From eco pods to mega co-ops

So after quite a long wait, I’m finally off on the Eurostar for the first ‘proper’ leg of my Churchill Fellowship: just over two weeks in Switzerland and southern Germany to be inspired by some amazing examples of community-led housing on a large scale.

My first stop will be Zurich, and then I’ll be heading up to Germany to visit Freiburg, Tübingen, Ulm, Stuttgart and Munich. What these places all seem to have in common is that it’s possible – in fact, relatively common – for groups of people to self-organise their own collective living projects. I want to know what has made these schemes successful and, in particular, the role that city councils and different kinds of support organisations have played in this.

In the UK, Government support for self build and community-led housing is at its strongest for at least a generation, and at a training event for community-led housing enablers (the first of its kind) in Trafford Hall last weekend I felt the energy of being part of a national movement that is developing the skills, knowledge and capacity to really push forward and get many more projects happening on the ground. Run by the good folks at the Confederation of Co-operative Housing, the training hosted 31 practitioners but apparently there are already another 70 or so on the waiting list – which illustrates the high level of demand for skilled people who have the breadth of knowledge and the flexibility to support a real diversity of community housing projects.

However the major barrier to successful schemes continues to be the availability of land. I’m intrigued by the model used in many German towns and cities, where the councils sell plots of land to self build groups at fixed price – dramatically reducing the risks and uncertainties and providing an accessible route for ordinary people to house themselves. I’m also intrigued by what has enabled really large housing co-op projects to develop new build housing in places like Zurich (one project that I’m planning to visit has 1,300 residents!) and whether anything on this scale might be possible in the UK.

I’ve already made friends on the train and have been chatting about self builds, war journalism and the creative community spirit of people living in difficult circumstances, as well as hearing about these amazing eco domes in Lebanon – weirdly similar to these ones that my partner and daughter visited recently in Saihate Eco Village in Japan… is there a mystery connection?

I can already see that there’s something really great about travelling with a purpose, which is that it seems to open up opportunities for conversation and friendship, and also in particular that the topics of housing and community are ones that people can really connect with. If anyone reading this is feeling inspired to do something similar, do check out the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust website for information on how to apply for next year’s round of Fellowships.

Well, first stop Zurich in a few hours, and I’ll post more once I’ve settled in and hand a chance to look around. Tschüss!


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