Is cohousing the cure for community?

My first introduction to the idea of cohousing was the big victorian style house in Bellingham, WA that my brother shared with four other friends. It was noisy, messy and chaotic, but there was a certain magic to the place. Of course I experienced it as an outsider, so I wasn’t responsible for working through any of the struggles. I just got to come in and experience the fun of communal meals, jam sessions and the epic “pink party.”

Defining Terms

As I’ve come to learn more about cohousing, I’ve learned that this victorian house of my brothers was closer to a “commune” than to cohousing. The key difference being that in cohousing you have your own private house.

For awhile I was intrigued by the term “intentional community” and started looking into this idea. I’ve learned that while the two, cohousing and intentional communities, are similar they differ slightly. Where intentional communities gather around a shared philosophy or ideology; be it sustainability, religion, or something of that nature, cohousing gathers around the simple idea of gathering around.

“People who choose cohousing seek a sense of place fostered by regular dinners together; common space with cars parked at the periphery; consumer goods (lawn mowers, washers and dryers and the like) and property shared in common or owned individually as each makes sense, in an effort to create a high-functioning neighborhood where people know and care about each other.”

Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities by Kathryn McCamant

The simplicity of that idea resonates with me. Since there is not one commonly held belief stringing everyone together, I’m sure mediation is needed frequently, but the idea of living in common with folks that see the world differently sounds like something we need desperately as of late.

How does it start?

So how do these cohousing situations come to be? I read a story of a neighborhood in California that started by taking down backyard fences. While I love this idea, I could not see that going over particularly well here in “private Idaho.”

Then there was this Tedx:

The speaker, a lady who lives in Australia, talks about gathering with neighbors for afternoon tea, or a movie in the street. The neighbors shared a cargo bike, a pizza oven, and their contact information. Then, just like the story of the neighbors in California, the fences came down.

Grow where you’re planted…

I’ve been living in my neighborhood for about 2 years now, and while I feel I have made slight progress, it’s SLOW going! I’ve joined my neighborhood association, which helped a little. I’ve enrolled my daughter in the neighborhood school and walk her every morning, that helped a little bit more. We built a front porch, and put out a play structure in our front yard. In fact, we’ve pretty much abandoned our backyard! We are out front as much as possible.

While all of these steps have helped ease the feelings of isolation, they have not made any remarkable difference.

We are still very much an isolated, suburban street with nearly every trip beginning and ending with the opening and closing of a garage door.

That is one of the key elements I’ve seen threading throughout the communities I’ve looked into…cars relegated to the perimeter of the community. One of the men quoted in the Creating Cohousing book said he knew he lived in cohousing because it can sometimes take him “two hours and two beers to get from his car to his front door.” That’s the type of interactions that can happen so much more easily when we are on foot. I’ve seen a bit of this as I walk my daughter to school each morning. I’ve met more neighbors this way than with any other time (except maybe halloween).

Suburbs 2.0

My whole goal with my endeavor into microurbanism is to find ways to build community and connection within our suburban landscape, but I’m wondering just what sort of groundswell it will take for such an idea to ever pick up enough steam to pull people outside of their comfortable little bubbles.

We’ve designed our communities, our neighborhoods and our cities to prioritize privacy when, in reality, we are happiest when we are connected.

To think that this could be avoided by design is so mind blowing. We are now tasked with the monumental feat of turning the titanic. Convincing people to “give up” something that they are accustomed to, and feel ownership over is not an easy feat. We are a consumerist society. We establish our value by our accumulations. While minimalism and “tiny houses” are beginning to gain traction, it is still seen as fringe and has not yet become mainstream.

I can only wonder then as we continue to push the meter forward towards “public” and away from “private” how will the suburbs adapt? Could “branch” roads become neighborhood parking? With the cul-de-sacs and dead end streets turning into pedestrian parkways and green space? What if all the fences came down in backyards to create the common green space? What if affordable, tiny houses where constructed down the middle of what is currently cul-de-sacs and dead end streets, and what remained of those streets where turned into a shared pathway?

(Terrible clipart version of what I am trying to describe. I know, it’s awful, but you get the idea!)

I don’t want to see perfectly functional housing destroyed. We have to think outside the bulldozer and find creative ways to build our next reality. Cohousing recognizes the need for privacy and retreat, but also the need for connection and community. It’s this structure of privacy weaved with connection that I think is important to remember as we prepare for 2.0 of the Suburbs.

Along those lines, I love the sentiment from the gentleman at the beginning of this video: