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Cohousing--The neighborly, sustainable lifestyle

Updated on June 26, 2014
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An environmental enthusiast and activist her entire adult life, Kathryn shares her secrets to reducing waste and living greener.

Cohousing: The art of living in a close-knit, sustainable neighborhood

Living in a cohousing community is a little like living in a small town, the kind of town where everyone knows everyone else and is ready to drop everything and lend a helping hand whenever it is needed.

Whether it is a block of inner city condos, a housing development nestled in a valley on the edge of town, or a planned complex around a suburban park, a cohousing neighborhood is a close-knit community. It's a place where your neighbors are your friends, where you're more likely to hear laughter and happy children playing than televisions blaring.

Most cohousing communities prepare and eat meals together once or twice a week, share responsibility for the common grounds and buildings that enhance their daily lives, and celebrate connection and community.

I dream of spending the rest of my life in a sustainable community such as cohousing or an ecovillage. To help me decide which, I'm learning everything I can about them. On this page, I share what I've learned about cohousing. Here you will find a few examples of cohousing communities that have been around awhile, and lots of links to other web sites and resources where you can learn more.

Perhaps you're intrigued by the idea yourself. I'd love to know what you think about cohousing, and I hope you'll join the conversations below. You'll have an opportunity to participate in a poll, a debate and to sign my guestbook. Don't be shy!

Image: Hearthstone, an urban cohousing community in North Denver, CO
Photo by Evangeline Welch, courtesy
Cohousing Association of the United States (CoHo/US)

The Commons on the Alameda - Santa Fe, NM USA

Pathway and homes in the Commons on the Alameda, Santa Fe Cohousing, Used with permission
Pathway and homes in the Commons on the Alameda, Santa Fe Cohousing, Used with permission

The Commons on the Alameda is a cohousing community which means that in all aspects of its design and development, we have sought to engender a spirit of conviviality and neighborliness.

From The Commons on the Alameda

A note: Several of the images used on this page, including this one, came from a Commons photo gallery that is no longer available online. All of their images are used with permission.

Old home place - Copyright L Kathryn Grace; All rights reserved
Old home place - Copyright L Kathryn Grace; All rights reserved

Is cohousing the new village?

I loved the village of my childhood

First, a little backstory to help you understand why I'm so keen on the idea of living in a lively community. I grew up in a series of small towns.

My favorite was a village in Nebraska ten miles from the closest real town. We had a post office, a general store, a blacksmith, one church, one cafe, one bar, and a school--nine grades in three classrooms, with just three teachers. We're talking small community.

Fall, winter and spring, after school, on weekends and all summer long, we children lived outdoors. We went inside for supper and to sleep. The whole village, and some of the surrounding fields and farmland were our playground. We learned self-sufficiency from an early age.

Kids running wild, free--and responsible

In second grade, we learned how to build and tend a fire safely. One day--I was in third grade, so only eight at the time, but the second oldest of the neighborhood children--I grabbed a pack of wieners from the fridge. My friend across the street brought a pack of buns. Another kid brought some marshmallows.

Some of the kids had pocket knives and cut sticks for roasting the dogs and marshmallows while the other big girl (she was nine) and I built a fire in an empty lot. We knew how to scrape the dry grasses away in a big circle. We knew how to lay the fire, teepee style in the center of the ring. We also knew to build a small fire, no bigger than we needed to roast our food.

When we were finished, we put the fire out carefully, kicking dirt over it, pouring buckets of water, then separating the sticks and making sure they were out.

Afterwards, we traipsed off across the hill behind the village and, for the rest of the day, hiked around the farms we liked best. We knew which field had an old apple tree with the ripest apples and where to find a well with the coolest water to slake our thirst and the shadiest tree to rest our bones..

Years later, I asked my mom how she could let us go off like that, all alone, all day long. She said it was easy. Every mom watched for the kids. We were never completely out of someone's sight. One mom would get on the party line and call the mom down the way. "They're headed your way. Keep an eye on 'em."

Can cohousing offer similar freedoms?

Can you imagine letting your children out of your sight for that long today? Would your children be as self-sufficient as we were then, and at that age?

My daughters may have had ballet, gymnastics and music lessons, but they missed out on a lot of the blue-sky, deep-grass pleasures of my childhood. Not all children in cohousing communities will have the opportunities we had, but I daresay a few might come close.

So what is cohousing anyway, and how is it similar--and different--from the villages of my childhood?

Image copyright L Kathryn Grace. All rights reserved.

