For these are not as they might seem to be, the ruins of our civilization, but are the temporary encampments and outposts of the civilization that weyou and Ishall build.
--John Cheever, 1978
Settlement patterns in the U.S. since World War II have left us struggling to fulfill some of our most basic human needs: our connection to each other and to the natural world. With the growth of auto-dependent suburbs and sprawl, more and more of us are isolated in single family homes, removed from our extended families and other village-like support systems. Increasingly, we lack connection with the gathering spaces that nurture civic participation, and the green places that help restore our souls.
CoHousing communities, which are springing forth in urban, suburban and rural settings, are attempts to remedy some of the social isolation, loss of community, and disconnection with the land which have become prevalent in modern life.
Pioneered in Denmark in the 1960s, cohousing communities are resident-developed cooperative neighborhoods where private households are clustered around a common house with shared facilities such as a large kitchen and dining room, workshops and children's play spaces. CoHousing communities typically include 15 to 35 residences. Sites are pedestrian-oriented and designed to encourage social interaction. Many cohousing developments include extensive community gardens and other green areas. Common activities vary but generally include a number of shared meals each week in the common house.
Although not a panacea for social ills, cohousing offers practical solutions to some of the problems of modern life which are closely linked to housing: the lack of intergenerational contact, the crisis in child care, and the time pressures which leave many of us driving from one appointment to the next with little time left over for cooking dinner or participating in community events.
Origins of CoHousing
The origins of modern cohousing can be traced to 1964 in Denmark when architect Jan Gudmand-Høyer gathered a group of friends to discuss housing alternatives. Dissatisfied with single family suburban living and multi-story urban living, the group met over several months to develop ideas for creating a more supportive living environment. Among their sources of inspiration was Thomas More's book, Utopia, written in 1516, which describes a city of cooperatives, each consisting of 30 families who share common meals, child care and other functions.
Gudmand-Høyer's group purchased land in Hareskov, a small town outside of Copenhagen, and developed plans for 12 houses and common facilities. On the grounds that an increased number of children would bring too much noise to their quiet neighborhood, area residents opposed the project and organized to buy property which blocked access to the group's building site. Unable to resolve the dispute, the group had no choice but to sell the site.
Four years later, Gudmand-Høyer wrote an article for a national newspa per, "The Missing Link Between Utopia and the Dated One-Family House," in which he outlined about his group's ideas and experience with Hareskov. Response to the article was overwhelming. More than 100 people called and wrote of their interest in living in a community like the one he described.
By 1968 a group formed, including some members from the Hareskov project, and began to develop a cohousing community. By 1982, 22 cohousing communities were built in Denmark. Many more have followed.
CoHousing in Denmark, which is known as bofællesskaber ("to live together"), has become a mainstream housing option thanks in part to supportive legislation enacted by the Danish Ministry of Housing in 1981. Most Danish cohousing communities are structured as limited-equity cooperatives financed with government-sponsored loans. Rental cohousing developments, built by nonprofit housing associations, include subsidies for qualifying low-income residents.
Independent of the Danish efforts, the Dutch centraal wonen (central living) movement got its start in 1969 when Lies van Dooremaal, a mother overwhelmed by the combination of work, housekeeping and tending to children, published a newspaper ad suggesting housing with common amenities. By 1971 the National Association of Centraal Wonen was established as an umbrella organization for a new style of collective housing designed "for the emancipation of man, women and child."
Dutch collaborative housing is typically larger than Danish or U.S. cohousing; through smaller "clusters" of four to eight households, residents share chores, rotate meal preparation and have a sense of extended family. The first Dutch centraal woven community, Hilversum, was completed in 1977 with 50 units--home for 88 adults and 54 children. By 1991, more than 50 centraal wonen developments were in place with many more planned. A vast majority--over 90%--of Dutch collaborative housing dwellings are rental, created with the help of nonprofit organizations funded by the government.
CoHousing in the U.S.
CoHousing was introduced in the U.S. by Kathryn McCamant and Chuck Durrett, a husband and wife architectural team based in Berkeley. The duo got a firsthand look at Danish cohousing communities while attending school in Denmark in 1980-1981. In 1988, following a return trip to Denmark, they published a book, CoHousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves, which provided an impetus for cohousing in the U.S. Although the lack of governmental support has created significant challenges for U.S. cohousing, the idea has taken hold and approximately 150 cohousing communities are now in various stages of development.
McCamant and Durret identify four basic characteristics common to cohousing communities: (1) participatory process in which residents organize and take part in planning and designing the housing development; (2) intentional neighborhood design in which the layout of the site encourages a strong sense of community; (3) extensive common facilities which are designed for daily use to supplement private living areas, and (4) complete resident management in which residents make decisions of common concern, usually through the consensus process which is based on the premise that "everyone shares a piece of the truth."
