Cohousing: Returning to a Place of Many

We all have been in situations in which circumstances have pushed aside the personal distance in which people habitually insulate themselves. An accident in which we suddenly find ourselves helping, or the ground swell of grass roots support during a major catastrophic event like the Kelowna forest fires, or even the simple act of helping someone round up fleeing oranges from a dropped bag of groceries, all serve as points of human connection.

These are times in which we extend our concern and consideration for the people around us; where suddenly we belong, and our natural inclination to give is exposed in an instance of community. Now imagine if your very house and those in your immediate neighbourhood were designed from the ground up to foster these types of rich moments in human living and interacting?

Cohousing is a form of housing development that is designed to give people the day-to-day experiences and values associated with living in an intimate small-scale village. It is typical to hear the sound of children laughing and playing, have someone invite you in for tea, or receive a greeting that includes your name and a familiar smile while you navigate along the streets or hallways of a Cohousing project. Closer proximity in housing along with access to shared facilities, such as a common house for meal sharing and entertainment, are design features characteristic of Cohousing projects. This design acts to bring people together, serves as a place for contact and allows community to bloom.

At first glance, one might assume that Cohousing is an alternative and new fringe form of housing and community association, but in fact this is not the case. When you look far back into the history of human housing and community, you see that the extreme isolation of modern, suburban stand-alone dwellings, and the guarded limitations to deeper community values and involvements that North Americans have grown accustomed to are actually not the norm! For thousands of years people have been reaping the benefits of the tribal fire pit, multifamily eating hall, and the village market. Cohousing is a movement towards the tried and true of more intimate and functional community settings and culture.

"I can’t imagine living anywhere else”, is what people living in Cohousing communities often say, and this speaks to something deeply valued. But what is it? What are the values of community? People who have created a Cohousing environment are, it seems, letting the living, interacting, and discovering the answer to that question. They know that a few broad and identifiable requirements in housing and common resources, as well as an inclusive and egalitarian decision making structure, allow for significant community to happen. It becomes obvious though, that both the opportunity and the reason to interact are the glue that holds Cohousing together.

The hub of any Cohousing community is its common house. Cohousing projects all feature a multi-use, member-owned common house that is situated in the centre of the property, with foot trails leading out to the privately owned dwellings. It is here that the age-old rituals around meal-sharing occur, where conversation replaces television and helping hands make light work. Birthday parities are often an event that pulls the community together in the common house, to celebrate a member as well as confirm they are in fact known and part of something special.

The layout of the grounds and buildings are designed to be both useful and community building. Human-scale as opposed to car-friendly, the residential buildings are faced and connected by hallways or footpaths to each other and the common resources. Parking lots are pushed to the edge of the development with landscaping, vegetable gardens and open spaces located among the residential buildings, with an eye for common access. The various tasks for creating and maintaining the grounds and vegetable gardens again draw people to problem-solve and work together. The common grounds and footpaths are places where the soccer games and barbecues happen, with children a swirling happy constant in all of this.

Fencing is not popular with Cohousing because free range child rearing is a popular activity, as it has proven to produce children who are much more community enabled. Seriously though, children are naturally inclined to interact and flourish within the support of an extended family of other children and adults who they know and can trust. Children in these communities will tell you that they are more tolerant and willing and able to cooperate with each other and understand the value of community because they have lived it. Parents love the support as a very natural, spontaneous child-rearing occurs because the community looks out and cares for the children as appropriate.

There can be challenges with Cohousing around issues of privacy and the ability to get along with each other in such close quarters, but many Cohousing communities have been around for more than 15 years, and have a very low turn-over rate in membership, which speaks volumes. People who are attracted to the Cohousing ideal and lifestyle understand that things of value take tolerance and innovation. Privacy is less of a concern when you realize that your neighbours are concerned for your welfare and respect you as a person and with specific boundaries. Often Cohousing members come up with a system to indicate when they are not open to visitors in their households. In terms of decision-making, a consensus model is the hallmark for Cohousing community management. There is a rock polisher effect that occurs during the development stages and beyond wherein members learn and grow in trust and tolerance for each other and lose the hard edges of unproductive individualism. Community is only strengthened when people realize that they can work through conflict and still maintain personal integrity and the enduring values of their community.

Cohousing is an international success. It has spread from Denmark’s first project in the early 1970s to the approximately 500-plus completed communities worldwide, with Cohousing now making up 10% of Denmark’s new multi-residential construction. The United States has 75 completed communities and as many in development, with Canada currently at six completed and 15 other communities in various stages of development. British Columbia is the hot spot for Cohousing and locally we have two Island projects in the formative stages: Pacific Gardens in Nanaimo and Creekside in Courtenay.

Pacific Gardens is on the home stretch as its members are finalizing plans and permits for its 25-unit town house style development. There are currently eight members in this group that have been working for a number of years to bring their dream of community to life. Purchasing the four-and-a-half acres of beautiful heritage farmland backing onto the Chase River was the group’s first big milestone. Creating a legal vehicle in which the owners could become their own developers was another achievement. Now the group is busy looking for new members to help with the development process and share in the fruits of their labour, including those from the mature apple trees on the property!

The Pacific Gardens design is innovative, featuring a single building to hold both all of its residences as well as its common house. The strength of this design is that it gives members more opportunity to interact and experience community. For example, the walkway from the parking lot runs right to the main entrance leading directly into the common house, and a covered pedestrian street runs the length of the middle of the building branching from the central common house hub. This European-style narrow street acts as both the primary access to the residences and as an actively-used extension of the common area as people will meet each other to get to the front door. This naturally draws people together into the life of the community.

Cohousing is a variation within a very large global movement of intentional community design. A growing number of people are now acting to find solutions to realize their need for functioning, vibrant community in the place where they live day to day. This takes work and vision, but at the same time is deeply empowering. The secret here is that Cohousing is more about celebrating humanity rather than moving away from the ills of society. Could home then, be not only a place where people want to know your name, but a neighbourhood that fosters this as well?

Darren Knorr can be reached via email: