By Susan Finch
Web Exclusive - March 24, 2009
Gone are the days when a trip to the grocery store meant stopping by your neighbor's house to see if they needed a gallon of milk or an errand run while they tended to a new baby. Front porches are no longer used as an opportunity to invite friends up for an evening chat and glass of lemonade. And children no longer linger in yards littered with games, unsupervised play, and laughter.
But a new movement with old roots has taken hold in communities across the country. While some of us watch old movies with a wistful eye to the idealized small town charm, cohousing residents are living its reality. They can wisely state, "It takes a village to raise a child," and mean it.
What is Cohousing?
Cohousing started in the United States in the early 1980s with the influence of architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett. They were inspired by Denmark's communal living concept and spread the word through the United States with their book Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves. They currently run a firm that specializes in designing such communities. Cohousing has since spread throughout the world and can be found in a number of states in the US, including New Mexico, Georgia, California, Maine, Oregon, Washington.
Communal living might conjure up images of free love and a counterculture lifestyle. You might even be whispering that dreaded word commune. But cohousing looks less like a haven for misplaced hippies and more like a traditional swatch of townhouses or a gated community with plenty of shared space. Residents typically do not share a specific religion, political view, or sexual orientation with one another and tend to work in white-collar careers, have young children, and are looking to escape the alienation of traditional suburbs. Cohousers don't pick their neighborhood based on the size of the home or the bonus of a private yard, but to intentionally interact with neighbors and embrace community living.
What are the Benefits of Cohousing?
These intentional communities offer an opportunity to own a private home in a unique setting with common dues for gardens, green space, pools, playgrounds, and the community center. Most developments incorporate detached homes or townhouses along pedestrian streets with anywhere from 7 to 67 residences. Parking can be found in designated areas away from the wandering curiosity of resident children, leaving streets free to stroll and play.
Unlike a traditional suburban neighborhood that shuts its doors at night, the common house or community center is the core of cohousing's modern villages. Neighbors utilize the center's large dining rooms, kitchen, fitness room, children's playroom, workshop, meeting space, and laundry room. And instead of squeezing out-of-town visitors in your kids' room or family den, common guest rooms are also available. Several times a week, neighbors gather together at communal green spaces, playgrounds, community centers, potluck dinners, and gardens.
Thinking of going green? Because cohousing focuses on shared space, common gardens, meals prepared in bulk, and communal work, their communities prove more sustainable than traditional living. Rambling lawns, extra guest rooms, and garages aren't duplicated over and over again in each home, thus saving on environmental and personal resources.
But it takes hard work from everyone involved to keep such a village running smoothly. Residents are required to volunteer several hours a month to cook weekly meals, tend the gardens, or organize events. Monthly meetings are also held to discuss issues about noise, landscaping, or taxes. Residents might even drop off their toddlers for a playdate with the family next door while they catch up on a deadline at work.
Single Mom Jennifer Dryfoos of Santa Fe, New Mexico has lived at Commons on the Alameda for more than eight years. Currently a director of college counseling, she decided to look into cohousing after making a decision to have a child on her own. She wanted to get away from the isolation of traditional housing and give her child a safe and interactive place to grow up.
Dryfoos cited a lifelong interest in communal living, but also wanted to find a balance of privacy and space. Cohousing was the perfect opportunity to own her own home while still having a built-in support system. She got to know her neighbors through twice-a-week dinners and special events. Her community is also full of kids for her son Max, now six-years-old, to play with, and parents who help look after each other's kids. "Kids can wander from house to house without feeling the normal fear that seems common these days," Dryfoos notes.
She does admit cohousing takes more work than traditional living?she was the community secretary for nearly six years. The Commons on the Alameda also requires about eight hours of work a month, including one kitchen shift, or payment of about $10/hour for any work left undone. While no longer the community secretary, she's now in charge of monthly birthday celebrations. Despite the sacrifice of time, she notes, "You have to put effort into a community to reap the rewards."
Wendy Toole lives in Two Echo Cohousing in Brunswick, Maine, with her husband and three children: Payton age nine, Sydney age seven, and Finnegan age five. A former high school history teacher, cross-country ski coach, and track coach, she's now getting her Master's degree in American and New England Studies while her husband works as an emergency room physician.
Her family happened upon cohousing about four years ago after a stint in Alaska. She knew little about intentional communities until she saw an ad for an environmentally conscious, child-friendly neighborhood with a pedestrian path. They ended up renting the home until they fell in love with the community and bought their rental. "The thing that unites us is the desire to live in this alternative neighborhood and have our social connections stronger than we had with neighbors in traditional neighborhoods of our past."
Toole's children love their community nestled on 20 acres, with a co-ownership on an additional 70-plus acres of fields and forests nearby. Her family recently added solar panels to their home for water and electricity, in addition to a greenhouse alongside their living room. She notes that some of her neighbors don't own televisions in an effort to get their kids outdoors and participate in unstructured playtime. "We save on our social commuting time now, since some of our good friends live a baby monitor's range away," Toole adds. When asked about the negatives, she notes that intentional communities might attract unhappy people with hopes of filling a void. But those who move in with an intention to get involved and interact and give back to the neighborhood are usually pleasantly surprised by the experience.
Is Cohousing Right for You?
Cohousing is ideal for those looking to bridge the gap between owning a home of their own, and living in a supportive and interactive community they can help grow. But there are a few questions you need to ask yourself before taking the plunge:
Do you want to get involved in programs in your community on a regular basis?
If the idea of sharing a few meals with neighbors thrills your small town sensibilities, you'll probably enjoy living in an intentional community. Remember that you'll also be expected to join committees and volunteer, or pay someone else, to tend to the grounds and common space. But if you resent the idea of having structured chores or sharing your life with neighbors, this lifestyle might not be for you. Instead, try volunteering in your own neighborhood and get more involved at your leisure.
Do you want to know your neighbors, their children, and become a part of their lives?
Just as in a traditional neighborhood, not everyone in an intentional community will get along, but you'll be expected to find a way to peacefully co-exist. Is it intrusive to you when a neighbor comes by for a few eggs or with an invitation to stop by for a glass of wine? If you value exclusive privacy, you might want to stick to traditional living.
Do you enjoy seeing children roaming free in your community and playing together with minimal supervision?
Every parent wants her children to have a safe place to play and grow up. While cohousers give their children age-appropriate supervision as any other parent, the community is designed to foster play throughout the common grounds. So if looking out the window with your morning coffee and seeing children riding bikes and giggling on a Saturday leaves you feeling irritable, cohousing might not be for you.
Do you prefer making decisions for the greater good of your community?
Cohousing relies on group consensus and regular meetings to resolve issues and move forward on projects. And you may lose out on the vote for the new landscaping you wanted or tools for the community center's workshop. While you may not like every decision made, you'll need to respect your neighbors and committee leaders. If the thought of losing control or watching someone else take the reigns unnerves you, you're probably better off in traditional housing.