Where my mother grew up, the 42 children would play together outside for hours, and all the neighbours would look out for them. Although such traditional neighbourhoods are now rare, a new community that is likely to have many similar elements will welcome my family when we move there in the summer - we recently joined Belfast Cohousing & Eco-village (BC&E) on Maine’s mid-coast.
Cohousing is a collaborative venture, where residents intentionally and actively participate in the design and operation of their own neighborhood. BC&E is a 36-unit community under construction that will include a ‘common-house’ (of approximately 4,000 square feet) with a large dining room, commercial kitchen, laundry room, guest bedrooms, and playroom. It is located on a 42 acre plot a couple of miles from downtown Belfast, a town of 6,700 with a harbour, library, YMCA, and Montessori school.
Although numerous aspects of the community are very appealing to us, my husband and I made the decision largely because of the lifestyle it makes available to our two young children. We want them to live in a rural area where they can play outside safely and explore natural places, and where I don’t have to drive long distances for play dates or activities. My husband grew up in a rural Bulgarian village and many aspects of his childhood embodied what we are seeking for our children.
The BC&E community design includes clustered homes with parking on the periphery, a shared tool shed, community flower and vegetable gardens, open space with walking trails, and shared dinners in the common house. This encourages people to spend time outside and interact spontaneously. The layout is very different from most new neighborhoods where houses have attached garages and private gardens, so that many people have little or no contact with neighbours.
Before joining BC&E and purchasing one of the few remaining homes, we spoke with other families living in cohousing to learn about their experiences. The feedback I heard was largely very positive.
“Living in cohousing is amazing for children,” explains Forrest Espinoza, a mother of two living at Troy Gardens, an established cohousing community in Madison, Wisconsin. “My kids enjoy playing with children of all ages. They play outside so much more. Before we moved here, I had a hard time getting them to go outside because there weren’t other kids outside. The first couple years we lived here, I had trouble getting them to come inside!”
With parking on the periphery and all members of the community knowing each other, cohousing creates a safe environment for children to play and can allow them greater freedom. “I have the fantasy about letting our kids out the back door and letting them run around the neighborhood without having to worry about them,” says Allison Piper, a member of BC&E and an expectant mother. “When I drive across America, I don’t see kids playing outside anywhere except maybe a playground.”
Despite the benefits, there can be drawbacks to the community layout. “Things are intentionally placed so people walk around and run into each other more,” says Dan Capwell, a member of BC&E and a father of one. “I’ve carried things farther than I’ve needed to and been annoyed by that, but I’ve also run into people and made plans or exchanged information. I feel the system working. I feel the cost and I see the benefit, but I think it’s worth it.” He likes the fact that his son has playmates of all ages, adding “Many kids know their parents, perhaps their grandparents and fifty or 100 other kids their age. Kids that live in cohousing know many middle-aged people and older kids. It provides them with a more well-rounded life experience to draw from.”
I anticipate that my husband and I will find living in a community enriching, enjoyable, and perhaps a little easier at times. Many cohousing families swap childcare, donate used clothes and toys to each other, and share parenting advice. Many members of BC&E have grown children and a wealth of experiences to share with us novices. Having community support, particularly in difficult times is something that cohousing members have really appreciated.
“I was having a homebirth and was in labour on moving day,” says Susan Capwell, Dan’s wife. “We had everything packed and organised. I was in the back of our old apartment in labour when thirty people showed up, mostly from cohousing. They moved everything out of our apartment in less than an hour, except for our bedroom where I was labouring.” In addition, a community member organised a meal train, so Susan and Dan didn’t have to cook for a month after the birth.
Although living in cohousing seems like a good fit for my family, we’re diligent about having realistic expectations. “While moving here didn’t instantly give us twenty new grandmas and grandpas or aunts and uncles, cohousing provides many opportunities for shared experiences, and our connections deepen over time,” says Stacy Lewis, who lives in a Seattle cohousing community with her husband and two sons. “It’s true that we are closer with some folks than others, yet by the time they are grown, my children will have known and been known by many warm-hearted folks.”
Despite numerous benefits to living in cohousing, it can also present challenges. Group decision-making is more time consuming and can seem especially difficult for parents of young children. Different parenting styles, such as exposure to violent media or ways of responding to disagreements among children can be glaring in a community setting.
“I’ve been thinking about how my children have to share a yard,” says Espinoza. “If you were in a typical community, you would invite other children to come into your yard. If your children weren’t getting along, you wouldn’t invite those kids to come over and play. In a cohousing community, they have to work things out. It was frustrating in the beginning, but our whole family has experienced incredible growth.”
As my family prepares to move, I find myself very excited to live in a home with a passive solar design, surrounded by dozens of interesting and talented people. I’m curious how living in a cohousing community will shape our lives and I’m excited to give my children the opportunity to step outside our home to wander through meadows, interact with community members, and still be within biking distance of town. It will be a new experience for all of us.
“Humans are designed to live in communities, and it is much healthier to live that way,” says my husband. “It is a human desire to share.”
Sarah Lozanova is a freelance writer. her work can be viwed here http://www.SarahLozanova.com