Cohousing! What is it??? The process of defining Cohousing

Like all of you, I am regularly confronted with “Cohousing, what’s that?” Despite my architectural background, I am very slow to bring up anything along the lines of the development program or design features. I describe it as a social contract for a lifestyle and a culture. Informally and shorthand, I say that we agree to get to know each other, and learn something about our backgrounds and desires; to help each other out; and to practice sharing and collaboration in decisions and activities small and large. That’s the lowbrow version.

The last time I tried a highbrow version, I came up with cohousing as embodying a life of empathy, sharing, participation and equivalence. Thinking back on this, I’d probably now add reciprocity. A more expansive view of empathy, sharing and equivalence leads to diversity, affordability, and sustainability. But there are dozens of comparable words and concepts out there that overlap and reinforce each other. I’m not particularly stuck on one specific vocabulary. It’s the commitments that count. This is how we cohousers intend to be, to treat each, to live with each other. And, it’s never a done deal, it’s always a growth process. Speaking personally, I’m not so bad at participation, reciprocity and sharing, but I sometimes need more work on my empathy and equivalence. It’s always a evolution, never an end state.

Out of an explicit commitment to enduring values, behaviors and relationships emerge the physical expressions of cohousing: the common house, the common meals, the pedestrian spaces, the optimum size, the consensus methods, the compost bin. I would not say that any one attribute — the common house, affordability, consensus, solar panels — makes or breaks a place as cohousing, or not-cohousing. But can cohousing exist with just the values, and no visible manifestation of these values? Probably not. As Jim Wallis of Sojourners puts it, Faith without action is meaningless. Values, to be real, need instantiation.

Finally, it seems to me that intentionality is the key. Cohousing happens when people intend for it to happen. When they make an explicit and pro-active commitment to the cohousing culture and values. In an ideal world, each coho would have an actionable values/culture declaration it provides to all candidate members. In the hyper-ideal, incoming members would actually sign it as part of the community agreement. But now, perhaps, I go too far …

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values statement

My experience is that having an explicit statement of community values agreed to by all residents is a valuable way of keeping the community on track when it is faced with various challenges.