As part of my Marie Curie Fellowship Project, I spent a week with fieldwork activities in Vienna, Austria, in October 2015. David Mullins and I visited the urban development areas of Sonnwendviertel and Seestadt Aspern where some pioneer community-led housing schemes have recently been finalised as part of a large-scale social housing programme. The goal of this stage of field research was to develop a better empirical understanding for different types of recent community-led housing activity in Austria and to explore its linkages to the housing policy context.
The project “so.vie.so” (an acronym for “Sonnwendviertel Solidarity”) close to the Hauptbahnhof was completed in December 2013. It was one of the first projects to be finalised within the creation of an entirely new neighbourhood, mainly consisting of subsidised housing schemes (5.000 units for about 13.000 residents) but also including commercial and shopping areas as well as schools and nurseries.
The Passivhaus certified scheme “so.vie.so” consists of 111 subsidised rented apartments, communal facilities of different size, shared greenspace with the neighbouring housing schemes as well as premises. This project represents an emerging type of top-down collaborative housing in the non-profit sector where a larger developer – in this case a housing co-operative – provides participation opportunities for future residents that go well mainstream non-profit housing management. Thus, potential residents engage in an externally facilitated process which kicks off as early as 2-3 years before the actual completion of the scheme.
Image: The collaborative housing project “so.vie.so”
In an interview and guided tour with Christian Richter who lives with his young family in an upper floor apartment, we learned more about the resident participation process. The idea of this professional “community coaching” is to sharpen residents’ awareness for their immediate social environment at regular meetings and workshops where they get to know their neighbours’ needs and interests. Therefore, they might want to engage in mutual help activities (e.g. for reconciliation of work and family life), and in working groups on particular topics, such as (roof-top) gardening, handicraft work, nursery or fitness classes. In a democratic process, popular group activities are permanently assigned to a particular community room within the estate and residents are encouraged to take over self-responsibility for managing resident groups as well as designing and using communal space.
Another important aspect of this form of moderated community building is the allocation of flats which was carried out as a negotiation process by the residents themselves, e.g. supported by scoring tools to prioritise individual and community interests, and to make these transparent.
David and I had the opportunity to see another interesting case of collaborative housing in a different location in Vienna. We were invited by Petra Hendrich to visit the Baugruppen project "Seestern Aspern" later that week. This intergenerational project consists of 27 apartments, different communal areas, including a large community kitchen and a coworking-space on the ground floor. Tenants moved into their apartments in August 2015.
As an external consultant, Petra was responsible for facilitation and moderation of the planning and community building for this Baugruppe. She took us on an extended tour around the house and explained in great detail the planning and project development process for the Baugruppe and how it is embedded in the creation of an entirely new neighbourhood.
Image: Petra and Richard at Baugruppe “Seestern Aspern”
Seestadt Aspern is actually one of the largest urban development areas presently in Europe. Over a period of 20 years, 10.500 homes for about 20.000 residents will be realised mainly by large non-profit providers. Here, the city administration has for the first time made available building plots directly to Baugruppen which resulted in the development of six pilot projects. During our visit, it turned out that the professional facilitation approach to community building in “Seestern Aspern” was similar to the top-down project “so.vie.so”. However, in Baugruppen like “Seestern Aspern”, the residents themselves define most of the project and lead the development process.
The case comparison suggests that top-down collaborative projects like “so.vie.so” rather focus on the participation of most residents in a pre-designed structure. However, these residents are still mainly focused on their individual housing needs. In contrast, Baugruppen, such as “Seestern Aspern”, are usually initiated by an established community of interest who approaches a professional non-profit developer or the municipality with the idea for a community-led housing project. Within the field of collaborative housing, Baugruppen in Vienna can thus be described as real community-led approaches which are driven by the idea of self-determination of residents.
To further explore the linkages between collaborative projects and the housing policy context, we interviewed Dieter Groschopf, the deputy director of Wohnfonds Wien, the local government body overseeing subsidised housing construction in Vienna. He highlighted that only a wide-ranging strategic approach of the city administration has enabled the realisation of both top-down collaborative housing and Baugruppen projects to be carried out within the framework of social housing. Key to this is Vienna’s strategic land-use planning which, in recent years, has focused on accessing and developing inner-city locations for new social housing, such as the area south of the new Hauptbahnhof, through mutually beneficial deals with the Austrian Federal Railways.
Furthermore, beneficial for collaborative housing projects has been the introduction of social sustainability criteria in housing developer competitions in Vienna since 2005, in order to strengthen its over-all contribution to the goal of inclusive urban development. This has put pressure on larger non-profit developers to explicitly consider participatory approaches and community building in subsidised housing schemes. This has further opened up new spaces for collaborative approaches to inclusive neighbourhood development and even for partnerships with community groups, such as Baugruppen. At the same, the quality of housing management has improved with specialised external consultancies entering this field, supporting non-profit developers with their expertise in community building and resident participation.
In line with the transdisciplinary approach of the Marie Curie Project, the week of field research in Vienna ended with a research workshop hosted by wohnbund:consult, the consultancy which delivered the external project support and facilitation for “so.vie.so”. The workshop brought together a group of housing researchers, architects, planners and consultants who are actively enganged in the collaborative housing field in Austria. It served as a useful platform to discuss the research design and preliminary hypotheses.
Image: Research workshop on collaborative housing in Vienna
These preliminary findings of the Marie Curie Project suggest that both the city administration and external housing consultants in Vienna see great potential in top-down approaches for collaborative housing, exemplified by the case of “so.vie.so”. Professional community building and external facilitation of resident participation in large-scale non-profit housing is less resource intensive than providing support for smaller scale Baugruppen projects which, for instance, require a much closer cooperation between residents, architects, planners and consultants. Nevertheless, the latter can be regarded as important pilot projects for social innovations in housing. However, with projects like “so.vie.so”, it might be possible to reach out to more residents with key values of co-operative housing, such as solidarity, self-responsibility and democracy.