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Designing Neighbourhoods for Social Interaction: The Case of Cohousing

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Does design influence social interaction in cohousing? How crucial is it? What other factors are involved? Can the impact of design be enhanced by the personal characteristics of residents or the formal social structures operating in a cohousing community? How can we design communities to increase social interaction in the future? Cohousing provides a useful case study because it uses design and formal social structures to encourage social interaction in neighbourhoods. In addition, informal social factors and personal characteristics of those living in cohousing communities predispose them to social interaction. Thus, cohousing is a housing form with optimal conditions for social interaction. Cohousing also provides a unique opportunity to study these variables in one setting to determine the relative importance of each and how social and personal factors may help to enhance the outcomes of design.
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Designing Neighbourhoods for Social Interaction: The
Case of Cohousing
Jo Williams a
aBartlett School of Planning, University College London, London, UK
Online Publication Date: 01 June 2005
To cite this Article: Williams, Jo (2005) 'Designing Neighbourhoods for Social
Interaction: The Case of Cohousing', Journal of Urban Design, 10:2, 195 - 227
To link to this article: DOI: 10.1080/13574800500086998
URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13574800500086998
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Designing Neighbourhoods for Social Interaction: The
Case of Cohousing
JO WILLIAMS
Bartlett School of Planning, University College London, London, UK
ABSTRACT Does design influence social interaction in cohousing? How crucial is it?
What other factors are involved? Can the impact of design be enhanced by the personal
characteristics of residents or the formal social structures operating in a cohousing
community? How can we design communities to increase social interaction in the future?
Cohousing provides a useful case study because it uses design and formal social structures
to encourage social interaction in neighbourhoods. In addition, informal social factors and
personal characteristics of those living in cohousing communities predispose them to social
interaction. Thus, cohousing is a housing form with optimal conditions for social
interaction. Cohousing also provides a unique opportunity to study these variables in one
setting to determine the relative importance of each and how social and personal factors
may help to enhance the outcomes of design.
Introduction
Increasingly, national and local planning policy is supporting the development of
more sustainable communities. In England, for example, national policy requires
that ‘liveable communities’ are created and that new neighbourhoods are designed
to encourage social interaction (Department of the Environment, Transport and the
Regions, 2000a, b; Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions &
Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment, 2001; Office of the Deputy
Prime Minister, 2003). This arises from the need to encourage more vibrant
communities but also to help rebuild local social capital.
1
Social interactions
provide residents living in a community with knowledge about their fellow
residents and social structure. This in turn helps to build trust between residents,
allows for exchanges to take place and creates social networks (connectedness) and
common rules/norms (Pretty & Ward, 2001). Thus, social interactions within the
neighbourhood help to encourage the growth of social capital. According to the
Performance Innovation Unit (2002), this is important because social capital
contributes to a range of beneficial economic and social outcomes including: high
levels of and growth of gross domestic product; more efficiently functioning labour
markets; higher educational attainment; lower levels of crime; better health; and
more effective institutions of government.
Correspondence Address: Jo Williams, Bartlett School of Planning, University College London,
Wates House, 22 Gordon Street, London WC1H 0QB, UK. Email: joanna.williams@ucl.ac.uk
Journal of Urban Design, Vol. 10. No. 2, 195–227, June 2005
1357-4809 Print/1469-9664 Online/05/020195-33 q2005 Taylor & Francis Group Ltd
DOI: 10.1080/13574800500086998
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It is therefore important that new residential neighbourhoods are designed
with this in mind. It follows, therefore, that design should as far as possible be
used to encourage high levels of social interaction.
There has been a great deal of research that has looked at the relationship
between residential design and resident behaviour (Festinger et al., 1950;
Homans, 1968; Baum & Valins, 1977; Fischer et al., 1977; Kenen, 1982; Hillier &
Hanson, 1984; Fleming et al., 1985; Cooper Marcus & Sarkissian, 1986; Gehl, 1987;
Birchall, 1988; Coleman, 1990; Fromm, 1991; McCammant & Durrett, 1994; Abu-
Gazzeh, 1999). In most of this research the interaction between design, personal
and social factors and the impact they have on residents’ behaviour has been
hinted at. The relative importance of design when compared with personal and
social factors (informal and formal) requires investigation. The way in which all
these factors interact to influence behaviour and whether the personal and social
factors actually reinforce design also requires further examination. In this paper
the example of cohousing is used to study these questions.
Cohousing provides a useful case study for analysis because it uses design
(social contact design) and formal social structures (resident management and
organization of communal activities, non-hierarchical structures and decision-
making processes) to encourage social interaction in neighbourhoods. In addition,
informal social factors and personal characteristics of those living in cohousing
communities predispose them to social interaction. Thus, cohousing neighbour-
hoods should theoretically provide examples of residential areas with optimal
conditions for social interaction: “A study of cohousing allows us to explore the
unique phenomenon of communities purposely designed for social connectivity
and support” (Torres-Antonini, 2001, p. 17).
Cohousing also provides a unique opportunity to study these variables
(formal social, informal social, personal and design factors) in one setting to
determine the relative importance of each and how social and personal factors
may help to enhance the outcomes of design. The design approach used in
cohousing also adopts most of the architectural and urban design principles
identified in the literature as being crucial to high levels of social interaction in
neighbourhoods (for example higher densities, good visibility, clustering,
inclusion of defensible space and car parking on the periphery of communities,
etc.). Thus, cohousing also provides an opportunity to study the implementation
of all of these principles together to determine which are key or less important in
terms of encouraging social interaction.
Research (Williams, 2003), completed in California, investigated these
questions through a mixture of observation, activity diaries and interviews with
residents in two cohousing communities. The two communities were chosen for
study because they were contrasting in terms of design, personal and social
factors. Thus, the diversity provided a greater understanding of the potential
impact of all three factors on social interaction. Initially, a general survey of both
communities was carried out to determine the informal and formal social
structures operating within both communities, the personal characteristics of the
residents and design characteristics. Residents then completed activity diaries
documenting the spaces they used and the types of activity they used them for.
Calculations were made about the length of time spent in private and communal
spaces within the community and outside the community. Residents were also
asked to record their social interactions (location in which the interaction took
place and duration and type of interaction) within the community over a period of
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a month. This information provided the researcher with an understanding of
residents’ real behaviour in the community and helped to identify areas in which
higher levels of social interaction took place. It also provided information about
the types of interaction and differences in levels of social interaction in the two
communities.
Residents were then interviewed and asked to comment on the factors
influencing their use of communal space and their social interactions within the
community. They were particularly asked to discuss the impact of design, social
(informal and formal) and personal factors on social interaction and rank them in
order of importance. This identified the factors the residents perceived as being
most and least influential in affecting levels of interaction within the community. It
also identified which aspects of design the residents perceived had the most
impact on social interaction. The results from the activity diaries and interviews
were then further tested through more detailed observations within each
community. This involved the researcher:
.attending social events to ascertain how the social dynamic between residents
affected interaction (i.e. informal social factors influencing social interaction);
.attending management meetings to ascertain how the social dynamic between
residents, organizational structures and conflicts influenced social interaction
(i.e. formal and informal social factors influencing social interaction);
.making detailed studies of residents who were withdrawing from the
community (identified by non-participation and physical separation from
the community) and residents who were active in the community to determine
what the drivers for withdrawal and social interaction were.
This paper presents the results of the research and attempts to determine:
.the design factors which most influence social interactions in cohousing;
.the relative importance of design in influencing social interaction when
compared to personal and social factors in cohousing;
.how social and personal factors can enhance design features to encourage more
social interaction in cohousing.
