Food is always an excellent reason to spend some quality time together

Community-centred living is becoming increasingly popular in today’s Finland, with people more aware of the prevalence of social reclusion.

Rather than being an exception relegated to a rare few, living alone in a studio flat in your early 20s is more accurately described as the norm when it comes to student accommodation in Finland. Given that such living standards are seen as a luxury in most other countries, many foreigners fresh to Finnish culture are found to be flabbergasted upon hearing about it.

Even though bigger cities are showing a clear shortage of studio apartments, students and other young people still prefer to search for their own private-but-costly nest, leaving the possibility of sharing a flat as a second-rate option.

Be the reason for this independence-seeking leap of financial or cultural origin (or probably a combination of both), the fact remains that alarmingly many Finns of all ages are suffering from social reclusion and loneliness.

About 6 per cent of people here suffer from depression, while a staggering 15 per cent suffer from personality disorders. Although suicide rates are slowly decreasing – leaving Finland at 15th place worldwide – it is safe to say we are still not the most mentally stable bunch.

In many cases the kitchen is the heart of the commune.

A healthy alternative

With funds being continuously poured into mental health care institutions, some have been quicker to embrace a simpler – and cheaper – way to avoid such problems. This could be described as a (re-)turn to the primordial way of life that we still have coded somewhere in our genes: the way we used to – and few still do – live in close-knit communities that forego genetic ties.

One of them is Titiu Nylund, who was brought up in a rather different way. She grew up in her father’s guesthouse that hosted a vibrant social atmosphere, with new people, Finnish and foreign, coming and going all the time. She would always find company when she felt like it, but could retreat to her own room when in need of some peace. Instead of having only a few people to take care of her, she would instead have an extended amount of people watching out for her.

Now a 29-year-old UI designer, Nylund has lived in three different communes (kommuuni in Finnish), two of which she set up by herself. After having some experience in the first commune, which comprised of four people, she was eager to set up her own together with her boyfriend of the time. Being the leader of the new commune, she could create a home that reflected her own personality, and choose flatmates that were best aligned with the couple’s interests and character traits.

Nylund ended up renting a 204m2 flat with seven bedrooms, a kitchen, hall, two toilets, a bathroom, laundry room and a balcony. “We were really lucky to find it. It was a flat above a church on Iso-Roobertinkatu [in Helsinki], and the owner had difficulties in selling it because of some legal restrictions. It was also quite a bargain as rents would vary from as little as 80 euros/month for a 7m2 room to 380 euros/month for a spacious 35m2 room,” Nylund says, pointing out that such modest prices were from eight years ago.

She still remembers the feeling of being able to provide a safe nest for young teenagers living away from home for the first time: “It was immensely rewarding to be able to give a safe home for someone so new to life over here. They’d get a readymade social network and a safe place to live in. I was really proud about that.”

And when it comes to that independence Finns are so used to cherishing, Nylund believes that living in a commune was not by any means an obstacle to becoming independent. “On the contrary, I think in a commune you are better equipped to become a balanced person, because you have to learn how to deal with people of different kinds, and get used to all the different problems people tend to get entangled in with each other.”

Naturally life in a commune was not always a bunch of roses. “There would always be that last toilet roll waiting, while the previous few had been snitched to peoples’ respective hiding places; it would never be super clean, and there was always someone who did more than others,” Nylund says. But enduring all of this, she believes, has taught her an important lesson: “It’s useless to try to have everything polished up to perfection, and that there will always be something that’s not quite how like you’d have it, so instead of grinding yourself about it you should rather learn to accept it,” she says, referring to all aspects of life.

“Never again do I
want to live alone
or just with my

Togetherness in different forms

In Finland not all forms of living that include many non-related people co-habiting an apartment can be classified as a “commune”. Another such type is what Finns call “cell-living” (soluasuminen), which is usually organised by entities like HOAS, the student housing foundation in the Helsinki metropolitan area.

However, 31-year-old facilitation consultant Tanja Korvenmaa, who lives with seven other professionals in Tampere, does not see strict definitions separating different living forms as important. “I’m not even sure is meant by the word ‘commune’,” she states. “People would even call the cohousing community I grew up in a commune.”

So what is a cohousing community then?

The bare rudiments of what cohousing (yhteisöasuminen in Finnish) is, composes of an intentionally gathered community that lives in private homes and share certain facilities that vary according to the residents’ needs. The community-based life comes from the shared activities that take place in common areas, including everyday chores such as childcare, gardening and cooking. Cohousing communities are often built from scratch, whereby the future residents plan their own apartments and joint facilities together with the architect. “Alternatively they can renovate old housing suitable for their community,” Korvenmaa is quick to add.

Korvenmaa’s childhood was similar to Nylund’s, growing up surrounded by people from different walks of life. The cohousing community she grew up in composed mainly of families, totalling up to 100 people at its peak.

The community, named Tuulenkylä in Jyväskylä, was structured in the form of a circle, the heart of which was taken up by a big central garden and a communal sauna. The surrounding terraced houses formed a barrier around the garden, leaving it as a secure place for the children to play in. People would enter their houses from the inner garden, allowing neighbours to socialise more often.

Titiu & Tanja’s tips for commune

• Keep a kitty (shared money)
for communal expenses.
• Avoid accumulating stuff in
common areas, especially
in the kitchen.
• Everyone has their strengths
and weaknesses, make use
of the strengths.
• Conflicts are useful – not
only will you practise your
human relations skills, but
they are also a great way to
get to know one another in
a deeper way.
• The flat will never spic-andspam
clean, the sooner you
realise this, the better!

Even though cohousing is said to have started in Denmark in the 1960s, Korvenmaa believes that it is rather a more ancient way of living that has simply been renamed.

“We all had our own home, family, money, and then we had a communal building that hosted the local kindergarten,” Korvenmaa reminisces, describing her childhood home. “We also had a communal sauna and laundry facilities in the middle of the garden. It was a great place especially for families with young children, as the garden was a safe place to play in, and there were adults everywhere, easing the mother’s job tremendously.”

Cohousing communities are often set up to gather people that share the same life situation, be they families that prefer to have their children grow socially more aware and have help from other families with sharing turns babysitting, or senior citizens, who want to keep their social life flourishing.

“I think I learnt very early on that cultural differences prevailed in different families. By realising that ‘oh, things here work differently from our home, that’s ok’, I guess I learnt to become very tolerant of other peoples’ habits that differed from ours.”

As it often plays out in communes, cohousing communities usually consist of a group of like-minded people that share similar values and lifestyle. One popular type of cohousing is an ecovillage, which is based on the simple idea of living sustainably. It is up to the community itself in which way, and to what extent, this is materialised.

Korvenmaa spent a fair share of her 20s living alone or with a boyfriend, and is now sure about one thing: “I could never go and live completely on my own again, not even just with my boyfriend or husband,” she says, considering a close-knit community as a natural part of life.

Curiously, Nylund also has the exact same thoughts. “Never again do I want to live alone or just with my boyfriend! No offence to him, but I just need more human interaction around me!” she says, considering a cohousing-type of community as the next likely step.

Jenni Toriseva