Co-housing and social capital

In 2010, a master of architecture student (now Instructor) at Ryerson University wrote a thesis called Architectural development of urban social capital : cohousing in downtown Toronto. In it, Robert Coelho asked the following research question:

Can the built environment facilitate or influence the development of social capital in an urban environment?

Social capital is defined, briefly, as:

…the ‘glue’ which binds people together in a neighbourhood and encourages them to cooperate with each other.

Coelho’s fascinating question is whether architecture can actually design for the creation of social capital — in other words, design neighbourhoods that are more trusting, more collaborative.

Spoiler alert: Yes, they can.

For example:

If parking is provided, typical cohousing design normally separates the parking area from the development so that residents can not park their cars and walk a few steps to their home or even worse and typical in suburbia, drive directly into their garages and never have to walk into their front door. The idea of the separation is to force the use of the pedestrian pathways regularly by the residents creating a greater opportunity for interaction and networking.

Coelho finds that cohousing principles are more conducive to creating social capital than condominium or co-operative housing. But the cost of land makes it difficult to build cohousing in its traditional “horizontal” form within an urban center such as Toronto. Coelho identifies six design objectives which, he argues, can be applied more economically in a “vertical” cohousing form more suitable for cities.

The objectives are described in detail on pages 40-42 of his thesis. Briefly, they include:

  1. Create individual identity for each of the residents of the development
  2. Design for social integration to also create a group identity
  3. Promote a sense of security
  4. Emphasize individual and group privacy
  5. Provide physical connectivity to facilitate the development of personal connections
  6. Some commonality in ideologies, political views, and shared experiences may help to promote social connectivity.

In pages 50 through 77, well worth a read for anyone interested in this subject, Coelho uses these objectives in an actual urban design process.




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