So Happy Together

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?

cohousing photoWe 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!

Read more:

History of Cohousing

Senior Cohousing

On Being Prepared

We are having a family conference this week on climate change and including grandchildren, three boys, 15, 13 and 11, and as it happens, all Boy Scouts.  The subject, while not exactly the elephant in the room, has been off-limits to date, even among the adults — as uncomfortable as money, politics, or the fact of death.  Environmental education exists in Florida, see Pine Jog Environmental Educational Center, despite deniers in high places.  But I wanted to know how global warming/climate change was being presented to young people by various groups, including the Boy Scouts of America.  So this morning I did some research (see links at the end of the post).  Laurie David,  a global warming activist and the producer of the Academy Award-winning film An Inconvenient Truth and the HBO documentary Too Hot Not to Handle, has collaborated with Scholastic publishing to produce an excellent guide to the science of global warming and what families can do to mitigate its impacts.  The graphics are delightful and on target.

be-prepared2There is a measured tone to this guide (and others) that reminded me of President Obama’s response to NBC 6 Chief Meteorologist John Morales’ ‘what now’ questions (upon the release of the National Climate Assessment): more fuel efficient cars and Energy Star appliances and letting one’s elected officials know ‘this is important.’    It all seems so sensible and doable, like doubling up on recycling and changing out lightbulbs, and in some ways easier to swallow than adaptation*, which is where most climate experts and savvy political leaders are beginning to put their attention.  For their part — and I commend them for it — the Boy Scouts of America have added a new Sustainability Merit Badge  to the existing one covering the Environment.  Eagle Scout candidates need at least one of the two to qualify.  Not so surprising given the 100 year old organization has been devoted to nature and conservation throughout its history.  There are 100 million scouts worldwide, making it the largest youth organization on the planet, so this is big news.

What lit a fire under my seat about getting the family together now was the release of the National Climate Assessment with its segments on regional impacts.  For Floridians, as I’ve noted here before, preparing for hurricane season is an annual ritual, albeit some people have been reassured by a succession of relatively quiet years. Preparedness is a mindset one can work with when it comes to serious talk about climate, simple as the Boy Scout motto.  Because as the Southeast regional report makes clear, Florida is exceptionally vulnerable to all the impacts of global warming, among which flooding due to sea level rise and salt water contamination of our drinking water and soil, are perhaps the most immediate and most worrying.  First, we have to be willing to get it all out on the table: confusion, denial (whatever form that takes), fear, distrust.  What will be important is to recognize that every day we waste politicizing the facts of climate science is a day we don’t take action.  We need to leave the ‘debate’ to those whose interests it serves, and get on the same page in terms of risk assessment.  You can bet the insurance industry IS paying attention.

“You won’t find many climate change doubters these days within the property insurance business.”  ~ David Kodama, senior director of research and policy analysis for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, or PCI. (Bankrate)

Our strategy so far has been to show more than tell (although we’ve done some of that, too), and it is by now quite clear to everyone in our immediate and extended family and circle of friends, that we are tree-hugging climate activists.  None of the things we have done so far — KXL protest march, EV, renewable energy for our utilities, tree-planting, vegetables from a local farm, no CAFO’s, organizing for Transition, feels like a big deal sacrifice.  It’s child’s play compared to what we — and that means every capable person — may yet be called to do.

*Mitigation and adaptation

Down to Earth (Scholastic), Laurie David’s guide

The National Science Foundation’s Exploratorium, great for older kids

The EPA’s Climate Change and Kids site, multi-age groups

Seeds of Change

Garden Song
Inch by inch, row by row,
Gonna make this garden grow.
Gonna mulch it deep and low,
Gonna make it fertile ground.
Inch by inch, row by row,
Please bless these seeds I sow.
Please keep them safe below
‘Til the rain comes tumbling down.
~ Pete Seeger

With this chorus still ringing in my ears, I spent Mother’s Day weekend in Sarasota with my spouse/best buddy, meeting up with Don Hall, executive director of Transition Sarasota, to learn how he built the group through “experimenting with many things and seeing what stuck.”  Sounds familiar.  Don came to Florida from Boulder, CO, site of the first Transition Town in the U.S. He is a Transition trainer and running the nonprofit organization is his full-time job and his passion.  Sarasota proved to be fertile soil for the ideas of Transition, and today it’s hard to know what came first: the active farm to school program, an established Saturday farmers market, a gleaning group whose members include Transition volunteers, restaurants — even those at the local hotels, Indigo, where we stayed and the nearby Hyatt — that proudly display their

Fresh Local Sarasotasupport of local food.  Of course, none of this would be possible without the interest and support of local chefs, growers, purveyors and the population.  Sarasota’s Saturday farmers market is a happy mob of people bearing cloth and string bags!

