Community under Construction 

The Triumphs and Trials of the cohousing movement

When Katie McCamant and Chuck Durrett literally wrote the book on cohousing, they weren't trying to start a revolution. "It was just the way we wanted to live," says McCamant with a modest, almost incredulous, laugh. "It was an idea that made sense to us personally." But, now, ten years after the first American cohousing community opened its doors, McCamant and Durrett's landmark book has set the standard for over 55 village-like developments across the country. Last month, the movement came home to the East Bay for its anniversary conference, an event that attracted not only three hundred participants but a considerable buzz.

You might say that cohousing is the talk of the town, but cohousers would quibble with the phrase (the whole problem is there are no longer any towns, they say, just impersonal cities and suburbs). "What would it take to have ten percent of housing starts each year be cohousing?" Utne Reader founder Eric Utne challenged conference participants at the start of the weekend's events. Utne's goal may be exaggerated, but if in the next ten years you're in the market to buy a home -- especially if you want to live in the East Bay, where what Durrett calls a critical mass of "critical thinkers" has led to the highest concentration of cohousing anywhere in the states -- you're likely to find yourself thinking about cohousing.

When it included the word "cohousing" in its 2000 edition -- for the movement, a sure sign of having arrived -- the American Heritage Dictionary defined it as "a living arrangement that combines private living quarters with common dining and activity areas in a community whose residents share in tasks such as childcare." But what you see when you walk into a cohousing community may vary from place to place -- even within Oakland. At downtown's Swan's Market Cohousing, there are too few families with children to make sharing childcare a community activity; at Temescal Cohousing, space is too tight in the current common house for any activity areas to speak of, while just a few blocks over at Temescal Creek Cohousing, the common house has yet to be built. "Nobody owns the legal trademark on the term 'cohousing,'" McCamant says. "But we have wanted to make it a clear definition -- and some of the groups have been very protective of it."

While the reality of their situations may differ, most cohousers share a common vision. They are striving for a lifestyle that strikes a balance between a den-like rental home shared by a dozen housemates, and a private single-family residence set on a trimmed yard with a remote-control garage door: none of the invasion of privacy and bickering over dirty countertops of the first; none of the isolation and cold shoulders of the second. "There's a spectrum," says McCamant. "On the one hand you have the single-family-house neighborhood behind fences, and on the other hand you have some of the most radical communities with shared income, shared -- whatever! Cohousing is in that spectrum, so it's not just another name for community; it's a specific type of community, and if that term is to have any meaning, it needs to be clearly defined. We have six points which seem to represent the general consensus of the cohousing world: resident participation in design; neighborhood design that encourages community; common facilities that supplement private homes; resident management; nonhierarchical decision-making; and no shared community economy. That is the definition of cohousing; if you don't have those, you may be a community -- you may be a very lovely community -- but it's not a cohousing community."If anyone is in a position to define cohousing, the husband-and-wife team of Durrett and McCamant are. After studying pioneering cohousing communities in Denmark in the early '80s, the couple actively imported the concept to the US by giving slide shows, organizing interested potential residents, and writing the definitive book. They are, as one cohouser puts it, "the rock stars" of the cohousing world, and they deserve it. "There were a lot of times it felt like we were jumping off a cliff," says McCamant, an energetic but unassuming woman with a warm smile and hands that rarely stop to rest as she talks. She and Durrett, who complements his wife's enthusiasm with his more laid-back and ironic style, first met in Denmark, where they were both studying while enrolled in architecture programs at California schools.

"It was during that year that we first came across cohousing," McCamant explains. "I was a little more naive at the time. I assumed if I was finding out about this then surely other people must know about it. But I came back to UC Berkeley after that and realized that nobody knew about it: There was nothing written in English at the time. It was a grassroots movement, so it hadn't really gotten out of Denmark at all."

The two came back with three slides of the watershed cohousing development Trusdeslund and, as McCamant puts it, "just enough information to sort of get ourselves into trouble." The idea represented an attractive architectural model -- but it also appealed to the couple on a personal level. Like many cohousers, McCamant regretted the passing of the kind of neighborhood she grew up in. "It was a very typical American life at that time," she says. "It was a street where everybody knew each other, and there was a real sense of community there. As a kid, you came home and just ran loose and your mom never knew where you were in the neighborhood because there were packs of kids. You didn't knock on people's doors because you knew them all and went in and out of people's houses. I think I'm quite representative of a whole generation. I've talked to lots of people who grew up that way."

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