Neighborhoods on Purpose

Harmony LawnI used to have contingency plans for where I wanted to live in another five years. For a while, it was New Zealand, then upstate New York, then a small town in western Colorado that doesn’t feel the pace of a fresh-air-challenged metro area like Denver. Where would I try to be comfortable next? Where would I try to meet as many needs as possible with a minimum amount of stress?

Those questions aren’t easy to answer because in many places – let’s face it – residents are hooked up to a “lifestyle support system”: all the pipes, wires, lines of credit, electronic waves, roads, trucks and vans that deliver a bizarre, excessive way of life. When we ask someone where they live, all too often what we really mean is “how long will it take me to get there?” The question too often implies “where do you watch your 4 1/2 hours of TV, generate 4 pounds of trash, and consume 15 kilowatt hours of electricity each day?”

Not as healthy as we’d like.

After all, just about everything we need to be champion consumers is delivered right to our homes – except the money to buy it all, and the ethics and values to make sense of it. The truth is, in the spacious rooms of our technically correct houses, we may not be as healthy as we’d like. We may feel isolated from people, disconnected from nature, and short on time. Our diets of fast food and ready-to-eat meals may deliver abundant calories, but not much in the way of vitality. The evening news we rely on for a reality check may leave us feeling unsettled and fearful, sorely in need of good news.

Shouldn’t the question “where do you live?” mean “where do you come to life?”

I must be making progress in that regard, because a few years ago I stopped thinking about moving. I intend to stay in this “neighborhood on purpose” until they carry me away. Apparently many of my neighbors are thinking similar thoughts – we’ve had only four turnovers (five, if death is a turnover, and I’m sure it is!) in the last 11 years. We’ve pieced together a neighborhood culture that enables each of us to meet many of our needs right where we live. We drive less, exercise more, and provide some of our own food, energy, and entertainment. We make an effort to meet intrinsic needs like security, creativity, expression, reflection and mutual respect right in our own community.

Of the original six households that bought the property together, all are still here. At the meeting where we decided to buy the land about 13 years ago, we weren’t sure others would join our community, and we also weren’t positive the land could be developed since it was in a flood-fringe zone. We walked out of that meeting worried that we might be out $320,000 (in hindsight, a pretty great price for 10 partly wooded acres), but we were soon to be the collective owners of a great little property.

A dream becomes reality.

Before that night, we had lost many would-be neighbors as we looked for land. A gem of a parcel right next to the world famous Red Rocks amphitheater fell through, and other properties either cost too much or offered too little. I happened to be driving around one day, cruising the for-sale signs, when I had the idea of stopping by the Golden (Colorado) planning department to ask them what was available in this great little town with its solid commercial and civic center. Tucked right up against the foothills, Golden had been the territorial capital until 1867, and has a rich historical feel to it. (Sometimes I see hobbyists panning for gold in Clear Creek). In a place like Golden, we could be less dependent on cars and more interdependent than is usual in a larger community. We could build the southwest-style neighborhood we’d been talking about for several years in meetings. What started out as a dream, discussed endlessly in living rooms and borrowed workplace meeting rooms, became a reality!

What exactly was the dream? It varied among our original households, of course, but was loosely organized around the concept imported from Denmark called cohousing (a translation from the Danish word for “living community” or “living together.”) As architectural students in the 1980s, Chuck Durrett and Katie McCamant toured many Danish neighborhoods, noticing something unique about a certain kind of development. Says Chuck, "Whenever we walked into one of Denmark’s several hundred cohousing communities, there was such life there – unlike most suburban or multifamily developments – such a joy and sense of interaction, that we began to comment, ‘This is unique. This is working.’ It made other housing seem more like warehousing."

Housing ourselves.

Durrett and McCamant wanted a good place to live and raise a family back home in California, but they didn’t see it on the market. So they designed and built it themselves in Emeryville, adapting the cohousing model. They wrote the book that helped launch a small movement, Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves, which explained its characteristics.

The word is getting out. Since McCamant and Durrett imported the idea, a hundred or more cohousing communities have been designed and built, with an equal number in the planning stages. Hot spots for the concept are in Massachusetts, Colorado, California, Washington, and Oregon, but there are enough other locations to travel across the country and visit a different community every night now that a community in Lawrence, Kansas, is completed.

How Cohousing Neighborhoods Meet Human Needs
Subsistence: Efficient homes with passive solar; access to garden produce; lots of home offices.
Protection: There are always meals, medical advice and other support for those who are sick.
Affection: Good friends a one-minute walk away. Many parties and celebrations.
Understanding: Skills and perspectives gained from neighbors, directly and via email and bulletin boards.
Participation: Each neighbor is a neighborhood citizen, making decisions about common property.
Leisure: Gardening, playing music, and sharing community meals are some leisure activities.
Creation: Neighbors co-design new landscaping, aesthetic features and celebrations.
Identity: Strengths, passions and accomplishments are respected by neighbors.
Freedom: Each person “has a piece of the truth” and can safely express dissent and approval.