The Principles of Designing Neighbourhoods for Social Interaction
Social contacts are enhanced in a community when residents have opportunities
for contact, live in close proximity to others and have appropriate space for
interaction (Festinger et al., 1950). Proximity (both functional and physical) is very
important in terms of encouraging social interaction (Fischer et al., 1977; Kenen,
1982; Hillier & Hanson, 1984; Fleming et al., 1985; Cooper Marcus & Sarkissian,
1986; Gehl, 1987; Sengul & Enon, 1990). Increasing proximity through design
increases repeated passive contacts between residents, which helps to form social
relations (Kuper, 1953).
Proximity greatly influences patterns of socializing (Homans, 1968).
Immediate neighbours tend to communicate more with each other than residents
living further apart. Residents living in the middle of a row of houses communicate
with the other residents more than those who live at the edge of the community.
Those on the edge of the community tend to be more isolated. In flats residents
living next to the stairwells are more inclined to socialize with residents from lower
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and upper floors, whilst those living in the centre of the floor are more inclined to
socialize with their immediate neighbours (Homans, 1968; Baum & Valins, 1977).
However, the relationships established through physical proximity are occasion-
ally overcome by functional relationships (for example the need to obtain specific
advice, help or expertise, or the desire to socialize with similar people, etc.). They
may also be overcome by social distance (Abu-Gazzeh, 1999). The effect of physical
and functional distance on social interaction is greatly influenced by social
similarity (Kuper, 1953) or even homogeneity (Abu-Gazzeh, 1999).
At extremely high densities, residents feel that they have less control over
their social environment and are inclined to withdraw from the community, which
they feel is invasive and beyond their control (Baum & Valins, 1977; Birchall, 1988;
Coleman, 1990). According to Altman’s (1975) optimization process, there is a
critical mass of dwelling density that allows proximity but not overcrowding
(thresholds unspecified). Certainly, use of buffer zones (semi-private space)
between private and public (or communal) space can increase the threshold
(Homans, 1968; Baum & Valins, 1977; Birchall, 1988), as can good social relations
between neighbours (Marcus & Dovey, 1991). Semi-private space or buffer zones
(gardens and verandas, etc.) are very important in terms of social interaction. They
provide a gentle transition between public and private space (Abu-Gazzeh, 1999).
They can create a protective barrier “providing a degree of privacy and territorial
control with options for active contact into adjacent public space” (Skjaeveland
et al., 1996, p. 193). Thus, semi-private space can protect residents from
overexposure to the community, which may lead to withdrawal and a reduction in
social interaction. Semi-private space may also act as an excellent interactional
space. It increases the potential for surveillance of the public space for prolonged
periods, which increases opportunities for potential meetings. It is also an area
used for more formal social events (for example meals and parties, etc.). These
spaces also provide residents with an area in which to express themselves and
their lifestyles (Abu-Gazzeh, 1999).
Opportunities for surveillance within the community are key to higher levels
of social interaction: “The nearby environment is the basis of communication and
identification of common interests between inhabitants” (Abu-Gazzeh, 1999, p. 66).
Residents’ ability to see and hear others using public spaces outside their home
greatly influences their sense of community and enables them to observe others
with whom they would like to interact. Thus, enabling surveillance through
community layout and building design is important in terms of encouraging social
interaction.
Shared pathways to activity sites (private units, parking spaces and local
facilities) in a community also increase the potential for social interaction (Cooper
Marcus & Sarkissian, 1986; Gehl, 1987; Fromm, 1991; McCammant & Durrett,
1994; Abu-Gazzeh, 1999). However, the existence of social homogeneity in a given
setting results in a greater number of residents having similar activity sites along
shared paths (Abu-Gazzeh, 1999), which increases potential for interaction still
further. For this reason also car parking is provided on the periphery of
communities to prevent residents from walking straight from their private unit
and getting into their car. If car parking is identified as an activity site provided on
a shared path through the community, even accessing one’s car provides potential
for social interaction.
The size of a community also greatly influences social interactions (Baum &
Valins, 1977; Fischer et al., 1977; Birchall, 1988; Coleman, 1990; Fromm, 1991).
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Overall, there appear to be fewer social interactions in large communities. This is
largely because residents are unknown to each other (as are their values, attitudes
and norms) in larger communities. Because of this anonymity residents are less
inclined to interact socially within their home environment. They will choose to
interact where other participants are known (for example in the workplace, at
school and in clubs, etc.). However, very small communities often suffer from the
opposite problem, lack of privacy. This may also result in withdrawal from social
interaction. Clustering can be used in larger communities to increase social
interactions.
Communal spaces provide excellent opportunities for social interaction.
Communal spaces (indoor and outdoor) need to be good-quality, suitable for their
use but at the same time flexible (McCammant & Durrett, 1994; Abu-Gazzeh,
1999). This will maximize their usage and therefore maximize potential for social
interactions. In terms of their position in the layout of the community, facilities
need to be central (Fromm, 1991; McCammant & Durrett, 1994) and accessible
(Fromm, 1991; McCammant & Durrett, 1994; Abu-Gazzeh, 1999). As key activity
sites, communal facilities should be placed on shared pathways within residential
areas to maximize social interactions (McCammant & Durrett, 1994). Visibility of
communal facilities is also important to increase opportunities for surveillance,
thus increasing use and opportunities for social interaction (Fromm, 1991;
McCammant & Durrett, 1994; Abu-Gazzeh, 1999).
The number of residents that can potentially use communal spaces will also
influence actual use (Baum & Valins, 1977; Coleman, 1990; Fromm, 1991).
Residents are more inclined to use communal spaces where they are shared
between smaller groups. The smaller a community, the greater its intensity and
the more residents are prepared to participate in communal activities and use
communal spaces (Birchall, 1988). Use of communal spaces could be maximized
by establishing a hierarchy of space provision, i.e. through clustering (Baum &
Valins, 1977; Birchall, 1988). This technique appears to maximize use by providing
adequate controls on each layer of the environment.
Multi-storey buildings can also reduce social interaction in terms of short-
term and spontaneous stationary activities (barbecues, socializing in gardens,
eating outside private units and sporting activities/games, etc.). This is because
for residents living in upper floors “it is too bothersome to come down and go out
into public areas to join in” (Abu-Gazzeh, 1999, p. 63). However, for those living in
one- or two-floor buildings stationary activities outside their units are very
important. Thus, it is important that communities are low-/medium-rise in order
to maximize the potential for social interactions.
Finally, the cohousing literature (Fromm, 1991; Marcus & Dovey, 1991;
McCammant & Durrett, 1994) suggests that less private space also encourages
greater social interaction within communities. If residents have less private space
they are more inclined to spend time outside their unit. If the locality provides them
with other social spaces then the potential for interaction increases. However,
without suitable spaces for interaction there will be no increase in socializing within
the immediate community. Hence, this design feature works particularly well in
cohousing where outdoor and indoor communal spaces are provided.
Of course, the importance of design in influencing social interactions within a
residential area should not be overestimated. There are many other factors that
may also influence social interaction (Figure 1), including personal factors, social
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factors (formal and informal) and other factors, including the time period the
community has been in existence (Clitheroe et al., 1998).
.Personal factors include personality traits, interpersonal dynamics and
attitudes, which are largely influenced by people’s background (family, social
class, education, affluence, religion and culture, etc.).
.Informal social factors include the relationship between an individual and other
individuals or groups, and the resources available to individuals that may
influence their social interactions with others (for example financial resources,
time and health, etc.).
.Formal social factors comprise organizational policies and structures (decision-
making processes, social structure and organization of activities, etc.).
The extent to which each of these factors influences social interaction, the relative
importance of design factors and how all the factors interact with each other
requires further investigation.
What is Cohousing?
Cohousing combines the autonomy of private dwellings with the advantages of
community living. It has private units, semi-private space and indoor and outdoor
communal space. It is built at low, medium and high densities and in a variety of
layouts and locations; thus, communities are very diverse. The design and
processes operating in cohousing encourage a ‘collaborative’ lifestyle and greater
interdependence between residents. Thus, the signature characteristic of
cohousing is its strong and vibrant communities.
