Thursday, February 18, 2016

An alternate future for neighborhood living

Night lighting along cohousing common walkway - photo McAmant & Durrett

Given the unsustainabity of sprawl, the persistence of crime hotspots, and the unending call for a stonger sense of community, there is a thirst for on-the-ground examples of cohesive, safer and resilient neighborhoods. Cohousing is one.

I’ve been visiting cohousing projects around Denver over the past few months and working with a group establishing an art and culture oriented cohousing community. Here is what I’ve learned.

Cohousing is not for everyone. Some prefer towering condo apartments. Others prefer remote homes hidden in the bush. Those, of course, are legitimate choices.

However the overall trend is in the opposite direction. Over 80% of the developed world lives in urbanized cities. The UN says the majority of the world is now urban. More people migrate into cities than ever before. The truth is, cyber-creep notwithstanding, we are urban and we are social.


I’ve been following the cohousing movement for 20 years. I described cohousing here 5 years ago -  Avoiding a wire-esque future and Fernwood Urban Village in Victoria, BC.

Most cohousing projects look like 25-35 unit condominiums with private residences and amenities similar to those anywhere. Yet cohousing communities are designed differently because they are designed by and for residents themselves in collaboration with architects. Cars are kept to perimeter parking and pedestrian walkways, gardens, and common greenspace areas are in the center.

Tour of community house dining room at Nyland Cohousing - Lafayette, Colorado
Cohousing governance is painfully democratic, intricate, and based on extended friendship networks. Those networks emerge from things like carpooling, shared childcare, sharing tools and common facilities like workshops and community gardens. Networks emerge from regular training in conflict resolution, mediation, and governance methods - the latest version is sociocracy. In the cohousing group I work with we are offering training in emotional intelligence skills.

Cohousing architecture includes a central common house with a library, guest rooms, play areas for kids and a large dining/kitchen area for community meals a few times a week.

Homes along the common walkway at Nyland Cohousing


A few years ago the Cohousing Association of the United States funded a national survey of the cohousing phenomenon. How successful is cohousing and how does it differ?

Here is what it found:
  • Cohousers described more opportunities for personal growth, especially with group trainings in communication and conflict resolution
  • In 2011 there were 118 completed U.S. cohousing projects - another 100 under construction. 
  • Cohousing was more financially stable during the Great Recession
  • During the recession, less than a dozen cohousing units were foreclosed, out of thousands - far below national rates 

Lounge and fireplace at Nyland common house - a place to relax

In my experience, cohousing has lower crime and a greater desire for collaboration on difficult problems. They live more sustainably with shared gardening, recycling and ride sharing. And at the very core of social sustainability, they seem to call police less frequently to solve most problems that they instead solve themselves.

There are still issues to resolve in cohousing. For example internal conflict is lessened but it is not absent. But on whole cohousing is the most cohesive, safe and resilient neighborhood design I've seen yet. It’s a model worth considering in the 21st Century city.

1 Reply so far - Add your comment

Mateja Mihinjac said...

Great stuff Greg! How about taking this a step further and help build our own house: