What makes a great home? For architects French 2D, the process is rooted in dialogue — and lots of it. After all, the answer varies depending on who you ask, which leaves designers with the task of translating the client’s needs and aspirations into a bespoke environment, all while balancing climate, site context, building code and budget. It’s a challenge familiar to architects the world over; beauty emerges through careful listening, as well as attention to detail and sensitivity to local culture. But Anda and Jenny French weren’t designing a luxurious single-family home; the Boston-based sisters were bringing their thoughtful, collaborative ethos to a striking three-storey residential complex for an intentional community of 30 households.

Recently completed, their collective ownership project in Malden, Massachusetts, integrates playfulness, personality and an elegant dose of density. In its eye-catching form and vivid hues, the Bay State Cohousing development riffs on the peaked roofs and painted facades of the Victorian homes adjacent its prominent urban site (which connects to the Boston-area subway system) to introduce a vibrant neighbourhood presence. Just as its envelope hints at a single-family home gracefully stretched to urban proportions, the design process was guided by close collaboration with the clients, who range from millennial couples and young families to baby boomers.

Brick and Roses: How Community-Led Development Shapes Design

In the Bay State Cohousing courtyard, stairs and landings are positioned to maximize full sun, creating space-saving, economical circulation circulation. PHOTO: Naho Kubota

“On any given day, there’d be up to 50 people together in a room, keeping each other in check,” says Jenny, describing a process grounded in “consensus decision-making.” For the architects, realizing the community’s desires for shared space, urban connection and intergenerational living entailed rethinking the norms of American mass housing: “How do we not just make a double-loaded corridor where everyone rushes out the door, hoping they don’t see anyone in the elevator?”

Brick and Roses: How Community-Led Development Shapes Design

The outdoor spaces are carefully contoured to balance privacy and social interaction. PHOTO: Naho Kubota

In lieu of double-loaded corridors, the individual homes of Bay State are accessed via the mint-green outdoor staircases that encircle the pink-hued, C-shaped courtyard. Evoking the fire escapes that double as impromptu gathering spots, these staircases face south to create more comfortable year-round conditions; their landings, together with the other balconies that contour the courtyard, mediate privacy and conviviality, deftly facilitating the collective supervision of children at play. A distinct counterpoint to the ubiquitous “5-over-1” apartment buildings that define much of 21st-century American urbanism, the irregularly terraced structure hints at the messy yet delightful architectural palimpsests created through generations of renovations and home additions on nearby streets.

Brick and Roses: How Community-Led Development Shapes Design

While each Bay State apartment features a small kitchen, a communal dining room brings all 100 residents together. PHOTO: Naho Kubota

The layout emphasizes communal life throughout. A simple, welcoming kitchen and dining room on the first floor makes room for all 100 residents to share a meal, while dedicated rooms for yoga and music and a media room invite smaller gatherings. The apartments themselves feature a varied unit mix — from compact studios to three-bedroom family homes — that reflects the eclectic community.

Brick and Roses: How Community-Led Development Shapes Design
The street-facing frontage hints at residential vernacular. PHOTO: Naho Kubota

In cities around the world, models of collective ownership are emerging as a response to an acute crisis. Across much of Europe and North America, prohibitive rents and soaring property values have put housing increasingly out of reach as social inequality accelerates, while governments in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States have largely abandoned state-led building programs. In response, the possibilities afforded by intentional communities are gradually shaping our civic discourse — and urban fabric.

But while projects like French 2D’s Bay State present a striking departure from typological conventions and pro forma development, they also build on a centuries-old tradition of collectively owned real estate. In the 1780s, one of the earliest co-operative initiatives in North America — the African Mutual Aid Society — was led by the African Methodist Church. Across the pond in the 1840s, workers in Rochdale, England started a collectively owned storefront. In the late 19th century, Chinese labourers formed associations to buy buildings in order to provide cooperative banking, and also room and board. By the turn of the 20th century, large scale housing co-ops sprung up in fast-growing American cities like New York and Chicago. Largely organized through trade unions, women’s associations, faith groups and ethno-cultural community organizations, housing co-operatives offered economically vulnerable labourers and low-income immigrants a pathway to secure housing.

The crux of it is simple: Every resident of a co-op collectively owns the property and participates in its governance and obligations. In 1918, Brooklyn’s Finnish Home Building Association established a housing co-operative that adhered its structure to what became known as the Rochdale Principles of voluntary and open membership, democratic member control and mutual support among the community. It’s a model that continues to inspire intentional communities the world over — especially in countries indexing the highest in democratic participation. Today, co-ops remain a vital part of the urban landscape in European countries including Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, and Denmark. In Copenhagen, for example, a third of the housing stock comprises some form of collectively owned and managed dwellings. And in Zurich, one of the world’s most expensive cities, co-ops are home to 26 per cent of residents, many of whom are protected from rising rents and pay well below market rates.

