Laboratories of Social Change or “Yuppie Communes”?

David Wann, Harmony Village, Golden, Colorado

“We need something bigger than we are to be awed by and to commit ourselves to.” —Abraham Maslow

It’s a crisp, autumn Sunday outside: bright-blue sky, leaves turning, the sound of the high school band playing at the football game across town. A few of us wish we could escape to watch the television for just a few minutes to see how the Broncos are doing against their archrivals, the Raiders.

But instead, we sit in our familiar circle of chairs with twenty-five or thirty other neighbors, hashing out a system to ensure the community work gets done. A proposal has just been presented that will reclassify some of our individual work as nonessential. Things that some of us do routinely, such as gardening, newsletter editing, and external communications, have been deemed by an ad hoc team as important for community building but not important for fiscal stability. Only those things we’d pay to have done are officially designated as essential.

I look at my neighbors’ faces and it’s clear this proposal has knocked some of us off center: we are wondering if money is an appropriate way to evaluate community. Fasten your seat belts, ladies and gentlemen, this could be a turbulent ride. By comparison, it might be less stressful to spend the afternoon balancing the checkbook, carrying heavy boxes, or having a root canal.

Why do we do it? Why do we swim upstream like 10,000 salmon when hitching a ride down the mainstream currents of suburban or apartment life might require so much less exertion? Why are we working so hard to invent a new, improved American Dream?

This is not an easy question to answer, but certainly it has something to do with wanting it to feel right; with wanting our lives to feel secure, stimulating, and productive. We want to feel good about getting out of bed in the morning. It’s that simple—and that complex.

We’ve built and maintained do-it-ourselves communities because we believe there’s much more to a neighborhood than redundant rows of houses and hallways without any other humans in sight. As a self-selecting band of social and environmental activists, we decided that if the market wouldn’t supply “neighborhoods on purpose,” we’d do it ourselves. We enlisted the expertise of designers and developers who understand that there’s more to building a home than increasing its average size. The bottom line is, we aspire to build neighborhoods for people—not just cars, lawns, and fences.

In some cases, we spent up to ten years designing and building communities because we were tired of feeling like strangers on our own streets. We wanted to come home to something more significant than “reality” television. We literally wanted to think outside the boxes of our homes to create neighborhood networks that bring clarity and purpose to our lives—along with uncomplicated fun. This may sound too good to be true, but to a certain extent, cohousing communities are working, and this collection of stories offers ample evidence.

“Sort of Like Being in College”

As any resident of cohousing can tell you, there’s no lack of curiosity and discussion about our compact, living neighborhoods. For some reason, people are not only curious, but sometimes feel uncomfortable about groups of people who want to know and support each other, as if it’s somehow un-American. On a nationally aired edition of Dateline, NBC did a pretty good job of explaining the benefits and challenges of living in my neighborhood, Harmony Village, but they couldn’t resist digging into their archives to include footage of 1960s-style communes in which face-painted clusters of counterculture dropouts were skinny-dipping and passing joints.

Fueled by media stereotypes, the American imagination automatically defaults to the idea of a commune whenever households or groups of people are intentionally living and working together. But the field is far broader than communes.

What’s currently happening in cohousing, new urbanism, ecovillages, intentional communities, and transit-oriented developments is simply the mainstream rerouting itself, giving itself more options. Try thinking of the word “collaborative” if the word “cooperative” bothers you. When people collaborate, they are often business partners—as are cohousing residents, in a sense. Cohousing residents own their own houses (or rent in private houses), but they also own shares of open space, buildings, and other property that belongs to the community at large. The advantage is that each resident actively participates in the neighborhood. To manage these common interests, cohousing residents collaborate with each other, building bonds of trust in the process.

Still, in my eleven years of experience, cohousing neighborhoods are not dramatically different than conventional neighborhoods—certainly not different enough to be intimidating. They’re simply friendly, sustainable neighborhoods-by-design. Says Judy Baxter of Monterey Cohousing near Minneapolis, “I tell people it’s like a condo complex—though it may be single-family homes, townhomes, apartments, whatever—with a lot more common facilities and the intention to be involved with your neighbors.”

