Res­i­dents share space, chores and lots of fel­low­ship

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - TRACEE HERBAUGH

When Joanna Van­der Plaats moved with her two young daugh­ters to Grand Rapids, Michi­gan, nearly eight years ago, she wanted to find a friendly and wel­com­ing neigh­bour­hood.

The fam­ily’s move from Kala­ma­zoo, a home they’d al­ways known, was nerve-wrack­ing. They didn’t know a sin­gle per­son in their new city — much less a friend who might watch the kids or come over for din­ner.

As Van­der Plaats, 30, was re­search­ing Grand Rapids, she came across a co-hous­ing de­vel­op­ment, New­berry Place. It was a pedes­trian-friendly neigh­bour­hood with 20 sep­a­rate town­houses that shared some com­mon spa­ces, in­clud­ing a club­house, where there were weekly dinners for res­i­dents.

“Co-hous­ing made it eas­ier to start a new life,” Van­der Plaats said.

Two months af­ter she and her girls moved in, they knew the neigh­bours in all the other 19 houses.

“I knew a lit­tle about each of them,” she said. “I knew their fam­ily dy­nam­ics. It helped me feel like Grand Rapids was home a lot quicker.”

What ex­actly is co-hous­ing? It’s a com­mu­nity-fo­cused liv­ing ar­range­ment, where res­i­dents share space, chores and fel­low­ship. The idea started in Den­mark in the 1960s and has spread across Europe and the U.S.

“It’s about shar­ing re­sources and en­gag­ing in your com­mu­nity,” said Thomas Bar­rie, a pro­fes­sor of ar­chi­tec­ture at North Carolina State Univer­sity and au­thor of the new book “House and Home: Cul­tural Con­texts, On­to­log­i­cal Roles” (Rout­ledge).

Co-hous­ing de­vel­op­ments and starter groups — those who get to­gether to plan a new site — have been grow­ing in Amer­ica, Bar­rie said.

It’s a promis­ing model for those who want to “age in place,” he said.

Older folks can live in­de­pen­dently for longer be­cause there is a steady stream of neigh­bours to check in on them.

Yet co-hous­ing hasn’t reached its full po­ten­tial in the U.S., Bar­rie be­lieves.

“It’s not some­thing that’s been cap­i­tal­ized yet in Amer­ica,” he said, be­cause hous­ing has been de­fined as “your pri­vate realm.”

At New­berry Place, park­ing is to­ward the back and on one edge of the de­vel­op­ment. What you see while walk­ing through the neigh­bour­hood is porches and front doors. It’s built to foster ac­ci­den­tal in­ter­ac­tions be­tween neigh­bours.

This was ap­peal­ing to Dan Miller, 66, a re­tired pro­fes­sor at Calvin Col­lege in Grand Rapids. Miller and his wife wanted to down­size af­ter their chil­dren left home.

“It’s like liv­ing in a big ex­tended fam­ily in a way. You have a re­ally rich sup­port sys­tem,” Miller said.

There are weekly dinners in the club­house, and neigh­bours sign up for a turn to cook.

At some de­vel­op­ments, neigh­bours share yard work or child care du­ties. As with a con­do­minium, res­i­dents pay into an as­so­ci­a­tion fund for com­mon-space up­keep.

But at many co-hous­ing de­vel­op­ments, the im­promptu events are just as im­por­tant as the planned ones.

On Fri­day evenings, neigh­bours at New­berry tend to gather at the com­mon house or out­side on the deck with wine and snacks.

“We’ll com­plain about our week or we’ll share laughs,” Miller said. “It’s not or­ga­nized by any­body but it’s kind of a cus­tom. It’s pleas­ant.”

Neigh­bours also might con­nect over rides to the air­port, bor­row­ing eggs or watch­ing each other’s chil­dren. Or more se­ri­ous things.

At New View Co­hous­ing, a de­vel­op­ment of 24 houses set on 18 wooded acres in Ac­ton, Mas­sachusetts, David Hoff­man lost his wife of 34 years to can­cer. Af­ter the dev­as­tat­ing loss, he sent an email to res­i­dents around noon to let them know there would be a gath­er­ing that evening.

“At 7 p.m. that night, the com­mon house was filled, and there were peo­ple from ev­ery one of the 24 house­holds in the com­mu­nity,” he said. “You don’t get that in a reg­u­lar neigh­bour­hood.”

Co­hous­ing de­vel­op­ments are de­signed to foster in­ter­ac­tion be­tween neigh­bors. The de­vel­op­ments are gen­er­ally built to be pedes­trian-friendly with park­ing out of view. Front porches face each other so neigh­bors can more eas­ily talk.

Chil­dren of New­berry Place walk to­gether to a neigh­bour­hood el­e­men­tary school.

Res­i­dents vote to ap­prove shared de­ci­sions. They hold votes on things such as an an­nual bud­get, ex­pand­ing the de­vel­op­ment with more units or to change de­vel­op­ment by­laws.

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