Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cohousing Observations

Last weekend I participated in the national cohousing conference on the campus of the University of Colorado at Boulder. It’s the sixth national conference in a row that I’ve attended going back to 2001, and I have a handful of observations about that segment of the Communities Movement: 

1. The energy was good. There were about 300 people who attended at least some portion of the five-day event. Wednesday and Thursday there were four pre-conference tracks that people could follow. On the weekend, there were 60 workshop choices: 10 slots with six concurrent sessions every time. On top of that there were numerous bus tours of completed projects in the Front Range, a Saturday night banquet, and three plenaries. There was a lot going on.

2. The mix was about the same. Mostly the attendance was comprised of folks shopping to see if cohousing was for them, or people in a forming group looking for technical advice and/or fresh recruits. There was a sprinkling of folks from Europe and Australia. As the housing market has started to improve, there were fewer built groups advertising openings. Finally there were the normal cadre of professionals who service the cohousing market (which is where I fit in).

3. Cohousing continues to grow. In the US today there are about 120 completed projects, with plenty more in the pipeline. Growth in this segment is probably on a par with, or perhaps somewhat ahead of that of other segments of the Communities Movement.

4. There are roughly 6-7,000 people living in cohousing communities in the US, which is about 0.002% of the US population. In contrast, there are around 50,000 people living in cohousing in Denmark (where the concept originated), which is 1% of the population there. More, Chuck Durrett reported during the closing plenary that in a recent survey fully 40% of Danes said that they'd like to live in cohousing. Wow!

5. While my knowledge of Danish cohousing (which I've never visited) is much more limited than the US version (I've worked professionally with 40 different cohousing groups in this country), my understanding is that there is a much wider range of house size and pricing options available in Denmark than in the US. In Scandinavia they've taken downsizing a significant step further and this has opened up cohousing as a viable option to folks with much lower means than has happened to date in the US. As there is a significantly less profit potential in designing and building affordable housing, I haven't seen much interest among developers in addressing this issue. Thus, while cohousing represents a definite step away from mainstream materialism, it remains the bourgeois and consumptive end of the Communities Movement.

6. The theme of this year's conference was Sustainability through Community, and keynote speaker Bill McKibben (author of Deep Economy) made a number of interesting points:

—Not only is the growth in farmer's markets and community supported agriculture operations growing at 12-15% annually, but surveys show that consumers are 10 times more likely to talk with people at either of these two venues than at a grocery store.

—This last statistic is all the more impressive when you place it in the context of the claim that there are three things that can make a substantial impact on how long (and how happily) you live: a) how much you exercise; b) how well you eat; and c) how much community (read: meaningful social interactions) you have in your life.

—Bill is an advocate of the 350 Initiative, which is based on a general agreement among scientists that the human population cannot be sustained on Earth if carbon dioxide levels persist above 350 parts per million in the atmosphere—and they are currently estimated to be at 384 ppm, and rising. There is a big Work Day slated for Oct 10 (10/10/10) and he was banging the drum to get as many involved as possible.

I found myself wondering whether the kinds of changes made in cohousing communities are enough to bring us back from the brink and within 350 ppm. I don't know, but I suspect that the lifestyle changes needed will be far more than what we've seen so far.

7. The final plenary was poignant. Chuck Durrett & Katie McCamant—who co-authored Cohousing, the seminal book that explained this Danish import to the US audience in 1988—each spoke personally about what living in cohousing means to them. They each admonished the audience (of about 60 diehards who stuck it out to the end) to go forth and get involved more in their local areas and neighborhoods. Like many networks, Coho/US suffers from a dearth of individuals motivated to get involved in outreach. What was poignant about this pitch is that cohousing has been intentionally built on a model that doesn’t ask residents to align with social change values. Rather, people are recruited to cohousing based on the appeal of a safe and caring neighborhood.

How surprised can Katie & Chuck be that the communities they’ve striven so hard to build with a minimal commitment to common values lack the outreach focus needed to make the 350 initiative come alive? In cohousing it's always been much more about who has the right money than who has the right values, and you can't have it both ways. To be sure, there are communities that have a strong commitment to outreach and social change work (Dancing Rabbit, Earthaven, The Farm, Twin Oaks, Sirius, and Hummingbird Ranch come easily to mind), yet none of those are cohousing groups, where common values are traditionally soft pedaled in the interest in marketing. I believe the dynamism of the Cohousing Movement is limited by its very success: people who moved in for a good neighborhood don't particularly appreciate being told after they move in that they aren't doing enough for sustainability and world peace, and it's not surprising that it's hard to find enough "burning souls" to keep the lamps lit.

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