I have had the pleasure of visiting local co-operatives in Poland, following a Board meeting yesterday of our network, Co-operatives Europe.
You get a sense over time of what to look for. So when I visit a housing co-op, I tend to notice the flowers and plants. The ecology around houses tends to point to the pattern of social organisation associated with the settlement – the freedoms, the responsibilities, the character, the creativity.
So, it was utter joy to see the greenery, the care and the diversity of flowers, land and trees – as well as the people – in the housing co-op, Sluzew Nad Dolinka (SND) south of Warsaw.
There are co-operatives of every form in Poland, but housing co-ops are the most common, with over 3,500 across the country. It is a form of tenure that operated in the communist era, albeit one of the few genuine opportunities for voice and democracy at the most local level (the national level was controlled by the state and some so-called co-ops, now broken up, were simply giant municipal housing projects covering the entire quarter of a city). Founded in 1991, SND is a relatively young housing co-operative, with stock transferred from a larger conglomerate, and has set about creating a peaceful and purposeful community for its members.
By law, post the communist era, members can dissolve the co-op and operate akin to a private condominium, but in fact they have proved to be a popular option.
The co-operative runs an area of forty two hectares, with forty two buildings housing ten thousand people. Seven thousand of these are members of the co-op and the General Assembly is a packed and busy affair, electing its Supervisory Board and debating key investments and the next projects to focus on.
As ever, the difference between a successful and a failing co-op is the extent to which members are involved in governance, so that it is the common good and not simply personal concerns that shape what happens over time.
The elected Board is what has given an emphasis to greener living. The air in the neighbourhood is the cleanest on official data of any quarter around Warsaw. There are spaces for people to grow fruit and vegetables, flowers on the balconies (with hotly contested awards for the most profuse).
59% of the area owned by the co-op is green and as you walk around, the space is open, restful and full of play areas for children. There are one hundred bird boxes put up by members on the wide range of trees on the estate.
The roof of the most recent development has bee hives, while the library opens on to a moss-covered verdant balcony. Inside the library itself, there is a special shelf for books written by members and residents of the co-op.
They do have cameras, following a member resolution and according to police statistics, it is one of the safest housing estates in the region. Members have also enthusiastically backed a range of moving monuments to key moments in the life of Poland, such as curving hedge dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising in the Second World War
“People live close to nature here” comments one member, Edyta.
“We all love this place; we will never want to leave here.”