Formal social factors
Figure 1. The interaction between physical, personal and social factors and impact on behaviour.
Source: Adapted from Clitheroe et al. (1998).
200 J. Williams
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Various research studies have found that mutual support networks and social
relations are stronger and more developed in cohousing communities (Marcus &
Dovey, 1991; Brenton, 1998; Meltzer, 2000). The key to success is the social focus of
cohousing, cohousers’ keenness to build a sense of community and their very
positive attitude towards social interaction. Cohousers are diverse in terms of
interests, ages, religion and household types (personal factors). However, in terms
of affluence, social class, race, education and attitudes cohousers are a fairly
homogeneous group. Homogeneity within a community, as explained by Gans
(1967), Gehl (1987) and Abu-Gazzeh (1999), reinforces social interaction.
Formal social factors in cohousing also help to promote social interaction.
Communities all adopt a similar non-hierarchical social structure, which reduces
barriers to social interaction. Resident participation in the community is
formalized and encourages greater social interaction. Residents are involved in
recruiting other residents for the community, and the development, design,
management and maintenance of the community. They are also involved in the
initial design of the communal spaces and are responsible for ongoing design
decisions (using the consensus decision-making process).
Residents maintain and manage indoor and outdoor communal spaces and
organize regular social activities within the communal spaces (for example
communal meals three times per week, parties, exercise classes, cultural events
and maintenance and gardening days, etc.). Regular activities encourage greater
social interaction and help to form stronger social networks. Often these activities
and spaces are open to the wider community to encourage greater integration and
community development across a wider area, unlike gated communities, where
residents from the wider community are excluded.
The History and Context
The cohousing concept has its roots in utopian, feminist and communitarian
movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. According to Meltzer (2001) the first
wave of cohousing was in northern Europe (Denmark, Sweden and the
Netherlands). These were utopian communities based on communitarian and
feminist ideals. Using the collective housing model (of which there was a rich
tradition in northern Europe for at least 200 years) as a basis for design, the first
community was built in Denmark in 1964. In Denmark and the Netherlands
cohousing was first developed in order to improve social relationships and
increase sense of community (motivation: communitarianism). In Sweden the
motivation was to reduce the burden of housework for women and improve the
lives of working parents and their children (motivation: feminism).
Horelli & Vespa (1994) highlight cohousing as being a solution to increasing
women’s empowerment:
...cohousing is an intermediary social structure that allows those
services traditionally assigned to individual households to transfer into
the neighbourhood. This enables resources and tasks to be shared
amongst households thus easing individual burdens, promoting
disadvantaged citizens and consolidating society.
Cohousing was seen as a solution overcoming the exclusion of women and
single parents from the workforce and improving quality of life for children and
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families. Sharing resources also had positive environmental benefits. Scanzoni
(2000) also suggests cohousing is a solution to suburban alienation because it
encourages household interdependence, which should lead to “greater and
widespread equality amongst all members of society”. Franck & Ahrentzen
(1989), Fromm (1991) and Norwood & Smith (1995) also talk about ‘supportive’
and ‘nurturing’ cohousing communities, which again promotes social inclusion
and the development of social capital.
In northern Europe a socially responsive and politically progressive culture
(that recognized these benefits) supported the widespread development of
cohousing through legislation, financial support and policy, to the extent that
many new housing developments in the Netherlands are now built with reference
to cohousing principles (Brenton, 1998; Meltzer, 2001). Thus, cohousing (originally
a grass-roots phenomenon) has now been adopted into the mainstream and is
delivered through top-down as well as bottom-up processes.
The second wave of cohousing took place in the USA during the 1980s and
1990s motivated by Americans’ need for community, social support, interaction
and security in their local neighbourhood. The US cohousing model evolved from
the northern European model and adopted a diversity of development approaches
(developer-led, partnership, resident-led, new and retrofit) and procurement
processes; it adopted a more environmental focus and led to the emergence of a
cohousing movement. The third wave of cohousing began in the 1990s in the Pacific
Rim (Australasia and South-east Asia) and underwent further metamorphosis.
Issues including accessibility and affordability, green architecture and ecological
habitation, adaptability and responsiveness to suit regional and cultural
differences are being addressed in the third wave of cohousing communities.
Although still very restricted in its coverage the cohousing model (in all its
forms) is becoming more widespread. This has been facilitated by the diversity of
the cohousing models developed and, in some countries, the inclusion of
the principles into new housing developments. Cohousing has proved more
popular than collective housing or intentional communities largely
because cohousing communities reject the idea of having set ideologies: there is
an absence of social hierarchy and a lack of shared economic systems. Cohousing
has a pragmatic focus that makes it attractive to a wider audience. Finally, the
social, environmental and economic benefits of cohousing make it a more
sustainable housing model and attractive to governments trying to achieve
sustainability targets.
In addition, cohousing exhibits many of the characteristics of new urbanism
in terms of both objectives and design strategies (Torres-Antonini, 2001). The
social objectives of new urbanism are to build community, encourage interaction
and social connectedness and create convivial spaces and a diversity of
experiences. New urbanism also has environmental objectives to reduce
consumption, the use of motorized transport and urban sprawl. Cohousing has
the same social objectives, which it largely achieves, and, although it does not
explicitly set environmental objectives in many communities, lower resource
consumption, reduction in car use and ownership and denser and more space-
efficient developments are achieved. Design strategies are also similar. New
urbanism and cohousing strategies are based on social contact design principles,
i.e. they aim for higher densities, mixed use and the creation of convivial public
spaces and pedestrian-friendly environments. According to Torres-Antonini
(2001, p. 14):
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Despite the differences in purpose, scale and scope of their application
cohousing communities and neo-traditional developments (created
through the application of the principles of new urbanism) are
epistemically related in that both social contact design and neo-
traditional development guidelines are directed toward improving the
quality of life of residents through the physical construction of space.
Furthermore, both approaches evidence a marked parallelism in their
specific prescriptions for design that enhances community. Of the new
urbanism guidelines, those dealing with concentrating buildings,
enhancing pedestrian transportation and conceiving streets as ‘outdoor
public rooms’—convivial exterior spaces for social interaction—can be
regarded as expressions of social contact design.
Cohousing’s compatibility with new urbanism suggest that although cohousing is
currently a less common housing form (that plays a limited role in the current
urban fabric), it could well become a more common form in the future.
Social Contact Design and Previous Research
Various studies have considered the social contact design principles adopted in
cohousing (Franck & Ahrentzen, 1989; Fromm, 1991, 1993, 2000; Hanson, 1996),
including:
.the provision of indoor and outdoor communal facilities;
.good visibility into all communal spaces;
.car parking outside the community or car-free communities;
.gradual transitions between public and private space;
.provision of semi-private outdoor spaces close to private units for socializing
(buffer zones);
.positioning of key facilities (activity sites) and access points on shared
walkways;
.the tendency for private dwellings to be of smaller than average unit size (with
limited kitchen and laundry facilities provided);
.loss of space in the private unit supported by the provision of communal spaces,
for example communal kitchen/dining areas, laundry, gym, workshop/hobby
room, guest bedrooms, entertainment room, garden and storage space.
Overall, the research suggested that there was a positive link between social
contact design principles and levels social interaction However, none of the
research provided a detailed assessment of the link. Torres-Antonini (2001)
attempted a more detailed analysis of the impact of social contact design features
on social interaction, participation, community support, unity and safety in
cohousing, identifying six social contact design features to study: shared open
spaces; grouped structures; peripheral parking; pedestrian circulation; extensive
common facilities; and the centrality of the common house. Torres-Antonini (2001)
determined the impact of these features (separately and combination) on the five
social behaviours.
