The cohousing challenge in Denmark

Cohousing is widely acknowledged to have originated in Denmark. But even there, it seems to be facing its challenges, writes Torben Brandi Nielsen

IT is clear that demand for cohousing in Denmark is higher than the supply of suitable properties.

Cohousing projects come in various forms. Some revolve around two, three or even four generations, living together. 

Others revolve around providing space for children in a community, preferably in the countryside.

And others again focus on establishing senior cohousing communities in urban areas, close to cultural activities and the city centre.

But despite the undoubted demand for cohousing in Denmark, we continue, as a nation, developing new buildings as we used to — mainly individual houses, terraced houses and apartments, as well as youth housing and care homes.

There needs to be a different approach to the housing market. We know, from research, that smoking shortens your life and that abuse of alcohol is also bad. 

But loneliness can also be seriously bad for one’s health.

Consider life in Greece, Sardinia or Japan for older people, in particular, where they regularly gather in parks or squares, sitting on benches every day to chat about the world or the news or today’s catch of fish at the harbour. 

These are places where people care about each other — and about those missing — where nobody is left out, and where there is always a need for everyone. In such a place, it is worth getting old.

But nothing is ever said about this when it comes to designing new buildings, here — about the cohesion between generations. Or about the good life. Or about avoiding loneliness.

In many societies, the risk of loneliness increases with urbanisation. In the countryside, meanwhile, it can be argued that people tend to know each other even if they live at a distance. But in the city, it can be considerably different. Frequently, we don’t know who the others are in our apartment building. You arrive home in your car, drive down into the basement parking, get out of the car, take the lift to your flat. And you meet no-one. 

Realdania, a philanthropic player in the real estate market in Denmark, has investigated the issue of whether cohousing schemes are potentially part of the solution.

It estimates that, in a few years’ time, some 120,000 people, mainly older people, would like to live in a cohousing arrangement.

In Denmark, which has a population of 5.8 million, most cohousing projects for seniors were built between the 1980s and 2007. A dedicated organisation, Boligtrivsel i Centrum (Housing Satisfaction at the Centre), partly funded by the Ministry of Housing, was discontinued in 2005.

From then on, the development of cohousing projects for seniors almost came to a halt.

Three years ago, a cohousing project for seniors with 16 homes had a waiting list of 70 people, and only one home was vacated each year. Such examples have caused Realdania to focus on the development of cohousing through the initiative, ‘Spaces and Communities for the Elderly’, from 2016.

To encourage the development of cohousing projects for senior citizens and others, two things need to change. Firstly, the authorities must make provision for cohousing projects in new development plans and, secondly, operators must create pilot projects.

The authorities must require a certain proportion of all new residential schemes to be reserved for cohousing projects, whether large or small, and in the city or the suburbs. There must be a variation demonstrating that a cohousing project is not just one specific size of building with specific norms.

Pilot projects must address different groups of people in a way that each cohousing community only need meet its own requirements. There can be communities with or without pets, with communal eating a few days or all days, for young people or for all.

Change must take place – including among developers – to achieve scalable solutions and share experience. An open source is called for from which knowledge can be drawn – about successes and failures, alike.

We run the risk of building vast numbers of homes for the wrong needs, unwittingly creating loneliness.

The challenge is to act on the following:

* putting community values first;

* fully defining liveability;

* changing requirements for apartment types;

* creating pilot projects;

* creating scalable solutions; and

* creating a knowledge base.

We all face an urgent challenge and the time to act is now.

Torben Brandi Nielsen is a partner at connec, a Danish company working globally to fight loneliness. He is a member of the Academy of Urbanism. This article is a version of one he had published by the Academy, on May 21 2020, here.

Image courtesy of Realdania and architecture practice, Mangor & Nagel

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