Panel Discussion, January 7, 2010
Cohousing communities have strong synergies with New Urbanism. They practice good urbanism by contributing to the diversity of the greater urban environments with an emphasis on shared facilities, sustainable living practices, walkable neighborhoods, car share programs, and the creation of community. It is because of these overlaps with New Urbanist principles that we have organized a panel discussion focusing on living in cohousing communites.
We have invited residents from four different cohousing communities in Colorado to contribute their first hand experiences to the dialogue about our shared goals. Brian Bowen is a cohousing resident and architect that volunteered to mediate the discussion and help shed light on our topic. The discussion addressed car and public transit use, social and financial sustainability, and the cohousing communities’ relationships with the larger neighborhoods and urban life around them. We also invited Jim Leach of Wonderland Hill Development Company, one of the leading developers of cohousing neighborhoods in the west, to provide an introduction to the concept of cohousing. What is presented here is an edited and slightly shortened version of the presentations and the question and answer session that followed.
I’d like to start with what cohousing is and how it relates to new urbanism. New urbanism and cohousing are very much aligned in their basic principles. Cohousing is a cluster of homes arranged and designed so that people interact with their neighbors and more share certain amenities. Cohousing communities usually have a common house – a central community space where most residents share meals anywhere from one to three nights a week. Cohousing residents manage their own community. It’s very much like any other cluster development with a home owners association, except in this case, it’s a much more active association that meets on a regular daily basis. They have teams and committees.
We started developing cohousing communities about twenty years ago. We designed the first community in Colorado, the Nyland Community. Cohousing was pretty much a grassroots movement tehn. It started with people wanting to get together and build a neighborhood for themselves and few of their friends. It kept attracting people. It was based on the principles of running a neighborhood community for the benefit of all and a more sustainable lifestyle. These early communities like Nyland often needed professional help, not only design help but organizational help as well. So we focused on the business of organizing, designing and building housing primarily. We really found a way to partner with future residents.
The cohousing movement was brought from Denmark to the United States by architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durett. Because they were designers they have been instrumental in connecting the design and building profession with the cohousing movement, which, I think, made projects happen. It’s hard enough to build your own house, but try to build a custom neighborhood and get together with your neighbors and figure it all out. Cohousing is all about community. The design part is easy to grasp and there are a lot of good designers that can design it. But the challenge is really building the community, to plan how resdients interact with each other. Katie and Chuck did this planning through the design process. They got people involved in workshops and programmed their design for their community, which is also a stimulating thing that brought people in. We took that idea built on it. The groups now participate in a lot of decisions in their neighborhood. They also invest in it and take financial risks.
The new urbanist movement as Ronnie or Korkut mentioned has been around for about the same amount of time as cohousing, a little bit newer, but has been much more successful in reaching out and being recognized. Early on we saw the potential of overlaps as the new urbanist movement came on, because cohousing deals with the most proactive form of building a community. People were really proactive in wanting to connect with their neighbors and wanting to practice community right in their neighborhood.
The first true new urbanist neighborhood that we put a cohousing community in with the theory that that community would become a valuable asset for the larger neighborhood, was the Hearthstone Cohousing Community in the Highlands Garden Village in Denver. We started working with it ten years ago. Perry Rose LLC of Denver, row home national developers, saw the potential with cohousing. Sure enough after we put the Hearthstone in, the common house became a community focus not only for heartstone residences but for the entire Highland Garden Village. Perry Rose LLC started to model a lot of things that the new urbanists were trying to do through design. They were trying to create community through walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods where community happens. I can tell you that community needs to happen with the people that are actually living there. The sequel to that is when the Holiday Neighborhood came along in North Boulder as a mixed neighborhood with affordable and market-rate homes. We were given one of the sites to work with as a developer and developed the Wild Sage Cohousing and Silver Sage Cohousing where I live.
