by Georgia Doerksen
I first discovered cohousing when it was already too late. I had already bought my leaky condominium. When I responded to a cohousing advertisement in the Shared Vision magazine, I immediately connected with the stranger on the other end of the phone - Alan Carpenter from the Canadian Cohousing Network (CCN). Both his love for his own cohousing community in Langley and his inspirational spirit led me to research cohousing further. The best way to discover what it is all about, he said, is to visit a typical cohousing community.
While visiting his home, the WindSong CoHousing Community, the first thing I really noticed was the state of the children in the community. These cohousing children seemed to be respectful of each other - even polite! I had three boys myself, and I hadn't yet seen them behaving this nice to their peers.
As I scrutinised their actions over the course of the potluck dinner I was invited to, I started to understand exactly what was different about these kids. By watching them interact with their neighbours, I began to suspect that these kids were rarely bored, and also had ample spontaneous supervision. Although they had access to stimulating video games and TV, these kids preferred to be out running with the pack.
I was moved. The thought of having my kids live and grow up in a neighbourhood like this one made me want to weep. This place had a treehouse, acres of green space with a creek to poke around in, and constant supportive attention from neighbours who believed that a whole village is needed to properly raise and socialise a child.
The effects of tolerance were evident in the demeanour and mannerisms of these children. Like their parents, they listened to each other. I witnessed an older child resolve a conflict between three younger children, acting as if she were a trained professional mediator. Most of the kids were being raised learning two or more languages, and some of them gave musical performances for their captive dinner audience. Members of the community included elderly people, a disabled person and a gay couple. There were many different nationalities among this intentional community, and they all brought an exciting dish to this wonderful potluck dinner.
A week later, I joined a guided tour of two or three established cohousing villages south of the border. We were lost in the suburbs of Seattle. As I looked out the window something pretty but unusual caught my eye. There were planted daisies growing around the bottom of a lonely city sign where weeds definitely should have been. The occurrence of these random acts of gardening grew more frequent the closer we got to the village.
Entering on foot from the street, we walked through an opening in the blackberry bush fence. The pedestrian pathway was lined with edible landscape. Cherry trees were in full bloom, grapevines grew everywhere, and giant patches of herbs surrounded a centre water feature complete with ducks and frogs. I felt as if I'd stepped out of The Matrix and landed in the Garden of Eden.
The children were picking peas to snack on and dropping rocks off the little bridge. I was especially taken with the rainwater collection units that serviced the laundry and kitchen needs. Some of the residents worked from home, looking after aged parents, spending time with their kids, and embracing a simpler life that seemed so much richer in a stark contrast to mine.
Freaky Condo Syndrome
My personal housing situation was characterised by high fees, lack of amenities, graffiti, litter, drug dealers, and social isolation. The shift I made mentally and emotionally to viewing cohousing as a possible reality for my family occurred after a particularly traumatic and tumultuous year following the purchase of my first home. Shortly after signing the papers, we discovered we were the proud owners of a leaky condo.
Our condos were designed for privacy, but succeed in promoting isolation. With the simple lack of kitchen windows that would enable people to look into the centre court during the day, people easily live here not knowing who their neighbours are. This level of isolation allows criminals the freedom to come and go at will, casing out robberies or dealing drugs right in our yard.
The first year we lived here, everyone's vehicles got picked through on a regular basis. Even tires were stolen, right out from under our window-less eyes. Regular home burglary resulted in even more fear and isolation from one another.
Owning an equity-less home and suffering financial devastation is one thing, but to be continually victimised by crime and have the contingency fund spent on repairs instead of improvements is quite another. We became apathetic. We developed Freaky Condo Syndrome: a syndrome that stops you from trying or caring and allows you to entertain only one possibility - the possibility of getting out as soon as possible.
What started out as tolerance - even friendship - with the other new homeowners downstairs from us turned surprisingly ugly about six months later. My 2 year-old, 6 month-old, and I were sitting down to supper one night. My infant was strapped into his highchair, banging his hands on the table in anticipation of his dinner, when I heard a noise. Boomboomboom - "SHUT THE HELL UP!" I wasn't quite sure what I heard, but continued unconcerned. It couldn't have been directed at me, after all.
Luke banged on the table again and immediately I heard it very clearly this time: BOOMBOOMBOOM - "shut the hell up you stupid cow!" Well, as you can imagine, I was stunned, especially at the choice of language these seemingly nice people were subjecting my kids to. I responded by pounding my heel into the floor. BOOMBOOMBOOM. Back and forth, at least everyday, for almost a year.
The pictures on the wall were askew, my car had been keyed, flower pots were overturned and my kids had been verbally assaulted after accidentally hitting the neighbour's window with a snowball. The escalation of these altercations came to an abrupt halt when suddenly, the neighbours somehow managed to sell their place and they moved. Phew!
