Back in the mid-to-late 60’s when the Beatles were espousing the benefits of free love and the Beach Boys were crooning about the Endless Summer, hippy communes enjoyed a healthy run of popularity — as many young adults pooled their time and resources and decided living together was what real living was all about. Communes with anywhere from 20 to 50 or even 100 individuals were common as these collective living and farming arrangements took a stab at a free society where everyone pitched in and raised crops, kids and money while at the same time allowing youth to stick their tongues out at whatever “mainstream society” was deemed at the time.
Communal living had the right idea, but you know how it goes: people get older, the ideals of one generation don’t necessarily pass on to the next, and the before you could say, “Jim Morrison is dead” communes had pretty much gone the way of the dinosaur.
But not completely.
In the 21st century, the concept of the commune is making a healthy comeback. Except now it’s called something different: COHOUSING. Cohousing is a type of collaborative housing in which residents actively participate in the design and operation of their own neighborhoods.
According to Cohousing.org, Cohousing began in Denmark over 25 years ago. The goal was to to create cooperative housing that accommodates changing families and lifestyles.In 1988, Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett brought the concept to North America. Since then, many cohousing communities have been established in the US and Canada.
The Danish concept of “living community” has spread quickly. Worldwide, there are now hundreds of cohousing communities, expanding from Denmark into the U.S, Canada, Australia, Sweden, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Belgium, Austria and elsewhere.
Cohousing residents are consciously committed to living as a community. The physical design encourages both social contact and individual space. Private homes contain all the features of conventional homes, but residents also have access to common facilities such as open space, courtyards, a playground and a common house.
Cohousing communities are usually designed as attached or single-family homes along one or more pedestrian streets or clustered around a courtyard. They range in size from 7 to 67 residences, the majority of them housing 20 to 40 households. According to www.cohousing.org, regardless of the size of the community, there are many opportunities for casual meetings between neighbors, as well as for deliberate gatherings such as celebrations, clubs and business meetings.
The common house is the social center of a community, with a large dining room and kitchen, lounge, recreational facilities, children’s spaces, and frequently a guest room, workshop and laundry room. Communities usually serve optional group meals in the common house at least two or three times a week.
The need for community members to take care of common property builds a sense of working together, trust and support. Because neighbors hold a commitment to a relationship with one another, almost all cohousing communities use consensus as the basis for group decision-making. The cohousing website
www.blueberryhill.org points out that in a cohousing community, you know who lives six houses down because you eat common meals with them, decide how to allocate homeowners dues and gratefully accept a ride from them when your car’s in the shop. You begin to trust them enough to leave your 4-year-old with them. You listen to what they have to say, even if you don’t agree with them at first, and you sense that you, too, are being heard.
According to www.takomavillage.org Cohousing residents generally aspire to “improve the world, one neighborhood at a time.” This desire to make a difference often becomes a stated mission, as the websites of many communities demonstrate.
It’s like the 1960’s all over again — minus the long hair and Woodstock.
And lest you think cohousing residents are all sleeping in tents and passing around a water-pipe then think again: The site www.common-hearth.orgrelates that many other communities have visions that focus specifically on the value of building community. In fact, most cohousing communities have specific guidelines to follow:
1)Future residents participate in the design of the community so that it meets their needs. Some cohousing communities are initiated or driven by a developer. In those cases, if the developer brings the future resident group into the process late in the planning, the residents will have less input into the design. A well-designed, pedestrian-oriented community without significant resident participation in the planning may be “cohousing-inspired,” but it is not a cohousing community.
2) The physical layout and orientation of the buildings (the site plan) encourage a sense of community. For example, the private residences are clustered on the site, leaving more shared open space. The dwellings typically face each other across a pedestrian street or courtyard, with cars parked on the periphery. Often, the front doorway of every home affords a view of the common house. What far outweighs any specifics, however, is the intention to create a strong sense of community, with design as one of the facilitators.
3) Common facilities are designed for daily use, are an integral part of the community, and are always supplemental to the private residences. The common house typically includes a common kitchen, dining area, sitting area, children’s playroom and laundry, and also may contain a workshop, library, exercise room, crafts room and/or one or two guest rooms. Except on very tight urban sites, cohousing communities often have playground equipment, lawns and gardens as well. Since the buildings are clustered, larger sites may retain several or many acres of undeveloped shared open space.
4) Residents manage their own cohousing communities, and also perform much of the work required to maintain the property. They participate in the preparation of common meals, and meet regularly to solve problems and develop policies for the community.
5) Leadership roles naturally exist in cohousing communities, however no one person (or persons) has authority over others. Most groups start with one or two “burning souls.” As people join the group, each person takes on one or more roles consistent with his or her skills, abilities or interests. Most cohousing groups make all of their decisions by consensus, and, although many groups have a policy for voting if the group cannot reach consensus after a number of attempts, it is rarely or never necessary to resort to voting.
6) Thecommunity is not a source of income for its members. Occasionally, a cohousing community will pay one of its residents to do a specific (usually time-limited) task, but more typically the work will be considered that member’s contribution to the shared responsibilities.
Communes…cohousing… however you want to call it, the concept looks to replace something that apparently many families feel they lack: a sense of togetherness in the community in which they live.