If you really look at the issues and problems that our western culture is going through right now in America, you realize that you keep coming back to community. Somehow human beings have to learn how to connect with each other. If you look at how we connect, the most basic level is at the family and we haven’t been doing a very good job of that. The next step is really the neighbors and how much of your daily life you share with them. We have all had some experience with living together with others. For instance, you’ve had this experience if you’ve lived in a dormitory, the military, a rooming house, or even going camping together. You know it’s an enriching experience and also challenging one. Sometimes it is a pain. But, until we can get our culture to recognize that we have to connect, especially at this most basic level of the neighborhood, we can design the most beautiful and efficient environment in the world. However, it won’t work in the long run unless the people who live there make it happen.
Before I conclude I would like to briefly talk also of what we are doing here at Washington School. This building will be a part of Washington Village, a cohousing community. We are about to start the first phase with seven units in the school and six single family homes surrounding the park. We are putting together those initial community members now and are looking for more members. Thank you.
I’m an architect here in Boulder and live in the Wild Sage Cohousing Community, which is in the Holiday Neighborhood in Boulder. I was involved in the design process on Wild Sage. I worked with Jim Logan and then worked with Chuck Drevins at Silver Sage Cohousing Community across the street.
Let me introduce our panel here. We all live in Cohosing Communities, including Jim Leach and myself. Zev Paiss is one of the old timers of cohousing and lives in Nomad Cohousing behind Lucky’s Market. Nomad is cohousing with eleven town homes on a small site, built in 1997. A small theater is part of their common house. Harriet Stobel is from Hearthstone, which is, as Jim said, part of the Highland Gardens Village. Hearthstone is a cohousing community with 33 homes on 1.6 acres. Henry Kroll is from Silver Sage, which is a senior cohousing community with 16 homes on 0.7 acres. It was completed three years ago. Aaron Brocket is from Wild Sage, which has 34 homes on 1.4 acres. It was completed in 2004. All of these communities are thriving in their own way. All have resulted in really strong communities and they effect the large context significantly as well. Nomad is built in a great existing neighborhood, it is very close to North Boulder Shopping Center where Lucky’s markey is located. Hearthstone is built into Highland Gardens Village, a neighborhood that was designed with new urbanist principles. Silver Sage and Wild Sage are nestled into the Holiday Neighborhood. They are all in urban contexts.
The first question I’d like to ask is about walkability and how you interact with people in your neighborhood. Could you all talk about what you can walk to outside of your community and how you interact with the neighborhood around you?
Of the four communities represented here, Nomad is the only example that was built into an infill site already surrounded by a complete development. We are directly adjacent to the North Boulder Shopping Center which is one of the reasons why several of us wanted to live there – three restaurants, a market, a video store, a hair salon are right there.
When I moved in, in 1997, I was recently married, and now my children are 10 and 11 years old. They can walk to all these facilities by themselves. That’s part of the fantasy I have with being in an almost European-like village where you really have everything you need within walking distance, which is essentially what we have.
We receive EcoPasses as part of our agreement. We have a reduction of parking for a variety of reasons, but one of them was the proximity to North Boulder Shopping Center. We can walk one block, get on the Skip and pretty much go wherever we want to on Broadway. We also happen to be two blocks away from an elementary school.
We have 12 cars for 11 households. So we have a number of homes which only have one car. We have had some car sharing in the past. We don’t actually have it officially right now, but we do car share. Our cohousing is small – only one acre. You can walk out into the middle of the courtyard and see everyone. It’s very easy for us to ask for shared childcare or help with a car. The proximity and the fact that we know each other make it really easy.
I think Hearthstone is considered infill as well. The whole Highland Garden Village is an infill development. Within the Village itself we have a lot of commercial uses: Sunflower Market, a liquor store, adoctor, a dentist, a hairdresser, an eye glasses store. And within the close vicinity, as you walk up Tennison, just about every urban service you would need is available: a few restaurants, a library one mile north of us, and a library one mile west of us.
