The Sussex Cohousing development team went up en masse to visit Marmalade Lane on Sunday. Marmalade lane - or K1 as it is officially named - is the recently-completed cohousing project in Cambridge. The developers for the project were Town, the same group we are currently working with. Walking around it is the closest thing we could get to experiencing what our site might eventually look like.
The Marmalade Lane site captures many of the features that our group has already identified as important to us. A common house, a large shared kitchen, shared green space, guest bedrooms in the common house and a variety of sizes of homes, which includes flats, 2 bedroom and 3 bedroom properties.
The group was met by Frances Wright, a first-phase denizen and member of Marmalade Lane’s legal and finance team for the past 5 years or so. Frances had several other members with her to answer questions and lead us on a tour of the buildings and surroundings.
What struck me upon arrival was its distinct identity. My big concern was: could a development like this, if it were delivered as part of much larger development, still retain a distinct identity? I am happy to say that as soon as I turned the corner and entered the common lane, with two banks of terraced houses either side, it felt distinctly enclosed. This bodes well for our own project as members of our group have expressed concerns in the past that a site such as this would not work for our project.
I was also struck by the architectural distinctiveness of the project. It looked a little austere in places, which may be down to its newness - people only started taking occupancy in December 2018. The green spaces have not grown in or been cultivated fully, and although kids’ bikes lay around here and there, people have only just started to put plant pots and other nick-nacks around. The walls of the common buildings are also just beginning to be populated with community art and other decorations.
Everything looked clean, bright and solidly built. Wood panelling on the stairways in the common house was particularly attractive, as was the design of the main meeting area in the common house, which had an atrium-style elevation to it, looking up to internal windows of the ‘quiet room’ and multi-purpose yoga (etc.) room above. My overall impression of the common house was that it was excellent, well designed and generous in size. The guest bedrooms were also very comfortable looking.
The houses seemed well-built and above the current standards of commercial housing. The occupants we spoke to were impressed by the soundproofing - telling us they didn’t feel like they were living in a terrace at all. The heating system, the name of which I forget but it recovered heat from air drawn, filtered and circulated throughout the dwelling, I believe - was also said to be excellent, keeping the air fresh but pleasant in the winter and, so far, cool in the summer. A small downside I heard reported was the visibility and proximity of neighbours’ doorways, back and front, which sometimes made people feel a bit ‘on top of one another’. This was a niggle rather than a major complaint.
Where the project seemed to be encountering problems was in its social organisation and official communications. Although the information I got wasn’t detailed, it seemed that finding ways to communicate (WhatsApp, email, Slack) that was accessible to all but not overwhelming was a major challenge. Slack seemed to be the best option - this might be an app we could look into.
Regarding K1’s social organisation - by which I mean the processes it has in place for sharing and conflict resolution - this seemed to be feeling the stress already. Because the project has very little in the way of selection or induction (as far as I learned), agreement or consensus around practicalities such as communal cooking and use of the laundry facilities, and overseeing children in particular, seemed to be causing strain in the community, even at this relatively early stage. Discussing this with Mike Hall, we both agreed on the importance of continuing to develop our ‘restorative circle’ and other activities that will grow our skills around communication, which means not merely the nice stuff. Learning to talk - and learning to argue - compassionately, empathically and effectively, is not a top-dressing but of the essence, a key to creating a community that will run without endless meetings and wrangling over issues that, while emotive, could be resolved concisely if the foundations of understanding and skillful speech are well established before-time.