What I think we learned from our first four cohousing visits:
Everyone we spoke to was very enthusiastic about cohousing and its benefits. Every group works out their own level of interaction, rules, work projects, etc and those decisions affect the dynamics of each place. There was a real sense of community and co-operation in most of them, a couple of really nice common houses, and a very vibrant, happy feel to the common dinner we attended.
Buying the land before you do all of the hydrological studies, etc, and get rezoning can be incredibly risky – witness Hundredfold’s problems. But many groups lose the land they want because they instead make conditional offers and it takes a long time to move the process forward. Both Nyland and Liberty were able to keep the offer open for situationally-unique reasons (very sympathetic seller, angry divorce), and Silver Sage had full support (and free land) from city council.
The sense I get is that many groups fail on this step – the desire is there, but they never find the property they need/want. Once you choose the land, it all gets very real, and the committed become more so, while the wavering drop out. Partly this is because it usually requires a real financial commitment.
My impression was that when the houses are large and spread far apart, the sense of community becomes harder to maintain, and it looks like the common house gets used a lot less. It also feels like the larger the community, the less intimate the relationships. Silver Sage (16 small units) members seemed quite close.
Even at Hundredfold (10), whatever their other limitations, they all knew each other, went out together and helped each other out. At Liberty (18 large), it was clear that some people were good friends and other were merely close acquaintances (mostly renters). Nyland (42) was so large that they have split the common dinners into two groups, and only rarely have events and meetings that involve the whole group.
Common houses are very important to making a place feel like a community, but they frequently seemed to be underutilized. Location, features and site layout are crucial, and size of community may also play a part. Having kitchens and other common house rooms that don’t get used seems like a poor use of space and money, and seems to defeat the major purpose of cohousing – creating social bonds.
Personally, I don’t want a common house that only gets used once a week for dinner; I want a space where people choose to gather and spend time together for multiple activities. A smaller group might be more conducive to that. The cohousing communities we’ve visited, especially the larger one, are more a group of co-operating neighbours than a close-knit group of friends. Which do we want?
A larger group may offer more relationship options, and more able-bodied people to manage projects, but it may also create greater emotional distance between people, more potential for conflict and clashing personalities, more difficulty getting consensus on decisions, and a larger group of seniors may result in more people who need to be looked after, more “care fatigue”. The ratio of able-bodied to those who are sick, or dying, will probably be similar, so the question is whether it’s easier for a larger group to look after a number of sick people or a smaller group to look after one sick person.
There is a real question of what the optimum size is for the right mix of privacy and intimacy/interaction. Many of the larger communities we have visited seem to have less use of common facilities, more complicated decision-making procedures, and less sense of being friends, more of being good neighbours. What really is the right number for co-care, companionship and property maintenance? We should visit some smaller cohousing communities to see what their dynamic is.
Unexpected events (the 2008 mortgage crisis, an EPA change to Liberty’s sewage approvals that stopped construction, dry wells at Hundredfold, construction issues at Silver Sage) can cause real headaches and threaten the very existence of the community. You can’t plan for everything, and there is no such thing as a sure thing.
Liberty and Hundredfold were both done as subdivisions, rather than apartment/townhouses, both started building without a full complement of owners, and both had trouble selling the remaining lots. Nyland and Silver Sage didn’t start to build until they were fully committed, and they have filled their vacancies fairly easily.