The centrality, size and existence of the common house influenced all five
social behaviours. The division of space and circulatory systems in communities
appeared to be the key design factors influencing social interaction. Circulatory
systems and surveillance opportunities created by design were the features most
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affecting security. Densities and accessibility were the key design features
influencing the strength of support networks in the community. The common
house was identified as being the key design feature encouraging both
participation and unity within communities.
Overall, Torres-Antonini (2001) observed that opportunities for social
interaction and safety were increased through social contact design whilst
participatory, supportive behaviours and unity seemed to be independent of it.
Torres-Antonini (2001) also suggested that there must be other important factors
influencing the five social behaviours, including common goals, the organization
of communal activities and the joint ownership and management of space.
However, these were not explored further by the research. The research presented
in this paper builds on the work completed by Torres-Antonini (2001) and
explores how personal, social and design factors (separately and in combination)
influence social interaction and the relative importance of design factors when
compared to the others.
What Happens in Practice: The Cohousing Case Studies
Residents living in two contrasting cohousing communities in California were
studied in depth to determine levels of social interaction and the factors affecting
it. The communities are contrasting in terms of social, personal and design
characteristics (Tables 1 and 2). There are many similarities between the
communities in terms of design. In both communities a significant amount of
communal space is provided, car parking is kept outside the community, shared
pathways link activity sites, surveillance opportunities are maximized and private
space is restricted (Table 1).
Both communities are built on brownfield sites in the centre of large urban
areas. However, the communities are very different in terms of size (A has 31
residents and B has 67) and density (A has a much higher density than B). The
layout of the communities is different: A uses a row layout and B uses clustering.
The division of communal, semi-private and private space within the
communities is also rather different. A has no semi-private space and thus no
buffer between communal and private space, whilst B has buffers designed into
the layout. Overall, B has more communal space than A, but A has more indoor
communal space than B. Residents living in A also appear to have, on average, less
private space than residents in B (Figures 2 and 3).
The communities have similar organizational structures and core values.
However, B is a much older, more established community (completed in 1993,
whilst A was completed in 2000). Residents in B tend to be less affluent (average
annual household income was US$20 000 30 000 in B, whilst in A average annual
household income was US$50 000 70 000). There are more families living in B
than in A, where there are more couples and singles (Table 2). Thus, there are
similarities in terms of design and formal social structures between the
communities, but equally well there are some key differences in terms of design,
personal characteristics and age of the community.
Use of Space and Social Interaction
Residents’ use of space within the community and level of social interaction were
monitored using activity diaries. The results from the diaries showed that
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Tab l e 1 . Comparison of the case study communities’ design
Community A Community B
Population size (number
of residents)
31 67
Density (units per acre) 80 19.2
Number of units 20 25
Size of indoor communal
space (square feet)
3458 2500
Layout Row Cluster
Landscaping Very little green space. One small
garden. Residents attempted to
create small gardens using troughs
outside private units.
Landscaped green space with
playgrounds, vegetable plot,
barbecue area, drying area and
areas for relaxation.
Surveillance opportunity Good surveillance of walkways
and space immediately outside
unit, but because the layout is
row and communal spaces are in
the centre of the row residents
often cannot see them from unit.
Good surveillance of outdoor
communal space from units.
Poor surveillance of indoor
communal facilities because
layout in clusters.
Cars on periphery Yes Yes
Shared pathways linking
activity sites
Yes Ye s
Transition from public to
private space
Rapid Gradual
Semi-private space outside
private unit
No—private units front
immediately onto communal
space
Yes—verandas
Types of communal spaces Dining/kitchen area, playroom,
lounge, gym, workshop, laundry,
guest room, storage space, garages
and garden.
Dining/kitchen area, teen room,
playground, lounge, workshop,
laundry, storage space, garages
and garden.
Quality of communal
spaces
Dining/social area very modern,
high ceilings and very spacious
Gym—very small space,
overcrowded, with old
equipment.
Good-quality spaces overall—
especially the outdoor
communal space.
Flexibility of communal
spaces
Dining area also used for social
events and meetings. Playroom
also used as an exercise room—
space well used.
Workshop underutilized
and not flexible.
Dining area also used for social
events and meetings. Teen
room underutilized and not
flexible.
Suitability of communal
spaces
Poor acoustics in areas used for
social events, meals and
meetings—reduce use by
older residents.
Poor acoustics in areas used for
social events, meals and
meetings—reduce use by older
residents.
Problems using laundry suggest
it should be enlarged for a
community of this size.
Problems using laundry suggest
it should be enlarged for a
community of this size.
Gym too small for exercising
and all equipment needed.
Lounge area—cosy
enough to be used for
more intimate social
interaction or as a space
for relaxation.
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Table 1. (continued)
Community A Community B
Lounge area—not cosy enough
to be used for more intimate
social interaction or as a space
for relaxation.
Accessibility of
communal spaces
Physically accessible but
sometimes excluded through
organization of exclusive events.
Physically accessible but
sometimes excluded through
organization of exclusive events.
Buildings Row houses and lofts—one or
two stories
Town houses and flats—one or
two stories
Centrality of indoor
communal spaces
Central Central
Private space (range unit
size) (square feet)
675– 1500 650 1600
Private space (average unit
size) (square feet)
994 1144
Note: 1 acre ¼0.4047 hectares. 1 square foot ¼0.0929 square metres.
Source: General survey, 2001.
Figure 2. Community A: (a) row layout; (b) communal kitchen/dining area; (c) communal garden;
(d) communal gym.
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residents tended to spend the majority of their time outside the community (on
average 62%), whilst in the community residents spent the majority of their time
in their private space (on average 32%). Residents on average spent only 6% of
their time in communal or semi-private spaces and 4.45% of their time per month
engaged in social interaction with others in the community (Table 3).
There did appear to be a significant difference between the two communities
in terms of the time spent in the community and in private units. Residents in B
appeared to spend far less time in the community and less time in their private
units than residents in A (Table 3). In both communities residents spent a similar
period of time in communal spaces. However, residents in B reported greater
levels of social interaction (on average 26 hours per person per month), whilst in A
social interactions were less (approximately 17 hours per person per month).
Thus, it seemed that residents in A spent more time in their community, but this
did not increase the time they spent using communal space or engaged in social
interaction. However, there is greater potential for social interaction in A if
residents can be encouraged to spend more time using communal space rather
than in their private units.
Tab l e 2 . Comparison of the case study communities’ personal and social factors
Community A Community B
Location Urban Urban
Community completed 2000 1993
Community focus Social Social
Core values Pro-community Pro-community
Resident participation Design decisions and control,
management of community;
organization of communal activities,
maintenance of communal spaces.
Design decisions and control,
management of community;
organization of communal
activities, maintenance of
communal spaces.
Organized communal
activities
Meals (three per week); exercise class
(one per week); maintenance day
(one per month); social events
(two per month), e.g. film night,
visiting speaker, party; general
management meeting
(one per month); other committees
as and when (frequently currently).
Meals (three per week);
maintenance day (one per
month); social events (four to
five per month), e.g. film night,
music evening, children’s
shows, visiting speakers, party;
general management meeting
(one per month); other
committees as and when.
Decision-making process Consensus Consensus
Ownership Condominium Condominium
Tenure All owner-occupied, two lodgers,
no rental or affordable.
Owner-occupied, rentals and
affordable accommodation.
Household types Mainly couples and singles
(only three children)
Diverse—majority families but
also couples and singles
(27 children)
Income (average annual
household income) (US$)
50 000–70 000 (majority in higher
income bracket)
20 000– 30 000 (diversity
of income)
Age range 2–70 1.5– 76
Employment status Majority working Majority working
Education Higher education Higher education
Source: General survey, 2001.
