemed to trust that consensus decision-making would get there in the end, and all the discussions I witnessed were business-like and good-natured. I also attended a facilitation training session and learnt a lot about how our own Members’ meetings could be run in a more equitable and effective manner.
Altogether, a very positive experience. Whether or not we can get our own act together enough to be able to meet their rather demanding entrance criteria remains to be seen. And we may decide that our limited capacity means that we have to invest our energies on more immediate needs. However, Despina – one of our Would-be Prospective Members and who travelled down with me – is offering to do a lot of the work if we do decide to apply, and she already has a lot of RR experience from when she was a member of the Xanadu housing co-op in Woodhouse.
Guest blog by Bill Phelps
We’ve reached a stage in our journey now where we’re about to embark on a £2-3 million housing development. We’re very aware that we’re just a bunch of (rather determined) amateurs, albeit with an impressive team of professional advisers in the background. It’s daunting to consider the scale of what we’re taking on – and how little relevant experience the ChaCo members have in steering a project like this.
It’s also an interesting point to recall that bit of cohousing lore that says that building the houses is easier than building the community.
One of the topics that crops up time and again in accounts of cohousing failure is that of unrealistic expectations. Life in a cohousing community has a lot to commend it (of course) – but it’s not going to be much fun for people who assume they’re always going to get their own way. One group in the US tells newcomers: “We’ll try to give you 90% of what you want.” – a healthy reminder that consensus decision making involves give and take on all sides, and a lot of searching for solutions that everyone can live with.
Another, rather sad, story tells of a new family moving into a cohousing community. In order to make them feel welcome, their new neighbours cooked a meal and left it on the kitchen table, ready for when they arrived. The effect on the newcomers was to undermine their sense of privacy and security, knowing that others had access to their house and might let themselves in at any time without warning. Often, we assume that others have – or should have – the same set of values that we ourselves hold, and it comes as a shock when we realise that people we’re cohousing with have different views and habits.
What this means, I suppose, is that as well as the laughs and excitement, there are going to be plenty of disagreements and misunderstandings before we eventually move into our new homes, and – crucially – afterwards, too. But most of the people I’ve talked to who are currently living in cohousing would say that any tears and disappointments are more than outweighed by the benefits and fun of living alongside neighbours who are committed to watching out for them and sharing time and resources with them.
Will cohousing make me happier? It’s possible. Will I regret investing the time, energy and pain to make it happen? I don’t think so.
Guest blog by Ali Phelps, a long-standing member of ChaCo
I’m not sure whether an inner city environment causes poor mental health or whether people experiencing it are there because of cheaper, rented or social housing, but I do know for certain that many of our neighbours, over my 42 years in Chapeltown, have been affected by a wide variety of social and psychiatric stresses. Cohousing is brilliant from this perspective. Although it isn’t planned from a medical point of view, lots about it can prevent or alleviate mental distress.
In cohousing, individuals agree to meet each other intentionally through some shared meals, work groups and joint decision-making as well as expecting many accidental encounters because of the architecture and landscaping of the project. So if anyone’s pattern of behavior changes, or they become withdrawn, it will be noticed. People vary greatly in their need for privacy and interaction and cohousing is flexible enough to meet a wide range of expectations. Casual greetings, practical task-focused exchanges or philosophical conversations can all be a natural part of cohousing, and will enrich community life. For any members with distant or alienated families, the cohousing group may be the natural place for sharing joys and sorrows, and for support through times of illness and other stresses. The group can be helpful in reducing the likelihood of over-dependent relationships.
Some residents will not be in full-time paid employment. Cultivating shared allotments, using the workshops, interacting with schools, training groups, the elderly, sporting and creative community groups as well as taking responsibility for shared meals, maintenance, cleaning and recycling will all provide ‘work’ type opportunities for purposeful daily activity. Prospective residents already have a wide range of skills to share – musical, creative, artistic and dexterous, which may contribute to the relaxation of the whole group. The space we design will lend itself to possible community celebrations of Bonfire Night, New Year(s), harvest and the Big Lunch as well as the variety of faith groups represented being able to share particular festivals, as appropriate. The rhythms of planting, tending, reaping and using food are always life-affirming and health-promoting.
