The Cohousing Life: Developments Bringing People Together

The phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” is more than just words for thousands of Americans. Throughout the country, more than 100 “cohousing” neighborhoods seek …

The phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” is more than just words for thousands of Americans. Throughout the country, more than 100 “cohousing” neighborhoods seek to allow residents a greater sense of community and connectivity.

Defined as an intentional community, cohousing units typically offer a tightly-knit bond between members, a structured support group and a plethora of communal activities.

“It’s all about community,” said Colleen Dyrud of CoHo Ecovillage in Corvallis, Ore. “Not only knowing your neighbors, but sharing a piece of your life with them.”

Originating in Denmark, cohousing was first introduced to the U.S. in the 1980s by architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett.

Residents share communal tasks such as cooking and gardening| alt=|Cohousing community members share in communal tasks such as cooking and gardening|]A member of one of the earlier cohousing communities, Ed Fischburg has seen the rise of cohousing’s popularity over the past decade. Living in the Puget Ridge Cohousing in Seattle, Fischburg gives 40 to 50 tours each year, often fielding questions by those hoping to form their own communities.

While each cohousing community has its own specific details and methods, several general characteristics are commonplace. Unlike typical neighborhoods, residents in a cohousing environment are expected to be active participants.

“There is a lot more interaction,” Dyrud said. “A lot more say in the way the neighborhood functions.”

Members join committees, cook and eat communal meals, share tools and have other joint tasks.  Spending so much time together will develop relationships that will allow communication to flow easily, Fischburg said. “You get to a point where you can say anything,” he said.

Decisions that will impact that whole community will be made by the whole community. Both CoHo and Puget Ridge use consensus for large decisions. “That means 100 percent,” Fischburg said. “That is very, very tough.” Because one member of the community can block a project, he said, it encourages communication before projects begin.

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“We usually straighten out issues before they get to the floor,” he said. “We are getting really good at facilitating that.”

Many cohousing neighborhoods feature houses in close proximity to one another. Puget Ridge consists of 50 people in 23 homes on two-and-a-half acres.

While cohousing units do not have a hierarchical structure, respected members of the community will generally emerge. “Being the oldest person here, I am automatically a mentor,” Fischburg, 80, said. “I have coached every kid here in little league.”

“I’m held in high esteem and that makes me feel good.”

Dyrud said she hopes CoHo will become an intergenerational community over the years.

With 55 adults and 21 children, she said, the community has already experienced its first birth and expects another in June. “I think people who have been with this development are very pleased with the age mix,” she said.

Many cohousing communities also highlight sustainability, said Melody O’Brien, a member of Quincy Cohousing. Two years into its development process, O’Brien said the community’s planners aim to have green buildings. “We want to feel like we’ve given that contribution to the world,” she said. “Like we are making a difference.”

O’Brien said her experience traveling in Papua New Guinea and Fiji showed her how much community support was lacking back in the U.S.“It is amazing when a bunch of people get together how much more you can actually accomplish.”

Forming a cohousing development is a process that can take several years.

“It’s been great so far, but it is still a long process,” O’Brien said. “There is a big learning curve for a small group of us with no experience trying to put together a $12 million project.”

Fischburg, whose son was the initial planner of Puget Ridge, said it was a six-year process before the community was finished in 1994.

The first year can be difficult settling in, Dyrud said. “People have said it is fairly common to have a lot of movement in the first year,” she said. “There is kind of a disconnect between expectations and reality.”

About half of the original residents still live in Puget Ridge, Fischburg said. One thing that helped the community bond early on, he said, was creating a hand-laid pathway. “People I didn’t know that well were sweating and bleeding and working together,” he said.

The continual contact with neighbors gives a new perspective, he added. “Even though I’m 80, I’m still learning,” Fischburg said. “I am thrown together with people I wouldn’t normally be with.”

“It is kind of humbling.”

Many cohousing communities feature a limited number of rental units, Dyrud said. The initial development of CoHo was through Willamette neighborhood housing services, she said, which deals with income-qualified housing throughout the county. Some of CoHo’s units are reserved for low-income renters. Several cohousing communities have embraced this idea, and many have at least a few rental units.

For developers, cohousing residents can potentially offer long-term stability and peace of mind. “That’s the idea,” Dyrud said.

However, the rentals should still be developed with resident input and design, she said. “You get long-term renters, but they also have to feel like they are making decisions in the community,” she said.

“There has to be an interest in living collaboratively…or it’s not going to work.”

Dyrud said the way someone views their neighbors is important in determining whether cohousing is the right way to go. “Community is messy and wonderful all at the same time,” she said. “Understanding that is a good step in deciding whether this would be a good fit or not.”

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