Inspiring a Paradigm of Sustainability

A summary of the 7/26 Bridges to Cohousing Virtual Roundtable: Housing That’s Green focused on Sustainability

The July 26 Bridges to Cohousing virtual roundtable provided dynamic perspectives on how communities can be more sustainable. All of the speakers agreed that while sustainability relates to community design, that it is fundamentally about the way people relate both in their paradigm and lifestyle that has the biggest impact on both design and overall ecological impact. We heard different strategies for this ranging from cultural movements that inspire radical innovation to metric-based research and modeling. However, the consistent theme came back to the importance of empowering change through cultivating and enrolling people in an inspiring vision that is rooted in measurable goals.

On a fundamental level, cohousing is inherently more sustainable in that it is designed to support sharing and using fewer resources than typical development. Liz Walker from Ecovillage at Ithaca shared about how they worked with the county to develop their own zoning code that allowed them to cluster their three higher density cohousing communities so that 90% of their 175 acres was preserved for wilderness, recreation and agriculture. This is in direct contrast to the previous zoning that would have developed 90% of the acreage for a subdivision.

Dr. Jesse Sherrie shared about life cycle analysis research he did at three ecovillages tracking their carbon footprint in contrast to the national average. His findings were that ecovillages had 1/3 of the carbon footprint of average Americans. Some of the biggest factors for this were the use of electric vehicles, and more plant-based diets in ecovillages. Sky Blue referenced “Together Resilient” (Ludwig, 2017) a similar study done by FIC that found income sharing communities to have up to 80% lower footprint than US averages. Dr. Sherrie is enthusiastic about supporting other communities to measure their carbon footprint, and suggests the simplest way to start being to track utility bills and fuel usage. In addition to reaching out to him to be part of his studies, we heard about Washington Commons working with students at UC Davis so reaching out to local universities is another creative way to track the numbers.

Erik Bonnett shared about his work as both an architect with Studio Co+Hab and one of the founding members of Bozeman Cohousing. While there are many facets to their sustainability design including agricultural, social justice, and car sharing elements, Bonnett focused his presentation on the most cost-effective energy design. Bozeman decided that they didn’t want to do “less bad” and committed to being carbon neutral in their design. This commitment was a measurable goal that through the stakeholder’s commitment was not negotiable when market forces unexpectedly inflated the local housing market 30%. Despite financial pressures that often lead starting communities to compromising sustainability commitments, Bozeman Cohousing was able to stick to their goal while developing what Bonnett described as the most affordable and sustainable housing being developed anywhere in Bozeman.

Urban sustainability educator Mike Wird referenced Donella Meadows’ book “Thinking in Systems” (2008) which found that as rational as statistics seem in convincing behavior change, the most effective way to change behavior is actually through changing the paradigm. Each one of the speakers spoke to this in different ways. Bonnett dispelled the myth that there has to be a trade-off between cost and sustainability. Walker made a point to say that Ecovillage at Ithaca didn’t start with any money, but a group of enthusiastic people was what it took to actualize an enormous vision. Sky Blue spoke about how addressing systemic barriers such as inequality in people’s time, wealth, and power is essential to fully achieve the sustainability that’s possible.

CohoUS ED Trish Becker opened the call noting how part of the sustainability possible through cohousing is the movement’s underlying motivation of living a lifestyle of meaningful connection. This along with the culture of sharing may be a less quantifiable indicator, but undoubtedly the more neighbors get their needs met locally the less they will look to unsustainable systems of fulfillment that perpetuate overconsumption. When we share more, we use less. Caring for the earth goes hand in hand with caring for each other.

The third and final virtual roundtable in this first Bridges to Cohousing series is on August 9, 2022 focused on “Housing that Cares” helping to bridge trends in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion movement with cohousing. Register here to join us for that event.

Next Steps

  • To hear more details about these solutions, you can view the recording of the July 12 Bridges event.
    • Partners can access the recording for free here.
    • Non-partners can register here to get an email with a link to the recording.
  • Watch this recording with your community and have your own discussion afterwards posting notes from that discussion as a comment to this post.
  • Fill out the feedback form here after you watch the recording letting us know what worked.
  • Donate to CohoUS to specifically focus on programs that support education and advocacy for affordability here.

Learn more and contact the speakers:

Liz Walker

Mike Wird

Erik Bonnett

Dr. Jesse Sherrie

Sky Blue 

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