Bristol Housing Festival
Re-imagining better ways to live in our cities


Let’s put communities in the driving seat for housing


Stephen Le Fanu - Housing Associate at the Bristol Housing Festival

We’re all familiar with some of the main housing problems gripping the UK.  If I were to over-simplify and summarise I would say:

  • For 50 odd years, we have not been building enough new homes to keep up with a growing population

  • Of those that have been built, far too few have been truly affordable

  • Far too many homes are also now standing empty or have transferred from accountable, publicly-owned housing to unscrupulous private landlords through Right-to-Buy.

As well as much of the population not being able to afford to live, another, more subtle problem exists within housing today - much of modern housing is inherently lonely because it is built around the unit of the individual, not a community.

Government-backed ‘Secured by design’ standards and ideas around ‘defensible space’ have led to an increase in CCTV coverage, gated communities and mistrust of our neighbours.  In her book ‘Ground Control’, Anna Minton compares the perception in the UK’s population of a continually rising crime rate (against a backdrop of crime actually consistently falling) to most of Europe’s more accurate perception, and links this to the way our homes are designed.

I used to work with students in Bristol and was dismayed by the fact that, unlike older (and often more affordable) halls, almost all new halls of residence being built were private, soulless (and unaffordable) tower blocks with isolated ensuite bedrooms. The small amount of communal living space is usually bare and sterile and the residents are not permitted to alter the design in any way, giving them no ownership over their homes.  (This isn’t to knock people who enjoy their own space and choose to live on their own, but I think it can be easy to slip into having too little human contact when this contact is made difficult). On the other end of the age spectrum, more and more older people are finding themselves isolated in old age. According to the NHS, over a million elderly people in the UK go for over a month without speaking to a friend, family member or neighbour.

An alternative, championed by community-led housing and co-housing groups, is to increase interaction with and interdependence on our neighbours, not decrease it.  Since I started researching housing three years ago, the happiest and safest communities I have come across are co-housing communities that are built around a shared space, either an indoor social space or an overlooked outdoor courtyard, and that have regular communal events such as meals.

There are many examples of communities like this.

  • In Alicante, Spain, the ‘Plaza de America’ development houses both elderly people and young key workers.  The young people are ‘paid’ through reduced rent, in return for their time socialising and helping the older people.

  • In Amsterdam ‘Startblok RiekerHaven’ is an (affordable) scheme for young students and young status-holders (refugees).  Status holders are each paired with a student for informal peer support and the two groups are encouraged to self-manage the project and share in each other's cultures.

  • In Edinburgh, students have formed a cooperative, which now owns and completely self-manages over 100 bedspaces.  I stayed in the building and was impressed by the testimonials given by members on how supportive the community had become.  Everywhere I looked young entrepreneurial people were building, improving and decorating the coop.

  • OWCH (Older Women’s Co Housing) in London is an intentional community of older women who wanted an alternative to living alone in retirement.

Evidence from these schemes has been overwhelmingly positive, and there are too many to mention in just this blog.  If you are interested in learning more, the UK Co Housing Network is a good place to start.

Community housing is a modern way of living. But it is closer to the way we have lived for thousands of years and the way for which we, as humans, are psychologically programmed.  Households in a co-housing scheme like this are interdependent on one another and make use of ‘passive surveillance’, where homes overlook shared space.  This leads to an increase in feelings of safety, and can also give great enjoyment for elderly people overlooking children playing! Shared facilities and activities also increase the residents’ wellbeing and comfort.  To paraphrase from a talk from a community group I saw recently “it is much easier to know if something is wrong with a neighbour if you suddenly stop bumping into them regularly”.

The Bristol Housing Festival is exploring how to reimagine housing and communities and we are embracing the lessons learned from community-led housing.  Our first two projects, ZEDpods and Launchpad, will create fully sustainable and supportive communities of young people who can take some ownership of their own lives and their own housing.  In all of our future projects, community will continue to be at the heart of the design... mixed with a healthy level of innovative construction techniques!

Community-led housing takes land off the market and into permanent community ownership, increasing community resilience and providing much needed affordable housing. Beyond this however, housing can be used as a base for starting to improve society, through, for example, racial integration, like Startblok Riekerhaven, or through developing skills and improving wellbeing, like in the Edinburgh Student Housing Coop.  I believe that ideas around community-led design, if explored by the government (local and national) for social housing, could help to tackle the stigma that has frequently developed around areas of high unemployment and council estates, by putting the local community back in the driving seat.

Now I may be stretching this a bit far but do just indulge me - I believe that the best ideas in history, those that have transformed society, have come about when people have had time and freedom to ponder and reimagine, and then share those ideas with others.  If our housing is the foundation of the way we live, it seems to me that collaborative, affordable co-living is a much better one than the common situation we often find in the UK - people working long, stressful hours to pay extortionate rent for an lonely flat.  I think we could be selling ourselves a bit short, don’t you?

Stephe Lefanu