05 June 2011

Cohousing Up Close in Colorado

Reposted in full from the Urban Ecology Australia newsletter, May/June 2011

'Cohousing communities exist in northern Europe, Canada, Australia, the UK and elsewhere. There are more than 100 in the US and nearly another hundred being planned. While not officially a cohousing development, Christie Walk follows similar principles and would certainly qualify as one. Recycling, resource sharing, thermal and water efficiency, a strong sense of community, shared spaces and activities, a range ofdwellings, social inclusion, and less emphasis on cars are just some of our common features.

This January I visited two cohousing communities in Colorado. Being midwinter I saw both under a blanket of snow in near freezing temperatures.

Nyland Cohousing is set in farmland a little east of Boulder, and has 135 people (110 adults and 35 kids) in 42 households on a large acreage of former farmland – 42 acres.

The land is partly being revegetated with local grasses, the rest available for organic gardening and farm projects. The houses built in 1992 include duplexes and triplexes and are smaller than average US homes, and the monthly townhouse association fee is lower than normal. Despite the large land available, the homes are grouped close together in lines running eastwest, to maximise southern sun access for heat/light/solar electric power and to make social interaction easy. (A regular developer would surely have placed them all in north-south rows to take in the view of the Rockies!) Cars are kept to the extremities, and ‘pedways’ (pedestrian ways) run between the rows of houses. Handcarts are used to move shopping or large items.

The ‘common house’ (a regular feature of cohousing projects) is a large separate building located among the houses – with a commercial kitchen and meeting rooms which are used for community meals and functions, and are sometimes hired out. It includes a young kids’ playroom, a teens game room, a laundry room, a craft room, a TV and ping pong room, a gym, a mailroom and two guest rooms (for which there’s a small nightly charge).

River Rock Commons is in the heart of Fort Collins, a town with a name for being ‘green’. Like Boulder, it has about 100,000 population and is set against the ‘front range’ of the Rockies but a little further north. River Rock is the second cohousing community there (the first being Grey Rock Commons), and has slightly less houses and residents than Nyland.

Houses, parking and pedways are similarly arranged to Nyland, and while some houses have a small backyard which they may choose to fence, there is no additional land.

To the north, however, River Rock has an elevated view over the adjacent public park and playing fields to trees flanking the Poudre River a few hundred metres away. At River Rock I was invited to see inside two homes, as well as the common house which was very similar in essence to Nyland’s. I also met more residents there, and immediately felt that they would have slotted into Christie Walk seamlessly, and vice versa, as our guiding principles and general arrangements are essentially similar.

As cohousing is so well established in the US, there are plenty of resources on their websites created by residents who have shared their experiences over the years. Topics like planning, financing and building are well discussed, and there’s a lot of information on things like social arrangements, shared work, pets, consensus decision making and dispute resolution.

The River Rock Manual is a good example of how an individual community works in practice. It welcomes new residents in a friendly and positive way, and explains that everyone is expected to participate in the work and life of the community.

Cleaning the Common House, for example, is done by all households on a rotating basis 3 to 4 times a year (except for under 15s and over 80s), though you can opt out and instead pay $20 per time. And everyone is expected to give at least 2 hours on monthly work days six times a year (they don’t have working bees the other 6 months due to weather).

Interestingly, renters who rent an entire unit take on that household’s community work responsibilities. Renters are also encouraged to participate in all activities to get the full River Rock experience.'