Introduction: Adventures in Cohousing

The idea for this book was born in typical cohousing fashion—with one cohousing resident helping another. Diane de Simone, a lively soul from Sonora Cohousing in Tucson, knew I was interested in writing a book about cohousing and suggested it be an anthology. She’s a writer and thought about doing such a project herself, but unselfishly offered the idea to me instead. It made perfect sense—a gallery of stories and photographs contributed by the folks who live in cohousing. In keeping with the aims of cohousing, it would contain many different viewpoints, rather than just my own. Together we would present a colorful impression of daily life in this new way of neighboring—we would “dance our story,” as contributor PattyMara Gourley phrases it.

I personally know several hundred cohousers, including the sixty or so in my own neighborhood, and I was confident that finding writers and photographers would be a snap. Residents of cohousing, many of whom helped design the neighborhoods they live in, are very creative people.

I talked with the editors at Fulcrum Publishing, who published another one of my books, The Zen of Gardening. They were interested enough to sign a contract, and I put the word out on Cohousing-L, a national e-mail discussion group, that I was looking for lively stories and essays as well as clear, storytelling photographs. My aim was to compile material that brings to life some of the sparkle, good intentions, and impressive results of cohousing. Immediately I began hearing from writers across the country who proposed pieces on topics as diverse as working with kids in gardening and theater; living with multiple sclerosis in cohousing; and, through environmental activism, permanently shutting down a pesticide-happy farmer on an adjacent property. Then others joined the project with stories about one neighbor offering a kidney transplant to another neighbor; about a cohousing architect who liked the group so well he became a member; and about how a neighborhood used sweat equity to lay a 55,000-brick walkway, connecting both buildings and people.

I wanted to show potential residents what it’s like to live in cohousing because I’m hopeful that the idea, and variants of it, will become an energetic grassroots movement. Despite being acknowledged champions of stress, dedicated television watchers, and dutiful consumers, we human beings of the American variety share fundamental characteristics with all other humans: we long for something meaningful to do, someone remarkable to love, and something magical to hope for. In our very pivotal era, I think it’s fair to say that violence against humans and other living beings, at both the national and neighborhood scale, is making many of us tired. We want to stop the bleeding, and prevent it from happening again.

I believe the mini-movement of cohousing is partly a response to a perceived loss of trust and individual control that’s becoming pervasive in our world. People gravitate toward do-it-ourselves communities because they sense they can be better heard and understood in a place that strives for cooperation and support. They can be neighbors with others who want to help put the pieces back together. When I first joined the group that would become Harmony Village, my old Subaru sported the familiar bumper sticker “Cohousing: Changing the World, One Neighborhood at a Time,” and I’m still convinced that the reinvention of community can bring individual empowerment as well as cooperative action. The world is sorely in need of focused, nonpartisan cooperation right now. Why not deliberately create neighborhoods that are safer, friendlier, and healthier? Is there a downside to this?

Naturally, I’m hoping my cohousing peers will enjoy these stories of cohousing heroes and nerds, empathizing with and celebrating lifestyles that are remarkably similar to their own. Maybe it’s the common design themes and ways of making decisions that make cohousing a distinct species, but there’s also a common sense of adventure and a shared belief that we can improve the world if we work together.

I can imagine this book being useful when a confused parent or friend asks, “What’s this cohousing thing you’re always talking about?” Cohousing residents or wannabes can hand their inquisitors this book. Even if they just look at the pictures, they are likely to be pleasantly surprised: these are real houses with real roofs (not tipis and tents) and happy, healthy-looking kids.

Of course, from a marketing standpoint, the cohousing goal of reducing unnecessary consumption may inhibit book sales, because knowing cohousing residents, they’ll probably share this book rather than buy it, suggesting that prospective members borrow it from the library. So much for a year’s worth of collecting, compiling, and editing—and scaled-back spending while the work was being done. … Still, I’ve had a lot of fun working with dozens of energetic writers, designers, and photographers from more than thirty North American cohousing communities, and I hope this book helps spread the word about this energetic, idealistic experiment in living.