Design considerations in a cohousing community balance the need for commu nity interaction with the need for privacy. Individual households typically have kitchens and dining areas facing a common courtyard and pedestrian walkway where passersby are easily seen; bedrooms and living rooms are situated to the rear of each household which is more private. Individual households within cohousing are smaller than most homes because of the availability of common facilities which are shared by all residents. Cars are situated at the perimeter of the community; often the site is designed to encourage residents who are returning home by car to walk through the common house on their way to individual residences.
The process of creating a cohousing community from the idea stage to move in dayoften takes years. Many meetings, interspersed with potlucks and other social activities, are required. As they interact over time, cohousers tend to strengthen their skills in communication, group facilitation and conflict resolution. As one participant at a recent cohousing conference in Boulder put it, "It's the longest and most expensive personal growth workshop you will ever experience."
Built vs. Retrofit CoHousing
Two of the earliest cohousing communities in the U.S. are based in Davis, California and provide an interesting study in contrasts. Muir Commons is the first cohousing community in the U.S. to be built from the ground up. N Street CoHousing, a "retrofit" cohousing community, got its start in 1984 when neighbors began buying contiguous tract homes and sharing resources.
Completed in 1991, Muir Commons was three years in the making. The 2.9 acre site includes 26 units and a large common house. The community is made up entirely of homeowners. A series of wheelchair-accessible pedestrian path ways connect the community. In addition to a large common green, a series of smaller gathering spots make it easy for small groups to interact informally. The site is graced with beautiful landscaping of native California plants and fruit trees.
Muir Commons is unusual in that it is part of a 110-acre subdivision of large, expensive, suburban homes. The site was selected when the subdivision developer approached a newly forming cohousing group; in order to fulfill a City of Davis requirement that 25% of all new housing be moderate-income, the developer suggested using part of the subdivision site for cohousing. Drawn by the prices of the homes, which were well below market rate, the group decided to go with the site even though it offered little potential for integration with the surrounding neighborhood.
At N Street, which has been a work in progress for 10 years, integration with the neighborhood is fundamental. Thirteen households now participate in the N Street cohousing community, including a mix of homeowners and renters. The first fence tearing down party was held in 1986 and it took the following three years to finally rid the garden areas of Bermuda grass. Today, vegetable gardens, children's play areas, and a chicken coop occupy the common spaces that were once individual backyards. The largest home, a former co-op, has been converted into a common house which is jointly owned by the community. The rents charged to those living on the second story of the common house are paying off the mortgage.
At Muir Commons, as in many U.S. cohousing developments, a condominium ownership system is in place whereby residents own their individual homes as well as a share of common facilities. With the condominium structure, housing appreciates and is sold at market rates. At N Street, where long term affordability is a priority, residents have established a nonprofit co-equity partner ship which allows resource pooling for initial down payments; once homes are purchased, garages are often converted into extra rental rooms. Although Davis has no rent control, N Street home-owners do not raise their rents as long as renters stay, and the community has a commitment to seeing long-term renters become homeowners.
The tract housing of the N Street neighborhood is well-suited to cohousing since kitchens and dining areas are located toward the common green areas (former individual backyards), and more private spaces within homes, such as bedrooms, are located street side. Community members take pride in their extensive scrounging and reuse of materials. With built cohousing, storage space is often limited; at N Street, the narrow spaces between houses are well utilized for storage of materials ranging from salvaged lumber to a giant whitewater raft.
From CoHousing to EcoVillages
CoHousing tends to attract the environmentally conscious. At N Street, gentle restorative measures are woven into community life, ranging from composting to replanting trees to creating natural drainage systems between houses. Shared wall construction, reduced use of toxins, large scale gardening, solar design and other energy efficiency measures are common within cohousing communities. Some communities specifically seek "infill" sites in urban areas in order to reduce auto dependence and avoid taking open space for new construction.
In Ithaca, New York, EcoVillage Ithaca is taking a whole systems approach: developing a mixed-use community where people can live, work and play in harmony with the natural environment. The 176-acre site will cluster five cohousing developments and leave approximately 150 acres of open space for gardens, orchards, fish ponds and wetlands. According to the group's annual report, the model village for up to 500 residents will "carefully integrate design for human needs (shelter, food pr oduction, social interaction, energy, work) with land and water conservation and ecosystem preservation."
A groundbreaking ceremony in September launched the construction of the first cohousing cluster of 30 households. The homes are superinsulated duplexes with 14 foot south facing window walls for maximum solar exposure. The first resident group is made up of singles, couples, young families, and retirees; it includes farmers, computer professionals, writers, artists, medical professionals and educators.
