Quarantine has made me keenly aware that my neighbors and I have very little space in which to interact safely in our apartment building in Atlanta. I recently watched one of the videos shared online of Italians singing and dancing on their balconies during the lockdown in Torino, and felt a surge of solidarity with these strangers, inspired by their efforts to connect. I also felt a pang of regret; their shared experience reminded me of our former home in Oakland, where my wife and I shared a yard with our neighbors. That yard became an extension of the three apartments which opened onto it; it was the shared place in-between our personal worlds and the world outside. It was where we hung up a screen to project music videos, cooked together, and told jokes.
These sorts of shared spaces let us extend our domesticity outdoors and mingle with the domesticity of others. They offer the possibility for spontaneous interaction — a conversation over a morning cup of coffee or an afternoon cigarette, or while weeding plants or taking out the trash. It was from just such conversations that ideas about how we could use the yard emerged. Our relationships ripened as we invited feedback and solicited help from each other, and the physical space mirrored our social engagement. As a result, the yard was constantly in process. It was where Carin held dye workshops that Tim documented on his camera from his perch on a ladder; where Lena grew vegetables and herbs for our weekly dinners; where Brian constantly mulled and molded spaces for conversation using on-hand materials; and where Julia’s storytelling helped weave disparate conversations into a comprehensive whole. When Brian helped our new neighbors John and Chase build a fish pond, the notion of “our” yard expanded to encompass their labor. Against a backdrop of pallets, pavers, planters, concrete blocks, dirt, and furniture, the yard was continually shaped by all our participation.
As an architect, I am interested in housing models that scale up the collective and collaborative experience that my wife and I enjoyed in Oakland. Such spaces are built on participation, and they encourage us to extend our care to spaces and people beyond our households. But these spaces are not typical in the United States. While yards have long been integral to the American vision of home, they have also, since at least the postwar building boom, played a spatial role in maintaining the separateness of households; the pursuit of private homeownership entailed an urbanism of single-family houses surrounded by pristine yards.1Melinda Cooper, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism (New York: Zone Books, 2019).
Shared-equity models of ownership such as Community Land Trusts or CLTs, Community Land Cooperatives, or CLCs, and Community Investment Trusts or CITs suggest alternative ways of thinking about how we organize our domestic spaces. Trusts and cooperatives offer collaborative spaces and a sense of community built on shared daily experiences, in exchange for collective maintenance by those willing to engage. These models involve the shared ownership of property by a group of private households with the intention of maintaining affordability in perpetuity, and they emphasize social solidarity underpinned by mutual economic risk and reward. They recognize that if people are to collectively shape the spaces in which they live, they need an underlying economic structure which doesn’t pit them as competitive actors against each other. And they need a space that can be molded.
The first CLT was formed in 1967 in Albany, Georgia, as a way for disenfranchised African-American farmers to have both a place to live and a means of making a living.2John E. Davis, Origins and Evolution of the Community Land Trust in the United States (Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2014). Subsequent CLTs operating in urban environments have sought to enshrine shared action in the governance of collective ownership.3Nele Aernouts and Michael Ryckewaert, “Beyond Housing: On the Role of Commoning in the Establishment of a Community Land Trust Project,” International Journal of Housing Policy, 18:4 (2018): 503–521. They recognize that the appreciation of property prices is a result of social investment — the collective “growing-up” of the neighborhood enabled by the engagement of residents — and they strive to retain this wealth within the community. The participating households may hold the whole building or property in common, or they may own portions of the property individually while the collective body owns the land or common areas. They may rely on grants and debt, or they may rely solely on community investment. In every case, there is a link between social and economic resilience, and the link is maintained through shared action. Nascent CLC models, such as the EcoVillagers Alliance, recenter community control of use and mandate socio-cratic governance, all the while ensuring that every member has an equal say by restricting each member to one voting share regardless of how much equity they own. These models disallow speculation and secondary-market trading of shares.4Olivia R. Williams, “Community Land without Grants and Debt,” Medium (March 5, 2019). Here, shared social action forms the basis of collective economic enterprise: one maintaining the other.
The pandemic has underscored the immediate loss of community and social solidarity we face when are isolated in our separate households. Unsurprisingly, households built on kinship beyond the nuclear family have been most resilient amidst this loss. The participatory ideals of shared-equity models and the economic and social solidarity that they promote can help bridge the distance. An architecture built on this collaborative approach, which gives people the ability to shape “unfinished” spaces through shared action, could help weave more spaces of explicit ownership — mine, yours — with spaces of overlapping authorship — ours — in the future.
- Melinda Cooper, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism (New York: Zone Books, 2019).
- John E. Davis, Origins and Evolution of the Community Land Trust in the United States (Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2014).
- Nele Aernouts and Michael Ryckewaert, “Beyond Housing: On the Role of Commoning in the Establishment of a Community Land Trust Project,” International Journal of Housing Policy, 18:4 (2018): 503–521 DOI: 10.1080/19491247.2017.1331592
- Olivia R. Williams, “Community Land without Grants and Debt,” Medium (March 5, 2019).