ALL ABOUT NEIGHBOURHOOD
Residents share space, chores and lots of fellowship
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.