“In Zurich, co-operatives are creating a counter-economy at a scale that’s viable for affordable rents and limited equity,” says Anda. This stands in contrast to much of the co-operative housing we know in North America. In the United States and Canada, co-operative housing is seldom as well-funded or as democratic, and is often defined by strict board control, top-down decision-making and financial exclusivity. In both countries, economic policies favouring private home ownership gradually eroded funding for social housing; many 20th-century co-operatives were established to effectively privatize previously publicly managed communities in an era of neoliberal divestment. Over time, many also abandoned the limited equity models that restrict resale values and ensure long-term affordability, becoming similar to market-rate condominiums. Writing in Metropolis, Jessica Bridger contrasts the Swiss model — where the majority of the population rents — to an “Anglo- American anxiety about getting on the property ladder.”

Brick and Roses: How Community-Led Development Shapes Design

Designed by Toronto’s Teeple Architects for Toronto Community Housing and Unite Here, 60 Richmond Street integrates an on-site garden. PHOTO: Teeple Architects

Yet on the rare occasions that new affordable co-operative projects are built, the results can be inspiring. In downtown Toronto, Teeple Architects completed such a project in 2011 with the award-winning 60 Richmond Street East. Designed for a group of residents in the hospitality industry — most of whom were part of a local union called Unite Here — the 11-storey, 85-unit building was Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s first new co-operative development in almost 20 years.

Brick and Roses: How Community-Led Development Shapes Design

The verdant interior courtyard at 60 Richmond features edible greenery. PHOTO: Teeple Architects

Its bold, multi-hued facade of glass, cement board and steel constitutes
an instantly recognizable presence. Inside, an airy atrium is animated by “hanging gardens” of edible greenery, harvested to serve a resident-operated restaurant and training kitchen on the ground floor, which brings energy to the street while providing an income source for residents. Food waste is then returned to the gardens as compost, closing a sustainable — and hyperlocal — loop.

Combining deep sensitivity to community context with architectural élan, 60 Richmond Street East evinces the design possibilities of collective housing with a bespoke program that directly reflects its community. In contrast to both private-sector development projects and most state-led social housing, its form and program are predicated on the specific needs and aspirations of its residents. (And although the success of the project did not spur an immediate co-op renaissance, the City of Toronto recently signalled a return to ambitious social development, with a landmark 618 co-operative housing units planned as part of an architecturally ambitious mega-development in Scarborough).

While co-operatives are defined by the legal structures of shared ownership, co-housing is rooted in a lifestyle choice. These projects combine private homes with shared indoor and outdoor spaces like communal kitchens and living rooms. The movement traces its origins to 1960s Denmark, when a group of friends gathered to bemoan the dearth of options for raising their young families in a dense, sociable setting. Rallied by architect Jan Gudmand-Høyer, the coalition gradually expanded, grounded in an ethos of collective childcare and mutual aid. By consolidating their funds, they built their first pair of projects by 1973, and co-housing gradually became more commonly accepted. In 1981, national legislation allowed for streamlined financing, accelerating widespread adoption.

Back in the United States, co-housing models — and the civic values they represent — differ across communities and jurisdictions. Malden’s Bay State community was developed as an LLC and is now legally organized as a condominium complex — albeit a resident-led one — with privately owned units and group-owned public spaces, but North American co-housing developments can also be governed as homeowners associations comprising freehold homes with communal spaces. Many are also organized as co-operatives, integrating a legal structure of shared ownership with communal living.

Brick and Roses: How Community-Led Development Shapes Design

In Los Angeles, Bittoni Architects’ Beverly apartment building combines 16 affordable homes with communal spaces. PHOTO: Bittoni Architects

There are now about 170 co-housing communities in the United States, French 2D’s Anda explains, “but architecturally, many of them are almost similar to gated neighbourhoods.” Jenny impishly describes these as “condominium communes”; they are cloistered — and overwhelmingly white — enclaves seeking separation from cities and mainstream society. French 2D’s design philosophy hews “much closer to the Danish model and its emphasis on mutual aid,” says Jenny. As urban affordability becomes a distressingly universal crisis, however, American co-housing communities are increasingly embracing density and diversity; they seek to knit their new architectural forms into the surrounding urban fabric.

