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Published 16/5/16   12:15PMby Bill Phelps

Radical Routes weekend

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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.

Published 21/8/15   3:38PMby Bill Phelps

Great expectations?

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.

Published 17/7/14   11:58AMby Ali Phelps

Cohousing advantages - a personal reflection

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.

Isolation

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.

Life rhythms

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.

Generations

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.

Diversity

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.

Sustainability

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.

Statutory savings

  • 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.

Published 23/6/14   11:53PMby Pete Richardson

Not a World Cup event - but much more important

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

Goodnight.

Published 18/6/14   10:00AMby Pete Richardson

Climb the fence and plant seeds

2014-06-12 16.57.28I’m so glad someone else picked the date for the Design Picnic. Last time I picked a date for an outdoor event we had thunder and lightning – just what you’d expect for mid-summer’s day!

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!

Welcome to the Chaco Blog

Apart from the occasional guest blog, all the thoughts and ideas expressed here are probably things I’ve pinched, learnt or heard from other people but I’ll own them and be responsible for any errors.

It’s hard to know where to start blogging from. We haven’t got to our cohousing dream yet but perhaps the interesting story is how we get there rather than our arrival.

At the moment I live with my family in what was the smallest Housing Cooperative in the country. Until recently we had just one house and the legal minimum of 3 adult members. The Housing Cooperative is not Chaco but provides a useful legal entity as we make progress toward cohousing.

That means I’ll blog about the Housing Coop and Chaco interchangeably and hopefully our journey to a new cohousing development in Chapeltown will involve an equally smooth transition.

Peter Richardson