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Observation of the communities showed that in both cases most social
interactions tended to occur in communal or semi-private spaces. Thus, social
interactions were restricted by the rather brief periods spent in these spaces (on
average 6% of a resident’s time per month). These interactions were classified as
being: formal or informal; frequent or infrequent; and sustained or brief. The
variations in the types of activities within different spaces are summarized in
Table 4. Thus, sustained, formal social interactions are more likely to occur in
indoor communal spaces, whilst brief informal interactions are more likely to
occur in outdoor communal spaces, in semi-private spaces (outside private units)
and in some indoor communal spaces (laundry, car park and workshop, etc.).
Explanation for Differences in Levels of Social Interaction between Communities
As explained above, A and B are very different in terms of the personal
characteristics of their residents, informal and formal social structures and design
(Tables 1 and 2). Thus, we would expect to find different types and levels of social
interaction in each. Resident interviews and detailed observation of both
communities provided some insight into how these social, personal and design
factors influenced social interaction in communities A and B.
Formal social factors. The communities adopted similar non-hierarchical social
structures, levels of organization and approaches to decision making,
management and maintenance. However, there were some differences between
the communities, for example slightly more frequent and more diverse formal
social activities were organized in B (Table 2). This increased residents’ use of
indoor communal facilities in particular and therefore social interaction. Thus, the
Figure 3. Community B: (a) vegetable patch and workshop; (b) barbecue area and building
housing kitchen, dining area, lounge, teen room and laundry; (c) communal kitchen and dining area;
(d) playground—clusters 1 and 2.
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Table 3. Spatial distribution of resident activities and social interactions in communities A and B
Percentage of time
spent inside community
(average per person
per month)
Percentage of time
spent outside
community (average
per person per month)
Percentage of time spent
in private units
(average per person
per month)
Percentage of time spent
in communal spaces
(average per person
per month)
Percentage of time spent
interacting with others in
community (average per
person per month)
Community A 41.5 58.5 35.3 6.0 3.5
Community B 34.8 65.0 28.8 5.9 5.4
Average 38.0 61.9 32.0 6.1 4.45
Source: Activity diaries, 2001.
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Table 4. Types of interaction in different spaces within communities A and B
Activity space
Type of interaction
Communal indoor
(kitchens, dining rooms,
meeting rooms)
Communal indoor
(laundries, store rooms,
workshops, car parks, gyms) Communal outdoor Semi-private
Formal U
Informal UU U
Frequent UUU U
Infrequent U
Sustained U
Brief UU U
Examples Social gatherings, management
meetings, communal meals,
educational and exercise classes,
seminars
Salutations and brief
conversations
Salutations and brief
conversations
Salutations and brief
conversations
Exception is children, whose
activities are informal, frequent
and sustained, e.g. playing games
Source: Observational survey, 2001.
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number and diversity of social activities organized in a community seem to affect
levels of social interaction.
The management of indoor communal facilities was also shown to influence
usage and social interaction. The exclusion of residents from communal facilities
for private events was highlighted in both communities as being a factor that
reduced social interaction, as it created conflict and lowered use of communal
facilities by those who were excluded. Poor maintenance of communal spaces was
also shown to reduce use and social interaction. In both communities poor
hygiene and lost or broken equipment in communal areas reduced residents’ use
of and social interactions in the space. Thus, the way in which events were
organized (i.e. with the knowledge and cooperation of all residents) and
communal facilities were maintained affected social interaction in both cohousing
communities.
Resident participation in decision-making processes is thought to increase
levels of social interaction within communities and thus strengthen social
networks (Fromm, 1991; McCammant & Durrett, 1994; Brenton, 1998). However,
the research showed that in both communities resident involvement in the
decision-making processes had also created conflict. Design decisions had created
some of the biggest conflicts in both communities. In A disagreements over design
preferences, ranging from the use of blinds in private units to minor changes to
exteriors and the erection of furniture in communal spaces, created major divides
between the purists (who did not want anything to interfere with social contact
design principles) and those who wanted to express themselves and their lifestyle
through their private unit and the space directly outside their property (although
it is officially communal and not semi-private space). These disagreements meant
that in the short term the aggrieved parties withdrew from communal spaces and
social events. Thus decision-making processes considerably influence social
interaction within communities.
Community A also appears to have more committees and arranges a greater
number of meetings than B. The sheer volume of meetings creates ‘meeting
fatigue’ amongst residents. Meetings are said by residents in A to be time-
consuming and often emotionally draining because of the conflict they may cause.
They were also observed to alienate residents in community A due to the
frequency and content. Meetings could potentially provide the opportunity for
more social interaction amongst residents. However, the stress and conflict often
created by these meetings may serve to achieve the opposite ends. This may
potentially be a transitional phase, which will become less of a problem as
A becomes more established.
Informal social factors. Informal social factors or social dynamic are greatly
affected by the age of a community. Community A had recently been completed
(1 year old) and was in its autonomy phase (as defined by Shaffer & Anundsen
(1993)) at the time the research was completed. This is a period characterized
by conflict and instability and changing social relationships in a community.
This instability and conflict is likely to impact negatively on social interaction in
the short term. By contrast, community B was older and in a period of stability
(Shaffer & Anundsen, 1993). Thus, residents had settled into their roles and as a
result there was less conflict overall in B than in A. There were also mutual
confidence and clear rules amongst residents in B that ensured greater
cooperation in common tasks. Group process and conflict resolution were
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further advanced in B and most people were satisfied with decisions made.
Various members of the community had taken on set roles that reduced internal
conflicts in B. Lower levels of conflict have meant higher levels of social
interaction. Thus, the case studies demonstrate that organizational immaturity
reduces potential for social interactions (supported by Birchall (1988) and
Coleman (1990)).
Personal factors. In terms of personal factors residents in both communities had
the same social focus and were thus predisposed to social interaction. Both
communities were homogeneous in terms of resident employment status,
educational attainment and core values. We would expect that homogeneity
within the communities (in terms of residents’ values, background and status)
would increase social interaction (Precker, 1952; Hurwitz et al., 1953; Zaleznik et al.,
1958; Birchall, 1988). However, community A was more homogeneous than B
(where there was greater diversity in household affluence and type: Table 2).
Community A was largely made up of affluent home-owning singles and couples,
whilst residents in B were more diverse in terms of household type (although the
majority were families) and affluence.
It was expected that the homogeneity of community A would result in greater
levels of social interaction. However, interviews with residents contradicted this
and suggested that some diversity within the community actually encouraged
greater social interaction (as it increased the diversity of activities, relationships
and resources available to residents within the community) as long as residents’
attitudes (especially towards core pro-community principles) were the same.
Because residents in both communities have common values and attitudes, their
socio-economic differences add to the potential attractiveness of interaction. The
homogeneity of both communities in terms of their values is ensured through the
self-selection of residents. In B resident diversity actually appears to increase
social interactions based on differences in expertise, abilities and interests.
Residents see interactions in community B as opportunities to socialize but also to
establish support networks, to create safe and secure communities in which to live
and to provide opportunities to share resources and chores.
In addition, some personal factors were shown directly to influence social
interaction within the communities. The less affluent households in B were more
involved in community activities than the more affluent households in A, as a way
of reducing daily expenditure on meals and entertainment. This increased their
levels of social interaction. The more affluent households in A did not have the
additional motivation of the less affluent households (i.e. to save money) and thus
tended to be less involved in the community and have fewer social interactions.
Families also tended to be more active in both communities. Children
interacted a great deal in communal spaces and often brought their parents
together with other members of the community. Teenagers on the other hand
refused to be involved in communal activities and spent as little time as possible in
communal spaces. Families were also more likely to opt for in-community
entertainment and meals because of the restrictions on the parents when taking
their children out. Thus, social interactions in B were greater as a result of there
being more families.
Design factors. Both communities adopted social contact design principles,
which in broad design terms mean they are very similar. Both had car parking on
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the periphery of the community, activity sites linked with shared pathways
(Figure 4), layouts which provide good surveillance opportunities, central
communal facilities and small private units. However, there were some key
differences (Table 1). The most crucial was the density of the development and
therefore the proximity of residents. Community A is very high-density (80 units
per acre) (1 acre ¼0.4047 hectares), whilst B is low-density (19.2 units per acre).
