Marmalade Lane, cohousing, Frances Wright

Frances Wright lives in the cohousing community of Marmalade Lane, in Cambridge. She also now works for the developer behind it. Here, she reflects on her journey so far…

I VERY clearly remember turning up to an open day, for Marmalde Lane – on a rainy January day in 2015, after a three-and-a-half hour drive – and immediately thinking of turning around.  

It was not a place we ever imagined we would live, right on the edge of Cambridge, in a new urban fringe development of a 1,000 homes called Orchard Park. 

It was sandwiched between two major roads, there were cars parked on the pavements and little greenery. 

But here was a cohousing group with land and we signed up as members before we left and moved in three years later. 

Now we are here, we feel much more positive about the location. 

In the late ‘90s, I had the chance to move to one of the first newly-built cohousing communities in the UK – Springhill in Stroud – but it wasn’t the right time for for me, personally, and I didn’t follow up the opportunity. 

But my interest in cohousing remained and I continued to watch developments. There were many groups but few that had succeeded. 

We joined a group nearby but nothing was progressing. Then the opportunity in Cambridge came up at a time when it made sense for us to move and was in a location we could live with, and just about afford.

Marmalade Lane is unusual for a cohousing development in the UK: it came about as a result of innovative public sector procurement. The land came first, not the group.

It was a development plot – K1 – that had been designated in the master plan for market sales and was owned by the neigbhouring local authority. 

The financial crash of 2008 had severely affected development in Orchard Park and the developer of K1 had walked away.  

Some officers and councillors from the local authortity had been to the well-known sustainable urban living district of Vauban, in the German city of Freiburg, and there was a real enthusiasm to replicate it somehow in Cambridge. And with no purchaser for K1, the local authority designated the plot for group custom-build and cohousing and a project was initiated to develop a cohousing group around the opportunity. 

There was an existing cohousing group in Cambridge that had been in existance since 2000 but, for most of them, this was not an area of Cambridge they wanted to live.

The Marmalade Lane group developed a design brief for the site and that informed the tendering process run by the local authority for an enabling developer. 

TOWN was chosen, for whom I now work.

There is a lovely quote from the media outlet, Housing Today, about Marmalade Lane, that co-housing is simply ‘good housing’. 

The design is a mix of private homes and shared space. Resident involvement in the design of a community is a common feature of cohousing and it was a privilege to have had the opportunity to work with an experienced developer and architect, to understand how it all comes together.

It gives you a different understanding of your home and your location. It was also an opportunity to start building a sense of community with the people I was soon to call my neighbours.   

Through the design process, the plans for the site evolved, there were several iterations of the masterplan, which included relocating the common house, to a more central part of the site, and also moving car parking to around the side. 

The group’s early design maintained a bank of mature trees and kept the southern boundary free of houses to maximise the sun in the central shared garden. 

The lane was always intended to be car-free and to be a social space, and that has worked well in practice. 

The key element of a cohousing community is that it is ‘intentional’, that people are pro-actively choosing to live in a sharing and neighbourly community. 

The common house was built using structural cross-laminated timber, while the homes themselves are built from closed-panel timber frames from Trivselhus, a Swedish company who were co-developers with TOWN.

The site was designated for market sales and so there were no ‘affordable’ homes, as such.  

Marmalade Lane comprises properties with covenants that make them behave like leasehold titles. I know there are no leaseholds, as such, in Scotland, but the covenant facility might be relevant.

Having a range of dwelling sizes helped both first-time buyers and down-sizers. We have recently have had family move, and our rules are that a property must first be offered to the community to find a buyer within an eight-week period, which we were able to do.  

The shared indoor spaces constitute around 12 per cent of the overall footprint and includes, in the common house, a large room for communal dining and social events, a kitchen, a laundry, three guest bedrooms, and two other rooms. Elsewhere on the site, there is a workshop and a small gym. 

While everyone has their own private outside space – a small garden or balcony – the gardens are kept small to maximise the space available for the shared garden. A 10m x 2m windowless room at the back of a parking undercroft has been turned into a community shop, to reduce the need for people to go shopping, during the Coronavirus pandemic.

We do organise events for and with the local community, such as a monthly ‘rubbish ramble’ and a community clear-up of a nearby footpath.

Since the pandemic lockdown began, the focus of our activites has moved outside and we have been busy. The chicken coup was built and occupied by rescue chickens, several trees have been planted, rescued hedgehogs have been re-homed, a pizza oven has been installed, and a deck has been built under the oak tree. 

Life has been different with Covid; we have had to adapt, but community life has carried on. 

Frances Wright was the guest of a webinar hosted by Greater Manchester Community Led Homes, on Friday October 23 2020. She is head of community partnering at TOWN. View the webinar, here.

Picture credit: David Butler and TOWN

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