So there are lots of places we can walk to. We also often carpool. Friends will go to a thrift store together. Or one person will pick up stuff for someone else to save on driving. A bus stop a block from us runs downtown. I think we have in our cohousing community a very new urbanist life style.
Three years ago I lived on Pine Street in San Francisco and I now live on Yellow Pine Street in Boulder. Walkability was great in San Francisco. I could walk to numerous movie theaters. There were three restaurants on the block. I could go to a coffee shop of my choice. I could walk to where I worked. We lived in a 16-unit apartment building. Christmas would come and we would invite people to our unit for a little get together. I think the only time the neighbors were visible to us was when the fire alarm went off.
What is walkability in terms of community? What I recently learned from neurocognitive science is that the walking is a key factor for our cognitive reserve. As we engage with people, we keep building up that reserve. Scientists will tell you that simple daily contacts that happens when you walk, such as talking to the shop owner, the postman, etc., keeps our cognitive skills intact throughout our lives. I am living in the senior cohousing or adult-focused community. It is a little different perspective because everyone who lives there has chosen to live there because they understand that isolation (as I just described in San Francisco) is really the enemy of seniors. The more isolated people are, the more disadvantaged they are and thus will have more health issues as a result of isolation.
We interact with our neighbors in cohousing. We can’t avoid it. We don’t have to wait for the fire alarm to go off, we have two dinners a week. We are the building managers. When the fire alarm went off in San Francisco, we call the building manager to fix it. But there is nobody to turn to in cohousing but us. So we are automatically engaged. We have to be ready for that. As Jim said, community building is the toughest part of the cohousing. The architects could design a beautiful facility that would meet all of the environmental updates, etc., but until we learn how to build a community among ourselves, we really haven’t helped ourselves. We haven’t really addressed the lack of social sustainability, which is an important crisis human beings are facing in this society.
Wild Sage and Silver Sage are located within the Holiday Neighborhood and the Holiday Neighborhood is within this North Boulder district, where new centers have been developed with new retail added to older retail. We have a lot of resources nearby: the pizza shop, the liquor store, restaurants. My son goes to the martial arts place around the corner. We are able to meet a lot of those day-to-day needs by walking within the district. We now have two medical marijuana dispensaries. My wife and I have our own computer programming office across the street. We have a 100-foot commute to the office. So we walk there every day.
A lot of our trips are within Wild Sage itself. Our kids (almost 4 and 7 years old) do almost all of their social interaction outside of school within Wild Sage. They see other kids outside. They go to meals in the common house, concerts, and play with kids outside. I will go days at a time without using the car. One way to talk about walkability is to look at how many services are located in close proximity. And when we do that actually we’re talking about the concentration of human capital immediately within our personal environment, where we spend most of our time.
Panel Question and Answer
Jim Leach: What’s nice about the Holiday Neighborhood is that it is an interesting place to walk. My office is about a quarter of a mile from the house. I used to live near to my office when I lived in Wonderland Hill, but I walked less frequently to the office even though it was through open space and a beautiful walk. There was no social life on the street. I always see people walking back from the coffee shop – not three times a week, but three times a day. There is a lot of interaction in the new urban neighborhood that cohousing members really feed on. I think that one thing that Bryan mentioned was about cars. I can say that at Silver Sage, we own about 1.5 to 2 cars per household. We don’t drive them very much — we collect them. We have two car share cars parked outside of Silver Sage now so it is very easy to get by one car.
Bryan also mentioned the density. Hearthstone has 33 units on an acre, Wild Sage, 34 units on an acre. There are 33 units here in Washington Village on 3 acres and it is right in the middle of Boulder. The neighbors complained about density a lot. We originally had proposed 40 units. Density is essential in creating life on the street.
Bryan Bowen: Let’s put this in the context of sustainability. When I think about sustainability lots of different definitions bounce around. The resiliency of your own personal lives; your economic resiliency; your ability to persist through time, where your food comes from – micro layers of sustainability that go beyond just energy efficiency. Let’s focus on how a community interacts with the neighborhood around it. Could you talk about how living in a cohousing community contributes to sustainability in your life and at the same time the sustainability of the larger community?
Zev Paiss: Nomad Cohousing was built into an existing neighborhood. Before, the cohousing people had used the property as a dog path to the market. There are definitely people who still do that because the common green is an inviting place that is accessible to anybody. The common house and the theater is used constantly by groups outside of our community as well. We have a music class that is in there five mornings a week. The Orchard Park Neighborhood next to us doesn’t have a common space. They use ours for their HOA meetings. The city has used it for retreats as well. It really becomes a resource for the larger community. We charge a small amount. It pays for expense of the building.
I think the energy issue is important. Our homes are very energy efficient. They are clustered and very easy to conserve heat. They have the right solar oreintation. We don’t have big lawns and we have a lot of planting that is edible. We have drip irrigation so we use very little water. We have try to recycle and compost everything we possibly can. I think we have up to five recycling bins, three trash bins, and a compost system. We are making our one little acre better each year as opposed to slowly degrading it.
Harriett Stobel: In Hearthstone we do a lot of the same things that your community does in terms of sharing. We have people from outside Hearthstone who walk through it all of the time. We also let various groups use the common house. Outside HOAs use it for their meetings since they don’t have a building to meet in. The first year we lived there I was part of a book club with some Highland Garden Village residents. Even though we met in the middle of week and had to go to work the next day, we lingered late to 10 pm or 11 pm chatting because especially those of us who didn’t live in cohousing didn’t have many occasions for that kind of gathering.
Henry Kroll: I think that living in a cohousing community that is located within a larger new urbanist neighborhood is itself environmental education. For instance, in our coffee house, Spruce Confections, all the napkins are recycled. Our community, Silver Sage, has 16 units with 22 adults. One of those 22 will always know something that you don’t such as, xeriscaping, heating, electrical usage, or waste disposal. We learn by living there. I would never be recycling my compost in apartment houses in San Francisco. It all went down the shoot. The recyclists came in the middle of the night with a pickup truck and sorted out the garbage and gleamed what they could out of that. It’s different here. Let’s say someone likes to have a worm farm. All I have to do is turn over my garbage to her and it’s added to the compost.
Aaron Brocket: Holiday Neighborhood and Wild Sage support each other socially. Wild Sage works as a catalyst and brings people together within the larger neighborhood. We have a city park in the neighborhood but there were no city funds to build it. The city was planning to do something about it within 10 to 15 years. A group of us in the neighborhood advocated getting that built and eventually succeeded and now we have a functioning neighborhood park. A lot of good people were involved in that. It happened because of an already organized community focus group within Wild Sage. It produced a significant social benefit to everybody. Resource sharing is another example. Wild Sage needed a very tall, expensive ladder, and the Holiday Ndighborhood’s HOA needed a very tall expensive ladder. We bought one together, so instead of having two we have only one. There are a lot of ways that the neighborhood and Wild Sage support each other.
Jim Leach: This happens in a very organic way. Sharing helps people to be more proactive. In a community you have people passionate about different things, whether it’s a worm farm or car share. It is so hard when you are the only one. But if you are connected with other people your life gets a lot richer. That is the community experience. Our mainstream culture makes us believe that we are going to be happier if we buy more stuff. If you want happiness, you have to actually get up and talk to somebody. Sometimes it is awkward and challenging. But when you connect and share, a tremendous value is generated within the community.
Tony Chacon: I work for the City of Westminster as a revitalization coordinator. What draws the interest in cohousing in a particular neighborhood? I am seeing a panel here – three from Boulder, one from Highland Garden Village in Denver. In Westminster, we are actually working with Chuck Perry on a possible redevelopment on an old school site. These are all highly desirable locations. My observation is that cohousing projects tend to go to the high market areas at desirable locations. You have all mentioned walkability – coffee shops down the street, restaurants, etc. I know that with Highland Garden Village (I was actually a planner working on that project when it first started) some of those amenities weren’t necessarily there. So, what draws people to want to be in a community? For example, the south part of Westminster is old, unique and mature but doesn’t have some of the elements that sometimes some of these communities seem to be looking for. They may come later as a result, but I’m just curious as to how that interplays.
Jim Leach: I think the key is trying to attract the people who are going to live there. Cohousers are pretty visionary – they can see if something is going to change or not. They are picky – they are the cultural creatives. Finding the sites is not the challenge anymore. The most progressive place in the country has been the San Francisco Bay area especially the East Bay. All of the projects have gone into marginal places and have made a difference. Cohousing, if you can get it to go in an existing area or within a new urbanist area, is a real asset. At some point, communities will start to see that having a community place is worth subsidizing, which is what cohousing is in a sense. In Boulder our communities are all mixed affordable and market rate. The city has the inclusionary zoning. In other words the market rates subsidize the affordable. Somehow we have to figure out how to stimulate people. There are people who are very proactive and will go in and make it happen. They have to feel like it is in their interest and that they can make a difference.
Harriet Stobel: When I was interested, I didn’t care about what the neighborhood had to offer at all. I just wanted cohousing. Cohousing reminded me of the camp I went to as a teenager. I was so happy.
Georgette Vigil: I think Harriet is right. I am a marketer of cohousing. I am with Wonderland Hill Development Company. There are different segments of the population. Some people want cohousing and maybe Boulder is not their place because they can’t afford Boulder or they need to be nearer to their family. I have found that there is a high level of interest in Denver and in the Denver Metro Area. We haven’t done a lot in Denver other than Hearthstone and Highline in Littleton. Depending on what you are looking for, I think you can find like-minded people to start a project, even if it is not in the most desirable place in Westminster. The character and closeness to downtown are assests there.
Kathleen McCormick: I am a CNU member. I live two blocks from here and I was one of the neighbors who supported the Washington Village project because it is exactly what needs to happen on this site. My question is for the folks in Silver Sage. I am curious as to whether some of the adults hate cohousing if they have never been in a communal setting. I would love for my mother to be in a cohousing, but that is what I want for her because I am used to living in a communal situation.
Henry Kroll: That is one of the difficulties we are working through at Silver Sage. My wife and I explored cohousing before we were commited. However, there have been others who have said “this is so beautiful, I love it – How much do I have to pay and where do I sign?” But they did not have the knowledge of cohousing. They hadn’t done the research or experienced it in any way. So, there’s an integration that has to take place. There is no denying that this is a predicament. The pioneers who want to go into urban centers on their own realize they have a mission and a purpose – they are there for a reason. It helps to have people in cohousing who are there for a real reason.
Jim Leach: At Silver Sage, we had two households who lived at Nyland Cohousing at Lafayette that came into Silver Sage. Others didn’t have any cohousing experience. A lot of what you learn working in cohousing is how to build community more efficiently. At times it can be a very awkward process. We have a lot of systems and training that we have developed in time. At each community you learn a little more. I think for seniors and almost anybody, once you get into it, you really like living in a cohousing environment unless you are really turned off by the whole concept.
Zev Paiss: I lived in Nyland for four years. They have 42 households plus the unfinished basements that turned into households. At Nomad we have 11. So scale is a really important factor of it as well as density. Nyland doesn’t work as well as it could because it is too spread out. There are actually sub-neighborhoods there, and depending on where you live you may not see anyone in the other two neighborhoods. When you are planning larger developments or neighborhoods within larger developments, scale and proximity really do matter. By designing the right scale, the right density, and figuring out how common facilities can hook people together, we can really have a strong impact on the way our communities work.