Brick and Roses: How Community-Led Development Shapes Design

Developed in partnership with non-profit Biennial of the Americas, Productora’s ingenious co-housing design fits eight affordable dwellings onto two single-family lots in Denver. PHOTO: Onnis Luque

On a busy strip in Los Angeles, for example, Bittoni Architects replaced a vacant lot with a 23-unit affordable co-housing community geared to newcomers to the city in 2019. Two years later, they completed the four-storey Beverly complex in the city’s Larchmont neighbourhood, with two of the 16 units provided to extremely low-income residents. Meanwhile, in Denver, designers Productora recently clustered eight bright blue households and their shared amenities onto a suburban lot that would typically be occupied by two single-family houses.

Across the pond, the English city of Cambridge welcomed its first co-housing development in 2018. It’s an architectural gem. Dubbed Marmalade Lane, the project was designed by Mole Architects for K1 Cohousing, a diverse group — spanning many generations and 14 different nationalities — formed with the shared purpose of creating an affordable, child-friendly and ecological community. Created in partnership with developers Town and Swedish builders Trivselhus, the homes were priced well below the surrounding market; similar nearby residences can fetch almost double the price.

Brick and Roses: How Community-Led Development Shapes Design
In Cambridge, Marmalade Lane’s central promenade combines play spaces with gardens and outdoor seating, creating an intuitive community hub. PHOTO: David Butler

Situated on the edge of town, the intergenerational complex unfolds in a handsomely textured row of pitched-roof homes, accented by varied hues
of brick and fronted by a broad pedestrian promenade where children play and neighbours meet. Combining terraced houses with a small apartment building, Marmalade Lane comprises 42 residences split between two-to-five- bedroom arrangements and one- and two-bedroom suites. “In effect, we had 42 different houses to design,” architect Meredith Bowles told the Guardian, “so we had to find ways of making them more replicable and cost-effective to build.” The team started by developing three distinct unit types, designed to be inexpensively altered according to household needs.

Marmalade Lane, Cambridge, Mole Architects, Cohousing
Brick and Roses: How Community-Led Development Shapes Design

The 42 Marmalade Lane homes comprise range of unit types across terrace houses and a small apartment building. PHOTO: David Butler

Through the co-design process, participants chose unconventional (though contextually appropriate) architectural moves. For starters, they favoured
child-friendly public areas with ample play structures and community gardens over street-level parking; a shared cargo trike program supports the mostly car- free community. And they embraced Passive House principles in the design of their homes, which are served by air-source heat pumps. The front doors of one row of houses, which frames the central promenade, face the back entrances of their neighbours across the way. A seeming breach of privacy, it’s a move that the residents appreciated: The open, intuitive and welcoming circulation evokes the intimacy of a village.

Brick and Roses: How Community-Led Development Shapes Design

The Common House at Marmalade Lane is a year-round social hub for the inter-generational community. PHOTO: David Butler

Isme, a young resident quoted on Marmalade Lane’s website, puts it
best. “At my old house, I couldn’t just jump over the bushes to Pippi’s house because there were big fences.” Here, the fences are gone, and the bushes add beauty, not barriers. While co-housing is typologically defined by its shared spaces, its deeper architectural meaning emerges through the collaborative design process it facilitates. Like French 2D, Mole Architects translated a personal, intimate client–architect relationship — which typically serves wealthy landowners and their opulent homes — into a democratic, civic-minded discourse.

Community land trusts (CLTs) push the envelope even further. Organized as non-profit corporations that own and manage parcels of land under the direction of community members; CLTs offer a formalized, scalable, community-led ownership and management structure that guarantees permanent affordability. They are typically funded through a combination of member-led fundraising and financing, which is often coupled with government and charitable support, as well as grants managed in partnership with socially responsible investment groups. In a CLT, the trust purchases, develops, and manages land on behalf of the whole community, which includes future generations of neighbours. The land they sit on remains owned by the trust, with the property value removed from the private market – and housing costs are typically tied to median local income. 

Modern CLTs trace their roots to the Civil Rights era, when, in 1969, a network of Black civil rights activists founded the first one in rural Georgia – to address the loss of their own farmland, and prevent further loss of Black land ownership. Throughout the late 20th century, CLTs gradually spread across North America in response to escalating housing costs. Bernie Sanders helped establish an influential early land trust in 1984 as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, buying up properties as residents faced the threat of being priced out of the city. Now called the Champlain Housing Trust, the largest CLT in the world boasts a portfolio of over 3,000 dwellings. And they regularly forward their learnings to the growing number of CLTs across North America who are serving historically marginalized communities, ranging from Chinatowns and Indigenous populations to majority-Black neighbourhoods simultaneously battling disinvestment and displacement.

