Cohousing is a form of collaborative housing in which residents actively participate in the design and operation of their own neighbourhoods. The cohousing concept originated in Denmark in the early 1970s, and was introduced to the English-speaking world in the late 1980s by the inspirational book "Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves" by architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett. Since its inception this concept of "living community" has spread quickly. There are now hundreds of cohousing communities around the world, from Europe to North America, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
The physical design of a cohousing community encourages both social contact and individual space. Cars are kept at the edge of the site to create a pedestrian friendly neighbourhood designed for casual interaction and safe play for children. Private homes contain all the features of conventional homes, but residents also have access to extensive common facilities such as gardens, outdoor sitting and play areas, workshop and, most importantly, the Common House; the social center of the neighbourhood.
Common House facilities vary but usually include a large kitchen and dining room for optional common meals several times a week. Other facilities may include a shared laundry, children's room, guest rooms, offices, or games room, according to the priorities of the particular community.
Cohousing balances the needs of the individual for autonomy, privacy and control of their own space, with the advantages of cooperation, belonging, safety and community. It's the best of both worlds! Through spatial design and shared social activities, cohousing facilitates intergenerational interaction among neighbours for social, practical, and environmental benefits. Though most cohousing neighbourhoods have between 15 and 35 households, they can range in size from 6 to over 40 residences.
Regardless of the size of the community, there are many opportunities for casual meetings between neighbours, as well as more intentional gatherings such as common meals, celebrations, clubs and business meetings.
What makes cohousing communities unique?
While these characteristics aren't always true of every cohousing community, together they serve to distinguish cohousing from other types of collaborative housing:
- Participatory process: Members organise and participate in the planning and design process for the housing development, and are responsible as a group for all the final decisions either with or without a separate developer.
- Intentional Neighborhood design: The physical design encourages a strong sense of community while safeguarding privacy and increases the possibilities for spontaneous social contact.
3. Common facilities: Each household has a complete private residence but has access to common areas and facilities, including a large common house, which are integrally designed for daily use to supplement private living areas.
4. Resident management: Residents manage the development, making decisions of common concern at community meetings using inclusive, participatory decision making processes.
5. Non-hierarchical structure and decision-making: While there are leadership roles, responsibility for the decisions is shared by the community's adults and no one person dominates the decisions or the community process.
6. Separate Income Sources: Households are responsible for their own income and finances and do not rely on the community for their primary income.
Why So Popular?
Cohousing was initially a response to the challenges of rising costs, dual income households juggling children, work and meal preparation, rising divorce rates and growing isolation. Danish cohousing neighbourhoods arose mainly "to create a strong social network for the nuclear family" (from "Collaborative Communities" by Dorrit Fromm (1991)). Those needs are even greater now, and with the current financial and climate change crises the needs (and demand for cohousing) are likely to increase.
In a cohousing community, you know who lives six houses down because you eat common meals with them, decide how to allocate homeowners levies and gratefully accept a ride from them when your car is being serviced. You begin to trust them enough to leave your 4-year-old with them. You listen to what they have to say, even if you don't agree with them at first, and you sense that you, too, are being heard. Cohousing residents generally aspire to "create a better world, one neighbourhood at a time". This desire to make a difference often becomes a stated mission, as the websites of many communities demonstrate.