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Urban Cohousing for the 21st Century
Sarah Rich, 8 Feb 07
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If "cohousing" sounds a little like "carob raisin" to you, rest assured that you sit squarely with the majority. Most people see the whole concept as typical of an old school of environmentalism practiced long before Netflix and iPods became ammunition for a green revolution. But, like other hippy habits such as carsharing and getting off the grid, you can always give an old idea a new lease on life by making it relevant to today's tastes and lifestyles.

My recent article, Multi-Family, Affordable, Urban and Green, sparked a number of comments and suggestions to look into the resurgence of cohousing and the creation of "living neighborhoods." Both of these dictate certain parameters about the physical design of a community, as well as the way the residents live, encouraging maximized pedestrian area and minimal auto traffic, density without highrises, abundant gardens and access to daylight, and a balance of shared and individual spaces.

It seems to me that the primary reason 21st century greens shy away from ideas like this is that they seem soft, sentimental, and peripheral to the dire challenges at hand today. But in reality, communities designed for livability can be a fundamental solution to problems with everything from pollution and urban sprawl, to physical health and personal safety.

One example of cohousing we've featured on Worldchanging in the past is actually a perfect full-circle example of an old model made new -- a concept developed by a team in Denmark, where cohousing originated. Studio Force4's Boase Concept addresses current urban plagues like soil contamination, excessive rainwater runoff, and a lack of green space with a housing development that balances private and community space, employs green building strategies, and creates a little botanical oasis in an urban environment.

Part of the beauty of regarding communities as small planning challenges within the larger context is that the intelligence and benefits of a living neighborhood can be realized in a dense city as well as in suburbia or in rural areas where development is just beginning. In North Denver, which is currently undergoing a massive redevelopment, some long-neglected areas are being turned into smartly planned semi-urban communities. A group called Ducci (Denver Urban Core Cohousing Initiative) has a plan in the works now to create a vital neighborhood on acreage that will soon house Taxi, the new urban development on the old site of the Yellow Cab corporate headquarters, partially designed by the much-admired David Baker Architects. Taxi looks like a great place to live, emphasizing walkability and transit, wireless and mobile technology, and green building. In DUCCI's part of the hood, there will also be a strong focus on community support and networking, collaborative decision-making, and access to things like neighborhood childcare and multi-family meal sharing.

This kind of stuff is great, of course, for single and low-income parents for whom easy childcare and access to healthy food saves valuable time. It's a whole other type of efficiency beyond CFLs and smart meters, and it's extremely important to a high-quality of life for busy families. Unfortunately, it seems like these living situations still don't cater to a very diverse population - in terms of socioeconomic or racial diversity - but affordability is gaining importance as a factor in development and hopefully these communities will come to reflect their increasing accessibility.

The Ducci site pointed towards another interesting example that's been around for a while and might be a good model for projecting how things will go in Denver. The Tango Project was built in Malmö, Sweden in 2001. It appears to be all the things Taxi might become, and similar to Boast Concept in that it's a bioremediative project that has cleaned the site through the vegetation planted around it. In addition to extensive green roofs and heavy metal-extracting grasses, Tango is super-wired for efficiency and convenience. According to the Popular Science article about the development:

From the start, the plan was to optimize efficiency by taking advantage of information technology. Tango apartments are supplied with laptops that connect to the developer's broadband network; through a portal called Frontyard, residents can access myriad monitoring and control systems.

It's that urban, high-tech, and super-green combo that makes these new semi-shared communities distinctly 21st century. They may be off-grid, but they're not backwoods.

[images from the Moore Ruble Yudell website, the architects for Tango]

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It is somewhat ironic to read these articles after witnessing the recent devastating effects of rapid and unplanned development in Jakarta, Indonesia : flooding in more than half of the city, wiping out hundreds of thousands of mostly poor homes. While Taxi, Ducci, and Tango's intentions may be noble, I think some of the solutions proposed remain "soft, sentimental, and peripheral" to the majority of the world's population. Dear editors, what is more World Changing - wi-fi in every home, or clean running water in every home?

Posted by: Ari T on 9 Feb 07

Ari, while the technophilic aspects you comb out of this idea for critique are validly critiqued, I think that the majority of the world's population would build compactly by default. In other words, the core idea here is not the enemy. Unless we can reduce our footprint and concentrate (thus minimize) our appetites, clean running water will remain a problem elsewhere as well. The problems are connected, and the solutions highlighted here have to do with the puzzle-piece of reducing our footprint to minimize the forces which compel elsewhere the impoverished situations you describe.

The aerial view provided above, while it may appear stylistically distant to the societies you mention, does bear great resemblance to the most ancient of indigenous social arrangements. A skim through a reference such as '6,000 Years of Housing' by Schoenauer will reveal that only during later-stage Western civic development has the pattern of housing design drifted away from the 'Common Core, Private Edges' radial model featured in most of these plans.

The stylistic rift is a genuine question, and according to Christopher Alexander, it actually lies closer to the question of functionality than many would think; different materials, technologies, methods and layouts may well decide how coherent a community will truly be.