Momentum is palpable. The number of CLTs across the U.S. nearly doubled between 2006 and 2023, from 162 to over 300, and in the United Kingdom, they have grown from just 20 in 2008 to over 350 today. In Canada, at least 11 of the country’s 41 CLTs were established between 2020 and 2023, and their presence continues to expand — particularly in expensive, rapidly gentrifying cities like Toronto and Vancouver. One of the largest, the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust in Toronto’s West End, now owns 85 properties, a portfolio valued at $85 million. Meanwhile, downtown’s Kensington Market Community Land Trust made headlines in 2021 when it purchased its first property, ensuring permanently stable rents at a third of the market rate in a 12-unit apartment complex.

Given the urgency of the housing crisis and accelerating real estate speculation, much of the strategy and advocacy undertaken by the charitable and affordable housing sector is grounded in addressing the fundamental human need for safe, dignified shelter. Although these organizations regularly build new homes and renovate existing ones, aspirational design is seldom an urgent priority. Yet as designers like French 2D and Mole Architects elegantly demonstrate, the ethos of collective living can also translate into a profoundly contextual — but economically modest — built form that supports the community. So what happens when a community land trust leads the design conversation?

Citizens House was designed by Archio for the London Community Land Trust.
Citizens House. PHOTO: French+Tye

True to its name, Citizens House in London grew out of a grassroots advocacy campaign that began a full decade before the building’s 2023 completion. Facing scant housing options, a group of local residents — including teacher Janet Emmanuel — approached government authorities, lobbying the local Lewisham council for a land grant. Told that no sites were available, residents then took it upon themselves to find one, gathering support from charity Citizens UK and the London CLT. “It started one Sunday with a group of 10 of us,” Emmanuel told the Guardian, “roaming around, peeking over people’s fences, trying to map all the bits of leftover land in the area.”

Brick and Roses: How Community-Led Development Shapes Design

The staggered balconies facilitate easy conversations between neighbours, while also sheltering the street-level entrances below from the elements. PHOTO: French+Tye

The search led to a mid-block scrap of an infill site in South London, hemmed in on all sides by houses and served only by a narrow laneway. It was too small and too poorly serviced for viable private development; London CLT successfully purchased it. In 2016, the community organized an event to meet prospective architects. An emerging practice specializing in collaborative housing, local firm Archio won the public vote. Led by co-founders Mellis Haward and Kyle Buchanan, the architects kicked off the process with an intensive three-day co-design workshop, where community members shared their priorities.

Brick and Roses: How Community-Led Development Shapes Design

While the designers envisioned a green forecourt, a preference for a hardscaped plaza was expressed through the community-led process. PHOTO: French+Tye

“We learned a lot,” says Buchanan, “and the process challenged some of the assumptions we were making as architects.” For example, the Archio team envisioned a garden to beautify the space in front of the building. It’s an intuitive design gesture — one that probably makes for a project more publishable in a magazine. “But the residents told us they already had plenty of nearby lawns and green spaces. What they really wanted was a plaza for social gatherings — and for the local teenage girls that love to rollerblade through the neighbourhood.” Instead, a hardscaped plaza now meets the public realm, creating a simple but flexible gathering space.

Brick and Roses: How Community-Led Development Shapes Design

The building’s exterior stair combines spatially efficient egress with another space for social interactions. PHOTO: French+Tye

In architectural terms, Citizens House is an understated local landmark, its paved forecourt welcoming neighbours and rollerblading teens alike. Its crisp, four-storey facade of white bricks and staggered balconies draws the eye with an inviting expression. “Residents wanted to use their balconies as community spaces and talk to their neighbours. That’s hard to do if you stack balconies on top of one another,” says Buchanan, “so we created this staggered pattern that lets residents see their neighbours above and below.” The carefully placed balconies do double duty by sheltering the ground-floor entrances below. It’s a spatially efficient solution that reflects an economy of means in a project with a tight construction budget of £2.5 million. The resulting architecture, including a bold spiral stair on the back of the building, is at once assertive and urbane.

Citizens House is an architectural case study for community land trusts the world over.