Although some cohousing schemes opt for the familiarity of peer groups, there are overwhelming benefits to living in a deliberately multi-aged group. Children can know and trust a variety of adults from birth, thus building solid foundations for childcare and life-long emotional health. They will also naturally learn to relate to older and younger children. Elderly people can be rejuvenated by respectful interactions with youngsters, and can contribute wisdom, stories and practical skills even as they learn the mysteries of smartphones and websites. New parents can have support and practical help at stressful periods – easy babysitting options can contribute to saving strained partnerships, extra pairs of hands can offer needed hours of sleep for those insomniac moments. There can be mutual support through periods of illness or recovery without much effort from the group. Similarly, as individuals age, issues of mobility, memory, bereavement and strength may all be helped reasonably easily by a cohousing group, without incurring huge transport or financial costs.
Those committed to the project have already valued diversity in education, race, language, faith, gender, abilities etc. and look forward to learning more through the closer living and decision-making of deliberate cohousing. It aims to celebrate Chapeltown as a district of immigration and welcome and to find ways of continuing to provide safe and affordable space for new arrivals as well as remaining open to settled neighbours near the cohousing project.
Cohousing makes it much easier to practice some aspects of green living, for example, shared transport, solar energy, recycling, bulk-buying, shared laundry facilities and cultivating. Construction from scratch should ensure sustainable materials, and high levels of insulation resulting in lower energy bills. Sharing of ideas and hope will contribute long-term benefits to the planet as well as improved health to the residents.
Some financial implications
Cohousing will result in lower living costs for residents.
- Energy: through sustainable building and shared facilities and activities.
- Food: through growing our own, bulk-buying and shared meals.
- Childcare: some will be natural, in-house.
- Things in common: because of the shared facilities, individual households will need less space and fewer tools, cars, equipment.
- NHS: Fewer GP visits because of less isolation, fresh food, fresh air and exercise. Fewer psychiatric in-patient costs, as good patterns of living result in better mental health.
- Police: Fewer interventions. The cohousing group is very aware of the lack of out-of-school provision for young people in Chapeltown and would encourage relevant activities and inclusion. The cohousing group is committed to share problem-solving and is therefore less likely to have neighbourhood disputes needing police attention.
- Social Services:
If parents need hospital care, the group may have the capacity to look after children, preventing the disruption and expense of fostering/respite care.
Elderly people should be able to stay in their own homes for longer, with good informal neighbourhood support. Where professional carers are needed, residents would be able to provide additional company, mobility, and the stimulation essential for good quality of life.
Disabled people can be included more easily when building new, with raised beds in the growing space, design of communal space and wheelchair access.
- Affordable space for groups to meet in the Common House e.g. A grandparents group, craft groups
- Education: If toilets and teaching spaces are available, the Leopold Field area could become much more usable both by the CHESS cluster and local residents. Sports spaces, a growing area, orchard, and pond could all contribute to a better quality of local education.
- Housing Support workers/CAB/Refugee Support workers:
Some issues could be solved in a shared community.
It’s approaching midnight on a momentous day. Brazil beat Cameroon 4 -1, England are slipping towards defeat in the latest cricket test match, Andy Murray has started strongly at Wimbledon and our garden is loaded (was loaded!) with strawberries.
But the event of the day was the completion of our pre-feasibility study. I’m not going to put all of it up here as it’s a massive 99 pages long. I’ll wait until we have an executive summary but in the meantime here’s a couple of highlights.
As part of the study we undertook 67 conversations using our questionnaire and discovered that
- people do know what makes a good community
- people want safe green space and growing space
- people want community facilities owned and managed by the community, which are not culturally specific to one ethnic group or religion
- there was a high level of concern about provision for teenagers and young adults
- people saw a need for affordable, well designed, good quality housing
Through these and many other conversations we have concluded that:
The Leopold site offers potential for innovative development, focused on building on the best traditions of Chapeltown and meeting the yearning people have for improved facilities and stronger community. It can deliver a mixed range of attractive new, affordable, low energy sustainable housing which can include self-build, co-housing and can meet a wide range of needs.
There is a real opportunity here to develop the site in ways which can enhance the community, improve resources and meet local aspirations, and can significantly contribute to improving community wellbeing. In particular it can offer a community based approach to growing and sharing food and providing improved sports facilities and access to nature for our children, and people of all ages. It can provide employment and training opportunities for local people. It can deliver community facilities which return ownership and responsibility to the people who live here.