Ideally these communities would grow slowly, adaptively, out of the life of the community itself; but the United States and much of the world spent the last half of the 20th demolishing (clearcutting) its old growth neighborhoods. If a restoration is to happen, it has to start somewhere, and is likely to be expensive and overstyled in the beginning. This is the cost of shortsightedness in the first place.

- Heath

Posted by: Heath M Rezabek on 9 Feb 07

Unfortunately, I do not believe in communities of this design or philosophy. It seems an ideological and sociological absurdity. It promotes an idea of insulation of a small group; reinforces concepts of us and them; and propogates what I would call 'small town syndrome'. A mistrust of strangers to the community, a possessiveness of the shared spaces to those of the community only, an intrusiveness and feeling of entitlement to the 'business' and personal issues of other inhabitants that go far beyond co-habitating, and a lack of on-going and random stimulation to those experiences happening beyond 'walking distance'.
Unfortunately, architects and urban designers of this time have lost touch with the most current and relevant issues of sociology and psychology as it relates to large and diverse groups constantly being in close contact. The needs of individuals and small group structures such as cliques and families within these communities require periods of anonymity, spontaneity, and a feeling that they are not constricted by a set of values that the community may espouse beyond normal norms of society. Reliable surveys indicate that less than 10% of people know the full names of every person in the adjacent house or unit on three sides of them after living in those circumstances for more than 5 years. Less than 20% know the occupations of the persons and living room layouts of units on both sides of their living situation after 3 years. I apologise for not knowing where these surveys are.
A possible solution is a campus style of development. A parti (overiding visual theme) that involves several multi-family (however you define this) structures and single-family structures in arrangements that make-up half-formed communities that overlap in apparently random ways so that no person feels they belong completely to any group, but feel a set of commonalities with several groups. A good way to envision this is to take wire shapes like circles, squares and triangles (as an overly simple example) and take a huge chuck (at least a third out of each) and toss them helter-skelter onto a surface so they overlap in varying amounts, never completely enclosing - always leading to another but never completely contained. Simple sure - but it makes you think. Complexity and ever-expanding choice is a possible key to setting up multi-family arrangements. Environmental and sustainability issues can flow from this.

Posted by: Jeremy on 9 Feb 07

As someone nearing potential retirement age with time ahead of me to create a new life, the hard part for me is how long it takes to create community and co-housing projects. I'd love to move into an existing community, but they are few and far between and adaptation to and acceptance by the existing community is an issue. Paradoxically, I think that until this idea is streamlined, commercialized and more widespread, it is only ever going to exist in a very tiny and unrepresentative part of our world. Sigh.

Posted by: Sarah Spitz on 9 Feb 07

Considering that most people have, at most, lived communally or cooperatively for only a short stint during their most impulsive young years, there are a lot of assumptions and attitudes ingrained in the opening paragraph of this article. So, sharing space, building a sense of community, giving up some privacy in exchange for some codependence are "hippy habits" and lord knows, we don't want to go THERE.

I think we need to keep our minds a lot more open than that. I lived communally for 12 years. I don't now, but I'm exploring cohousing for "retirement" whatever that is. On today's Web, I'm surrendering much more of my privacy than I did living in a household of 25 trusted people with some shared commitments and priorities. There are tradeoffs, and as the climate changes and the wheels start wobbling in the global economy, the tradeoffs of living in a, yes insular, but mutually supportive neighborhood will beging to look a lot more positive.

And let's get over this hippyphobia, why don't we? It doesn't help.

Posted by: Cliff on 9 Feb 07

Whew, I'm relieved that my disgust of community and sharing and hippies is shared by the majority. I do feel uncomfortable being in the minority.

This is my kind of great bright green revolution--all I have to do is buy movies and music and sequester myself in my apartment while tech companies and urban designers take care of everything.

Posted by: Brian H on 9 Feb 07

Who knew cohousing could spark such controversy? I appreciate everyone's responses. And I'm glad this brings up some disagreement, as I, too, feel ambivalent about some of the social and psychological aspects of a cohousing community. I think the "us/them" issue is a real concern and clearly the cohousing model could reinforce the kind of isolation which breeds such a phenomenon. On the other hand, I suppose part of my point here has to do with the fact that these are increasingly set in URBAN areas, rather than more traditional versions which were not only potentially isolating by design, but also set in outlying areas. In an urban context, residents are not as likely to remain isolated.

Beyond that, though, while choosing to live in a cohousing community could certainly lead to isolation, it's my opinion that in an age of internet-addiction and online communities and instant messaging, isolation has a lot more to do with personal choices than your circumstances. I'd wager a guess that a lot of us who work at a computer and live independently, or just with our own families, or in large apartment buildings, have to remind ourselves to step away from the computer sometimes and have a face-to-face interaction for a change. For some people, living in cohousing could prove to be LESS isolating, at least on an individual level, though I grant that the commentor's point had more to do with the isolation of all the members of the community together from the rest of the surrounding neighborhoods, not one person from another.

