From time to time we’re asked what we expect ChaCo’s Social Impact to be. Quite rightly, it’s the sort of question that policy-makers and potential funders ask: they need to be sure they’re supporting projects that will make a positive contribution in the neighbourhood.
Cohousing groups tend to be seen as people “doing it for themselves”, primarily interested in improving their own lives, rather than being driven by altruism – although motives and outcomes will obviously vary from group to group.
It’s true, of course, that there are many potential benefits for residents of cohousing schemes – otherwise why would we bother putting ourselves through the considerable stress and difficulty of trying to set them up? But when cohousers enjoy happy, mutually supportive, stable living arrangements, then these same conditions tend to leak out into the surrounding streets. When cohousing works well, there can be a steady stream of positive outcomes for the rest of the neighbourhood.
Missing the point?
But to gloss over the benefits for members is to ignore some of the most significant impacts of the project. In an area of high deprivation and where few people feel they have much say over decisions affecting their everyday lives, ChaCo offers Chapeltown residents a way to change things. A group of local people getting together to decide how they want to live, then negotiating with the Council, raising development finance, appointing architects, seeking out others to join them and building 29 new homes and a neighbourhood that they themselves have designed… now that is social impact.
Most cohousing groups in the UK are comparatively wealthy and well resourced, predominantly white and middle class – which goes a long way to explaining the popular perception. When we eventually move in, ChaCo will be the first cohousing scheme in a multicultural, low-income area like Chapeltown. As local residents from a range of backgrounds, incomes and life expectations, we’re empowering ourselves to “take control” of how we live. Extending the boundaries of community-led housing against the backdrop of a broken housing market is something we are understandably proud of. If we succeed – which we will – the impact will be massive, and not just in Chapeltown and Leeds.
Two thirds of ChaCo residents will be from Chapeltown, and our allocations policy ensures we reflect some of the diversity of the area with non-discriminatory minimum targets relating to ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, income and (dis)ability. Some of us are on benefits, some are refugees and some have significant health issues – but between us we have the resources that have brought us to where we are today.
Cohousing groups generally tend to produce positive outcomes in their neighbourhoods. These are well summarised by Oxford Cohousing:
- Because cohousing groups put a priority on mutual support and internal management of problems, they greatly reduce the demand on external services, eg: social services, local authority support, and the social landlord.
- Cohousing residents typically have the skills and motivation to contribute actively to organisations serving the wider locality, eg: local area partnerships, Transition Town groups etc.
- Many of the services and facilities created by cohousing groups are available for use by the wider community.
ChaCo is no exception. Once we are up and running, specific and easily verifiable outcomes directly affecting the wider community are likely to include:
Regeneration of a difficult site
Working with our partners Unity Housing, we are transforming an awkward plot of derelict land into a new residential area with 63 new low-energy homes, shared gardens and landscaping and a new, safe footpath from Chapeltown through to the bus stop on Roundhay Road.
Leeds Community Energy
We are working with another local co-op to ensure we have a shared, low-carbon energy supply to the community from solar PV installed on all our south-facing roofs. ChaCo is providing LCE with it’s first opportunity for a PV installation, which will ensure they have an income stream with which to develop further projects and increase the take-up of renewable energy in the area.
Community food growing
Many of our members have experience in growing their own food and are inspired by projects such as Back to Front, Feed Leeds and Incredible Edible Todmorden. Although the food-growing area in our shared garden will be quite small, we’re keen to work with others in the area to establish pocket plots of food growing in the public realm around ChaCo. To this end, we’ve had productive discussions with enthusiastic contacts in Permaculture UK, Feel Good Factor, Chapeltown Health Centre, Bankside Primary School and the Leeds Islamic Centre.
Raised growing beds alongside the new public footpath will provide opportunities for informal community get-togethers, and all the health benefits associated with social interaction, gentle exercise and fresh veg. Some of our neighbours in the Unity Housing Association older people’s flats may have horticulture skills first acquired in the Caribbean that they can pass on to others, enriching the whole community.
ChaCo’s carpool will provide the possibility of occasional car use on a pay-per-use basis for any who choose to join – including those unable to afford their own car. We are limiting individual car ownership to just 8 of our 19 parking spaces. A communal car pool is a much more efficient use of resources, and pay-per-use provides a useful disincentive to use a car when cheaper and less carbon-intensive forms of transport are available. European research estimates that car club members typically reduce their total travel CO2 emissions by 40% to 50%.
This is no wishful thinking. Several ChaCo members set up our local car-sharing club 15 years ago and have relied on it ever since. It currently has three cars, sixteen drivers and we are now planning to expand it to accommodate the needs of ChaCo’s 33 households.
Chapeltown Repair Café
One of our members is a regular “fixer” at Leeds Repair Café, part of a global movement of volunteers aiming to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill by fixing broken items for free while passing on their repair skills to others.
We aim to host a Chapeltown Repair Café in our common house from time to time. It’s estimated that one repair can save an average of 24kg of CO2 emissions. Providing regular opportunities for neighbours to get together and have fun learning from each other probably has an even greater impact – albeit harder to measure.
Building our community muscles
Establishing a cohousing community requires a lot of determination and hard work from its members. The joining process tends to filter out those unable to cope with the demands of shared responsibility or the give and take of consensus decision-making. Groups that make it through the development phase strengthen their resilience and build up a wealth of useful practical and social skills along the way. So – by the time we move in, ChaCo is likely to be even better equipped to contribute to the well-being and cohesion of the community that most of us have already been part of for years.
However, predicting – or even measuring – the likely effects of ChaCo in the neighbourhood is problematic. We hope our cumulative social impact will be positive, but Chapeltown residents are understandably wary of new initiatives promising improvements for the area, when so many before have failed to deliver. We do have the advantage of being a home-grown initiative, but we’re more likely to be able to make a positive contribution if we start by getting to know our new neighbours rather than overselling our ability to make a difference.