Cohousing is a type of collaborative housing in which residents actively participate in the design and operation of their own neighborhoods.

                                          Cohousing Association

Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities - by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett

Every cohousing community is designed and built by the people who live there. Each is unique, an amalgam of the collective vision of its residents. In this book, we get an insider's view of nearly two dozen established communities in the US and Europe.

Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities
Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities

McCamant and Durrett, cohousing architect gurus, brought the cohousing concept to the United States after visiting Denmark, where it all started in 1972. Not only will you find the history of cohousing well-presented here, you will find chapters on numerous well-established cohousing communities around the US, each including illuminating popouts describing facets of cohousing as only the people who live it can describe it. This book is lively, a joy to read, and chock full of practical tools and resources.

 
Garden path in the Commons on the Alameda - Image used with permission
Garden path in the Commons on the Alameda - Image used with permission

What is cohousing?

Sustainability, autonomy and neighborly companionship

Cohousing offers privacy in home ownership and the companionship and support of a close-knit community, with an emphasis on sustainable lifestyle.

Cohousing neighborhoods usually comprise a cluster of single-family, fully equipped homes or apartments and one or more community buildings, courtyards and playgrounds. Residents pay dues for the upkeep of the common buildings and grounds, and may participate in work days throughout the year. Usually they share meals a few times a week.

Quite often they share community tools, such as lawnmowers; and major appliances, such as washers and dryers, even a community freezer.

Their neighborhood may be in the inner city, like Eastern Village in Silver Spring, MD; suburban like Wild Sage Cohousing in Boulder, CO; or rural, like Higher Ground Cohousing outside Bend, OR.

While some communities are designed with live-work space and encourage cottage industry, community-owned businesses are rare.

Image: Garden path at the Commons on the Alameda
Used with permission

How cohousing works - The basics

Whether a cohousing community is a group of apartments in an inner city Victorian or a brand new housing development designed by its members from the ground up, its charter likely includes the following.

  • Members own their own homes, apartments or condominiums
  • Members share financial and upkeep responsibility for common grounds and buildings
  • Members may grow some or all of their food in a community garden; they may also have individual garden plots
  • Members make decisions by consensus
  • Members may take one or more meals together each week in the common building

Image courtesy Cohousing Association of the States (CoHo/US). Photo by Evangeline Welch
Image courtesy Cohousing Association of the States (CoHo/US). Photo by Evangeline Welch

A brief history of cohousing

It all started in Denmark

I'm not the only person who loves the idea of living in community more like the villages of old. Cohousing has been around awhile. Way back in 1964, a Danish architect attempted to build the first cohousing development. They called it "living community." He failed, but the Danes kept at it, and in the early Eighties there were twenty-two cohousing communities in Denmark. The Danes continue to lead the way in developing the cohousing lifestyle.

Image courtesy Cohousing Association of the United States (CoHo/US).

Photo by Evangeline Welch

Cohousing is now a well-established housing option in Denmark. Not only do new communities continue to be built, but the concept has been incorporated into master plans for large areas of new development.

Danny Milman in
Where It All Began: Cohousing in Denmark

Why choose cohousing?

We choose to live here because we want a close relationship with our neighbors. We have a conscious commitment to work, play, share resources, eat, learn, build trust and make decisions together in ways that respect our individual differences and build our strengths as a community.

The Commons on the Alameda

David Wann interviews cohousing architects Kathryn McCamant, Chuck Durrett - On cohousing origins in Denmark and the U.S.

In "Bofaellesskaber?" An Interview with the Pioneer Couple of American Cohousing, David Wann, member of Harmony Village, in Golden, Colorado, and author of Simple Prosperity, visits with the architects who brought cohousing to North America.

Below are highlights of the interview. I hope they will pique your interest enough to read the entire article on the Cohousing Association web site.