Communities for the Future, Now

I originally joined a cohousing group because somebody had to save the planet. I knew that building houses closer together would use less land, and that organic gardening – my passion – was a central element in many cohousing communities. Since future residents of a cohousing neighborhood participate in its design, surely our group could come up with the world’s most sustainable neighborhood at lower-than-market costs.

We learned differently, of course. Our southwestern-style village couldn’t actually be made of adobe because it would take too long to build and cost too much. We couldn’t generate all of our own electricity for similar reasons. But Matt Worswick, the project’s architect, who lives in the neighborhood, and Jim Leach, its developer, did produce an award-winning development with great passive solar orientation and energy efficiency – with the active participation of our expanding community. Piece by piece, we’re incorporating additional features that make the neighborhood more sustainable – we’re seeing hybrid cars appear in our parking spaces, more fruit trees in the orchard and solar panels on some of our roofs.

In fact, the installation of solar energy is a hot topic right now in the neighborhood. With federal tax credits and utility rebates already in place, solar-generated electricity has become very tempting. We’ve already installed solar panels to power the heavy-duty pump that irrigates our large garden, and now a handful of neighbors are working on how to get good prices and reliable installers for solar energy on our roofs. A core group of environmentalists and sustainability nuts are leading the quest for solar energy, and several have calculated the exact payback of systems that can deliver 100% of their households’ electrical needs. For example, at eight cents a kilowatt-hour, one system would pay back its cost in 15 years. After rebates and tax credits, homeowners would need to finance $4,000. We’ve been discussing a self-help strategy in which our homeowners association would make loans from funds that we’ve set aside for long-term repairs.

The back and forth of community

In any group of people, there will be different personality types, skills and ways of looking at things. We’ve always considered our neighborhood diversity a great asset in problem-solving and creative ventures. My role in the solar discussion has often been “cheerleader.” I’m not that interested in the financial details – my strength is more in big-picture thinking – but I really want to see more solar in the neighborhood, to help prevent a permanent drought in Colorado and similar calamities elsewhere. So when the payback calculations seemed to be stalling our forward progress, I wrote an email to the community listserv:

Do we ask for an exact monetary Return on Investment from a new carpet, vacation or charitable contribution? We want quality and value in each of these transactions, but I think some of the ROI for solar is non-monetary. We also get direct benefits in terms of the human needs we satisfy:

  • Security against rising costs (need for security)
  • Ultimate "free" energy and equity, just as if we paid off a mortgage (sustainability, autonomy)
  • Satisfaction from being less of a consumer and more of a producer (self-esteem)
  • An opportunity to take advantage of a very attractive offer WE made possible with Colorado’s Amendment 37, which offers rebates for solar (political participation)
  • A slightly greater chance to live in a world that steers clear of desperate, screw-the-future nuclear energy (empathy, purpose, cooperation)

Ultimately, I don't think these issues are completely about technology or money, but how we seek satisfaction. One kilowatt of panels, even though expensive, would make me feel good in a way that other purchases wouldn't. I do the same thing with organic apples from Whole Foods; frankly, I rarely even look at the price because their value is greater than their price: they make me feel great physically, keep me from getting sick, taste great, have more minerals, and support good farming in a world that really needs it. Solar panels do similar things, although I wouldn't want to eat one.

I feel good about the exchange of information in our neighborhood, and the way we factor the future into decisions we make in the present. For example, I envision our garden continuing to improve over the next three centuries. Because of its layout, with a community building as the central focus and walkways that interconnect the houses, it’s quite possible our neighborhood culture will evolve until at least 2308. The water rights we acquired a few years ago (600,000 gallons a year) will still be irrigating a garden endowed with grape trellises, raised beds, greenhouses and shade houses. Enriched with three centuries of compost and cover crops, Harmony Garden will grow some of the region’s finest herbs, and be known throughout the area as a producer of high-quality pesto.

The park we’ve saved from development by proposing that it be acquired as city open space will still provide a rest stop along the bike path that goes past the neighborhood. And that little three-quarter-acre parcel will still be landscaped with native species that appreciate a little rain, but can get along without it. The mission bell we’d imagined in early meetings and then acquired from the barn belonging to a neighbor’s parents will still be calling people to dinner and neighborhood meetings, and the artwork of many creative future residents will join the great photographs and paintings already on the walls of our common house. The brick walkway that contains 65,000 bricks that we laid ourselves will still be here, and possibly our sturdy townhouses, too. Downtown Golden will still be eight blocks away, and light rail will still connect Golden with the metro area. In three centuries, thousands of people will have lived here. We are just the first 60.