Co-housing, a form of communal living launched in Denmark, sans the back-to-the-land 60’s hippie vibe, has interested me for close to 20 years, and it coming up on my radar once again, a combination of my age and my realization of how closely the principles of cohousing – community, shared resources, resilience, environmental values – align with those of the Transition movement. And also because, via Transition, I’m learning about urban planning and even participating in some ‘interventions.’
Suburban sprawl, even as pretty as the lushly-planted, pool-and-tennis-court sprinkled complexes such as the one I live in, doesn’t support a healthy, well-functioning community, let alone enlightened society. A shopping mall is not the village green, although Teens and Tweens do their best to make it so. We became successful as a species because we are social animals, and that may be how we will figure a way out of the mess we’re in now. So I find it puzzling that we have accepted design that expresses a preference for privacy, even anonymity, over community; that values speed and efficiency – cars and service vehicles at the expense of pedestrians or bicycles; that submits to conformity and obedience. (Checked your HOA rules lately?)
Being in my early 70s with an older spouse and many friends in the same age cohort, has sharpened the focus on issues of isolation and loneliness, and what it looks like when the care (cleaning, repairs, financial management, etc.) of a home you once shared becomes your sole responsibility. In cultures (including the one I was born into) where elders are valued, these issues don’t exist.
I never want to wind up in an assisted-living facility or senior residence. These artificial environments are like permanently moored cruise ships, with every need attended to, except the need to feel needed, to contribute to something bigger than yourself, to feel connected.
We have to design for the way people really want to live. And, in many instances we are beginning to. Senior cohousing, ‘granny’ flats, i.e. moving in with the kids, and NORCs – naturally occurring retirement communities — like the Beacon Hill Village in Boston, to name a few, where people remain not only in their homes, but as contributing members of the larger community. Whenever we can share space and not duplicate infrequently-used possessions, we all benefit, and so does the Planet. For this aging yogi, for all those reasons, an ashram looks good.
On the other end of the age spectrum, it is no accident that the Millennial generation is flocking to walkable cities, inventing ways to live and share space, equipment, work, that seem more inspired by Seinfeld than The Brady Bunch. Think also of AirBnB, and even Couchsurfing (for the truly adventurous traveler), two more recent variations on the sharing theme. For Angelo, a young Italian I was chatting with last night at the Transition meeting, enjoying a year of study in the U.S., courtesy of his host family, is just how things are done back home. Humans are endlessly creative in response to change, and the evidence of this lifts me whenever the news about climate change, peak resources, and corrupt regimes gets too dire.
As much as I quake at the idea of another move, I find myself thinking more deeply about what would support us better in the next phase of our life. Where to next? And when?
We discovered cohousing around 1997 while living in Hoboken, NJ, a small town that, in those days, was best known for being the birthplace of baseball and Frank Sinatra. The town hadn’t completely outgrown its somewhat seedy past and wasn’t without issues. But we loved our 100-year-old redbrick townhouse and the town itself for its walkability – a word yet to be invented – the friendly neighborhoods, the mom and pop stores, and easy access to New York where I had a strong client base. But change was happening fast as long-promised waterfront development began, bringing rising home values and a soaring real estate tax that would soon become unsustainable, even for a two-income couple. Gentrification has its price. A lot of people like us cashed in and moved out, making room for a younger professional crowd.
So that Spring, we attended a cohousing conference at the Liberty Village Cohousing in Libertytown, MD, to learn more about this new way of housing ourselves. A few months later, we had organized visits to four other cohousing communities, including two in Canada. Three of the four were in early stage development; one, a couple of years old. In retrospect, we might have taken the plunge then had we come across an established community. Most take years not months to go from idea to reality, and many enthusiasts claim that it is the process of dealing with whatever comes up – difficult local ordinances or neighbors, a failure of the group to gel, integrating new people – gives a community its particular character. But most important, the consensus-based approach to planning, designing, managing and maintaining your cohousing community requires a lot of patience. Perhaps this time around, we might be ready.
I was able to check up on the four we actually visited, a prerequisite for membership. Cantine’s Island in Saugerties, NY, is a village within a village on the Esopus River. Trillium Hollow, which won a spot in the cue because our married children lived nearby in Portland, Or. Windsong, in Langley, about 45 minutes outside Vancouver, an architecturally designed cohousing community where we were invited to share a meal and spend the night. The entire community was under glass, a reminder of those cold Canadian winters. Finally, Quayside, a brilliant joining of existing buildings on a corner of a block in North Vancouver. Of all, the best fit: urban, no two spaces alike, a great intergenerational vibe. Glad to say, all are thriving!