  • Chuck Durrette on the meaning of bofaellesskaber: The original Danish term for cohousing, bofaellesskaber, means 'living together,' or 'living community.'
  • Kathryn McCamant on finding balance in the Danish model: What we saw there seemed very applicable to the American lifestyle, especially the idea of balance between privacy and community.
  • Chuck Durrette on how cohousing satisfies basic needs in ways traditional American housing does not: In cohousing, it begins to become clear that there's nothing quite like relationships to satisfy basic human needs for identity, belonging, and even accountability.
  • Kathryn McCamant on the necessity for community involvement in design: It's important that residents feel a sense of ownership in the design of their neighborhood ... because after the honeymoon of building and moving in is over, good design is what will sustain a neighborhood's sense of community.
  • Chuck Durrette on the cluster design of cohousing: We've observed that how you design the spaces between buildings is also a key factor in creating community. In cohousing, which is typically clustered housing, the distance between front doors is typically twenty-five to thirty feet, while the average American house is running about 100 to 110 feet.
  • Chuck Durrette on decision-making: Cohousers often have very positive, creative solutions, because they're used to forging consensus.
  • Kathryn McCamant on cohousing's effect on children: We hear stories all the time about teachers seeing a difference between cohousing students and their peers. For one thing, whenever a dispute comes up, the cohousing kids are always on the front line of problem solvers because they've been exposed to it. They know how to get along with other kids of all ages because that's what they do in their own neighborhoods.
  • Kathryn McCamant on the future of cohousing: Cohousing is now an American housing option--no book or seminar on American housing would be complete without mentioning it.

Simple Prosperity - by David Wann

David Wann is a gentle man who helped to design and build one of the most famous cohousing communities in the United States today. In Simple Prosperity, he shares his very personal story of the amazing rewards of simplifying his life in community without ever sacrificing quality or privacy.

Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle
Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle

One of my favorite books about cohousing and about learning to live better and more elegantly with less

 

Cohousing is one good answer to isolation

It's not surprising that the number of cohousing communities increased dramatically in the last decade when you realize that, as McCamant and Durrett point out, more than a quarter of all people in the United States today live alone.

Take a look at two thriving but very different cohousing models

One in New Mexico, the other in California

Let me introduce you to two model cohousing projects: Santa Fe Cohousing's Commons on the Alameda, and La Querencia in Fresno, California.

The Commons on the Alameda - Santa Fe, NM

Commons on the Alameda - Courtesy Santa Fe Cohousing; Used with permission
Commons on the Alameda - Courtesy Santa Fe Cohousing; Used with permission

Planning for the Commons began in 1991, and by 1997, residents had built twenty-eight homes and a common building. The complex boasts four tiny plazas, called placitas, surrounded by groups of homes, a main plaza at the community center, and an orchard. Residents can choose to participate in dinner together in the common building two nights a week. Volunteers plan and prepare the meals and do the clean up. Those volunteer hours are credited against the eight hours community service required each month (six hours if renting).

Community service hours are fulfilled a number of ways: Grounds and common building maintenance, helping with the newsletter and miscellaneous tasks identified at monthly meetings, even babysitting. Imagine having a built-in babysitter!

To learn more about Commons history, life on the Commons, and available housing opportunities (or to get on the wait list), visit their website at http://www.santafecohousing.org/.

A note: Several of the images used in this lens came from a Commons photo gallery that is no longer available online. All of their images noted and are used with permission.

La Querencia - Fresno, CA

One of the most appealing aspects of La Querencia is the beauty and extent of their common space. At the heart of the community is the Common House, where members can choose to have meals together several nights a week, where teens can hang out in the gym or their own teen room, and anyone can gather in the early morning hours for coffee or chat around the fireplace late into the night. Out of town guests? There's a guest room here too.

Besides the community garden, there's a workshop, plenty of outdoor play and gathering areas, and a gorgeous swimming pool. Community members choose when to socialize and when to retreat to the sanctuary of their homes.

The homes and common buildings were constructed "with the best of green architecture." In fact, the neighborhood was designed to have a low carbon impact. Hear what one woman in the video has to say: "I love knowing that I have a smaller footprint on the earth because I live in cohousing. It just really helps ... knowing that I generate a lot, well, all of my electricity."

For more information about La Querencia, visit their web site, Fresno Cohousing.

Cohousing is an inspiring story about people of all ages and diverse backgrounds creating an innovative lifestyle that is socially and environmentally sustainable.

Cohousing Association

(Archived page on way-back machine)

Community meeting in the Commons on the Alameda, Santa Fe, NM
Community meeting in the Commons on the Alameda, Santa Fe, NM

Cohousing sounds good, but how do folks deal with the inevitable conflicts?

What works?

In a March 2005 El Dorado Sun article, members of The Commons on the Alameda community reveal some of the difficulties they have had getting along and how they solve the problems.

Member Erica Elliott tells the Sun personal conflicts were so difficult after the first three years that, "I came to a point where I needed to make a decision because the discomfort of living in this fledgling community was so great for me. I saw I had three choices: to change the community, to move away or to change myself."

Erica realized that she had no power to change the community, "That happens when it happens, not according to my will!"

As a single mom, she felt overwhelmed to make another major change and move, "so the only viable option was to change myself."

