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Synthesis/Regeneration 50   (Fall 2009)

A Strategy for Causing a Sustainable World

Cohousing & Ecovillage Development

by Tom Braford

At the 2008 Prairie Festival in Salina, Kansas, the director of the Land Institute, Wes Jackson, talked about the Institute's plan to perennialize grain and legume crops and his call for a 50-year Farm Bill as a way to implement that plan. He said that if something is needed and possible, it is not grandiose.

Using Wes's definition as a guide, I would like to share my perspective on what is needed in terms of a sustainable culture and ecology and the potential of the cohousing and ecovillage movement to fulfill those needs. The need is well documented. Both social structures and ecological systems have become dangerously fragmented.

On the social side, half of the children in the US are now born out of wedlock and half of all marriages end in divorce. Extended families and communities are fragmented as well, with the average American moving every five years. Cities like LA bury thousands of their deceased citizens every year in mass paupers' graves because they are unable to discover any trace of family or community at all when they die, even though they have a full-time employee who sifts through their possessions and paperwork and follows up on any clues about connections. In other countries, especially in large cities, similar trends are evident, and half of humanity now lives in cities.

...you need at least 15 households to have sustained leadership and enough critical mass to get community work done .

On the ecological side, we are participating in the sixth great extinction. Species are disappearing now at a rate not seen since the passing of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago, and we are on a trajectory to lose half of our diversity in life forms by the end of this century, including half of all mammals.

We desperately need a synthesis and regeneration in the kind of authentic community that will fill the social void left by the demise of extended family and tight knit neighborhoods, and we need it as much for other life forms as for ourselves, because the air, soil, water and climate now need many eyes focused on them, just as we all need many eyes on the commons looking out for us.

You wouldn't want to burn wood for heat, especially in a city, because of all the particulate matter and uncombusted hydrocarbons that wood fires normally put into the air. But did you know that you can turn that same wood or other cellulose waste into charcoal while producing heat from all those volatile gasses that go up the flue in your fireplace without adding any particulate matter? And it's not a hi-tech proposition. Every ecovillage could incorporate charcoal production into cellulose waste disposal & heating systems for the common house for a few hundred dollars.
  • Methane digesters are another old technology that becomes cost and labor effective at the scale of an ecovillage. Methane digestion can capture most of the nutrients and energy that normally go down the drain while treating and sanitizing polluted water by purely microbial means. And even an urban ecovillage like Culver Way in St. Louis with a two acre footprint and a density of 43 units per acre should be able to produce an excess of food by recycling most nutrients brought to the site and harnessing the sunlight that falls on the site through photosynthesis.
  • This, of course, requires the intense farming of rooftops, sidewalls and courtyards in combination with year round Permaculture gardening, aquaculture, growing mushrooms, small livestock production, etc.
  • Ecovillage development will also speed the acceptance and cost effectiveness of heat and energy recovery systems; new, more ecological building systems like structural concrete insulated panels (SCIPs); and solar, wind geothermal and other promising technologies by being able to install these systems ahead of the demand curve because of greater awareness and economies of scale, thus shortening the timeframe when these technologies become broadly available.

Cohousing is a structure for fulfillment of authentic community, and the ecovillage movement, which is now adopting cohousing as the sustainable neighborhood-scale building block in multi-neighborhood ecovillages, could become a structure for fulfillment of ecologically sustainable cities if we were to adopt this as a pattern of social, political and spiritual transformation.

What I mean by structure for fulfillment for authentic community is that a set of structures, evolved in the early days of the cohousing movement in Denmark, could, if followed faithfully always, result in authentic community. These structures include scale for community. The Danes pegged it at 15 to 50 households per cohousing neighborhood with the idea being that you need at least 15 households to have sustained leadership and enough critical mass to get community work done without burning some people out if everyone isn't participating fully all the time. It is also thought that 50 households is the upper limit since this is the maximum number of people that can effectively get to know each other and work together without the neighborhood becoming institutionalized. The American cohousing movement, which now boasts 115 communities up and running and as many in various stages of planning and development, includes communities with as few as eleven homes and as many as 60, but it is generally agreed that 25 to 35 is ideal with the caveat that urban communities can be somewhat larger because they are likely to include more singles.

Affordable Cohousing

Both a strength and a weakness of the cohousing movement is its middle-class roots. The first communities in Denmark were actually referred to as "dentists' communes" because of the high percentage of young professionals who were drawn to this way of life. As a result, the movement has received mainstream acceptance in Denmark and much of Western Europe, with banks competing to finance what they see as highly stable developments and even conservative governments embracing the movement.

Cohousing communities in the US have received most of HUD's innovations in home ownership awards over the last 10 years, plus many other accolades, especially for green features. But the movement has failed so far to cross over into the affordable housing sector in a big way like it has in Europe.

Individual cohousing communities have had some success in attracting subsidies both from within their more affluent memberships and from government and philanthropic organizations to expand affordability of some units to a wider spectrum of incomes.

Most low to moderate-income housing in the US is rental housing supported by low-income tax credit programs, however, so as ecovillages containing multiple cohousing communities are developed, an opportunity may be opening up both to lower costs and to enhance common features available to everyone through economies of scale, as well as to branch out into the exceedingly difficult area of community-based mixed-income rental development.

There is a movement within the American affordable housing movement called Mutual Housing. However, while it includes many of the structures for fulfillment of authentic community that I mentioned at the outset, it falls far short in others.

Mutual Housing is developed by community-based nonprofit Mutual Housing Associations. The first group of tenants is carefully screened to identify responsible, community oriented individuals. Tenants receive many of the opportunities associated with cohousing ownership. They participate in planning and design; they have an opportunity to lower costs by doing some of the management and maintenance themselves; a portion of their rental payments goes to build equity and they can pass on their leases to their heirs. They also have the opportunity to serve in one of the positions reserved for tenants either on the Mutual Housing board of directors or on the new tenant selection committee.

Where the analogy to cohousing breaks down is that Mutual Housing projects don't usually include common facilities and are not specifically designed to encourage social interaction on the one hand and preserve privacy on the other the way cohousing is. Mutual Housing is often even scattered over a wide area and is usually 100% low-to-moderate-income rental housing.

These are all technical difficulties, however, that could be addressed by including members of adjacent cohousing neighborhoods in an ecovillage on the Mutual Housing Association board to encourage the association to build contiguous communities that adhere to functional cohousing design, including adequate common facilities and training in consensus decision making and non-violent conflict resolution.

It would also be helpful if these communities could be developed as mixed income, rather than 100% low-to-moderate income. This is especially important in preserving the continuity of the community because you could run into a situation with low-income tax credit guidelines where a renter might be forced to move if his or her income rises too much or if there are no market rate units available within the community. Another thing that would be beneficial would be if renters could build enough equity to be able to assume mortgages at a deep discount after 15 years, when subsides typically run out. This structure would help preserve the continuity of the community as well.

Another structure is design for community. Homes face each other across common courtyards and pedestrian walkways. Parking is kept to the periphery or basements so the automobile doesn't interfere with social interaction. And a common house and if possible some kind of common green are centrally located. This is not public space, although the community often opens this space to the larger community for specific events and purposes. It is also not private space, but again the community as a whole may allow some private use by members and occasionally non members on specific occasions. The acid test of social accountability devised by the American cohousing movement is whether or not you would be willing to let your three-year-old go to the common house unaccompanied. Unfortunately, most public space is no longer accountable in this way.

The common house, though owned by all, is used by the community members as an extension of their living space. It always includes a kitchen and dining room, and meals together with your neighbors on a regular basis generally serve as the glue that holds community together. Beyond that there are often shared laundry facilities, children's playrooms, classrooms, workshops, music and crafts rooms, exercise facilities, a library, etc. Mailboxes and bulletin boards for intracommunity communication are generally located at the entrance to the common house. Private space is generally quite private, including most of the things like kitchens and bathrooms that you would expect in a single-family home and when possible some private outdoor space as well. And there is often intermediate space like porches and entry courts that are semi-private and gathering nodes where a few individuals can meet.

Another structure is community participation in planning and design and in ongoing management. This consists primarily of professionally led design workshops where early members reach consensus on design programs for the site, common areas and private living space, budgets, covenants, bylaws, formal operating agreements and ongoing management and maintenance of both the social and the physical community after establishment.

The acid test...is whether or not you would be willing to let your three-year-old go to the common house unaccompanied.

A final structure is governance for community. All cohousing communities utilize some form of consensus decision making. Most also pay close attention to non-violent conflict resolution. As a practical matter, however, once a degree of trust has been established, committees are often empowered to make decisions in specific areas on behalf of the community so that coming to consensus does not become overly burdensome.

No communities that have faithfully followed these structures in either Denmark or the US have failed.

This is a scientific approach to social community building that works. No communities that have faithfully followed these structures in either Denmark or the US have failed. A prime mistake of both for-profit and nonprofit real estate development professionals, however, who try to shortcut or emulate cohousing, has been to ignore the primacy of social community building, thinking that if they follow design for community principles and "just build it, they will come." But it doesn't work that way. It can't, if you want authentic community, which is why calling what you are building a sustainable neighborhood or a New Urbanist community or a conservation community or a green community or what have you is not enough. There is no shortcut to the establishment of authentic sustainable communities and ultimately a sustainable culture. You have to get in there and work out all those messy social issues along with the political, economic and spiritual issues. And if we want a sustainable ecology, we must develop a sustainable culture because you can't have one without the other. There are just too many of us and our impact is so great that we have to learn to cooperate with each other if we are to have half a chance as a species of living in harmony with nature.

Cohousing works socially because it is an accountable way to live in cooperation with your neighbor. Another way to say it is that there are a lot of eyes on the commons looking out for each other.

Ecovillage works ecologically because it is an accountable way to live in harmony with nature. Another way to say it is that there are lots of human eyes on the soil, air and water and the life forms that depend on them, and specifically now on our collective impact on climate.

The ecovillage movement, even though it also has its roots in Denmark beginning at approximately the same time as cohousing, is more loosely defined. Generally, it is said to be full featured, in that it goes beyond cohousing per se and includes some economic activity and elements of agriculture and eco-preservation and/or restoration. So not all cohousing communities at this time identify as ecovillages and not all ecovillages are made up of cohousing neighborhoods, but there is a trend to merge the two movements and it is this trend that I find most promising.

Tom (braford@sbcglobal.net), a founder of St. Louis' Culver Way Ecovillage and the Eco City USA project, is creating St. Louis' Climate Leaders Campaign for the State of the World Forum. This paper is based on remarks the author made at the "Surviving Climate Change: Producing Less and Enjoying it More" roundtable, June 2008, St. Louis. See http://www.CulverWayCohousing.com, http://www.ecocityusa.org, and http://www.worldforum.org.

[26 oct 09]

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