Whenever I show college students my slide show about cohousing, they comment, “It’s sort of like being in college.” In a way, it is, with the open spaces, certain shared facilities, lifelong learning, and lots of activities going on (except that in college, there’s probably more beer consumed per capita and less organic produce).

In cohousing, you know who lives six houses down because you eat common meals with them once or more a week, decide how to allocate homeowners’ dues, and gratefully accept a ride from them when your car’s in the shop. As the years go by, you come to trust them because you’ve seen them move through life’s ups and downs. You trust them enough to let them take care of your four-year-old, or to lend them a thousand bucks for a month or two. You listen to what they have to say, even if you don’t agree with them at first, because you’ve learned (the truth hurts) that you’re not always right, especially regarding the greatest good for the whole group.

Because people have different skills and aptitudes, some of your neighbors will be better at carpentry, cooking, or speaking a foreign language than you are—this all makes for great learning opportunities, rather than cause for feeling insecure. Any given neighborhood also includes various personality types: extroverts and introverts; rational thinkers and intuitive thinkers; neatness nuts and those whose priorities are elsewhere. I believe it was our ability to tap into these many styles and skills that made Harmony Village a reality. We had the full mix of personalities, and step-by-step, we grew from a vacant parcel of land into a vibrant, colorful, living neighborhood.

Along the way I learned that a person doesn’t have to be wildly social to live in cohousing. In my presentations about cohousing and sustainable neighborhoods, I usually get questions about the loss of privacy and individuality. I believe that privacy remains at the level a person chooses, and that individuality actually increases because the support of a group enhances personal growth.

In my neighborhood, when I’m not feeling especially sociable, I just keep walking past a lingering group of chatters with a wave and a smile, often into the community garden. But on the other hand, a person is typically welcome to join most casual conversations in common areas, a luxury and comfort not available in many fenced-off neighborhoods.

Often the front side of a cohousing home faces a common courtyard or green, while the back is more private, with a sitting area or small garden. At the Tierra Nueva community in central California, some residents use reversible signs that say “Welcome” on one side and “Go Away” on the other. Everyone there gets the humor and the intent of those signs.

Is Cohousing for Me?

For some people, cohousing seems like too much work. The meetings, socializing, and shared-work responsibilities seem like extras that can never fit into lifestyles already jam-packed with appointments, overtime, shopping, and commuting. But for other people, jam-packed lives are the very reason that cohousing is valuable—because it offers an alternative. Sociologist and author Paul Ray, a veteran poll taker and trend watcher, estimates that at least 50 million Americans are “cultural creatives.”

Says Ray, “If you hunger for a deep change in your life that moves you in the direction of less stress, more health, lower consumption, more spirituality, more respect for the Earth and the diversity of species, you are a cultural creative.”

In a 1999 survey conducted for the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, Ray and his colleagues documented that 77 percent of Americans want an ecologically more sustainable world, which would include things such as healthy food, less driving, energy-efficient homes, and lifestyles that don’t pollute the environment. Two-thirds of Americans specify a small town or village as the ideal place to live and “at least half of the U.S. population would take a serious look at cohousing, with its clustered housing, common greens, and sense of neighborliness,” concludes Ray.

Charles B. Maclean, Ph.D., an eight-year resident of Trillium Hollow Cohousing in Portland, Oregon, has compiled a self-assessment tool to help a person decide if cohousing is right for him or her. (See Contributors for Maclean’s contact information.) Some of the factors considered positive for cohousing are a desire to learn and grow together; an affinity for intergenerational contact (“It takes children to raise a village,” believes Maclean); respect for individual differences; an ability to remain civil and focused on solutions, even in disagreement; and a belief that people are out to do each other good.