"We have a shared history over this past decade," Erica tells the Sun. "You carry the archives of somebody's history in your heart and they yours. That's so special in these transitory times ... We grew up together."

For a deeper exploration of conflict in community, and how to plan for conflict resolution from the get-go, see Diana Leafe Christian's article Six Ingredients for Forming Communities (That Help Reduce Conflict Down the Road).

Image courtesy Commons on the Alameda

Homeowners Association

Old problems remain unresolved and new ones appear. Meetings are sometimes irritating, but that's how you build a functioning society.

      Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities

Intrigued? - Learn more from the folks who wrote the definitive cohousing book

If you are looking for a cohousing primer, this is it.

The Cohousing Handbook: Building a Place for Community
The Cohousing Handbook: Building a Place for Community

Chris and Kelly ScottHanson have been there, done that, and are doing it still. They pioneered cohousing in the US and now help folks build communities from dream to stepping through the door. This book will get you started--and guide you all the way.

 

Cohousing--the essence of community

Rocky Hill Cohousing, Northhampton , MA USA

Our dream is to create a neighborhood that recaptures the essence of community: To create a human environment that fosters interconnectedness, safety, growth, and meaningful lives; to create physical aspects that serve the needs and enhance the well-being of the individuals and the community; and to live in harmonious relationship to our place on the earth.

Rocky Hill Cohousing

I'd love to live in a cohousing community - Would you?

Have you dreamed of living in a community of people where you know and trust your neighbors, where the pressure to know everything, do everything yourself is off? Where you can share the expense of big ticket items like lawn mowers and maybe even a walk-in freezer just once, for the whole community? Why, or why not?

Given a choice, would you choose to live in a cohousing community?

Absolutely. I love the idea.

Absolutely. I love the idea.

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    • TerriCarr 3 years ago

      Absolutely!!! It makes so much sense to me. I am so glad that many people are realizing how insanely wasteful and isolating most non-co-housing neighborhoods are.

    • senorjoel 4 years ago

      I would, I did, I do! The old isolated-in-suburbia model never made any sense to me, emotionally, relationally. It was actually a lot of work, and our daughter did not get to grow up in cohousing (that's how long it took us). But I would not really want to live outside of community again.

    • Gloria Freeman 4 years ago from Alabama USA

      I like the idea of it, it sound good.

    • Irrevocable 4 years ago

      I would love to try out co-housing. I like the idea of a close knit community.

    • Renaissance Woman 5 years ago from Colorado

      Many of the elements are appealing. I think as long as everyone was deeply committed to harmonious relationships, I would enjoy it. More than anything else, I need peaceful interactions and a peaceful environment. Too much conflict would ruin it for me.

    • Angela unLocked 5 years ago

      It makes the most sense. For our humanity to flourish, we need to develop community. Being a part of cohousing can add so much enrichment!

    • anonymous 5 years ago

      Very enticing, reminds me of my old hippie days but with all the comforts!

    No way. I need total autonomy.

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      • Pam Irie 3 years ago from Land of Aloha

        Not at this point in my life, but it may have been a good choice when our kids were small.

      • dahlia369 5 years ago

        The idea sounds great but I'm not sure I'd choose to live in a community like this because I love my privacy, doing things my own way at whatever time suits me. Maybe I have to learn more about this kind of living and visit one of these neighborhoods.

      • Nicole Pellegrini 6 years ago from New Jersey

        I'm too independent and know that about myself. Cohousing sounds great for some individuals who are looking for a more communal lifestyle, or maybe those with children who want that kind of community spirit (and help) in raising children. But I've always needed my own "space" and like to do things my way.

      Cohousing brochure
      Cohousing brochure

      Cohousing Association--Best online resource

      Take a virtual tour, then take a brick and mortar tour

      The U.S. Cohousing Association boasts member associations in eleven countries. Communities range from urban to rural. All are concerned with quality of life where neighbor knows neighbor, children play safely, and a sense of community is encouraged.

      Want to see what cohousing looks like? Take a virtual tour right now. Exciting isn't it? So many beautiful ways homes and communities can be built. Would you like to tour a real cohousing development? Find one near you, then click through to see if they accept visitors.

      For more information, follow any of the links above to the Cohousing Association of the United States. If you live outside the US, you will find links to international associations as well. The Cohousing Association is a nonprofit organization and can always use volunteers and donations to keep the information flowing.

      Before reading this lens, what did cohousing mean to you?

