How Does Cohousing Create Sustainability?

Graham Meltzer, Ph.D., Cohousing Scholar

This piece answers the question “Why is cohousing sustainable?” very thoroughly. For more of Graham Meltzer’s observations about cohousing, read his book Sustainable Community: Learning from the Cohousing Model, available at www.trafford.com.

—D. L. W.

In the Fall of 1996, I undertook a grand tour of North American cohousing by visiting all of the established cohousing communities in New England, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, and California. I spent three to five days in each of eighteen communities and made short visits to four or five more. The primary purpose of the trip was to research the ecological advantages of community life. The fieldwork included a ninety-question survey of 350 households, extensive interviews, and an evaluation of site planning and architecture.

I looked at the real and potential benefits of cohousing with respect to land-use efficiency, alternative green construction, resource usage, conservation practices, and environmental quality. In addition, I set out to test a hunch: that communal living per se holistically integrates practical and social dimensions of daily life in a manner that reduces consumption, raises environmental consciousness, and realigns personal values. I sought evidence for what Don Lindemann expressed so poignantly in his inspiring Cohousing Magazine article “Coming Home”: “Cohousing is attractive to me precisely because it meets an immediate practical need for a rich social environment close to home, while also satisfying a deeper need to be a global citizen, to somehow reconcile the awareness of ecological and social deterioration with the actions of my everyday life.”

The Physical Elements

The physical attributes of cohousing—its location, site planning, and architecture—are its most immutable. Their careful consideration is critical for fledgling groups in the site-selection and development stages, when future needs and opportunities are defined.

Location is perhaps the single most important choice for many groups. Whether it be urban, rural, or something in between, location fixes proximity to schools, employment, shops, and services. This largely determines travel needs—though, clearly, homeschooling, telecommuting, and home businesses can mitigate vehicle dependence. Urban projects, such as Cardiff Place, Doyle Street, Southside Park, and Berkeley Cohousing, are impressive laboratories for the testing of green strategies for building reuse and sensitive in-fill development of existing neighborhoods (building in vacant areas). Such groups often sacrifice affordability, private space, and amenity in order to remain fully embedded within mainstream society. They demonstrate a civilized, sociable urban lifestyle, and, in my opinion, they provide the greatest impetus to broad social change toward a more sustainable society.

In contrast, less dense, more travel-dependent rural projects, such as Sharingwood and Nyland, enjoy peaceful, healthy, and safe surroundings in close proximity to nature. These communities have been instrumental in protecting the natural heritage of their locality and lobbying for improved services and public transportation.

Most cohousing groups, however, have adopted the compromise position of a suburban or small-town location where relatively affordable sites offer easy access to services, facilities, and recreational open space. Such sites are often large enough to accommodate modest employment, leisure, and cultural facilities that can then be made available to the wider community. The range of development options made possible in such locations offers great potential for sustainable strategies, such as the application of alternative, green construction methods and materials. Groups are generally active in local affairs and their efforts are visible to the wider community. A suburban or small-town location is likely to be most appealing to the mainstream; therefore, it’s important, if cohousing is to be a model of sustainability, that new projects demonstrate a potential for low-impact building, technology, and lifestyle.

Apart from the inner-city projects mentioned, those that I found most impressive in terms of how the land is used were Highline Crossing, with its uncompromising yet evocative urban aesthetic; Muir Commons, with its exemplary landscaping, orchard, and vegetable garden; Puget Ridge, with its dense yet human-scaled architecture beautifully integrated with landscaping; Windsong’s high-density and radical architecture configured to protect the habitat of threatened salmon species; and Winslow’s deceptively dense dwellings nestled amongst lush permaculture gardens and surrounding woods.

Despite the generally compact housing form and explicit commitment to sharing, little centralization of services and infrastructure has been attempted in American cohousing. An obvious exception is the EcoVillage in Ithaca, New York, where a centralized plant distributes energy to six or eight units at a time. Pine Street and Cambridge Cohousing have installed geothermal heat pumps that deliver air at belowground temperatures to the majority of dwellings; however, these are exceptional examples. The conventional architecture of most cohousing projects poorly represents the unconventional social settings they foster. Perhaps in the years to come, as cohousing gains acceptance and certain aspects of project development become streamlined, greater thought may be applied to developing a genuinely representative architecture of community—one that more confidently expresses shared aspiration through its site planning and in its built form.

The Social Elements

My research survey, though mostly quantitative, concluded with the open-ended question “How has living in cohousing affected, if at all, your household’s ecological practices?” Responses suggested that among other factors, four distinctly different kinds of social interaction impact the degree of proenvironmental behavior: influence, exchange, cooperation, and support.

Influence

Influence occurs where knowledge and skills are imparted from one person to another. The data confirm that cohousers are remarkably well qualified, with 50 percent of the adult population having a Masters- or higher-level degree and another 30 percent having undergraduate qualifications. Many members are highly experienced in a range of life skills and practices. In conventional society, specialists (whether they are doctors, plumbers, or pastry cooks) tend to guard their expertise and protect the status and financial reward their position incurs.

