Getting to Know the Neighbours

In Freiberg we’ve visited new residential areas that feature a method of development that is almost completely unheard of in Australia. In an attempt to offset construction costs and to maximise energy efficiency and building sustainability ratings, the Germans have mastered a system of cooperative housing development that seems on the face of it, to offer some signposts to progressive community development.

The idea of ‘cooperative housing’ requires that early in the planning process, groups of people wishing to participate in the construction of a residential development get together to share and contribute to the planning, design, financing and construction process. Just like any owner builder is, prospective residents get involved from the earliest stages in such a way that they may have an influence on the physical characteristics of the community within which they will eventually live. They retain the creative advantage of being owner builders, and capitalise on the opportunities that are inherent in cooperative purchasing power without the burden of having to shoulder the full extent of risks that come with new home construction.

What appeals most to me about the cooperative housing model though, is that it offers the chance for prospective neighbours to get together and thoroughly suss each other out. Choosing you Neighbours it would seem, has never been simpler.

I wonder how many Australian property developers would consider setting aside land for such or similar cooperative housing projects. In Freiburg it seems only to work successfully when developments are cleverly planned by the city, and not simply left to private development interests. The city of Freiburg assumes responsibility for delivering infrastructure at or before the time the need arises, and in the places we visited, established a set of policies that encourage small scale development which have delivered a diverse range of housing styles. Only rarely were large developers permitted to build housing that adhered to a strict economic formula that delivers high priced and low quality housing. Freiburg is of course, atypical of cities in Germany and elsewhere, but the development models they have adopted offer some important insights into what might be achieved.

In Australia we have found circumstances where municipal councils have worked cleverly with developers to achieve better outcomes for residents, but I suggest this doesn’t happen nearly enough. The next step for us is to look for new ways of encouraging micro-scale cooperative developments. Assuming of course, that among the objectives of a residential development strategy might be to build ‘communities’, and not just housing.

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