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The private and public realms in a cohousing

Cohousings serve as microcosms of society, where individuals navigate a complex interplay between the private spaces of their homes and the shared public areas within the community. This dichotomy between the private and public realms shapes social dynamics, governance structures, and individual experiences within these communities. What are the nuances of this dichotomy, its implications on community cohesion, governance, and residents' well-being?

The Private Realm: 

The private realm within cohousings encompasses individual dwellings and the personal spaces residents inhabit or even work at. According to sociologist Georg Simmel, the private sphere represents a sanctuary where individuals exercise autonomy, express personal identity, and seek refuge from the external world (Simmel, 1908). This is of relevance if we think about the historical changes between the public and private law (discussed underneath). In cohousings, private spaces serve as havens for intimate interactions, family bonding, and self-expression. Its architecture is key to define the extent of privacy afforded to residents within their homes (Altman & Werner, 1985). Privacy within cohousings is not only physical but also entails psychological boundaries. Erving Goffman's concept of "territories of the self" emphasises individuals' need to control access to personal space to maintain a sense of autonomy and identity (Goffman, 1963). Residents and designers (depending on the project) employ various strategies, such as landscaping, fences, and security measures, to delineate and safeguard their private domains within a communal setting (Nasar, 1985). 

The Public Realm:

The public sphere in cohousings comprises shared spaces, amenities, and governance structures accessible to all residents and likely even guests. These areas foster social interaction, collective activities and tasks, and community engagement, contributing to the formation of social capital and cohesion (Putnam, 2000). Urban planners and architects play a crucial role in designing inclusive public spaces that cater to diverse needs and foster a sense of belonging (Madanipour, 2010). The public realm serves as a stage for social performances, where individuals negotiate social roles, norms, and identities (Goffman, 1959). Common areas such as parks, playgrounds, and community centres facilitate informal encounters, fostering a sense of community and mutual support (Jacobs, 1961). However, the governance of public spaces often entails collective decision-making processes, conflicts over resource allocation, and challenges in accommodating diverse preferences and interests (Low, 1992).

The public/private dichotomy 

The interplay between the private and the public is a subject of many books, including politics. According to Norberto Bobbio (eloquently summarised by John Keane, in the preface in Bobbio 1989), the public/private dichotomy in the western political thought, ought to be distinguished between what belongs to a group as collective and what belongs to its single members (households, enterprises, etc). Between the association of equals (polis) and communities of unequals (oikos). Between the public law (imposed by political authority) and the private law (regulating the interaction of privates). This interaction has been changing along time, from Cicero’s res publica where people are bounded by the utilitas communione, meaning that the public law was hierarchically superior to the private one, on to the Roman Law, and to the 17th and 18th century modernization where Locke and others “argued for the inviolability of property in the lives, Liberties and other natural rights of individuals.” (Bobbio, pg xv)  Knowing this evolution, the interplay between the private and public realms  within cohousings necessitates a delicate balance between individual autonomy and collective well-being and the power but also on the limits of democracy. Conflict resolution mechanisms, participatory governance structures, and clear delineation of rights and responsibilities are essential for managing tensions arising from this dichotomy (Fainstein, 2000). We need an understanding of privacy that acknowledges the fluidity and context-dependence of boundaries within communal settings (Blomley, 2001). Designing inclusive public spaces requires thus collaboration between planners, architects, and residents to accommodate diverse lifestyles, cultural practices, and needs (Madanipour, 2010) and also the changes over time.

Bobbio emphasises the significance of democratic governance in mediating conflicts between individual rights and collective interests (Bobbio, 1989). He underscores the importance of upholding democratic principles, such as accountability, transparency, and rule of law, in shaping inclusive and just communities (Bobbio, 1989). 

This dichotomy underscores the complexity of human interaction, identity formation, and governance. By recognizing the intertwined nature of these spheres, stakeholders can foster environments that promote individual autonomy, social cohesion, and collective well-being. 

Gamified Cohousing facility management app
Gamified Cohousing facility management app

What remains to be seen, and this is the work Gamified Cohousing is trying to do, is to explore innovative approaches in the design and management of cohousings that reconcile the tensions between the private and public realms and even consider the role of the civil society in it, ultimately enhancing residents' quality of life and a sense of belonging over time, not only to the local community but to the wider political life. For that, we need to stress out the importance of the factor time. As individuals constantly change, so do the dynamics of the group. We therefore need innovations that prioritise the adaptability of the process over time, and the constant changes of the notion of privacy and of the commons, and not focus solely on the needs of the moment. As the hierarchy of the public and private changed over time, so will these again in the future in ways we cannot foresee. Cohousings need strutures to encompass these changes at a practical but also at a legal level.

Pedro Aibéo


Kathmandu, Nepal


  • Altman, I., & Werner, C. M. (1985). Home environments (Vol. 9). Springer Science & Business Media.

  • Blomley, N. (2001). Law, space, and the geographies of power. Guilford Press.

  • Bobbio, N. (1989). Democracy and dictatorship: The nature and limits of state power. Polity Press.

  • Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Doubleday Anchor.

  • Goffman, E. (1963). Behavior in public places. Simon and Schuster.

  • Jacobs, J. (1961). The death and life of great American cities. Vintage.

  • Low, S. M. (1992). Symbolic ties that bind: Place attachment in the plaza. Place Attachment (pp. 165-186). Springer.

  • Madanipour, A. (2010). Public and private spaces of the city. Routledge.

  • Nasar, J. L. (1985). The effect of street layout on the perceived safety of streets and residential blocks. Journal of the American Planning Association, 51(1), 34-42.

  • Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. Simon and Schuster.

  • Simmel, G. (1908). The sociology of secrecy and of secret societies. American Journal of Sociology, 11(4), 441-498.


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