There was no designated semi-private space outside units in A, whilst in B
verandas provided semi-private space (Figure 5).
High densities and increased proximities might have served to raise levels of
social interaction in A, but without semi-private space to act as a buffer the rapid
transfer from private to public space appears to have resulted in withdrawal of
some residents from the community. Other residents in A have resorted to
creating semi-private spaces in spatially restricted areas directly outside their
private units (very small gardens/verandas) or have their blinds/curtains
permanently closed. Lower densities and a gradual transition from private to
public space in B have prevented withdrawal of residents from the community.
Residents have not resorted to covering their windows, which in turn increases
residents’ ability to observe communal spaces and encourages social interaction.
The verandas (in B) and the makeshift gardens/verandas (in A) provide space in
which both sustained, infrequent formal interactions (barbecues, meals and
drinks parties) and frequent, brief, informal social interactions could take place
(supporting the theory outlined above).
The communities were also very different in size. Community A had 31
residents and B had 67. However, the clustering of residents into three groups in B
(Figure 6) helped to increase social interaction within smaller subsections of the
community. The number of informal social interactions appeared to be greater in
clusters (B) than in rows (A). However, in B the arrangement of clusters made
surveillance of indoor communal space more difficult and some residents felt this
reduced informal interactions in the space. Thus, it is necessary to ensure that
clusters are built around the central indoor communal facility or that several
indoor communal facilities are spread across the clusters (so that they are visible).
In A, clusters formed despite its planned row layout. The north and south ends of
the row appeared to be creating their own clusters visibly delineated by
the south’s use of garden furniture and plants in semi-private space. There
appeared to be a social and visual division along this line within the community.
In fact, the residents had become territorial about their own cluster, which
created conflicts and reduced social interaction within the community overall.
Thus, in this instance clusters appear to have variable results in terms of
encouraging social interaction.
One solution might be to have separate and different activity spaces for each
cluster, so that residents have to visit other clusters to use activity spaces. This
would reduce territorial conflicts and increase opportunities for social interaction
throughout the community. In fact, this design solution has been shown to work
well in one example (N-Street cohousing community, Davis, CA), where each
section of the community accommodated a different facility. In this example
different parts of the community had a communal laundry, sauna, kitchen and
dining area, a vegetable garden, a workshop and a tool store. Residents moved
from their private unit to these different activity sites, which involved entering
different clusters and meeting residents from outside their own cluster.
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Figure 4. The context and communal facilities: (a) community A; (b) community B.
214 J. Williams
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Figure 5. Activity sites, movement and access points: (a) community A; (b) community B.
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These activity sites were also swapped around from time to time. In this way
territorial attachments did not develop.
The communal spaces themselves were also very different in the two
communities (Figure 7). Community A had considerably more indoor communal
space than B, whilst it had less outdoor communal space. The outdoor space in B
was better-quality, well-structured (having several activity spaces, including a
playground, a vegetable plot, a barbecue area, a drying area and areas for
relaxation) and landscaped (Figure 3). By contrast, in A outdoor space was poorly
structured and had very little vegetation. Outdoor space in community B was
used most by the children. It was a space in which formal activities (barbecues)
and informal activities (children playing, gardening and laundry drying)
occurred. In A activities were informal (relaxation and chatting with neighbours)
and were generally extensions of activities in private space. However, most of the
social interactions in outdoor space in A occurred directly outside private units.
In both communities the quality of indoor communal space is high (with the
exception of the communal gym in A: see Figure 2). In both communities the main
spaces used generally for dining and socializing are flexible and thus are used
more efficiently than designated spaces such as the teen room in community B,
which is underutilized. However, this is due to the suitability of the facility for its
purpose (i.e. its lack of entertainment equipment and sound-proofing). Similarly,
poor acoustics in the main social areas of both communities have meant a
reduction in use by elderly residents in the community who cannot hear
conversations.
In both communities the laundries are too small for the number of residents
using them and the frequency at which they are used. This has resulted in some
households buying their own laundry equipment and not using the communal
laundry facilities. In community A the unsuitability of the space designated as
a gym (largely because it is too small for the purpose and the equipment too
antiquated) has meant it is hardly used. In all instances the lack of suitable spaces
for these activities reduces use and social interaction. In both communities indoor
Figure 6. Division of space: (a) community A; (b) community B.
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communal facilities are physically accessible but access is sometimes restricted by
private events, which reduces use and social interactions.
Private space was limited in both communities. However, it was more limited
in A, especially for smaller households (Table 1). Several one-person households
lived in studios, which were designed to be very space-efficient with only very
small kitchenettes and no appliances. According to those living in the studios, this
meant they used the communal kitchen, dining and laundry facilities more than
one-person households with larger units (borne out by activity diaries and the
records of communal meal attendance and laundry washes). In B units were
bigger and residents did not feel the design of their unit influenced their use of
communal facilities or social interaction. Thus, it seems that the design of the
private unit influences social interaction.
Overall, in terms of design, it is harder to determine whether we would
expect to see more social interactions in B than in A. Although B has a more
gradual transition from private to communal space, clustering and higher-quality
outdoor communal space, A has larger, more diverse indoor communal facilities
and smaller private units which should encourage greater use of communal space
and therefore social interactions. One explanation for this could be that residents
in A are suffering from overcrowding because of the lack of semi-private space in
the community at such high densities (suggested by the informal creation of semi-
private space, clustering and covered windows).
Figure 7. Clustering: (a) community A; (b) community B.
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A further observation from the research is that social contact design can result
in both forced and voluntary social interactions. The provision of communal
spaces and facilities, increased surveillance opportunities and the accessibility of
communal spaces all enable voluntary interactions to take place and do not force
interactions. The layout of the circulatory system, territorial controls, proximity
(density) and restricted private space on the other hand can force interactions,
especially in the absence of buffer zones (or other forms of territorial controls).
Circulatory systems that are restrictive and compel movement through communal
spaces to access regularly used activity sites (for example laundries and car parks,
etc.) force interactions. Restricted access created by the physical environment or
the management of space will prevent interactions.
Ranking the Factors and Identifying the Inter-linkages
The observational studies and interviews highlighted several personal, social and
design factors which may result in fewer social interactions in community A than
in B (summarized in Table 5). The relative importance of these factors in
influencing social interaction requires further investigation. Residents were
interviewed and asked to identify and rank the factors (1 ¼most important and
15 ¼least important) they believed to be most influential in affecting social
interaction in their community (Table 6).
Residents’ positive attitude towards socializing and the community was seen
as being the factor that most influenced social interaction within the communities.
The management of communal spaces (maintenance, organization of a diversity
of activities, scheduling of events and access) and the social dynamic within
the community were also identified as being very important factors influencing all
forms of social interaction. Thus, personal and social factors were ranked as being
Table 5. Reasons for differences in interaction between communities A and B
Reason Community A Community B
Informal social Younger, less stable
community—greater potential
for conflict.
Older, more stable community—less
potential for conflict.
Homogeneous community in terms of
values but diversity in terms of
interests, expertise and abilities
increases desire to interact.
Formal social Fewer organized social activities. Greater frequency and diversity of
organized social activities—increases
social interaction.
More stressful management meetings—
greater potential for conflict.
Fewer stressful management
meetings—less potential for conflict.
Personal More families and less affluent
households who show greater
propensity for social interaction.
Design Overcrowding—results in withdrawal
from communal spaces thus reducing
social interaction.
Transition between private and
communal space gradual, semi-private
space provided, clusters—lessens
potential for withdrawal from
community and social interaction.
Design conflicts.
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the important factors influencing social interaction in the communities studied.
The time residents had available to them for interaction was also identified as
being a personal factor influencing social interaction within both communities.
