Creating Sustainability through Sharing Space

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Today's Boston Globe carried a front page story about cohousing, a word I suspect very few people know or understand. Cohousing developments are somewhere between a kibbutz and a condominium. The units are owned by the inhabitants with expanded common facilities owned in common. These development are also called intentional communities because the residents make a conscious choice to join a community-oriented living place. The attraction to many is the extended family they become part of. Neighbors step in when someone becomes ill and cannot do simple tasks like walking pets. They may provide baby sitting. The group can buy groceries in bulk to save money.

Started in Denmark in the early 1970's, the idea is spreading through Northern Europe and now in the US. The UK cohousing network describes a typical community:

  • They are set up and run by their members for mutual benefit.
  • Members are consciously committed to living as a community.
  • Developments are designed to encourage social contact and a sense of neighborhood among members.
  • Common space facilitates shared activities like community meals and other amenities like laundries, heating systems, guest rooms, transport, etc may be shared.

Cohousing is built around values essential to sustainability as flourishing. The Globe quotes Joani Blank: “For me, the biggest draw is what I call social sustainability.’’ Blank, 72, grew up in Belmont, MA and lives in a cohousing development in Oakland, CA. Those who choose co-housing are not the drop-out utopians of the 60's and 70's who saw communes as an escape from the system. They are attracted by something positive beyond simply finding a roof over their heads. The website for the US Cohousing Association says:

Cohousing residents generally aspire to “improve the world, one neighborhood at a time.” This desire to make a difference often becomes a stated mission, as the websites of many communities demonstrate. For example, at Sunward Cohousing near Ann Arbor, MI, the goal is to create a place “where lives are simplified, the earth is respected, diversity is welcomed, children play together in safety, and living in community with neighbors comes naturally.” At Winslow Cohousing near Seattle, the aim is to have “a minimal impact on the earth and create a place in which all residents are equally valued as part of the community.” At EcoVillage at Ithaca, NY, the site of two adjoining cohousing neighborhoods, the goal is “to explore and model innovative approaches to ecological and social sustainability.”

The importance to sustainability is through the strengthening of cultural values that shape behavior and restore the sense of Being. Communities like these raise the place of caring for others relative to the narcissistic values in the mainstream of US culture. The need for materialistic consumption can be satisfied by relational transactions instead. Speaking practically, this form of providing housing and other social services exemplifies the arguments made by scholars and advocates working under the rubric of sustainable consumption for localization and small-scale alternative forms of economic infrastructure. For more on the new economics of sustainable consumption, follow this link to a book review I did recently.

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