This cultural shift around food has been building for some 40 years, and is often credited to Alice Waters, a pioneer of the organic food movement that argues “cooking should be based on the finest and freshest seasonal ingredients that are produced sustainably and locally.”  Chez Panisse, her Berkeley, California, restaurant still caters to a  knowledgeable, well-heeled crowd of ‘foodies’ while her foundation takes the message (and funding) into schools.  Waters is also a Slow Food vice-president.  Although there remains just a hint of elitism in the movement — Van Jones calls it  Whole Foods, whole paycheck —  the good news is, the idea that good tasting, healthy food as a right is beginning to sink in with the general public.  You could call it a democratizing process that will benefit us all.  Food is where Transition often begins in a community because it is easy to make the case that local grown is good not only for taste and health, but can lead to a healthier, sustainable local economy and lower carbon footprint.   

For me, it was both inspiring and a little daunting to see how the movement is coming alive on Florida’s West Coast in partnership with Transition.  One of the first successful Transition Sarasota projects was the Eat Local Guide, a directory to farmers markets, buyers clubs, groceries featuring local foods,  restaurants, and community gardens, that Transition Palm Beaches would do well to emulate.  The Guide also offers a changing menu of relevant articles gleaned from around the country that capture the strength of the shift to sustainable agriculture.   Transition Sarasota also spearheaded the 10% local food shift challenge, inviting people to switch just 10% of their food purchases to local growers and purveyors.  The impact speaks for itself:

While a 2006 study found that only 0.7% of the $797 million Sarasota County residents were spending every year on food was purchased directly from a local farmer, a shift of just 10% in this direction would add $80 million a year to our local economy, potentially creating thousands of new green jobs.

Came home to find more news that feeds my optimism about local food growing, including today’s New York Times article on the topic.  From Lincoln, NB, yoga student and friend, Betsey Shipley, enclosed an article from the Journal Star about the explosion of community gardens thanks to a program not only to support local farms and farmers, but to train new ones.  Over 170 people signed up for the Growing Farmers Program that began in 2005, and 35 have started farming.

Earth Day Tree PlantingBut it’s a 2014 initiative in the Lincoln community that really got my attention:  a partnership with a local church to create Nebraska’s first food forest, “a woodland eco-system that yields food for people.”  If there is one thing I love more than trees, it is trees that bear fruit!  As it turns out, First UU of the Palm Beaches is already well on our way.  On Earth Day, this small, multi-generational team, including our minister, CJ McGregor, launched our own food forest with donated trees along strip of land on church property.  A growing (!) Tree Fund promises there will be more planting parties like the one pictured here.  Inch by inch.






Turn, turn, turn

The activist’s activist, Pete Seeger, left behind a legacy of standing up for social justice and the environment, and a collection of protest songs that still pack an emotional punch. Yesterday, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fort Lauderdale, at a sold-out celebration performance of Pete Seeger’s music by local musicians, it was déjà vu all over again for me, and I suspect many of the mostly gray-haired Seeger fans.   As heart-felt and enjoyable as the event was, the fact that the issues that Pete Seeger spent a lifetime addressing are still with us — only more so — is not good news for the weary.

pete seegerBut that’s exactly why we need to celebrate our ‘preaching to the converted’ moment, in solidarity with street theater peace activists, Raging Grannies, Matt Schwartz of South Florida Wildland Association (raising the alarm about fracking), Occupy Ft. Lauderdale, Broward Move to Amend, Pax Christi (economic and social justice and respect for creation), the National Lawyers Guild, (lawyers, law students and legal workers for change in the political/economic system), and SOA Watch, (ending oppressive U.S. foreign policy in Latin America), among others.

I draw a lot of energy from a love-in like this one; we all do, whatever our political leanings.  The inconvenient truth is, we prefer to be with like-minded people and the more the merrier. It’s another form of confirmation bias, that is, our tendency to surround ourselves with people and information that confirms what we already believe. Uh-oh. It may be hard-wired into our species in service of the survival instinct, but it’s not working anymore..

I wasn’t thinking about this particularly when I landed hard last evening with a particularly unnerving episode of Years of Living Dangerously, but it’s coming up for me now as a major element of our difficulty as activists, and the challenges we will face.

If you’ve been paying attention to climate change, the Leslie Stahl segment in Living Dangerously carried few surprises, with the possible exception of actually hearing what ice sounds like as it begins to break apart. Terrifying. But it was the other report, about the stubborn (or I could say steadfast) denial of basic climate science by one large, well-funded religious sect, was especially disturbing for me, because 1. I am surrounded by and constantly reminded of this kind of thinking here in mega-church-land, 2. Florida is exceptionally vulnerable and denial now will be very costly later, and 3. I fear for my grandchildren, indeed, all grandchildren. So I have the deepest respect for climate scientist/evangelical Christian, Katherine Hayhoe, the star of an earlier Living Dangerously episode, for modeling a way of reaching out to those whose views differ from her own.   The world we have created in ignorance will demand nothing less.

Pete Seeger would approve.