When Imogen Smith left Broadford last summer for university, many of her apprehensions were typical of the first-year experience. She knew neither the city nor its people, and much of her new lifestyle she had never tried before.
But as an incoming tenant of the Edinburgh Student Housing Co-operative, Smith faced a unique reality: nobody else had tried it before either.
Smith is a member of the inaugural year of the co-op, an early test subject of a social experiment two years in the making. The hypothesis is simple: if students could commandeer their own accommodation and organise their own rent, landlords and their attendant fees could be bypassed. Living costs would decrease. Prohibitive living restrictions would be eradicated. Students would be liberated into letting their lifestyles dictate their accommodation, rather than restricted into the other way around. And, perhaps most ambitiously, they would live and operate in cohesive harmony.
Now, five months in, co-op residents have declared that hypothesis resoundingly proven, and Smith is no exception.
“It hit me hardest after Christmas,” she told The Student: “I came back to the co-op and I realised that my joy in returning to this place was exactly the same as the joy I’d felt going home for the holidays. It’s not just a building. It’s a family.”
“It’s made my university experience,” resident Hari Brooker agreed.
“I honestly feel that I could knock on literally anyone’s door here and be invited in for tea”, added Nathan Bower-Bir, one of the co-op’s early proponents. “It’s that kind of environment.”
If such emotional overtures to community and camaraderie are endemic to the co-op, it’s partly a product of design. Beyond collectively pooling resources to lower their rent, members of the co-operative are expected to be active contributors to the building’s success. The application process demands commitment to this ideal. Candidates are asked why they want to live in a co-op and what they can personally contribute to its improvement. Their responses are evaluated anonymously by an admissions panel. The stakes are high; in its maiden year, over 200 applications were submitted for 106 beds.
With such odds, devotion commands a high premium.
“You need people who buy into it,” Mike Shaw, one of the founding members, told The Student. “The space depends on the work of the members: the more people willing to put in work, the better and fairer it is for everyone.”
What results is a corps of tenants whose investment in their place of residence borders on the spiritual. Members have carte blanche to spearhead any improvements themselves and enlist help in the process. Myriad committees devoted to specific areas such as finance and maintenance meet regularly, but individual creative initiatives are encouraged and supported.
The space certainly lends itself as a blank slate. Comprising two former Napier University student tenements on the western banks of the Bruntsfield Links, the buildings’ interiors are still beholden to their anodyne roots. But that will change over time, residents promise.
“When I applied, I offered to the co-op something along the lines of joy” Brooker recollected warmly, “and I said that I would express it visually. So this Saturday, we’re painting the stairs.”
The next major project: renovating the basements into social spaces.
While the anarchic student-run governing system fosters creativity and equality, it would seem to breed potential for conflict. Yet tenants insist the contrary.
“We’ve got this thing of everyone wanting to make this work”, Shaw told The Student. “As long as you keep reminding one another that you may disagree, it’s very rare that the other person is going to be wanting to cause trouble.”
That isn’t to say that conflicts don’t occur. But just as the collaborative process can produce solutions to leaking pipes in the hallways, it can equally heal rifts in relationships, Shaw contends.
Other co-operative proponents concurred. “Co-ops are about a local community network and mutual support for each other”, Nic Bliss, chair of the Confederation of Co-operative Housing, a UK network of non-student housing co-ops, told The Student. They also “help the co-op students integrate with the wider community” Edinburgh City Housing Convener Cammy Day told The Student.
Shaw is determined to build off the success and expand into other properties, both within Edinburgh and beyond. With his links to the Edinburgh social housing group Castle Rock, as well a UK-wide organisation Students for Cooperation, he plans to pursue co-operative developments after he graduates this year. It might be a bright future: Councillor Day told The Student that talks are underway with the Minister for Housing and Welfare in Holyrood to expand Edinburgh-wide.
But for now, he’s still a part of the co-op he helped found. And that means pulling his weight.