Citizens House is an architectural case study for community land trusts the world over. PHOTO: French+Tye

It’s also a design milestone for CLTs the world over. “At first glance, it’s a familiar sight. These must be…luxury apartments,” architecture critic Oliver Wainwright wrote in the Guardian. Yet homes in the 11-unit building sell for about 65 per cent of market value, making them attainable to tenants, including teachers and non-profit workers, who are ineligible for social housing yet are priced out of ownership. “My only options were to rent an apartment I couldn’t afford and watch my savings disappear or to move out of London, away from my friends, family and my community,” Emma Evangelista, now a Citizens House resident, attests on the London CLT website.

A radical — and often necessary — departure from the regulatory norms that govern urban development and land use planning is another potential outcome of a community-led design process. In 2014, acclaimed housing designers Karakusevic Carson Architects embarked on a collaboration with London’s nascent Camley Street Land Trust and Sustainability Zone. It had the makings of something remarkable. On a three-hectare site, the conceptual plan envisioned a mixed-use community supporting some 30 small businesses and 500 on-site jobs, along with 750 permanently affordable homes. A locus of manufacturing since the Industrial Revolution, the borough of Camden has remained a hub of artisanal production. Karakusevic Carson and the residents sought to preserve and grow this identity by integrating industrial spaces — as well as their complex loading, servicing, ventilation and back-of-house needs — within a scheme that also included generous civic spaces.

In 2014, Karakusevic Carson worked with the Camley Street Land Trusts and Sustainability Zone to envision a radically inclusive urban densification project combining welcoming public spaces with affordable housing and on-site industry.

In 2014, Karakusevic Carson worked with the Camley Street Land Trust and Sustainability Zone to envision a radically inclusive urban densification project combining welcoming public spaces with affordable housing and on-site industry.

From the sheer scale of the community land trust to the bold marriage of industry and 21st-century urbanism, the project proved a bridge too far: The site is now set to be redeveloped through a more conservative scheme — and without a land trust. Although the full vision didn’t come to fruition, it pushed the potential of urban thinking.

Sometimes, the results pan out. French 2D’s Bay State Cohousing project emerged during a local building moratorium, on a site recently subject to downzoning. Its then-future residents kicked off the project with a letter-writing and door-knocking campaign that reached both hesitant locals and public officials. “That was the only way we could convince the very traditional chief planner,” says Jenny. “The planners had this idea of opposing ‘density for density’s sake,’ which is obviously something we don’t agree with.” However, the grassroots advocacy made it clear that “density was supporting the community.”

In fact, the Bay State project ultimately spurred the creation of a new, more liberal zoning ordinance. In an urban development landscape where community consultation is typically dominated by local homeowners, advocacy that foregrounds incoming tenants is a powerful tool to overcome reflexive NIMBYism. A similar scenario played out at London’s Citizens House, where this type of activism prevailed over reluctant neighbours. According to Pete Brierley, assistant director of Citizens UK, the grassroots approach was crucial. “There’s a real difference between Janet the teacher knocking on your door and a developer or council official coming round,” Brierley told the Guardian. “The local credibility gives you an opportunity to build relationships, and it reduces suspicion. People are naturally worried about losing something they have, rather than gaining something better.”

Brierley’s succinct analysis diagnoses a fundamental fissure in the politics of urban development. Across North America and the United Kingdom, the existing paradigm pits the entrenched interests of local residents — often whiter, wealthier and older than their prospective neighbours — against both private-sector developers and the state, and effectively weaponizes public input as a tool to curtail urban density and slow change. Conversely, the structure of collectively owned housing helps rebalance a fraught political landscape, elevating the voices of future community members to the forefront of civic discourse.

From the Massachusetts suburbs and the outskirts of an English town to the bustling metropolises of Toronto and London, contexts vary. So do resident-led organizations, which range from a culinary co-operative to multi-generational co-housing developments and a community land trust that guarantees permanent affordability in one of the world’s most expensive cities. Yet they are united as intentional communities, each expressing aspirations that were translated into inspiring architectural form.

For architects, the immersive, democratic process facilitated by intentional communities can fundamentally transform the client relationship, fostering distinct and innovative design outcomes. For the rest of us, the possibilities of collaboration and co-design are a spark for the public imagination. In our response to a deepening housing crisis, there’s still room to imagine beauty.

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Stefan Novakovic is a senior editor at Azure Magazine. Chiyi Tam is an urban planner and anti-displacement organizer practicing in Tkaronto’s Kensington-Chinatown neighbourhood. She is currently a visiting expert with the School of Cities’ as an Early Career Canadian Urban Leader. Chiyi is the managing director of the recently established Toronto Chinatown Land Trust.

The post Brick and Roses: How Community-Led Development Shapes Design appeared first on Azure Magazine.

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