So today has been momentous because our pre-feasibility study is complete and it means we are one step closer to achieving our vision to:
Transform derelict land; an under-used playing field, a dilapidated day-centre and run down historic buildings into a vibrant urban village bursting with sustainable housing, recreational space, opportunities for inter-generational connections and a diverse intentional community grown from the local
Around 100 people came to our design picnic. Most had never stepped onto the Leopold Field before – despite it being a community facility. One boy admitted he had played football on the site but this was only because he had climbed over the 6-foot high spiky fence that surrounds the site.
I was surprised by how many people said they’d like to see allotments and food growing projects as part of the development. Honestly, I didn’t prompt or lead them into it.
The whole event was much more relaxed than anticipated. The kids didn’t need any of our pre-prepared activities but simply created their own entertainment using the piles of cut grass. The adults (who weren’t jumping into piles of cut grass) were content to chat in twos or threes without any need for us to do presentations. The hands-on design model evolved throughout the afternoon with each person adding to what had gone before rather than re-inventing everything from scratch.
(Click on any photo to view the slideshow)
I’m most excited about the swimming pool with slides!
Today four of us from Chaco listened to Max Farrar talk about Chapeltown.
I live in Chapeltown but if you search on Streetmap, which uses the official Ordnance Survey maps, you’ll find Chapeltown hanging out way up to the north of my house in Spencer Place. Google maps does much better by locating Chapeltown in Reginald Mount.
The other half of the title was even more interesting. Max is a Professor with Leeds Metropolitan University who spent 25 years studying Chapeltown (and for most of the time living here as well). Max summed up his talk by saying
Chapeltown provides a repository for the racialised hopes and fears of a divided city; a site on which various social imaginaries do their work.
I’m not sure I understand the summary! What I did understand is that there are many stories told about Chapeltown. These stories present only one way of looking at it, miss the incredible diversity in the area, and often misrepresent the area.
The story I want to tell is much better summed up by the sub-heading of Max’s 400 page book: The Struggle for “Community” in a British Multi-Ethnic Inner City Area – Paradise in the Making.
I believe that Chaco can be a part of making paradise here.
Interesting article (once you get past the man in the hard-hat).
Basically a Community Land Trust (CLT) is developing houses that really are affordable. The article doesn’t say enough about how they have managed this. My guess is that the land has been given to the CLT at no or very little cost. CLTs ensure that land is permanently for the benefit of the community and as such are excellent ways of using public land rather than simply selling it to a developer out to make a profit.
I don’t think I’m as sociable as some of the other cohousers. I remember seeing the Lilac cohousing social calendar and thinking there’s no way I could do all that. It’s taken us over two months to organise a simple house warming party.
I guess partly that’s because other cohousing stuff has been keeping us busy. One of our Chaco members was recently chatting to a Lancaster Cohousing member. They stressed that building the community is as critical as building the houses. I think we’re doing all right on that but it’s a small tightly knit group that at some point will have to expand.
The house warming was part of the expansion – a chance for people interested in Chaco to get to know us a little better and see how we’re approaching housing in our current situation. The internally insulated wall in the kitchen looks insignificant but in some ways demonstrates what we are hoping for:
- environmentally friendly
- learning – it was achieved by asking an expert to teach us – so we could learn to replicate the approach elsewhere
- beautiful – as much as a wall can be! The only unusual feature is the 45 degree angle into the window – this looks good, lets in more light and meant extra time and effort to make it to work.
- planned with the future in mind. Only one wall was done – but it needed to be done before the kitchen was installed. We also did it in such a way that any future insulation can neatly link into the work we’ve already done.
I was surprised today. We went to meet Wrigley’s solicitors to pick their brains about legal structures that might be useful in realising our vision for the whole of the site and for our cohousing bit. We were met by a team of four, including one of the partners, who gave us over an hour of their time for free.
Much of what they were saying echoed our previous conversation with Cornerstone Cath. There seemed to be a clear message that a Community Land Trust could work well for the whole site.
It does leave us with a significant question – how much can we actually lead on the bigger site? We know from talking to people involved in other cohousing developments that even doing just 20-30 houses is extremely demanding. How much more demanding will it be to set up and lead a Community Land Trust to develop the whole site?
It may be easier to concentrate on our own little bit and ignore the rest. It may be easier but I’m not sure it’s best. Tackling the site as a whole brings huge benefits. It means the site can respond to the needs of the surrounding community, it gives an opportunity to open up and connect more clearly with existing Chapeltown communities, and working on the larger scale gives advantages in terms of environmental options, building the infrastructure – roads, drains and other services.
If we’re thinking big then we’re going to need support. We’ll need good community support and plenty of involvement (or leadership) from partners.