Part One: Chapter One: Neighborhoods on Purpose

What makes cohousing unique is that residents take an active role in determining what kind of a place they’ll live in, like many people did before the age of mass-produced housing. Cohousing is “reinventing community” in the sense that it replaces social values and architectural concepts that were once very common and adds new approaches that are proving useful in cohousing as well as the mainstream market. For example, neighborhood developers such as the Cottage Company based in Seattle, Washington, adapt cohousing features such as common houses, community greens, remote parking, and smaller-than-average houses with great results. Says Jim Soules of the Cottage Company, “We’ve seen a high level of satisfaction among the people who occupy our neighborhoods. For example, not a single resident has complained about the parking, which typically is more than 100 feet from a house. They like what they get for the minor inconvenience—a quiet, car-free courtyard and the sense of an outdoor room.”

Members of newly constructed cohousing communities play key roles in designing the physical arrangement of the buildings. They learn how the placement of the buildings can affect the functionality and “feel” of playgrounds, gardens, and community spaces; where the common house should be located so that all the houses in the neighborhood will have good access to it; whether the homes should be townhouses or single units, multistory or elder-friendly ranch-style homes, and so on.

The first members of a given community also have a say in what the homes themselves should look like; how big they should be; what materials should be used in them; and how resources such as energy and water can be conserved by using good design and management. So they really have an opportunity to be architects and planners of their own neighborhoods. They are also social architects, designing systems of governance and processes for maintaining shared property, as well as strategies for optimizing relationships and trust building among neighbors.

Obviously, this approach to home selection is very different than the conventional way of doing it. When a typical homebuyer is looking for a house, he or she simply chooses from a menu of houses or apartments that are already built—often by a developer who hasn’t put much thought into the concept of “neighborhood.”

The homebuyer typically selects a house that offers the most square feet of living space for the least amount of money. The implicit understanding is that the house will offer a lot of privacy and convenience. On the other hand, the designers of cohousing communities tend to think “outside the box” of their houses to create synergistic, lively communities in which a primary goal is to provide both adequate privacy and lively community.

However, cohousing is not just about designing new communities. Those moving into existing neighborhoods are also designers, because in cohousing, an implicit goal is continuous improvement—even though there are sometimes delays, disappointments, and inevitable “steps backwards.” In my neighborhood, for example, we always have many physical and social improvements on the drawing boards, such as a grape arbor for the community garden, a new bathroom for the common house, a new, mutually agreeable system for getting the neighborhood work accomplished, and so on. After twelve years of working with each other, we’ve seen one improvement after another come to fruition—and we now realize that patience really is a virtue!

This book presents many different shades and flavors of cohousing. I suppose a person who doesn’t live in a “neighborhood on purpose” could read the chapters, “Daily Life in Cohousing” and “Visiting Five Cohousing Communities” and get a pretty fair idea of what living in cohousing is like; however, I recommend that newcomers to the concept of cohousing carefully read chapter one, which will equip you with the basic principles and practices. Throughout the rest of the book, the people who already live in cohousing will introduce themselves through their stories as they describe in their own words the successes and failures they celebrate and endure.

I really hope you enjoy getting to know them!

David Wann

Related pages:
Considering Cohousing