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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Come Live With Me?

Air Date: Week of

Reporter Dan Grossman thought he might like to live in an affordable housing community and set out to explore the world of "co-housing." Co-Housing is a blend of 1960's commune-living idealism with 1990's condo realism. Built in to this process from the start is the idea of agreed sharing in a planned community of neighbors. What did Dan decide?


CURWOOD: The best, and sometimes the worst feature of living in a small town or close-knit community are neighbors. In days gone by, the folks next door or down the block were more likely to be friends, if not family. Now suburbanites can go for days without even glimpsing the people next door, and urbanites dwell alongside strangers. People in America move so much today that many of us have good friends everywhere except next door. To counter this trend, some folks are building intentional neighborhoods they call co-housing. Dan Grossman has been searching for a new place to live and looked into the co-housing option.

GROSSMAN: Last spring my wife and I were looking for a house, and a friend told me about an unusual development she was helping to build in a Boston suburb. Individual homes there, she said, would be owned privately, but the land around them would be owned jointly. Community life would revolve around a common house, where residents could cook and eat together. The concept is known as co-housing. It sounded to me like a blend of 60s idealism and 90s realism, kind of a cross between commune and condo. So I stopped by.

(A motor runs, and a saw buzzes. Lewin-Berlin: "We're standing in the middle of neighborhood 2 right now. The project is built out of, into 4 separate neighborhoods. My neighborhood is neighborhood 4, which is at the top of the hill, and we'll have...")

GROSSMAN: On a gently sloping, grassy hill, rising above a cornfield, a construction team is nailing siding onto what will be Steve Lewin-Berlin's house and raising the roof of another. In a matter of months, two dozen houses will climb this hillside, completing a process Lewin-Berlin and his wife began 5 years ago.

LEWIN-BERLIN: We really wanted to find a place where our kids could grow up outdoors and in more of a neighborhood, more of a community. And we didn't find it. We went to a small town that had great schools, the neighbors are friendly enough. But there's no real neighborhood, there's no real sense of community there.

GROSSMAN: Co-housing, he hopes, can create the community he craves.

LEWIN-BERLIN: And what we're really looking for in co-housing is a neighborhood. To be able to have a control not just of our own home, but as a group to control more space, to cluster the houses so we have lots of open fields for the kids to play in. Where we have our own house, we have our own space, we have our family, but we also have a larger community that we share with people.

GROSSMAN: The idea for co-housing was imported from Denmark, where thousands of people now live in such communities. Here in the US, a dozen co-housing developments have opened in the past 5 years: in Seattle, Santa Fe, and elsewhere.

(Children yelling)

GROSSMAN: At the Pioneer Valley Co-Housing Village in western Massachusetts, 32 pastel-colored homes are connected by a winding gravel walkway like leaves on a vine. Architect Mary Krauss helped design this place and now lives here. She says while the track record for co-housing in general is brief, her own experience shows it works.

KRAUSS: It may sound trite, but just the fact that my neighbor can call me up and say can you pick my daughter up at school. Or the fact that I can walk over to many houses and just, you know, ask to borrow something and vice versa. Just those little interactions create a real sense of connection.

GROSSMAN: Krauss says she was drawn to the co-housing idea by its environmental potential.

KRAUSS: I first got into architecture because of my concern for the environment, and was interested in single family residential architecture. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there are things you can do on a community scale, that you can't do on the scale of one house.

GROSSMAN: Things like build a common house. Members of this development often eat dinners together in an airy building a short stroll from their homes. Many residents leave kids in child care at the common house and put up friends in its' guest rooms. Because so much is shared, Krauss says houses here are relatively small, requiring fewer resources to build and less energy to heat.

KRAUSS: So we've got a main room that's kitchen, living and dining room, with a kitchen just along one wall, a fairly small, compact kitchen. Although it works quite well...

GROSSMAN: Since Pioneer Valley has a community laundry room and kitchen, many members don't have their own washing machines and dishwashers. And, Krauss adds, the close spacing of Pioneer Valley's homes promotes a lifestyle that conserves. For example, the community has organized bulk food purchases, reducing unneeded packaging and the number of grocery trips. At a weekly environmental salon, Krauss and others discuss new ways to use less.

KRAUSS: We've talked about having essentially a pool of cars. So rather than everybody owning their own car, you'd have access to enough, as a group, to enough cars that there'd always be one ready for you.

GROSSMAN: With barely a year of experience, Mary Krauss says it's still too early to say if her community will deliver the environmental payoffs she's predicted. But the effects on the landscape are apparent already. At Pioneer Valley, the 30 or so homes occupy only about 6 acres. Another 17 acres of the community's land was left undeveloped. Stella Tarnay, an editor of Co-Housing Journal, says the pattern preferred by co-housing designers like Krauss clusters homes tightly together, leaving more land open. And Tarnay says some co-housing communities don't disturb any open space at all.

TARNAY: For me, the exciting piece of co-housing is in fact the urban model. What we're hoping to do is take some old warehouses in the area between Cambridge and Somerville, and turn those into co-housing and common space. And to me that makes the most sense of all, because you don't use up resources. And you actually create something more beautiful and more useful out of an area that may have been abandoned.

GROSSMAN: In the end, my wife and I didn't join a co-housing group. But I did realize how much I desire the kind of social connection they're trying to build, and the environmental benefits such interdependence can bring. For Living on Earth, this is Daniel Grossman in Boston.



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