The Landscape of Cohousing and Other Reflections

Grant McCormick, Sonora, Tucson, Arizona

Is sustainability possible in a resource-hungry location such as Tucson? Maybe so, if someone like Grant McCormick is on the design team. –DLW

In addition to the appeal of community living, I became involved in cohousing as someone who had skills to offer in the development process. I was interested in eventually owning a home, but I didn’t have the resources to buy one at the time, so it was more about supporting something I felt would be good for Tucson. I studied community planning in school, with an emphasis on the social factors in design, and cohousing seemed to offer solutions to many problems. There are many assumptions built into the phenomenon of suburban sprawl, for example, that suburban locations provide better environments for children, or that far-flung locations provide better access to nature and open space. Cohousing seemed to be able to challenge some of those assumptions. My goal was to choose an urban in-fill site instead of destroying untouched desert, and also to avoid infrastructure burdens associated with new suburban development. I wanted a location close to downtown, commercial services, and public transit.

The social aspects of cohousing—community, collaboration, and consensus—were especially appealing to me. I wanted to promote and learn about these aspects and integrate them into both my personal and professional life. Many of the textbook cohousing ideas about being connected to a community—casual social opportunities, a pedestrian orientation, participatory design and management, shared open space, knowing neighbors—were also appealing.

{Figure 69, Sonora Landscape}

The prospect of collaborating in the creation of an entire neighborhood from the start was interesting to me because of the contributions I could make in both urban planning and landscape design. I was also intrigued by the possibilities of a highly participatory planning-and-design process, producing results more responsive to future residents than occurs in typical developments. Aside from opportunities to demonstrate specific sustainable-development techniques, such as material selections, cohousing offered the potential to demonstrate sustainability due to the collaborative, shared resources nature of the community.

The most surprising part of creating Sonora Cohousing was how long it took— seven years from the first meeting to move-in. Still, even the more developer-driven and streamlined forms of cohousing development can take many years, as can conventional development projects. The key stumbling block is related to financing. Finding a partner that could arrange financing was the watershed event that eventually made the project happen.

Despite the fact that government regulations related to codes and the approval processes were a drag on the development process, in our case, the city was very supportive, predictable, and presented little overall impediment. A far more limiting factor in terms of time delay and innovative design was what might be called “design by inertia” on the part of the professional development community. The idea of a participatory design that included future residents in decision making was unfamiliar to design professionals, the builder-developer, and the city, thus we met some degree of resistance.

Yet the results of our participatory-development model speak for themselves. Value was added and many sustainable goals were included as a direct result of resident input. For example, the community has more than forty fruit trees, including citrus, avocado, peaches, nuts, and others. One hundred percent of our sparse rainwater is captured in drainage basins designed to slowly percolate the water back into the soil; it is also used to provide on-site landscaping. The common house was built out of straw bales with a stucco finish and it has photovoltaic panels on the roof. We recycle gray water from the common house laundry room for use on our landscape, and a number of homes have cisterns to store rainwater.

Goals Realized and Future Goals

Most of my early goals have been realized to some degree. I have a home in Sonora Cohousing. While the site isn’t as urban as I would prefer, it is within several miles of the city core and is built on an in-fill site. I believe it is a great environment for kids and parents and it has a lot of very appealing open spaces. I’ve learned a lot about community, collaboration, and consensus, although I think we have a ways to go to reach our full potential. The social results are not as fulfilling as I had originally hoped, largely because of my full work life, the time demands of being a primary steward of the community’s landscape, and a few community conflicts.

My goals for the future are focused more on the social aspects, centering on my family, the creation of a more effective community decision-making process, and stronger personal relationships with other community members.

I continue to nurture the Sonora Cohousing landscape, which I believe is key to the community’s sense of place within the Sonoran desert. The landscape was designed to be a diverse and beautiful place for people’s enjoyment, while also demonstrating appropriate ecological choices for the Sonoran desert.

Other outstanding development projects also demonstrate sustainable practices appropriate to the region, such as landscaping with native and edible plants and water harvesting. But what distinguishes our landscape is the integration of these practices into shared spaces. We don’t know exactly what will evolve, but it will likely be a compelling symbiosis between the natural world and the resident stewards who care for it. This is rather uncommon beyond the scale of the single-family home.

There’s also symbiosis among Tucson cohousing communities. For example, Stone Curves used our common house for many of their development-phase meetings and used our physical environment as a marketing tool. Sonora’s landscape may have “raised the bar,” encouraging an above-average budget and consideration given to the Stone Curves landscape, and hopefully others. I suspect that after Stone Curves is complete, many opportunities will emerge for sharing experiences and knowledge among residents.

Related pages: