The Citizens Handbook

Charles Dobson

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Cohousing is the best way to achieve everyday community.

Most residential development emphasizes privacy; it separates people from one another. Community is something that is occasional, brief, or altogether missing. We have become inured to this kind of development, but not Charles Durrett, a recognized authority on cohousing. While we were driving past houses in Vancouver he said: How sad; all these people leading separate lives, isolated in their own little boxes. Durrett tells the story of first encountering cohousing while studying architecture in Denmark. When he walked to school he would pass a residential complex that was completely different everything else on the street. One day he stopped and asked why people always seemed to be outside talking to one another.

A typical cohousing project is put together by the people who will eventually live there. Most are 15 to 30 (max) households in size. Ownership is typically strata with a common house as part of the project. The common house typically includes a community kitchen and dining room where a rotation of a few people prepares dinner for everyone a number of times a week. Some projects include interior covered streets, which provide play areas for children. Car parking is usually pushed to the exterior of the site, which makes cohousing projects more compact and more pedestrian oriented. Cohousing is especially good for young families allowing kids to play with one another, and child minding to be shared by a few adults. And it is especially good for seniors who often suffer from loneliness, and for seniors who may need occasional assistance from their neighbours.

Putting together a typical cohousing project can be a long process. But the time-in-contact creates enduring relationships that will benefit everyone later on. Beginning a project usually requires a core group (which can be one person) that brings together a larger group to discuss the idea of cohousing, books about cohousing, and the possibility of building a cohousing project. Getting a project off the ground requires at least 20 (but less than 50) actively participating people with a genuine interest in leading lives enriched by community. It also requires bringing in a developer or consultant with experience in cohousing.

To make the project happen the group needs to find an actual site. This means working with a realtor to find a property with development possibilities in the right location with the right local amenities, and then approaching the owner with an offer. Most groups generate a list of criteria the usually boils down to: walkable, near schools; near public transit; near some commercial; minimum 2 acres; and not too steep. The group should generally agree on site criteria, but finding a site that meets everyone’s list of criteria will be slim. Eventually the group will have to consider the trade-off triangle: Low Cost vs Free Of Challenges vs Desirability of Location.

Eventually those who are serious about cohousing will have to commit to purchasing the land and building the project. Often people will drop out at this point, but others will join as the project gets rolling.

Anyone interested in genuine community should visit a cohousing project. For a list of projects in Canada see the Canada Cohousing Network, in the US see The Cohousing Association of the United States.

For more information on cohousing see the books Creating Cohousing Building Sustainable Communities By Kathryn McCamant, and Charles Durrett, The Senior Cohousing Handbook: A Community Approach To Independent Living by Charles Durrett. Also listen to the CBC audio program on cohousing. On YouTube, Margaret Critchlow, a retired professor of social anthropology, talks about putting together the Harbourside seniors cohousing project, near Victoria BC.

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The Troublemaker's Teaparty is a print version of The Citizen's Handbook published in 2003. It contains all of The Handbook plus additional material on preventing grassroots rot, strategic action, direct action and media advocacy. You can get a copy of The Teaparty from bookstores, Amazon or New Society Publishers.