Some things we do out of conviction. In an e-mail on Cohousing-L, Liza Cobb quoted Anatole France: “To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe.” Liza was looking for other people to join her in creating a community and ended her note about the virtues and values of cohousing with the enthusiastic phrase, “Let the adventure begin!”

Clearly, it already has. With more than eighty cohousing communities already built in America and Canada and more than that in the planning or design phase, it’s obvious the spark of what I call neighborhoods on purpose has ignited a small, unwavering flame.

The first designers and inhabitants of cohousing are sometimes called the burning souls, whose pioneering efforts in the early 1990s resulted in communities such as Winslow, Nyland, and Muir Commons. (See Rick Mockler’s story about the burning souls who invented and designed Muir Commons, page XX.) Some of the stories in this collection offer evidence that cohousing, similar to a smart and sometimes-boisterous student, is starting to be noticed by the rest of the crowd. Says cohousing architect Kathryn okay McCamant, “No book or seminar on American housing would be complete without mentioning it.”

The reason cohousing fuels my own burning soul is that many of its experiments are extremely valuable to a society so distracted by materialism and so shell-shocked by the frantic American lifestyle. What kind of experiments am I talking about? Consensus decision-making; participatory design; alternative sources of energy; alternative sources of information; shared resources and designs that reduce each person’s ecological footprint; aging gracefully and vigorously; neighborhood activism in surrounding towns and communities; and collaborative management of neighborhood resources, to name just a few. In general, residents of cohousing are living actively rather than passively.

The underlying intent of cohousing might be seen as the deliberate substitution of real experiences for canned ones. Cohousing at its best provides a structure for learning to trust other people and for learning to be unselfish, at least in theory.

But you know what? Cohousing isn’t Utopia, as you’ll see in some of the stories included here. For example, the process of codesigning a neighborhood involves many, many meetings, some of them very emotional. Children begin to role-play going to meetings as a way of life, and outside friends of cohousing participants begin to suspect insanity. But the dividends begin to accrue as future members start to know and rely on each other, learning how to create and maintain a mutually beneficial neighborhood. By the time houses begin to rise up from construction sites, cohousers are ripe and ready for life in cohousing.

And then other challenges—lots of them—pop up like jack-in-the-box puppets. What happens if the community won’t let your free-range cat roam the neighborhood? What if one of the neighbors is “difficult,” a carrier of stress? What if nobody wants to do the work required for the maintenance of commonly held property?

That’s where the curtain of this book opens—on the walkways, common greens, and in common house meeting rooms, where people are joking, debating, borrowing tools, setting policy, and trying new recipes—where the neighborhood is alive and interconnected. In these stories, the reader lives vicariously in construction sites; meets the furry and feathery creatures that also occupy the land; and goes through the gee-whiz phase of moving, into the cold-sweat phase of dissension and beyond.

Please note several things: this book presents cohousing in North America, but by extension represents examples of cohousing throughout the world. It is not my intention to exclude the many thriving communities in Australia, Austria, Sweden, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Belgium, Austria, and other locations, especially Denmark, the birthplace of cohousing. My call for stories seemed to reach mostly Americans, however, and the book self-assembled that way. In the future, I want to tour cohousing worldwide, as many already have, and maybe then there can be another anthology.

Second, this is not a how-to book that describes the process of finding a site, getting financing, designing and building the neighborhood, or mediating conflict. There are already several other excellent books on these topics (see Resources on page XX). Instead, these short stories jump right into the middle of daily life in cohousing, showing what it feels like, looks like, and sounds like. I asked potential contributors what they wanted to write about, and they responded with themes from all compass points of human experience: celebration, birth, death, finances, art, drama, sustainability, conflict, and yes, meetings.

Is all the work worth it? Read on, I’ll let you decide.