Traditional forms of housing no longer address the needs of many people. Dramatic demographic and economic changes are taking place in our society and most of us feel the effects of these trends in our own lives.
A NEW TYPE OF HOUSING
Cohousing is a grass-roots movement whose initiators drew inspiration from the increasing popularity of shared households, in which several unrelated people share a traditional house, and from the cooperative movement in general. Yet cohousing is distinctive in that each family or household has a separate dwelling and chooses how much they want to participate in community activities. There are of course other innovative ideas being experimented with – for example, single-parent cooperatives and congregate housing for the elderly with private rooms arranged around shared living spaces. But unlike these approaches, cohousing developments are not targeted for any specific age or family type; residents represent a cross section of old and young, families and singles.
Cohousing also differs from most of the intentional communities and communes we know in the United States.
This kind of relationship demands accountability, but in return provides security and a sense of belonging. Cohousing offers a contemporary model for recreating this sense of place and neighborhood, while responding to today’s needs for a less constraining environment.
Cohousing developments vary in size, location, type of ownership, design, and priorities. Yet in our research we were able to identify four common characteristics:
Participatory Process * Residents organize and participate in the planning and design process for the development and are responsible as a group for all final decisions. This element is essential; no cohousing development has been built any other way. The process can be long and frustrating, but those now living in cohousing communities universally agree that it was well worth the effort. As one resident commented, “Those meetings created an openness between us as we learned each other’s strong and weak sides. . . . Without that phase I would not have the same relationship to the common house or the outdoor areas.”
Intentional Neighborhood Design * The physical design itself encourages a strong sense of community. A successful design depends largely on the architect’s and the organizing group’s understanding of how design factors affect community life. For example, if residents must pass by the common house on their way home, they are more likely to use it. Without thoughtful consideration, many such opportunities can be easily missed.
Extensive Common Facilities * The common area is designed for daily use, to supplement private living areas. The heart of a cohousing community, the common house is a place for common dinners, afternoon tea, children’s games on rainy days, a Friday night bar, crafts workshops, laundry facilities, and numerous other organized and informal activities. Common facilities often extend beyond the common house to include barns and animal sheds, greenhouses, a car repair garage, and the like. Common dinners, prepared by small teams on a rotating basis, have proven enormously popular and provide residents with the option of eating communally or privately. By allowing residents to get acquainted, discover mutual interests and share experiences, common facilities contribute greatly to the formation of a tightly knit community.
Complete Resident Management * Residents – renters and owners alike – manage the development, making decisions of common concern at community meetings. Inevitably some residents feel they do more than their share, and the process of discussing and solving problems often involves long discussions and debates. But once an agreement is reached, it is usually respected, because everyone knows they had a say in it.
A DIVERSITY OF EXPRESSION
While these four characteristics are not unique to cohousing, their consistent combination is. And their application in practice has been quite diverse, since each community is developed to fit the particular needs and desires of its residents.
Size * Although there are cohousing developments as small as 2 households, we have found that groups smaller than 6 households tend to function more like situations in which a number of unrelated people share a house or apartment. Such small groups are more demanding because residents depend so heavily on each other. The average cohousing size of around 40 to 100 people allows residents to retain their autonomy and choose when or when not to participate in community activities. Those living in larger communities of around 80 households sometimes feel they are too large and institutional; often they subdivide into smaller groups.
Location * The location of cohousing developments are limited only by the availability of affordable sites. The majority are situated just outside metropolitan areas where sites are affordable and yet within reasonable distance from work, schools, and other urban attractions. Ten communities have been established in rural settings, some of them using an old farmhouse for the common house. While these developments have a “rural atmosphere,” most residents must still commute to nearby cities for work. Still other communities are located in the inner cities.
Design * Most cohousing communities have attached dwellings clustered around pedestrian streets or courtyards. Generally they are new construction because it is difficult to create the desired relationships between spaces in existing buildings. Nevertheless, two communities have adapted old factory buildings and another an old school building. While all the newly constructed Danish developments are low-rise in scale, in both Denmark and Sweden high-rises as well as sections of huge housing projects have been converted to cohousing to overcome impersonal environments that encouraged vandalism and high turnover.
Financing and Ownership * Cohousing developments utilize a variety of financing mechanisms and ownership structures: privately owned condominiums, limited equity cooperatives, rentals owned by non-profit organizations, and a combination of private ownership and nonprofit-owned rental units. While financing does determine who can afford to live in a particular development, it makes little difference in the actual functioning of cohousing. Cohousing refers to an idea about how people can live together, rather than any particular financing or ownership type.
Priorities * The priorities of cohousing developments are as varied as the residents themselves. In addition to seeking a sense of community, some groups emphasize ecological concerns, such as solar and wind energy, recycling, and organic community gardens. In other developments, residents place less priority on community projects and spend more time on individual interests such as local theater groups, classes, or political organizations. Priorities often change over the years, reflecting the desires of the residents.
COME TO 2012 NATIONAL COHOUSING CONFERENCE IN ~ OAKLAND CA 6/13-6/17 http://conference.cohousing.org/