Not A Group House, Not A Commune: Europe Experiments With Co-Housing : Parallels From urban high-density housing to rural communal living, Europeans are using the principle of co-housing — in which neighbors share space and resources, depending on their needs.

Not A Group House, Not A Commune: Europe Experiments With Co-Housing

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Renee, do you have a pen I could borrow?


Yeah, sure.

GREENE: Oh, awesome - I'll just reach over. Thank you. See, I've got a great neighbor in here. You've probably shared things with neighbors - a stick of butter, eggs, maybe a lawnmower. Well, we're about to meet neighbors who are sharing something else - space. It's part of the NPR Cities Project.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Becoming a world-class city.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And this is our community.

MARIA GARCIA MENDEZ: Every house can gain or give out some space.

JANE STOTT: Incredibly lucky to be living somewhere like this.

GREENE: We are learning about something called co-housing. Here's our colleague Steve Inskeep.


Now, this takes a little explanation. In many cities, young people might share what's called a group home. Co-housing is a little different. Some homeowners rent out a basement apartment, but co-housing is a little different than that. To explore just what it is we're going to cross the Atlantic to the place that is the source of this music.


INSKEEP: That's Spanish guitar, recorded in Spain by reporter Lauren Frayer, who's in the neighborhood where the guitar was played, and, Lauren, where are you?

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: I'm in Alfafar, Spain, in a barrio that was built in the 1960s for Spanish factory workers. Housing here is very high-density. I'm standing next to huge apartment blocks that haven't been renovated. The jobless rate here tops 40 percent, a quarter of housing units are vacant, but I have to tell you it's not a depressing place. People sit in lawn chairs in the streets. There's a bustling outdoor market. I wandered into one abandoned building and I found that impromptu guitar lesson. It's really an example of how local people are using their extra space and time creatively. And it's what architects saw in this community that made them believe that this was a prime place for co-housing - sharing space among neighbors.

INSKEEP: OK, you mentioned architects. Who are they and what is it that they want to transform?

FRAYER: So a U.N. organization called U.N. Habitat held a competition for architects to transform urban housing. And two relatively unknown Spanish architects in their 20s won. And what they want to do is redefine public and private space - sort of blur the line between those two. So let's say you have a family of two people and I have a family of four people and we're in identical apartments, side-by-side. It could be as simple as adding a door on the other side of your spare room or perhaps a retractable wall to allow me to make use of your unused space. And here's one of the award-winning architects, Maria Garcia Mendez, with another example.

MENDEZ: An 80-year-old person who needs some help and a family with three children that doesn't get enough income, so maybe one of the low income family can help the elderly person once a week and get, in exchange, one room. So it's like an exchange system, so every house can gain or give out some space and that can change with time.

FRAYER: Now, Maria and her architecture partner, Gonzalo Navarrete, they say they got this idea of adaptable living space while on a study trip to rural India. And they offer the example of a poor family's thatch hut that's expanded, constructed upon as the family has more children, and that hut would also serve as community space. Neighbors would share washing space or cooking areas. And so the architects want to apply those ideas here, and the designs for the Alfafar neighborhood include communal kitchens, roof gardens, also shared office space.

INSKEEP: Wow, so that's an example of planned co-housing in Spain. Let's get another example in a another country. NPR's Ari Shapiro is in England, and, Ari, where exactly are you and what are you looking at?

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. I'm in Dorset in Southwestern England in beautiful rural countryside with rolling fields and I'm sitting in a lawn. One corner of the lawn has a 300-year-old farmhouse, which is the central part of the co-housing that I'm in the middle of here. And this is a community called Threshold Center that was founded about 10 years ago by a group of friends, including a woman named Jane Stott. She and some of the other residents here hosted me for lunch today. They made soup with squash they had grown, and Jane Stott told me this story.

STOTT: Two years ago I had a stroke out of the blue and wasn't able to walk. People here were marvelously supportive, chauffeured me around, and I had a month of feeling incredibly lucky to be living somewhere like this.

SHAPIRO: At that point she had already been living here eight years and obviously wasn't her intention in founding this community, but it shows some of the benefits of living in a situation like this.

INSKEEP: Well, help me understand what the situation is. People are sharing the kitchen space and what else, and what's the goal?

SHAPIRO: People have their independent living spaces, but they do share a central room with a television set. They share a central kitchen where a couple times a week they eat together. Over lunch I spoke with the newest member of the group, Ella LeGris, who moved here just three months ago from urban Bristol out here to the countryside. And she told us it was kind of a shock to the system to come here.

ELLA LEGRIS: I didn't want to be kind of alone unto myself and personally responsible for everything about myself. It sort of felt wrong. You know, it feels natural for people to cooperate with each other to some extent.

INSKEEP: So that's the idea of co-housing in England. Now, Lauren Frayer is still on the line from Spain, and we should mention, Lauren, the idea where you are is not enacted yet. It's still a proposal. What do people think of it?

FRAYER: They're excited. Some of the neighbors invited me to eat paella with them to discuss it, and that's where I met a couple in their 30s, Nacho Campillo and Patricia Sanchez . They're about to have their first child, and co-housing offers them some benefits. So what they're looking at is borrowing a ground-floor bedroom from a neighbor for the last few months of Patricia's pregnancy. They're looking at co-working space so that Nacho can work in a shared office space and free up their second bedroom that he currently uses. Co-housing for them is offering their family some flexibility.

INSKEEP: You know, listening to the two of you, I'm sensing some common themes. One is that you both seem to be getting fed an awful lot of food in these communities where you're at.


INSKEEP: Setting that aside for a moment, there's also the idea that in a given neighborhood the housing is usually very similar - maybe almost cookie-cutter. And you're describing to me people who have very different lives and needs, and there's an effort to make the architecture reflect that.

SHAPIRO: Well, in the U.K. it's hard to generalize. There are so many different communities. Some were started for spiritual reasons; some were started for environmental reasons; some were started to help raise kids together, but this is picking up steam. The woman who started this community told me decade ago she could count on one hand the number of co-housing arrangements in the U.K. Now there are more than 35 of them.

FRAYER: And in Spain, this is a sort of humble, low-cost project to transform existing structures built in the 1960s so that neighbors can share space and sort of modernize space.

INSKEEP: OK, that's NPR's Ari Shapiro in England and reporter Lauren Frayer in Spain. Thanks to you both.

SHAPIRO: Good to talk to you, Steve.

FRAYER: You're welcome.

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