In general, people who live in cohousing desire a more harmonious world; however, there have been some conflicts in cohousing so troublesome that people moved out.

“It is my experience that both the joys and the frustrations of life are multiplied in cohousing,” says Maclean. Yet given the very low turnover rate in cohousing, it appears that the joys seem to be winning.

“Whatever growing up I didn’t do in my family of origin is accelerated by living in cohousing,” he continues. “Cohousing isn’t for those wanting to keep the status quo; not for the reclusive or no-growth person. It is for the adventuresome who want to live a juicy life in community.” (See Maclean’s story, “What I Learned from Children about Giving and Receiving,” on page XX.)

The Miracle of Consensus

“How many cohousing residents does it take to clean the bathroom rug in the common house?” asks Sandy Thompson of Heartwood Cohousing in a Listserv e-mail.

“Let’s see. … Four to decide what needs to be done before it is considered clean. The whole community to decide who should do it (Should we hire someone? Ask for volunteers? Or just assign the job?). Another two or three to make sure the cleaning supplies are on hand. One more to make a chart or check-off sheet to record that it was done. And one to do it!”

Joining the dialog, Diane Margolis of Cambridge Cohousing in Massachusetts calculates a slightly larger effort, adding, “A dozen to discuss whether it’s dirty enough to need cleaning. One to put a notice on the white board to set up a meeting. Fifty to reach consensus on how the rug got dirty and ways to keep it from getting dirty again.”

Diane mentions the “C” word in her note, dredging up a topic—consensus—that is sometimes roughly synonymous with fried brain cells. In order to reach consensus—in which decisions have the support (or at least lack of opposition) of the whole group—cohousing residents have learned to think pluralistically under the awesome guidance of facilitators whose abilities often seem superhuman.

Among the prerequisites for successful use of consensus are that people be willing to express what they think and feel without fear of reprisal and that participants agree that the good of the group is the most important factor. Not exactly a slam dunk, yet these bionic discussion leaders somehow download, defuse, analyze, and verbally summarize the essential content of each viewpoint and how it interconnects with others. They also suggest ways to sail beyond the choppy waters of A and B to arrive peacefully on the shores of C, a solution that everyone in the group can live with.

The process of reaching consensus is a miracle to me, and I sometimes walk out of meetings as if I’ve just received communion. Wasn’t it cool the way we came up with a new way of doing it?

Just to set the record straight on the number of people needed to clean the bathroom rug, I’d have to add at least one more—a neighborhood consultant on environmentally friendly products, because surely the group wouldn’t want to use anything toxic.

Not only do cohousers typically choose green-building materials in their homes, even the tools they use in meetings are often carefully evaluated. “White boards don’t use up paper, but most of the wipe-off markers give off really bad vapors,” writes RoseWind resident Lynn Nadeau. “We tried wipe-off markers that were less fume-y, but enough of us are sensitive to what we breathe that white boards just haven’t been an option. We use butcher-paper flip charts, though they are fairly expensive and consume paper—not ideal either.”

Eugene Cohousing’s Tree Bressen, one of the superhero facilitators mentioned above, responds, “Weyerhauser paper company, less than five miles from my house, sells ends of rolls for a mere $3 per roll, because it’s a waste product from their production. Sometimes they are too wide, so we cut them in half using a circular saw.”

I find that, in general, facilitators’ enthusiasm about the excellence of meeting tools (and other details) is roughly proportional to a group’s chances of creating a bloodless community culture.

The Cohousing Template

If there’s an official shorthand description of cohousing, it might be a list of six elements compiled by the American pioneers of cohousing, Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, who imported the concept from Denmark in the late 1980s.