The decision-making process was identified as a formal social factor influencing
levels of social interaction. Both were ranked as being less important than other
personal and formal social factors.
The ranking of the influence of the decision-making process on social
interaction was particularly surprising, as it seemed from the more general
comments made by residents that in fact the way in which decisions were made
about the operation and design of the community did create a lot of conflict and
have a considerable effect on social interactions within both communities. In both
instances a more inclusive and transparent decision-making process was operated
(consensus). However, conflicts still occurred and some residents felt let down by
the process. Perhaps the low ranking of this as an issue was because few people
had been severely affected by it. However, over the lifetime of a community this
problem is likely to affect many more residents and thus it would be sensible to
review the practice.
The ranking exercise highlighted another set of factors that influenced
social interaction that did not appear to be personal or social. These were the
opportunities created by social interaction. Residents identified social, economic
and environmental benefits that could be derived from increased levels of social
interaction, including: eating meals with others; sharing daily expenses; sharing
Tab l e 6 . Factors influencing social interaction identified by residents
Rank
Personal
factor
Informal
social factor
Formal
social factor
Design
factor Opportunities
Attitude towards socializing
and community
1U
Maintenance of communal
spaces
2U
Group dynamic (level
of conflict)
3U
Organization of convenient
and suitable events
4U
Opportunity to eat with others 5 U
Diversity of social activities 6 U
Diversity of communal spaces 7 U
Opportunity to make resource
savings—environmental
and economic benefits
8U
Aesthetic attractiveness of
communal spaces
9U
Opportunity to split chores 10 U
Time available to residents 11 U
Ease of access to communal
spaces
12 UU
Clarity and fairness of
decision-making processes
13 U
Visibility of communal spaces 14 U
Smaller private units 15 U
Source: Resident interviews, 2001.
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goods and services; reducing environmental impact by sharing resources; and
sharing daily chores (cooking, cleaning, maintenance and gardening, etc.). Further
to this, residents suggested that social interaction created stronger support
networks (for childcare and independent living) as well as safety and security
within the community. Thus, opportunities created by social interaction were key
drivers for encouraging greater social interaction within both communities.
The design factors identified by the residents as being an important influence
on social interaction included the diversity, quality, accessibility and visibility of
communal spaces and limited private space. Surprisingly, residents in the ranking
exercise did not identify the diversity of design factors expected (for example
density, the division of public and private space, the layout of activity sites, the
location of parking or the size of the community). However, interviews with
residents in A suggested that the lack of semi-private space and high densities in
the community had caused some withdrawal from the community and lower
levels of social interaction. Observation of the barriers created by residents
between private and communal space also supported this theory.
In community B access to and visibility of communal facilities were
highlighted as being the key design factors influencing social interaction. Residents
said that they had poor surveillance opportunities due to the layout of the
development, which greatly reduced informal social interactions. The layout of the
development in clusters away from communal facilities limits opportunities for
surveillance and access, which in turn reduces potential impromptu social
interaction. Limited private space was also identified by both the interviews with
residents and the ranking exercise as being a factor that encouraged more social
interaction within the community. However, correlating private floor space and
social interaction data shows that the relationship is relatively weak (-0.2), but it
does suggest there is some relationship and that it is negative (i.e. social interaction
increases as floor area in private units decreases). The resident interviews
(particularly in community A) suggest that the lack of laundry and kitchen
appliances combined with smaller unit size is most effective in encouraging
residents to spend more time in communal facilities and greater social interaction.
The ongoing design process itself was identified by the resident interviews as
being a key contributor to conflicts in both communities, which had led to a
reduction in social interaction, especially between some individuals. This was not
specifically identified by the ranking exercise, although it may have been inferred
through the inclusion of decision-making processes in the ranking. The interviews
suggested that disputes over design had in some cases led to the withdrawal of
injured parties from communal spaces and activities and in some instances
withdrawal from the community altogether. Ironically, in community A, most
problems stemmed from residents wishing to contravene the very design
principles that were introduced to encourage greater social interaction, for
example they wished to create semi-private spaces in communal areas or reduce
visibility by covering windows. These conflicts actually arise from a design failure
(i.e. a lack of buffer zones between private and communal space), which, if rectified,
could greatly reduce conflict. In fact, it is very difficult to rank the personal, social
and design factors in order of importance because they are all so intrinsically
linked. A more comprehensive quantitative study of cohousing communities
would be needed to determine the relative importance of each of the variables and
even then it might be difficult to isolate the impact of each.
220 J. Williams
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This study does identify the key factors influencing social interaction in
cohousing communities and the linkages between those factors (Figure 8). Initially,
personal factors (especially attitude towards socializing) appear to be very
important. However, residents’ attitude can quickly change because of their
experience of interacting with others. This may be affected by formal and informal
social factors (i.e. the way in which individual personalities interact and how a
community is organized). The latter especially can lead to a rapid degeneration in
social relationships within communities where conflict over maintenance issues,
management of communal spaces, resident involvement in communal activities
and design decisions can lead to the withdrawal of initially keen residents from the
community, whilst a poor social dynamic will also result in residents reassessing
their views on community and priorities in terms of socializing. Conversely, a
negative attitude towards socializing and the community will create a poor social
dynamic and may lead to conflicts in terms of management and maintenance
issues. Thus, personal factors (attitude), informal social factors (social dynamic)
and formal social factors (organization of community events and space and
decision-making processes) appear to be intrinsically linked (relationships shown
in Figure 8).
The realized or potential opportunities created by social interaction can
encourage further interaction. These opportunities are influenced by social, personal
and design factors. The social dynamic and the organization of a community will
Figure 8. The interaction between design, personal and social factors in a cohousing community and its
impact on social interaction.
Neighbourhoods for Social Interaction 221
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affect the opportunities available. For example, in cohousing the organization of
communal meals means that residents can eat together at least three times per week
(an opportunity highlighted). The social dynamic between residents affects their
ability to share resources within the community, which can lead to economic and
environmental savings. Indeed, the personal characteristics of residents will affect
whether they can see opportunities in socializing, for example characteristics
including their health or whether they have dependants. Design can also influence
these opportunities: for example, residents need spaces in which they can share
stored resources or eat communal meals.
Design factors also directly influence social interaction, attitude and social
dynamic (Figure 8). Problems with design can create a negative attitude towards
the community and may result in complete withdrawal (for example over-
crowding and lack of semi-private space in A), which in turn disrupts the social
dynamic. Less dramatically, they may reduce the extent to which space is used (for
example the teen room in B and the gym in A) and thus the potential for social
interaction. They may also create social barriers (poor surveillance opportunities
in B and the creation of territories within clusters in A).
The design process itself can create conflicts which, again, at worst will lead
to residents withdrawing from the community and at best reduce their social
interaction. Conversely, well-designed communities can experience more
social interaction. This study suggests that the key design features that encourage
social interaction are: proximity to buffer zones; good-quality, accessible,
functional, diverse communal spaces with ample opportunity for surveillance;
and, finally, private units (with restricted facilities). Thus, design and the design
process have been shown to be important in influencing social interaction.
The effect of design principles on social interaction within a cohousing
community could be greatly enhanced by formal social factors. The quality and
accessibility of communal spaces could be enhanced through good management
strategies that ensure communal spaces are well maintained (clean and
equipment present and in working order), that a variety of frequent social events
are organized and that residents are not excluded from communal spaces. This in
turn will increase use of communal space and encourage greater social interaction.
The homogeneity of residents’ values and norms in combination with the fact
that all members of the community are known to each other also enables higher
densities to be acceptable. Residents feel safe and secure in their locality and are
happy to interact with others with similar values. The higher densities achieved
increase proximity of residents to each other, which further increases levels of
social interaction (as long as buffer zones are provided between private and
communal space).
