Cohousing is in some sense as old as civilization. People living in villages and towns have traditionally shared resources and governed their own communities. But in the last two centuries, and especially since World War II in the United States, this pattern has been broken. Urbanization, railroads, the development of suburbs, mass media and the automobile have increasingly left people feeling submerged in, yet alienated from, larger and larger social groups. We are dependent on cars, isolated in single-family homes on larger and larger lots, separated from friends, extended families and other traditional systems of support and from the natural environment. Yet there are compensations: our horizons are so much broader, our experiences more personal, our freedom to develop our own identities so much greater.
Cohousing is an attempt to win back some of the traditional values of community life, to remedy some of the damage that has been done by the modern world. But it is not conservative or nostalgic, not a return to the restrictions of the small-town life of the past. It attempts to make the values of community, civic participation and connection to nature work in a modern context.
The cohousing movement began in Denmark in the 1960s under the leadership of the Danish architect Jan Gudmand-Høyer. Gudmand-Høyer and a group of his friends who were dissatisfied with the living environment imagined a new kind of housing development, in which private units are clustered around a common house with shared community facilities. After years of struggling with neighbors, the government and the building industry, cohousing took root in Denmark and began to spread to other countries.
Cohousing came to the United States when the American architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, a husband and wife team from Berkeley, spent 1980-81 studying in Copenhagen. After passing a small cohousing project, Tornevangsgarden, on his way to school every day, Durrett became intrigued and eventually persuaded that cohousing was a potentially important approach to housing in the United States. In 1988 McCamant and Durrett published Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves, the book that became the inspiration for the American cohousing movement. Since then, under the guidance of McCamant and Durrett and others, over a hundred cohousing communities have been built and many more are in progress in the United States.
Cohousing communities are intentional communities in their essential approach, but otherwise are as diverse as their residents and their settings: some are urban and some are rural; some are new construction and some are retrofitted from existing housing; some are focused on particular issues (environmental, spiritual, or political), but most are not. McCamant has tried to identify the characteristics that cohousing communities in general share:
- Participatory Process: Residents participate in the planning and design of the development so that it directly responds to their needs.
- Neighborhood Design: The physical design encourages a sense of community.
- Private Homes Supplemented by Extensive Common Facilities: Each household has a private residence – complete with a kitchen – but has access to all of the common facilities. The common house is designed for daily use and supplements private living areas. Facilities often extend beyond the common house to include children’s play areas, vegetable gardens, and the like.
- Complete Resident Management: Residents take complete responsibility for on-going management, organizing cooperatively to meet their changing needs.
- Non-Hierarchical Structure: While there are leadership roles, responsibility for the decisions are shared by the community’s adults.
- Separate Income Sources: There is no shared community economy.
In addition, many cohousing developments have some, but not necessarily all, of these common characteristics to varying degrees:
- a pedestrian orientation, with cars relegated to the periphery of the development so that residents can socialize (and children can play) without interference from traffic;
- distinct public and private spaces so that residents can decide for themselves how much they participate in the community and when;
- clustered housing, which preserves as much green space as possible;
- shared activities, such as meals, child care, social events and other things that make up a community life;
- a concern with affordability, sustainability and environmental soundness;
- an interest in social justice and in ethnic, sexual, generational, and economic diversity
- a consensus approach to decision making
It’s part of the participatory approach that each community makes its own decisions about issues like these (and many others), and that’s since the goal is for the development to sustain the community – these decisions are reflected in its design. So just as every community is different, every development is different. Questions about the layout and organization of the sites, the size of the common facilities and how they’re equipped, the needs and configuration of the individual units—and even, at the most basic level, how the community manages itself—are unique to each project and make up its own identity. To learn more about the questions we’re asking and the answers we come up with, watch this site as it develops, or get in touch and become part of the process yourself.