“So many of our problems would be alleviated if we had 3 or 4 exceptional friends living within a 2 minute radius.” Alain de Botton (h/t shonias/Ariane).
Over the past little while, I’ve been thinking about alternative housing styles. It’s kind of crept up on me. A conversation with a sweetie about how unsure they are about living with a partner again, but wanting to be close to others; starting off living alone in a country where I don’t really know anyone, and where knowing who to contact for help with electricity, or heating, or rubbish is made more complex by new institutions, a new language and really no community at all; a conversation with a friend about how television had once been a shared thing, and had now become an individual pursuit; a growing sense of being maybe adult enough to make some choices about how and why I do relationships and community rather than having them all made for me by necessity, and discovering there are more choices than I’d thought; a few conversations with people about having kids, or not having kids, and the possibilities of being a part of kids’ lives without being a parent; a few conversations with people who have families, sometimes involving two parents, and sometimes not, which have made me think about the many and varied pressures of parenting and how much they might be eased by opening out ideas of family a little; a lot of thinking about relationships, nuclear families, feminism, heteronormativity, and the homonormativity of ‘marriage equality’…
Lots of what people seem to long for in the current moment is ‘community’. It covers a lot of sins, that term, and sometimes it can refer to some horribly formal and right-wing model that is more about excluding people. But given that there seems to be a longing for closer community, the question for me has always been ‘what’s standing in people’s way?’ And it’s only really in light of some of my thinking about the whole ‘marriage’ thing that I’ve been able to pin-point it.
We tend to understand ourselves as individuals first and foremost, and usually as developing within a family and then becoming independent, and then developing our own family (and I agree with Jadey’s concerns over here in this respect). But ‘family’ here is a fairly limited concept, involving biological forms of kinship, and usually, ideally, a nuclear family. And actually, lots of these ideas about nuclear families bring with them some fairly conservative ideas about mothers who are at home to sustain the household (the private sphere), fathers who venture into the world (the public sphere), and children who are being raised in their image. This isn’t a reality that lots of people are living, but it remains a touchstone for lots of imagining of family. And as Bluemilk’s post, the comments, and the original article she is discussing, all point out, it’s not really doing anyone many favours.
There are lots of kinship groups which extend beyond this, of course, but houses aren’t really built with them in mind (nor are marriage laws, or insurance schemes, or superannuation, but I digress). I used to think that the reason we didn’t do other ways of living, where community was an everyday thing, was because it was impractical. But as I wondered about how marriage, biological kinship and the nuclear family got naturalised, I realised that I hadn’t even thought about whether these alternative forms of community were realistic at all; I’d just assumed. And that is the very definition of something that’s been naturalised: it appears naturally-occurring, even though it’s highly contingent. And I knew that, because I knew how housing had changed historically! So! It was time to think some more about this.
I started looking into other ways that people were doing their living arrangements. There were what I think of as ‘hippie communes’ you see sometimes on television series, usually associated with some cult or religious organisation. I found lots of examples around Byron Bay, unsurprisingly. But then I found mention of a whole bundle of other forms, usually grouped together under the title ‘intentional communities,’ which as the Fellowship of Intentional Communities describes, includes ‘ecovillages, cohousing communities, residential land trusts, communes, student co-ops, urban housing cooperatives, intentional living, alternative communities, cooperative living, and other projects where people strive together with a common vision.’
So I kept reading, and discovered cohousing, which I liked because it combines private space (and, thus, pantslessness) with easy, local community. Most existing cohousing communities were purpose-built on land the group bought together, and some of them can look like little villages, minus the commercial aspects that ecovillages can sometimes bring with them (like cafes and shops etc). They tend to involve some shared space, usually a house with a large living-room style area, a dining area, a kitchen and a big veggie patch or similar. This house is for everyone to share in, but everyone also has their own house, separate from the others, in which each family or household live. In purpose-built cohousing arrangements, the houses are usually less cut off from each other than in regular housing, and there are often carless shared areas where kids can play. Usually cohousing involves regular community meals or events, but it also involves lots of everyday contact.
Cascade Cohousing is perhaps one of the more well-established Australian versions, and it does look amazing. The group basically bought the land and purpose-built all their houses. Which is of course one of the problems I’ve noticed about lots of intentional communities: whilst many involve a sense of responsibility towards the larger community, they’re usually groups of middle-class professional people, with the resources to put towards buying land and building. And of course, these are the people who are already buffered by precisely the money that they have.
And this leads me to some of my ambivalences about cohousing. Why is it that these need to be intentional communities? Why can we not work towards developing community out of the accidents of those we live near? When I dream about the cohousing block of flats I want somehow to afford to buy and house some of my lovely friends and some lovely strangers, I then sometimes wonder why I only know two of my neighbours’ names, even if I grin and wave at most of them. There are lots of answers to this, of course, and one of the most convincing is that in cities where you know so many people, you are already selecting your friendship circles and communities, and it’s not so extraordinary that they would be the people you would want to spend time with. But I also wonder whether some of the longing for community both comes with and arises from an inability to create community with those we don’t choose first.
But there are lots of positives about cohousing. And so, my dream… When I dream, I dream big. I dream of a block of flats (actually, I found the perfect block of 8×2-bedroom art deco flats, and they’re going for less than 3 mil, so if you’ve got a few spare, kick ‘em my way, yeah?). I dream of me being able to have one, maybe shared with one of my siblings if they come up to Sydney, but otherwise with a library in the other room, complete with guest bed. I dream of my sweetie and their child living upstairs, of that child being able to run downstairs and knock on my door to play for a while or tell me stories about fun things or hard things. I dream of my sweetie’s significant other being able to share their flat with their long-time co-houser, and shared cocktails and beach trips. I dream of my friends who are just thinking of marriage and babies being able to move into another, so that when I say ‘’Let’s do dinner,’ it doesn’t need to be a big deal for anyone involved, or when they need some space, one of them can come past for a visit. Of my newly-parental friend also being in the same block, so that I can pop by on the way home to say hello and ask if I can throw her washing in with mine, or stir dinner while she does the bath thing, or bring her over some ice cream once the kidlet is sleeping, or arrange for her to have a Saturday morning kid-free. Of crossing the hall with a bottle of wine and knocking on someone’s door just in time for Doctor Who. Of coming home from horrible days at work and being able to sit on a couch with someone else and grizzle into a cup of tea until it’s sorted or out or I’m giggling again. Of being able, with others, to provide cut-rent housing for students or people on the dole or families that can’t afford the nightmare rent of Sydney anymore (assuming ownership here, but hey, it’s a dream!). Of allocating units for people with disabilities who might otherwise have to be in some kind of formalised residential care arrangement. Of cooking and eating together. Of ripping up the bricked-up backyard and putting in a veggie patch. Of summer evenings drinking beer and playing music and singing along out the back. Of garages in which bikes and cars can be fixed, and the building of who-knows-what can be done. Of sheds repurposed as community meeting and workshop spaces, with couches sagging into nothingness and old trestle tables daubed in paint.
Some of these really are dreams, as in I don’t believe that they’ll ever come true. And I certainly don’t think that these kinds of arrangements are all happy-happy-joy; I’ve done enough community and political organising to know that community definitely isn’t about utopia! There’ll be music that is too loud, someone who says something offensive (probably me!), disagreements about how much veggie patch is really necessary. But some of these dreams are, I think, not actually impossible. They’re just unusual. And they’re really only unusual because as a society we tend to accept the lines drawn around nuclear families by law and leasing practices and convention and, yes, the shapes of our housing. There are more and other ways to do this stuff.