A positive attitude towards socializing creates a group dynamic, which
ensures communal and semi-private spaces are used as an arena for social
interaction. It also enables higher densities to be achieved without residents
feeling overcrowded and withdrawing from the community. However, it does
appear that even in these conditions some semi-private space is needed to create a
buffer zone (as demonstrated by community A). Thus, the management of
facilities and residents’ attitudes towards socializing and each other can greatly
enhance the benefits of design.
222 J. Williams
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Lessons Learnt for Cohousing
This research has built on the cohousing literature (Franck & Ahrentzen, 1989;
Fromm, 1991, 1993, 2000; Hanson, 1996) and more specifically the work completed
by Torres-Antonini (2001) by exploring the relative importance of design factors in
influencing social interaction in cohousing communities when compared with
social and personal factors. It has also developed our understanding of how
design, social and personal factors inter-link and reinforce each other to promote
social interaction in cohousing. The research has elaborated on the impact of some
design features on social interaction, for example how the aesthetic, functional
flexibility and design of the communal spaces and diversity of activities provided
in them influence social interaction, as well as how clustering, the rotation of
activity sites and the restriction of facilities in private space influence social
interaction. Finally, the research highlighted that resident involvement in the
design process may actually be socially divisive rather than productive.
In addition, there appeared to be some discrepancies between the findings of
this and previous cohousing research. Previous research found that limiting
private space increased social interaction. However, this research found that
limiting private space only increased social interaction in cohousing communities
if kitchen and laundry facilities were also limited in private units. This means that
it is possibly the lack of facilities rather than of space in private units that
encourages residents to use the communal facilities (kitchen/dining and
laundry), which in turn increases their social interaction. This suggests that
restricting the types of activities carried out in private space and providing
alternative spaces for those activities communally could increase levels of social
interaction in cohousing communities.
The cohousing literature highlights the benefits of increasing densities in
residential development (to increase physical and functional proximity) to
encourage more social interaction. Community A provides us with evidence to
suggest that densities can be too high even in cohousing and can actually reduce
interaction and lead to withdrawal from the community. In A (80 units per acre,
equivalent to 198 units per hectare) residents spend a lot of time in the community
and a disproportionate amount of time in their private units. Even with the
makeshift buffer zones (between communal and private space), social interactions
are lower in A than in community B (19.2 units per acre, equivalent to 47 units per
hectare). This finding suggests that densities of the magnitude seen in community
A create a barrier to social interaction in cohousing communities. Obviously, more
research is needed in cohousing communities to determine the thresholds at
which social interaction is deleteriously affected by density.
Cluster rather than row development is also supposed to promote social
interaction in cohousing communities according to the cohousing literature.
However, the experience of community A suggests that clustering may also have a
negative impact on social interaction. Clustering occurred naturally in A even
though the layout was a row development. The clustering of residents into visible
territories in A reinforced the social divide between clusters and created a rift in
the community which was not conducive to social interaction. In community B
stronger resident groups have also formed in clusters that have created some
territorial disputes. Although clustering is essential in very large communities, in
order to promote social interaction in smaller communities, it may actually create
social divides that would otherwise not exist. Again, the threshold values at which
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cohousing communities are large enough for clustering to have a positive effect on
social interaction need further research.
The literature suggests that homogeneity within residential communities
promotes social interaction. A very strong message from the research was that
although homogeneity in terms of residents’ attitudes and values is important in
ensuring high levels of social interaction, variety in terms of affluence and
household type (i.e. one-person households, couples and families, etc.) for
example actually increases social interaction in cohousing communities. Residents
are a resource. The greater diversity of residents ensures a greater diversity in
terms of the resource each resident has to offer other residents. For example,
singles have access to family life through the community. Residents who stay at
home have more time to spend organizing activities for the community and
managing the space; they also increase security during the daytime. A variety of
expertise amongst residents means that a variety of problems encountered within
the communities can be dealt with in-house. All of this helps to strengthen social
networks and increase social interaction. This is a very valuable finding because it
suggests mixed cohousing communities (in terms of affluence and household
type) could be viable and in fact more vibrant as long as residents have similar
attitudes and values, especially towards community and socializing.
The cohousing literature also suggests that the involvement of residents in
various decision-making processes (design and management decisions) in
communities increases social interaction and builds social capital. This research
shows that in fact involving residents in decision making can also create conflict
and/or ‘meeting fatigue’ which actually reduces social interaction and may lead
to complete withdrawal of residents from communities in the long term.
However, it does appear that some level of involvement of residents in decision-
making processes is beneficial for social interaction, as it brings residents together
and builds relationships and trust between individuals. It also ensures residents
feel more empowered and have deeper interest in their community. Many
conflicts in decision making result from a lack of clear universal guidelines. Many
of the conflicts arise because decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. Not only
does this increase the number of decisions that need to be made (and thus the
potential for conflict), it also opens the decision makers up to accusations of
discriminatory behaviour because there are no common standards by which
decisions are made. The introduction of design guidance, vision statements and
tenancy/ownership agreements to deal with design decisions, resident behaviour
and management issues respectively could help to reduce conflict. These common
guidelines give residents an understanding of what is expected of them as
residents and what design changes are acceptable without going through
management meetings. This reduces the need for meetings (thus resolving the
issue of ‘meeting fatigue’) and limits the number of situations in which residents
feel unfairly discriminated against. At the same time residents continue to make
decisions about the management and design of the community but their role is
more limited.
Conclusions
Design appears to be an important factor influencing social interaction in
cohousing. Density (proximity) and layout, the division of public and private
space and the quality, type and functionality of communal spaces appear to be
224 J. Williams
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the key design factors influencing social interaction in cohousing developments.
However, the complexity of the inter-relationships between social, personal,
design variables and opportunities makes it difficult to rank the factors in terms of
their impact on social interaction. Further quantitative and more comprehensive
studies of cohousing communities would be needed to determine this with
accuracy. This study nevertheless identifies the factors influencing social
interaction, the linkages and how social, personal factors and opportunities can
enhance the impact of design features on social interaction in cohousing. It also
throws up interesting questions for further research in terms of clustering, density
thresholds and the play-off between homogeneity and heterogeneity in
communities and the value of including residents in the design process. Thus, it
makes a significant contribution to our understanding of cohousing communities.
The wider relevance of the research (i.e. its application to other forms of
residential development) is more difficult to determine. Torres-Antonini (2001)
argues that cohousing is a subset of new urbanism and that understanding and
applying new urbanism design principles can lead to better cohousing designs.
She also suggests that incorporating the lessons learned from the cohousing
experience into planning the development of towns and suburbs may also be the
way to deliver deeply connected communities. The design strategies and
processes would be particularly transferable. However, the scale of cohousing
communities and the level of resident involvement in decision-making processes
will need to be addressed if cohousing principles are to be applied more widely:
“However, achieving this goal will entail not only revising the urban scale of these
developments but also reconsidering the participation afforded to residents in
shaping their physical community” (Torres-Antonini, 2001).
In addition, the selectivity of many cohousing communities and residents’
predisposition towards higher levels of social interaction must also be considered.
Thus, it would be dangerous to infer generalizations or the applicability of the
study findings to residents of other housing types. However, cohousing is
becoming a more common housing form and, indeed, is embedded in the urban
fabric in northern Europe. Thus, the lessons learnt from this study can be applied
to a housing form which is expanding. The lessons learnt from cohousing should
also be borne in mind for the successful future development of the neo-traditional
neighbourhoods produced by the new urbanist movement, especially in terms of
social contact design and resident involvement in the design process.
Note
1. Local social capital is the ‘glue’ which binds people together in a neighbourhood and encourages
them to cooperate with each other. It is the local networks together with shared norms, values and
understandings that facilitate cooperation within or among groups in a neighbourhood. Without
social capital individuals feel isolated and are untrusting, which reduces levels of cooperation
within the neighbourhood.
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