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 So if anyone’s pattern of behavior changes, or they become withdrawn, it will be noticed.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.