As excitement builds with the construction of EcoVillage Ithaca, another large-scale ecovillage is in the planning stages on a 400-acre site in Loudoun County, Virginia (near Washington DC). The community will emphasize sustainable business development as well as cohousing. Plans are to preserve at least 85% of the land for agriculture, forests and wetlands. On a smaller scale, numerous eco-focused cohousing developments around the country are now being planned.
Challenges in CoHousing
The fledgling cohousing movement in the U.S. faces many obstacles: an economic system that promotes land speculation rather than stewardship; a highly mobile population; land use policies which encourage unhealthy development patterns; and a culture of consumption which puts us at war with the planeta war we can only lose.
Long term affordability and environmental sustainability are among the most frequently recurring challenges for U.S. cohousing groups today. Without buying land and developing a large-scale ecovillage, several cohousing groups are making a significant commitment to environmental sustainability. One of them, Marsh Commons CoHousing in Arcata, California, has focused on recycling, reuse and restoration. The group has transformed a former diesel truck shop into a beautiful common house and is incorporating many recycled materials into households such as carpet made from pop bottles, linoleum made from linseed oil and cork, insulation material made from recycled newspaper, and siding made of concrete and sawdust. Due to the group's restoration efforts, the nearby marsh is now a favorite bird watching spot inhabited by peregrine falcons, ospreys, ducks, minks and river otters.
In Sacramento, California the goal of long term affordability for residents of mixed incomes was realized by the Southside Park CoHousing Community. Through a creative financing arrangement with the city's redevelopment agency, the community of 25 households includes low-and moderate-income residents, and a mix of homeowners and renters. In Chicago, Illinois eight families in the North Lawndale neighborhood are building their own cohousing community with sweat equity. The neighborhood's unemployment rate is estimated at 45% and half the households earn less than $15,000 a year. With land donated by the City, resident families will take on mortgages of $30,000 which will cover the cost of materials. A land trust will be created to ensure ongoing affordability.
With creativity and persistence, cohousing groups throughout the country are finding ways to surmount obstacles and make the dream of community a reality. In his essay Four Changes, Gary Snyder once wrote, "Stewardship means, for most of us, find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there. Get a sense of workable territory, learn about it, and start acting point by point." Although Snyder wasn't writing about cohousing, he could have been. For a growing number of people around the U.S. and the world, the "workable territory," the place to "dig in," is right here at home where we are creating a better world one neighborhood at a time.
Paula Manley is a member of the newly forming Cascadia Commons CoHousing EcoVillage in Portland, Oregon. She can be reached at 2134 SE 37th Ave., Portland, OR 97214. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
CoHousing Information on the World Wide Web--
"The CoHousing Journal", published quarterly. To subscribe, send $25 payable to The CoHousing Network, P.O. Box 2584, Berkeley, CA 94702 (510) 526-6124
"Collaborative Communities: CoHousing, Central Living, and Other New Forms of Housing with Shared Facilities", 1991, by Dorit Fromm. Published by Van Nostrand Reinhold .
"Rebuilding Community in America: Housing for Ecological Living, Personal Empowerment and the New Extended Family", 1995, by Ken Norwood and Kathleen Smith. Published by Shared Living Resource Center, Berkeley, CA.
"CoHousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves", Second Edition, 1994, by Kathryn McCamant and Chuck Durrett. Published by 10 Speed Press.
"Communities Directory", 1995 Edition. Published by the Fellowship for Inten tional Commity. Send $23 to Directory/Communities, Route 4, Box 169-G, Louisa, VA 23093.
CoHousing in Michigan
Here, in Michigan, two co-housing groups have begun to develop. Both are in still in the exploitative or planning phases:
Bay Area Co-Housing Initiative:
This small group, consisting of 12-16 people from Ann Arbor, Leelenau County and Grand Traverse County, has met twice in Leelenau County. Thus far, they have been asking critical questions about intentional community and how a group of people can co-exist gently with the environment. In the immediate future, this group hopes to explore such issues as:
Those interested in exploring this housing alternative, are invited to attend the next planning meeting on Sunday, January 7th in Northport, 3:00-4:30 pm potluck and 5:00 pm meeting. For more information, contact:
Ann Arbor area:
25 people, with a core group of 7-8 members, have been meeting for the last year and a half. They have placed an offer on a piece of land. If accepted, they hope to be building by next summer. The plans include 25-35 units. New members are encouraged. Contact:
Also in Michigan...
For those interested in starting a co-housing group, Gary Cook, licensed architect, timberframer and co-housing enthusiast, offers consultation and start up services for beginning co-housing groups. Call or write:
Return to the Index of Synapse 34, Winter Solstice 1995