The Green Scene

Jess Vogt

When Annie Leonard, creator of the short Internet video “The Story of Stuff,” spoke on campus last week, she raised a number of issues pertaining to how the workings of our materialist system encourage us to buy too much stuff. This has resulted in the depletion of our natural resources and the present ecological peril of our planet.
However, she also brought up the deterioration of community and of the meaningful relationships that often accompanies overconsumption. As we work more and more to be able to buy more and more stuff, we also have less and less time for our friends and family – the kinds of interactions that make us happier, healthier human beings.
I had the opportunity to have dinner with Leonard following her Tuesday evening lecture, and we discussed ways of combating this decline of community. She was able to expand on something she had only mentioned earlier in the day: the idea of cohousing. “Cohousing” is a number of individuals coming together with the intent of creating a more fulfilling community based on sharing and cooperation. Leonard herself lives in a cohousing neighborhood in Berkeley, Calif. Her own version of cohousing consists of six of her best friends living on a common block, sharing a single, large backyard as well as everything else from gardening tools to a scanner to a solar-powered vehicle.
The cohousing movement is similar in concept to the cooperative, or co-op, movement. In cohousing, however, individual families have their own house, usually fairly small, and a number of family units, ranging from two to 30 or more, share a common space that generally includes a large kitchen and large open outdoor area, and sometimes a kids room, fitness facilities, or other shared spaces. Individual families in cohousing communities still mostly maintain individual household finances, though they may pay a membership fee to fund upkeep of shared spaces and amenities.
Cohousing communities can vary immensely in the extent of communal space and shared amenities (e.g. lawnmowers, computers, cars, etc.). Members may come together weekly for dinners, share a community garden, or be more autonomous, sharing only lawnmowers and snow blowers.
Some cohousing communities are geared towards retirees or families, or towards those of a particular faith or sexual orientation, but more commonly, cohousing communities will accept all types of individuals, recognizing that a variety of types of people are what make a community dynamic and fulfilling.
Cohousing residents, according to the Cohousing Association of the United States, are “consciously committed to living as a community.” The Association lists six necessary characteristics that distinguish cohousing from any other type of community living. They are: participatory process, neighborhood design, common facilities, resident management, non-hierarchical structure and decision-making and no shared community economy.
Essentially, cohousing seeks to develop the kind of neighborhoods and communities that were quite common in the rural areas throughout history. Individuals within communities used to know their neighbors quite well and were able to rely on them for help when in need. Neighborhoods used to be kid-friendly, with plenty of open spaces for play. Communities used to share gardening space and produce, and have neighborhood block parties and dinners. The cohousing movement seeks to regain this sense of community.
For me, cohousing is the manifestation of the kind of neighborhood that any relationship-conscious, first-time homeowner looks for. But in addition to providing the kind of social relationships that make life worthwhile, cohousing also puts less of a strain on our earth.
Smaller individual housing units that share things such as lawnmowers, fax machines and hot tubs mean less resources extracted from the earth that so we each can have our own things.
Having more open natural spaces around our neighborhoods means more opportunities to get in touch with the world around us. And studies have shown that people who have more opportunities to be in nature of some sort have not only a higher awareness of the natural world and their impact on it – a sort of ecological literacy – but also have a happier and healthier outlook than people without access to nature.
If cohousing can result in both a greater sense of community and higher quality relationships as well as community members who are more ecologically aware, I think it can be a powerful means of helping change the way we treat our planet, and a part of the necessary paradigm shift that will enable us to solve our ecological crises.
Sources: Annie Leonard’s April 21 lecture at Lawrence University, The Cohousing Association of the United States Web site, Richard Louv’s “The Last Child in the Woods