Kerry McDonough: I have learned about cohousing from the City of Boulder’s affordable housing program and I am interested in joining Washington Village. I grew up in cookie-cutter suburbia. Other than living in the dorms, this lifestyle is new to me. You all make it sound really great. I am curious as to some of the challenges you have experienced in cohousing and how you worked through that and whether being in that community made it harder or easier.
Aaron Brocket: I feel like the major challenge in living in cohousing is finding the right relationship for yourself to the community. The occasional flameouts of people who move in and leave after a couple of years are because they either engaged more than what was comfortable for them, or they stayed too far away. The relationship that works for each person is different. Cohousing allows for you to have a very wide range of quantities of privacy versus quantities of community. I have found that the level varies for you individually. I feel like the most important skill is knowing what level you need at any given time – engaging fully when it is really important to you or staying away when it is not.
Harriet Stobel: We have had lots of issues that seemed unresolvable but because Jim was our developer and gave us all kinds of workshops during the whole design and construction process – on consensus building, on facilitating communications – it made all the difference in the world. I can’t imagine trying to operate without that skill.
Zev Paiss: I used to give workshops to groups around the country that were thinking about starting cohousing. Now I just live in it. What I tell people is that cohousing really is the longest, most expensive personal growth workshop you will ever take.
David Scott: I am a realtor with Colorado Landmark here in Boulder. Jim, having watched your process here in Washington Village, I have been astounded that you have experienced a high level of neighborhood resistance. My sense is that the resistance has come because people don’t really understand what you are doing.
Jim Leach: I don’t think the resistance is for the cohousing concept. The neighbors here were set on this school — this property was public property. They didn’t like what the school district and city were doing. We got caught in the middle. We thought we could be the great saviors. I don’t think we would have gotten anywhere at all if we weren’t doing cohousing.
Harriet Stobel: Back when Highlands Garden Village was just an idea of what to do with the land what it used to be Elitch Gardens, the old amusement park, the neighbors were very concerned. When it was suggested to them that there might be cohousing, they weren’t really open to it. I guess they were taken on tours to Nyland and Highline so they could see what cohousing was and they agreed. Throughout that design process, there were meetings with the neighbors, the architects and developers.
Mark Cittone: I am a city planner. My question is about scale and the types of relationships, I looked at renting one of 34 units in a Fort Collins cohousing development. One of my hesitations is that with just 11 units it is such a small number of people. I think maybe I’d be more comfortable with a really good neighborhood versus cohousing. I noticed the projects range from 11 to 40 units. What is the upper limit? What’s the right scale?
Jim Leach: Some defined the range as 25-35 units. I think it depends. The number of units is important for the site plan. But the community itself is an organic, living thing. Different communities have different degrees of health. People come in and out of the community.
Tony Chacone: I am also a city planner. I think there are some lessons learned from cohousing and whether it’s formalized or not. It is like going back to the old days when the grange was the center of activity where everyone would congregate there. It was very organic – you could find people grouped together based on what their interests were.
Jim Leach: To create the kind of community we had in the past you need to have some structure, some organization. One of the reasons I think Silver Sage is working so well is that we have to run that place. If we had someone else doing it for us, we would lose half of our members. There has to be a purpose. For instance in Silver Sage we have decided to have a business meeting once a month, and a social once a month. People need that kind of purpose and connection.
Cheney Ferguson: I think education of the public on these concepts is important. I sort of wish it wasn’t given a name ‘cohousing.’ You wonder why people think of it as a commune, but that’s because commune was given a name. It is just another community, cohousers live in a different way. I think community is a better word to use.
Georgette Vigil: I agree with you. Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durett, who brought the concept from Denmark, wanted to name it something and they just called it cohousing. I have had mentioned this to Katie too. We should have called it something else because of exactly what you’ve just said. There is a disconnect between what the name says__ and what cohousing really is.
Ronnie Pelusio: Looks like we have no more questions. Thank you all for coming. Thank you for the panel. We hope to see you at the next event.