Sustainability in Cohousing

Strong Communities Start with Neighborhoods

Albarracín, a walled city in Spain

Albarracín, a walled city in Spain. Photo by Diego Delso, delso.photo. Wikimedia.

While not necessarily walled cities like Albarracín in Spain, strong communities are purposefully designed based on the purposes of the inhabitants. Cohousing communities are designed to be cooperative, caring, and lasting. Many neighborhoods exist through multiple generations of families and share the same values, but most no matter how old are not neighborly places. Cohousing is often described as “old-fashioned neighborhoods of the future.”

The first communities to be called “cohousing” are just over 30 years old. The largest cluster is around 15-20 years. Many are less than five. Successful cohousing communities uniformly begin with democratic values and are dedicated to using consensus decision-making. In those where consensus decision-making was beginning to show cracks, the adoption of sociocratic consensus decision-making has given it new life. But cohousing communities are also relatively new. What will happen long term? They haven’t had time to degenerate into the top-heavy autocracies as some towns and countries have.

The Dangers to Self-Governance

Democracy is in peril around the world — even in the United States, its largest if not most successful example. If you have any doubts look toward the Donald Trump presidency and read How Democracies Die, the terrifying evidence-based book by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, professors of government at Harvard University. They have studied democracies that have become dictatorships and defined the steps to decline common to all of them.

Donald Trump has all the decision-making and organizational knee-jerk reactions of a dictator. In four years of illegal and unprecedented autocratic decision-making, neither the government nor the society has been able to stop him. Our inability to neutralize him is primarily the result of decades of the weakening of self-governance. We aren’t just weak at the top, we are also weak at the bottom.

For decades the Republican party has been hollowed out at all levels. Its purpose is blurred. Its financial base is dominated by an oligarchy of a largely invisible elite. It’s leaders afraid to speak up or stray from their autocratic leaders.

If the party was stronger in neighborhoods and towns, the top would reflect that. Their leaders would grow out of neighborhoods, understanding and sharing their cultural and ethical values.

Strong Cohousing Communities

Responsible democratic self-governance is fundamental in cohousing from the first beginnings of a group. This is when there is often a person or group of persons who are used to being dominant—it takes courage to start such a venture — and others who are used to avoiding conflict and trusting the leadership. They are followers. A prime task of new communities is to balance leadership with full participation and consensual decision-making. In old communities, it is to maintain and renew that focus as the population and circumstances change.

There are many sources for help with conflict resolution, listening fairly, understanding personality differences, etc. There are very few sources that balance the governance, financial management, facilities development, etc. that is intrinsic to all housing with the caring side of cohousing, the neighborliness. It can be argued that as a nation, we are weaker because we neglected the socio-economic health of the country.  Bruno Bettleheim’s influential book, Love Is Not Enough, stresses the importance of expertise and structure in therapeutic environments. Caring needs strong environmental supports.

Strong Towns

Logo for Strong TownsStrong Towns is an excellent source for developing bricks and mortar structures for caring communities.  Strong Towns is an international movement dedicated to helping communities become financially strong and resilient. Their approach is building sustainable communities at the local level. And nothing is more local than cohousing.

It is an excellent source of guidance on balancing the emotional and physical requirements of a sustainable cohousing community.

The Strong Towns Principles

  • Strong cities, towns, and neighborhoods cannot happen without strong citizens (people who care).
  • Local government is a platform for strong citizens to collaboratively build a prosperous place.
  • Financial solvency is a prerequisite for long term prosperity.
  • Land is the base resource from which community prosperity is built and sustained. It must not be squandered.
  • A transportation system is a means of creating prosperity in a community, not an end unto itself.
  • Job creation and economic growth are the results of a healthy local economy, not substitutes for one.

The Strong Towns Approach:

The practical steps toward applying these principles have been developed out of studying strong towns and strengthening weak towns. All of these can be used in all stages of cohousing:

  • Rely on small, incremental investments (little bets) instead of large, transformative projects
  • Emphasize resiliency of result over the efficiency of execution
  • Design elements that can adapt to feedback
  • Be inspired by bottom-up action (chaotic but smart) and not top-down systems (orderly but dumb)
  • Conduct as much of life as possible on a personal scale
  • Be obsessive about accounting for revenues, expenses, assets, and long term liabilities (do the math)

A cohousing community is a mini-village. It mirrors the larger community. Like most “new” ways of doing things, it’s distinctive characteristics are only unique in their combination. Each element has a reflection in other fields of expertise.

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