      My daughter once told me she wasn't interesting in cohousing because she didn't like the idea of living in a commune. Before this page, perhaps you shared her views. Until now, what did the term cohousing mean to you?

      Until now, I thought cohousing meant ...

      See results
      Intentional Communities Magazine, used with permission
      Intentional Communities Magazine, used with permission

      Got the cohousing bug? Stay informed!

      Keep abreast of hot topics in Intentional Communities

      If you think you'd like to explore the possibility of joining a sustainable community, Communities Magazine offers up-to-date information and commentary. Published by the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC), each issue explores a single theme about developing, planning, or living in an intentional community. Plus, you'll get to know regular columnists who have been there, done that.

      Cover photo image ©2006, Jan Steinman

      www.Bytesmiths.com
      All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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      Important

      All text and images on this lens, unless otherwise noted, with the exception of advertisements, product images and Squidoo-generated images and text, are copyright L Kathryn Grace, all rights reserved. To request permission to use any of my images or text, contact me.

      What do you think? Would you consider living in a cohousing community? Have you tried something like this? Or do you already live in one? If so, what's the most important piece of advice you would give to someone like me, who hopes to live in a sustainable community one day?

      What is your opinion of cohousing after reading this lens?

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          Kathryn Grace 3 years ago from San Francisco

          @TerriCarr: I have not had this opportunity yet either. It is something for which I dream and plan. I do think there will be a bit of an adjustment curve, but it would be well worth the effort, don't you agree?

        • TerriCarr profile image

          TerriCarr 3 years ago

          Loved the idea before. And I love it still. I am not currently doing it, so I guess I would find out how much I really like it only by doing it.

        • ecogranny profile image
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          Kathryn Grace 3 years ago from San Francisco

          @Pam Irie: Yes, it is--sort of that old-fashioned neighborhood feel.

        • Pam Irie profile image

          Pam Irie 3 years ago from Land of Aloha

          It's a wonderful concept and choice for anyone inclined to a type of group living I think.

        • flinnie lm profile image

          Gloria Freeman 4 years ago from Alabama USA

          I like it, I would not mind giving it a try.

        • profile image

          Ruthi 5 years ago

          CoHousing appears to be a great community-oriented atmosphere to dwell. It would be nice to live in such a cohesive community.

        • Demaw profile image

          Demaw 5 years ago

          This is one good option for a healthy lifestyle.

        • dahlia369 profile image

          dahlia369 5 years ago

          I'm sure there are loads of people out there whom this concept of living very much resonates with - and I like new ways of people coming together and cooperate instead of compete. Great lens!! :)

        • sousababy profile image

          sousababy 5 years ago

          Socialization is very important for raising children. As Hilary Clinton said, 'It takes a village to raise a child.' I believe this is a great option for those who need affordable housing and who wish to feel a part of the community. Others, who are more independent (or not as socially inclined), may not thrive (as much) in this environment. Great lens, added to your devoted section in my Squidoo people with a good heart - Part IV.

        • ecogranny profile image
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          Kathryn Grace 5 years ago from San Francisco

          @Diana Wenzel: Greening of the spirit. What a beautiful way to see the development and deepening of community in our lives. Thank you.

        • Diana Wenzel profile image

          Renaissance Woman 5 years ago from Colorado

          I think cohousing is a very important option these days. As one who has dedicated her career to helping others create the community for which they hunger, I see a great need in our world for authentic community and deep connection. Any housing opportunity that helps individuals or families tap into the richness of relationship is a good thing. It is the greening of the spirit.

        • Angela unLocked profile image

          Angela unLocked 5 years ago

          OMG! I absolutely LOVE this lens and all it stands for. Great job!

        • profile image

          anonymous 5 years ago

          I've lived on my own for many years but sure would give the right cohousing a look, wonderfully presented!

        • MelissaInTheSky profile image

          MelissaInTheSky 5 years ago

          I am not enough of a people person for this lifestyle, but I enjoyed learning about it! Thank you for sharing. You have many interesting lenses!

          Thank you, also, for liking my fun Happiness Tools lens. :) I appreciate the support.

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          Karnel 5 years ago from Lower Mainland of BC

          Very well done, I enjoyed all the information you had here

        • sockii profile image

          Nicole Pellegrini 6 years ago from New Jersey

          Very interesting and detailed examination of the subject. It wouldn't be right for me or my lifestyle but I appreciate learning about the topic and the many reasons some would choose such a lifestyle and community.

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          Paul 6 years ago from Liverpool, England

          Excellent lens: Angel Blessed