The ‘sharing economy’, as in Uber or Airbnb, is the flavour of the day, a modern discovery as if human society had not always been based on cooperation and exchange. Same for cohousing which under various names has also always existed. Call it village, tribe, convent, extended family, guild; everywhere where humans have lived close together, trusted each other and shared economic resources.
What the sharing economy does at its best is to make productive use of spare capacity. I have room in my car to go to Cardiff, why not get a passenger to share the costs! It’s a good bargain for all, not least for the environment as there is no added environmental cost to an extra passenger or two in the spare seats. This is the genius of the Uber or Airbnb business concept, based on a monetary relationship between strangers. In contrast, the cohousing concept is based on an initial notion of sharing between peers in a mutually supportive community.
Cohousing is not about saving as much money as possible for each member. However, a by-product of semi-communal living is the potential to reduce costs for all by making full use of idle economic resources.
The best example which comes to mind is the car pool. If my neighbour Lucia needs to do a big food shop, she can rent one of the cars from the pool at less cost than owning her own car. (The average car stays idle 80% of the time.) Lucia can go further and share the car, and cost, with Leo and Lea who also need to do some shopping. One step further and Leo can do some light shopping for Lewis, Livia and Laura who are busy tending the communal allotment, saving all numerous trips, saving time for some, making the journey more pleasant for others and reducing environmental damage.
Another opportunity for saving is bulk buying utilities, food and services. Saving on house insurance, internet access, or high quality olive oil can add up significantly. Savings can be found too in reducing waste. Fernando’s fridge is full and he is going away. He gives its content to the neighbours and Freya makes sure that he has fresh milk and bread (and Leo’s homemade jam from fruit from the communal allotment) when he comes back.
A final example is access to trusted advice or avoiding costly mistakes. As society becomes more organised around complex technology, access to well informed and trusted advice becomes invaluable. Not all of us are internet wizards but access to and knowledge of digital technology is becoming vital. In cohousing, expertise is shared and help is always at hand, be it for repairing bicycle punctures, keeping bees, booking holidays or installing the PC upgrade. If our Cannock Mill cohousing community had had to buy all the expert services provided freely by different members of our group, the cost of our endeavour would have been prohibitive.
It is financially, environmentally and socially sound to be sharing and it is one of the raisons d’être of cohousing, but it is not the only, or even the main, one. The essence of cohousing is not sharing in the traditional “capitalist” sense of the word. Rather it is sharing in a humanistic way, making full use of all resources, capital and human. That includes responsible environmental practice, sound human relationships and helping to make everyone’s money go a little bit further.
What cohousing provides is the social and physical framework to allow this deeper sense of sharing to flourish, bring cohousers close together in their work and play, and generate the trust that enables them to live mutually supportive lives at the lowest financial and emotional cost.
On Twitter as @evetibber