Community for the health of it

Updated: Oct 12, 2019

On May 27th, in high anticipation, my husband Jim and I flew to Vancouver, partially to visit family there, but also to provide a jumping off point for attending the American Cohousing Association's National Conference in Portland, Oregon from May 30 - June 1st. Our daughter and her husband kindly drove us south through Seattle, sparing us the challenge of interstate traffic, and right to the door of our hotel, just a hop, skip, and jump from the main conference venue. Excited about all the opportunities awaiting us at the biggest cohousing conference ever held in North America, we had signed up for two extra days of Intensive Sessions on May 28th and 29th as well as the two days of regular sessions. We are very glad we did!

This unforgettable event brought together 565 'cohousers' and 'cohouser wannabees' from eight countries, all gathered in a beautiful city in the midst of celebrating its spectacular annual Flower Festival. Wherever we turned, we were met with explosions of colourful blooms which had us wondering why back home, even the early tulips were barely poking through the ground!

What a schedule! Over 90 cohousing experts were lined up to provide 125 learning opportunities, from lectures and workshops to panel discusssions and tours. Professionals, members of forming and developing communities, and others who have been living their cohousing dream for as long as 25 years, all came together to share, learn, and explore a concept which the world needs now, more than ever. Presentations were divided into three tracks, for new and forming communities, building and developing communities, and mature communities already living in cohousing.

Prairie Rivers is defined as a forming community. Jim, always an architect wannabee, chose to attend two design sessions on Day 1, each directed by an experienced cohousing architect. One session involved “playing” with wooden blocks, as the participants took into consideration all the many variables which can affect the location of the common house, private homes, and parking, and created a site design. The second workshop focused on the design of the common house itself, and brought attention to the details which make a measurable difference in how many hours that community hub is actually used by the residents. Each participant was asked to write down on post-it notes five activities they would like to accommodate in the common house. The notes were stuck to the wall and grouped into similar categories. Based on these preferences, the architect would cater to the wishes of the group. It is definitely not guesswork. Chuck Durrett, the guru of cohousing, measures the success of his common house designs by counting the person hours of use the building gets in a typical week.

Participants using wooden blocks to plan a community.

On Day 1, I attended trainer Bill Aal session on Power Dynamics in cohousing. Communities can learn to be positive and productive while recognizing that there will always be conflicts among members. Building a vision together, defining the group's values, and having processes in place to deal with conflict, all of these help create a conflict resolution safety net. Group members need to understand that power is the ability to influence events, and that elements of power can be as varied as gender, age, founders vs newcomers, extroverts vs introverts, and, no surprise, money. Honouring the B'hai principal of “no gossip” can help prevent that nasty habit from poisoning a whole community. We need to get to know each other well enough to trust each other. By forming small groups and discussing unexpected questions such as, “How did the people who raised you get to the place where you were raised?”, we shared about the real stories which affect our lives and thus our communities. Bill condensed what is usually a two day workshop into half a day and succeeded in offering practical solutions and ways of dealing with difficult situations. Fascinating insights!

That afternoon, I attended a session entitled “Three Aspects of a Healthy, Thriving Community” presented by Diana Leafe Christenson, an author and facilitator who has worked with communities all over the world. Diana defined consensus as a decision-making model and sociocracy as a governance model. Groups evolve into giving more authority to committees and circles as trust develops. The glue which holds a community together is created by the good will and gratitude of a group of people who share enjoyable activities. Conflict can affect the group's cohesion and must be offset by the pleasures of activities which build trust and harmony, like shared meals, games, house concerts, walks, plant exchanges, and solstice celebrations. Again, I can only touch on the wisdom she imparted.

One thing that both Bill and Diana agreed on was the need for cohousing groups to prioritize training in communication and decision-making. These are as important as the role of the architects and as the physical structures in creating a healthy, thriving, community. Training is an essential budget line that must not be overlooked.

“Cohousing - for the Health of It” was the conference theme. Millennials, the most isolated and most environmentally-inclined generation, are struggling with a difficult housing market in many cities. In some places, cohousing is proving to be a rewarding and affordable housing choice for first-time home buyers as well as for young professionals who've just moved to town. Young families, struggling with the challenges of jobs, raising children, and home maintenance often live miles from close family members. Connecting within a community of others in similar situations can lighten the load by providing friendship and support as well as perspective. The rapidly approaching “grey tsunami” in both Canada and the US can benefit from the expanded social connections in cohousing and thrive in the stimulating environment of self-managed communities, where life experience is valued and active living is encouraged. The vehicle for social change offered by cohousing can set an example for a standard of living that will improve the health of both ourselves and our planet.

How do we explain the concept which is cohousing? The talented and articulate Courtney Martin, author of “The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream” warmed our hearts and challenged us to share with others about the joy of living in community. She drew from her personal experience of living in Temescal Commons with her husband and two young daughters. In her keynote address, she spoke of the three forms of sacred abundance that you find in community, and shared three provocations. You can listen to her keynote address, which challenges the cohousing movement to grow and share the benefits of community while also seeking ways to make cohousing more affordable and more inclusive.

The “how to” of cohousing provided subject matter for many of the presentations: how to share your group's story, how to market your vision, the nuts and bolts of site and common house design, and how to deal with conflict within your group. Best practice perspectives were offered by experts in their fields.

For inspiration, site tours were offered by a variety of cohousing communites. From rural communities built on acres of farmland, to compact or repurposed city apartment buildings, Portland had them all.

“Information overload” (in a good way!) was an expression we and others used after even one day of the conference experience. In an effort to prevent you from feeling the same, I will share more about the sessions we attended, the inspirational communities we visited, and the always friendly people that we met in future blog posts.

Until then, consider attending the next Canadian Cohousing Conference, in beautiful Vancouver, May 9-10, 2020. Jim and I will be there, guaranteed. Consider attending to learn more about cohousing.

To be continued.

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