I enjoy pretty much everything there is that has to do with the outdoors. Some of my most peaceful moments have been while walking through the forest, sitting on a beach, or boating (minus the loud engine). Accordingly I have a great respect for nature and enjoy learning about the plants and wildlife therein. My plan is to continue that learning process and hopefully enhance it by sharing what I learn. I intend for this blog to serve many purposes, but in the immediate future it will be a place for me, and hopefully others, to share ideas about reducing our individual impact on this planet, protecting wild spaces, and in general just to comment on the things we enjoy most in the great outdoors. I welcome all opinions as otherwise you cannot consider every aspect of a subject. However, I would ask that every opinion be expressed in a respectful way and considered with an open mind. Often there is no single right answer. Thanks.







Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why isn't cohousing more popular?

I can already hear people I know comparing a cohousing project to a commune so I would just like to deal with that right up front.  In the Student's Oxford Canadian Dictionary a commune is defined as follows: "a group of people who live together and share responsibilities, possessions, etc."  That on its own sounds smart to me, but then, of course, the example given in the dictionary perpetuates the first thing that comes to my mind which is "a 1970s hippie commune".  A google search turns up a Wikipedia link, which gives a more detailed definition and has a quote from Andrew Jacobs of The New York Times which states "most communes of the '90s are not free-love refuges for flower children, but well-ordered, financially solvent cooperatives where pragmatics, not psychedelics, rule the day."  It seems to me that modern cohousing projects incorporate many elements of a commune, but take into account people's desire for some form of privacy and do not go so far as sharing income.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Save Mary Lake: Plan B, I attended a lecture by Chris ScottHanson regarding cohousing.  A quick google search for cohousing led me to the Canadian Cohousing Network website.  Listed on this site are 11 cohousing projects in British Columbia in various stages of completion.  Some are awaiting rezoning while others have been completed for some time.  Chris ScottHanson is the cohousing consultant listed on the Windsong project in Langley, which was completed in 1996.  He has also coauthored a book with Kelly ScottHanson entitled The Cohousing Handbook: Building a Place for Community.  What follows is some of what I learned during his lecture.



The practice of cohousing was brought to North America from Denmark in the late 1980s.  The general idea is to have a cluster of private residences and a common house on a smaller portion of the property leaving the remainder for such things as community gardens, playgrounds, or preserving pieces of the natural environment.  Some of the common themes in many cohousing developments include being pedestrian friendly, community oriented, and eco-friendly.  Cohousing designs addressed issues of ecology and sustainability before they became as popular as they are today.  Typically interested parties form a cohousing group and work through the development process with the assistance of professionals, often including a cohousing consultant.

The Canadian Cohousing Network says in their FAQs that a cohousing community typically includes 15-35 units.  Depending on the building footprint desired by the group the units can be arranged in a number of different ways including single family homes, duplexes, townhouses, or condos.  The community is designed, governed and maintained by the residents.  There is no management company or "board" that receives complaints or resolves disputes.  This can be particularly difficult for some people as it forces residents to have better communication with each other and brush up on those diplomacy skills.  But it does encourage personal growth, direct face to face contact and results in a close knit, supportive community.

To achieve the objective of being pedestrian friendly parking is generally outside of the housing area and sometimes underground to save land space.  The lack of cars has the obvious benefit of providing a space that is extremely safe for children to play, and quiet for all residents.  Some distances that Chris suggested were 250 feet from parking to front door, and having walkways between houses no more than 45 feet wide.  I cannot remember the ideal minimum for the walkways, but the theory is that too little space is not conducive to privacy whereas more than 45 feet makes it difficult to make eye contact with neighbours and have that sense of security and community.  Ideally the design would be such that natural outdoor gathering areas would emerge for spontaneous socializing.  Most of the spontaneous socializing in my neighbourhood happens in the driveway if the neighbour happens to be outside.

One of the main elements of a cohousing development is the common house.  An average size common house would be about 5,000 square feet and include amenities that allow for the individual residences to be smaller in size.  A typical common house would include a great room, large kitchen, kids play room, guest rooms and bathroom facilities.  The great room is used by all cohousing members for celebrations, events, and also group dinners.  Cohousing groups eat together anywhere from one to five times a week, which maintains the sense of community and provides an informal atmosphere to clear up any issues that may arise.  Other design ideas include a living room/library no-kid zone, workshop space, laundry facilities of a high quality and efficiency, fitness area...budget and imagination are really the only limitations.  One interesting example that Chris mentioned was a cohousing member who requested during the design phase that a painting studio be incorporated into the common house to take advantage of the north light.  In exchange the member offered 10 years of weekly watercolour lessons to the community.
 
A well designed cohousing project will be successful as a multi generational community.  By incorporating areas for kids, as well as areas that are quiet and adult-oriented you can appeal to a wider demographic.  It brings a more literal meaning to the phrase "it takes a village to raise a child".  As in the Mary Lake example it seems people are turning to cohousing to achieve not only the sense of community, but also a more sustainable development with a high environmental standard.  The Windsong development in Langford received the Gold Georgie Award for Best Environmental Achievement in 1997 and the Mary Lake project, if it goes ahead, aspires to be a "net-zero" community.  Some projects reclaim industrial sites, others preserve valuable natural habitats.  Now I am left to wonder why this concept is only just catching on.  How different would our neighbourhoods look if this idea had been incorporated into community plans a long time ago?

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