Keep in mind that cohousing is NOT a commune -- people work outside of the community, there's no shared income or internal revenue generation going on here; it's simply a way to share elements of domestic life, like meals, recreation and leisure time. In addition, perhaps I ought to have further emphasized what I see as an unrealized potential benefit of cohousing, which is the added safety, convenience and affordability for single parents and low-income families. These aren't usually the kinds of people who live in cohousing, but the reality is that they might draw more benefit than the middle class families who currently employ cohousing most. Ad hoc neighborhood childcare in a supportive environment where it's part of the lifestyle to look out for the people around you is not a bad thing, nor is the ability to come home from a long day and share a meal (and feed your kids) amongst neighbors -- every day if you want -- but only have to cook or clean once a week. These are systems for more efficient living, as well as for the reduction of neighborhood footprints.

As Sarah pointed out, it may be true that this will never take hold in a widespread manner, but it doesn't have to; the point is not to suggest that all cities should suddenly become a network of cohousing enclave, but that it's a viable option for people leading a modern, urban life -- if they want it! -- not something relegated to the realm of those who want to excuse themselves from the dynamism of a city.

Regarding hippyphobia, all I'll say is that one of the greatest challenges that today's sustainability movement has had in making itself a movement for the "mainstream" is to overcome exactly those stereotypes of hippydom. I've eaten my share of carob and I've lived in (and loved) co-ops. Pulling that example was merely a way to highlight cultural shifts from "the last" enviro movement to this one, and stereotypes which make us write ideas off before we take a chance to contextualize them. The 1960s' carob is the 21st century's organic fair trade dark chocolate. It's just symbols of an era, and of typical associations.

Posted by: Sarah on 9 Feb 07

How are you defining cohousing? I always thought it was defined by the residents having to buy into a set of shared rules and facilities (e.g. childcare, office spaces, etc) whereas what you are describing here to me sounds simply like good, sustainable urban design without you having written much about the communal side of things - and isn't 'good urban design' more relevant and sellable than a 'cohousing' label! (see here for Wikipedia on cohousing.) And also, hence some of the comments that are taking on the 'intentional' part of the model.

There have also been some interesting examples of what I thought cohousing was here in the UK (e.g. in Stroud, Gloucestershire) but as far as I am concerned, we should just start talking about sustainable urban design as the thing in itself. Malmo BO01 isn't cohousing at all - not is it offgrid, technically...but it is really interesting, if we haven't covered it here before I will definitely write it up as I know loads about it.

Posted by: Hana Loftus on 10 Feb 07

None of us lives in isolation, Daniel Boones in the wilderness, hacking out an existence with our bare hands. We never did. The Frontier Myth is pure hype: read about Threshing Bees, Quilting Bees, and Barn Raisings. Today, what brings the Netflix, iPods and pizza to your door is - community. It's infrastructure and social cooperation. In other words, you live in CoHousing already - the question is whether you want to participate meaningfully in its design or not.

Posted by: David Foley on 11 Feb 07

Cohousing could make a comeback as a chic or progressive idea, if it ever was in the first place. Although it is not particularly hard to find or build a condominium or townhouse complex, to find or build one with an emphasis on neighborhood interaction as well as the integration and preservation of green space, can be a little difficult. It would definitely be a nice way to give back to Mother Nature if developers would start incorporating more green space to their dwellings, especially in the noted urban environment. Green space can contribute directly to an improvement of life since it is always pleasant to find a nice patch of grass to sit down on and read or do something of the sort. A development like this which incorporates a good amount of green space can definitely have an indirect effect on the value of the properties on the premises since open areas of green can be an area for children to roam around and play in should potential buyers have children. Finding sizeable backyards in a town-home is difficult, if not impossible. To have a communal yard sounds like an excellent idea.

Posted by: JTK on 12 Feb 07

Alas, I just got the WorldChanging weekly info and found these posts about the cohousing and urban design situation as it pertains to the larger issues and challenges we face globally. Frankly, I find that cohousing is a possible solution for many, IF, it can become an affordable alternative to the usual isolation of urban apartment dwelling. I have lived communally several times, also in a coop; I have loved most of the time spent in these situations for a number of reasons. Sharing space necessitates agreements and processes in place to settle disagreements which will occur occasionally despite everyone's best intentions. Cohousing is not quite as close quartered as communal living, however, it will need many of the same guidelines to work in the long term. I have looked (and continue to look) into cohousing and so far they are mighty expensive for a single parent. It appears to be another situation that bodes promise, but only to those who have an income of $100,000 a year or more. Most people survive on less than half of that, so I believe that is a major reason that cohousing is not popularized as a mainstream idea as yet. If someone could put together a combination of land, utilities, technology, and housing that the average working person could afford, I'm sure most of us would love to have the advantage of a community in which our children would thrive rather than survive. The world has become more difficult since the sixties, and having been one of those hippies, I am disappointed that we haven't figured better solutions for the masses as yet. The poor continue to suffer indignity, poor health, etc. I am encouraged by WorldChanging and their efforts to focus on the positive things being done that may provide a better life for all in the future. Thanks for giving me a space to get my two cents in...

In Peace, Karen

Posted by: Karen Sickler on 17 Feb 07



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