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Karen Deegan: Always talk to the people who think your idea is crazy, and listen carefully!

June 11, 2010

It is always inspiring when people start up ambitious projects, but it’s especially awesome when friends do it. I think that’s because you know that they are real people (after all, you’ve dumpster-dived together, camped in the mud at Bluesfest, watched countless episodes of Secret Life of Us (if you’re my gen), helped each other out building scale models during all-nighters just before deadline, cried in each other’s arms when things didn’t work out), which basically means that there is a real possibility you could do it too – follow your dream.

Karen Deegan is an old friend of mine. We lived together in a sharehouse on the beach during that last painful year of uni, and while I was busy running after boys (well, one in particular), KD spent a large proportion of her time scouting for derelict buildings and old warehouses, dreaming of converting them into livable spaces. I didn’t think much about it, that was just what she did. It always took a long time to walk anywhere because we had to go past her newest object of desire, but that was ok.

Fast forward to 2010. We’re still friends, and while my particular interest has resulted in relocation across the globe and a couple of little guys, Karen’s has produced something which required a whole other set of skills – she’s conceived of the Urban Coup, a co-housing development in inner Melbourne.

It doesn’t exist in the physical world yet, but the Coup will be a small development of about 25 households, each one with its own private courtyard, its own kitchen, and can be bought and sold on the open market like a conventional house or apartment – but there will also be a centrally located ‘common house’ shared by all, a facility where the community can meet together regularly for meals, meetings, socializing and special events, a joint garden and a chicken coup. Like a big sharehouse for grownups!

In their own words, The Urban Coup is “our way of living differently to help ourselves to help the planet. Choosing to build a co-housing development is our answer to an age when global resources are being strained by modern living, urban sprawl is ever-expanding, and many of us in the city find ourselves isolated from real community in our current homes.”

It is such an excellent idea, and I decided to ask Karen how she did it. So, over a cuppa at ace local cafe:

Me: How did the idea about the coup develop?

Karen: It was a particular old building next to the Abbotsford convent in Melbourne perched high up over the river that rekindled lots of ideas I’d had. In fact, you were there! It was that day when you and I were riding our bikes and found it…

Me:…and we climbed up that steep escarpment with all the ivy and over the fence…was that it?

Karen: Yeah! That was the catalyst! I started thinking how much I’d love to live right there, but I couldn’t afford to buy it by myself of course, it was huge. At the same time a colleague had started travelling to Denmark and the US to look at co-housing, he showed me pictures, some of which were warehouse conversions. And also at the same time I started grappling with the idea that I might never have my own family and I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t age lonely. Those three parts merged. And then I started talking to friends asking if they’d want to buy into it and develop together. My need was “I need people”. After a while someone put me in contact with another person who had a similar dream and when we met we decided “Let’s do it together”. Having someone else who both heard my dream and had a personal interest in creating that dream, that was the magic.

Me: And then what did you do?

Karen: I wrote an email that took less than five minutes to write and I sent it to 22 people whom I’d been talking to and who’d expressed interest, and it was essentially a calling. 22 turned up.

And we needed everyone, and everything we needed was in the group: we had someone who could provide examples of projects that had worked before – IMAGES! were really important, to illustrate the end goal and to see that they were people like us so we weren’t just guessing and hoping! We had someone who could provide a room to meet in every week; we had people who knew how to chair a meeting and who understood group psychology; and we had someone to give us a visual identity which was incredibly important because it proved that we all wanted the same thing. That was two years ago.

Me: Where are you at now?

Karen: The project is now at a point where it needs deep thinking – lots of things need to be done right now, for example decide on the exact brief for the building and site layout – it needs to be sunny and welcoming, it needs this many flats, this type of laundry.

Me: And you’re about to go overseas for a while – which you didn’t know would happen when you started, but the project will keep rolling, it’s got momentum now.  How does that feel? How much will you need to let go?

Karen: I’ll have to let go of the part I love the most, which is interacting with people face to face. I don’t personally know how to do this thing [run a project of this scale], all I do is think of whom to ask.

Me: So how did you learn that skill, identifying a problem or need and then find the person who can solve it?

Karen: I think it’s about choosing a project that uses your natural abilities because then you enjoy the act of doing it and it helps you through the drudgery – I get high doing this!

Me: Was that a conscious decision on your part?

Karen: The project was a dream and everyone took the role that came naturally to them.

Me: Do you have to be able to dream large if you want to make substantial change?

Karen: Dream detailed! You’ve got to dream what it will feel like, what it will smell like, what it will look like. I don’t think you have to dream large, you just have to dream. It’s a difficult balance though, to hold on to your dream and at the same time be open when the project evolves. In this particular project it is important that it is a collectively owned dream, because then we all take responsibility for its creation.

Me: Is it important to talk to other people about your dreams and ideas in order to make them happen?

Karen: There is a real something in the externalization of an idea. Sometimes it makes it less hard, more real. I think it’s really important to talk to people not of your own ilk about your dream. Because often if it’s a bigger idea or project it can be quite complicated and it’s hard for any one person to conceptualize what different parts are needed to create momentum.

The other thing is, talk to people who don’t think it’s a good idea – it’s from them you’ll hear all the potential problems, it’s from them you can learn a LOT about what obstacles you might encounter. like-minded people will just go “Ohhh, that’s such a a great idea, can’t wait to see your chickens!” which is nice but it doesn’t really give you anything, whereas talk to some hardcore developer and they’ll go “Are you seriously thinking you are going to get permission to build a block of flats and provide NO parking? The neighbours will go NUTS when they see the plans and object to the council – they don’t want cars parked on their street, and the hell they’ll believe that ‘nobody living there will own a car‘!” Aha! THEN I learn something. Always talk to the people who think your idea is crazy, and listen carefully!

———–

If you are interested in The Coup, you can check out their weir website, www.urbancoup.org, or email Karen on redsqare@hotmail.com

(Logo and drawings by the Talented Ms Eterovic)

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