In cohousing, knowledge and skills are more readily shared. They become diffused throughout the community and contribute to the welfare and personal development of all. This appears to be particularly true of environmental consciousness and practice. Those who have considered the issues and adapted their lifestyles accordingly readily influence members without much knowledge or commitment. This is well illustrated in the Berkeley Cohousing project, an exemplary model of environmentally benign urban redevelopment that combines refurbishment of existing housing stock with in-fill development. Much of the credit for the community’s innovative design goes to one enthusiastic member who researched alternative building methods and ecologically benign materials. He influenced not only the residents, but also the architects and contractor. Indeed, his work may well inform and inspire cohousing groups to follow.

Exchange

Apart from the influence of individuals, there occurs between members a more reciprocal and indirect process of exchange. This involves the mutual sharing of ideas and experiences and is therefore dependent upon the quality of social relationships within the group. The greater the respect and receptivity, information is exchanged. Through daily contact with neighbors, new learning is constantly reinforced—a condition that residents reported was conducive to lasting improvement in proenvironmental practices. Respondents to the survey reported significantly increased levels of composting, recycling, and resource conservation as a result of personal interaction with others who are more experienced.

Cooperation

Cooperation, like exchange, builds social relationships and is also dependent upon them. The degree to which residents are willing to cooperate is a function of the trust and goodwill they’ve established. In cohousing, the common house is the most tangible expression of member cooperation. Shared facilities both within the common house and elsewhere take considerable coordinated effort to operate and maintain. However, extensive shared facilities do not necessarily generate high levels of resident cooperation. In fact, somewhat ironically, my data suggest that communities with the highest ratio of common-to-private space had the most underutilized common houses, and those with relatively little shared space per household generally had higher rates of cooperative activity and participation.

Cohousing lore suggests that members own in common or readily share consumer items such as gardening equipment, carpentry tools, and household goods. Indeed, survey respondents reported owning 25 percent fewer freezers, washers, and dryers and 75 percent fewer mowers as a result of moving into cohousing. Informal sharing of smaller household items also occurs, but only one community, The Commons on the Alameda, appears to have optimized the process by circulating an extensive list of building, gardening, camping, cooking, and other equipment that each household owns and is willing to share.

Cooperation to reduce driving via carpooling and the coordination of trips is also thought to be widespread in cohousing. But in fact, little formalized carpooling exists in the communities visited, although the coordinated running of errands is common.

Another apparently untapped potential of cohousing is the economy of scale available for food procurement. Some communities, Muir Commons, Nyland, Pine Street, and Pioneer Valley in particular, have extensive vegetable gardens coordinated by small committees on behalf of all the members. But most leave this activity to households to manage in private garden plots or those shared by a small number of households. Few groups, with the notable exception of Muir Commons, yet enjoy significant harvests of fruit, although many have planted orchards.

Support

Allied to cooperation but operating at a more personal level, support is readily offered and accepted in cohousing. Practical support occurs in a multitude of circumstances. There is willingness to care for their garden or feed their cat when neighbors are on vacation. Advice is offered and time readily spent in helping friends fix a leaky faucet, install new software, or move heavy furniture. This kind of mutual aid can save money, alleviate stress, and give substance to relationships. It is an essential ingredient of the social glue of most cohousing communities.

Some groups nurture practical and emotional support by establishing a committee to tend the personal needs of members. Radically changed circumstances and emergency situations are often catalysts for such support. Unexpected loss of employment may necessitate a loan from an emergency fund; accommodations within the community may be found for one member of a splitting couple; a cooking roster may be devised to provide meals for a family in need. One member of Pioneer Valley, for example, reported not having to cook for two months following the birth of her child.

How does this relate to sustainability? Well, I believe that a deep sense of connectedness to others can lead to a radical realignment of personal priorities. In conventional society, a focus on individual well-being is fused with a materialist conception of the world to become the American Dream. In cohousing, the focus becomes more altruistic and outwardly directed. Caring for the well-being of others becomes part of daily life.

In my tour of cohousing, I observed personal fulfillment within a context of nurturing, supportive social relationships; self-knowledge and efficacy balanced with a commitment to others. For example, my arrival at New View Cohousing coincided with a fortieth birthday being celebrated in an open parking lot festooned with balloons, a live band, and a buzzing camaraderie. At Nyland, I felt privileged to be present when Halloween and Day of the Dead traditions were conjoined at a campfire gathering. I felt a sense of deep personal meaning and strong group cohesion. And at Southside Park, a moving Chanukah service was led by Jewish children in the presence of the whole community in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding.

These are the stuff from which lasting bonds are formed and a sense of community is built. I like to believe they herald a grassroots’ driven paradigm shift toward a sustainable society underpinned by strong community values. We shall see!

Related pages:
Sustainability