  1. The participatory process. Residents-to-be participate in the planning and design of the community so it directly responds to their needs.
  2. Neighborhood design. The physical design encourages a sense of community as well as maintaining the option for privacy.
  3. Private homes supplemented by common facilities. Common facilities are designed for daily use; they are an integral part of the community and typically include a dining area, sitting area, children’s playroom, guest room, as well as garden and other amenities. Each household owns a private residence—complete with kitchen—but also shares extensive common facilities with the larger group.
  4. Resident management. After move-in, residents participate in decision making about common facilities, social activities, and financial expenditures related to commonly held property.
  5. Nonhierarchical structure and decision making. There are leadership roles, but not leaders. The community is not dependent on any one person, even though there is often a “burning soul” that gets the community off the ground, and another that pulls together the financing, still another that makes sure the group has babysitters for meetings, and another who …
  6. The community is not a primary income source for residents. There is no shared community economy. If the community provides residents with their primary income, this is a significant change to the dynamic between neighbors and defines another level of community beyond the scope of cohousing.

Certain features are typically found in a cohousing neighborhood, such as parking at the edges of the neighborhood so the interior remains as living space—an “outdoor room” where neighbors can meet each other casually. The average number of homes is between twenty-five and thirty, because studies have demonstrated that at this scale, neighbors can get to know one another and can share common facilities without conflict. The fact that community members need to take care of common property literally gives them something in common—something to talk about and work together on.

If We Can Put a Man on the Moon, Why Can’t We Put a Million People in Cohousing?

It’s easy enough to find out what the goals of cohousing are. Just go to the Web site and look up some of the mission statements posted on community home pages. At Sunward Cohousing in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the big-picture goal is to create a place “where lives are simplified, the Earth is respected, diversity is welcomed, children play together in safety, and living in community with neighbors comes naturally.” At Winslow Cohousing near Seattle, Washington, the aim is to have “a minimal impact on the Earth and create a place in which all residents are equally valued as part of the community.”

It’s hard to contest goals such as these, isn’t it? Motherhood and apple pie. But the mission statements actually work because they remind us that each person is both “me” and “we,” and that we’ve agreed and recorded an expressed purpose.

But cohousing residents don’t assume that achieving these lofty goals will be automatic. They actively create their lives rather than let them be created by media, advertising, and power politics. Cohousing residents aspire to “be the change they wish to see in the world” by designing and governing their neighborhoods mindfully, with mission statements and other agreements as guidelines. As some of the stories in this book demonstrate, cohousing is a natural training ground for citizenship, both in the neighborhood itself and the world at large.

It can also be a model of ecological stewardship. Vashon Cohousing, which is also near Seattle, blends sustainability with enlightened self-interest: “We see the need to coordinate resources and services as a means of reducing expenses, lessening our collective toll on the land, and having greater control of our consumer intake.”

The mission statement of Songaia Cohousing in Bothell, Washington, spells out key social goals:

We create ways and appropriate spaces for people to give clear communication without fear of rejection. We seek to create an atmosphere of cooperation and willingness to help, especially in times of need.

Everyone in the community, from infant to elder, is a lifelong learner as well as a teacher. We all have experiences, ideas, and insights that are worthy of sharing with each other. Each of us brings particular skills, whether in gardening, cooking, computer, construction, or interpersonal skills, that are essential to making community happen as we work together.

Can you imagine how many hours it took to draft all these mission statements? First compiling lists, then wordsmithing, polishing, and presenting a draft to the group; adding and deleting phrases; presenting it to the group again … Cohouser David Heimann compares efforts such as these to the labors of the American founders. “As I see it,” he writes, “the Declaration of Independence had to be a cohousing moment. After all, it took about a year to decide on it; the draft was written by committee; and it was adopted by consensus after virtually an infinite number of meetings and discussions.

Sometimes you put many hours into a certain product or decision and it still comes out misshapen and ugly, like the first bowl or mug in a pottery class. Moments such as these require a shift in focus. Rather than dwell on the imperfections of group process and the limitations of the human mind, think about laundry: you left a load of clean socks and towels in the common house dryer, and when you came back for them the next day, they were neatly folded and stacked. An anonymous neighbor went the extra mile.


Related pages:
Considering Cohousing