Enter the new neighbours. These folks obviously had some money as they immediately renovated their condo. The wife - looking dressed for a cocktail party in her housecoat, fancy high-heeled slippers, painted nails and pink Boa - teetered out her door regularly with her very yappy dog, and proceeded to let it poop anywhere and everywhere.
After the third time picking dog poop out of my kid's stroller wheels and running shoes with a toothbrush, I felt a familiar rage building. The nerve of this woman and her obvious arrogance - she must be stopped, I thought. Then, I stopped and it happened: my shift, my epiphany.
In hopes of avoiding repeating the past year with my new neighbours, I asked myself how could I see this situation in a different and more positive light. The answer, I discovered, affected the rest of my life. Instead of kicking her dog, wiping its donations on her doorknob, or jamming poop in her mailbox like I'd wanted to, a sense of peace came over me as I generated alternate solutions.
I then wrote her a quick letter of welcome to the neighbourhood. I acknowledged that she was pregnant and that I understood the challenges of pregnancy. I wrote that I had noticed she didn't always have the time to attend to her dog's waste and I offered to help her by picking it up if I saw it. She responded by thanking me. I never had to follow through on my offer to pick up her dog's poop. We didn't become friends, but we developed what I call a 'neighbourship.' We'd watch out for each other's cars and homes, say hello in passing, be available to help in emergencies, and we occasionally exchanged an onion or coffee creamer. We tolerated each other in order to exist peacefully. Now I'm taking the next step at my home near SFU, Glenrobin.
Within the business plan of the cohousing group forming at Glenrobin, we plan to organise student housing where the opportunity for privacy exists, but without the isolation of conventional housing. Students could study communally in the commonhouse and, with smaller living space, and lower rent costs.
The rumour is that SFU students are a particularly depressed bunch. The blame is put on architecture of the isolated campus and the difficulty it poses in meeting people who will take time out to make sure you are coping. It is hard to "get away with" loneliness when you have a network of watchful neighbours.
In the English boarding school I went to as a child, I was desperately homesick and dependent on the other students to distract me from missing my parents. It's not that they loved me like my parents, but they interacted with me, listened to my feelings and shared in the fun and tricks we inevitably got up to. We'd eat together, but also had privacy - sharing a common dorm that was not unlike cohousing.
Glenrobin: The Next Best Thing.
I took my eventual cohousing epiphany back to my neighbourhood, and have been hit with a brick (or rather leaky) wall ever since. I attempted over time to suggest and convince the membership and strata council to embrace this healing concept. In my opinion, if typical conventional strata housing were to be compared to baby formula, then cohousing would be the breast milk. It's simpler, cheaper, healthier, and a necessary foundation for growth.
So far the concept of cohousing has not been explored through research nor embraced by the mainstream. Attempts to pierce the apathy that prevails in my leaky condo proved to be difficult - even bordering on impossible. Nevertheless, I am pleased to announce that cohousing is now happening at my Glenrobin. Members are trickling in and joining the group.
Glenrobin is located a 5 minute walk from the Lougheed Skytrain Village. We are located in a 12.6 acre greenbelt pocket between Lougheed Highway and the freeway. We have 3 streets bordering our complex, Halston Court, Gildwood Drive, and Sandlewood Crescent.
The cohousing group is looking at the potentially available 216 units, which are stacked in eleven three-story high blocks of twelve units each. The kitchen windows (if finally installed) in the stacked homes would face the common court. Prices for buyers range from $98,000 for large one bedroom/den units up to $135,000 for the 4 bedroom units on the lower floor. We have 29 empty units, which could transform into commonhouses, small businesses, charity offices, or renovated homes. Within our community's business plan we wish to provide rental student housing and, within our capacity, post detox placements.
We also have a creek currently buried under our property. We hope to resurrect it. We are a 15 minute walk to the Burnaby Lake trails, and just a short bike ride away from the trails at the base of Burnaby Mountain.
Recently, store front space next door was donated to our cohousing group to use to promote ourselves - located beneath Place Tower, at the top of Sandlewood Crescent, on Cardston Court road. Come check out our upcoming cohousing information presentation, find out more about Glenrobin, or just drop by to chat!
If you live in the GVRD or B.C. Southern Coastal region, there is a good chance you can easily visit a cohousing establishment without venturing too far. Some of the area cohousing includes Cardiff Place in Victoria, WindSong CoHousing in Langley, Quayside Village in North Vancouver, Cranberry Commons in North Burnaby, Nanaimo Cohousing, and Creeky Commons on the Sunshine Coast.
I still really like WindSong, and like to see it as a superb example of what cohousing can accomplish. The 34 townhomes are in two long rows facing each other across a pedestrian street, which includes ramps, making the whole community wheelchair accessible. Community streets are covered by a glass roof enabling residents to walk, talk and play outdoors without getting wet.
WindSong's 5,000 square feet Common House includes a kitchen, fireside dining lounge, playroom with loft, a children's outdoor play structure, workshop, laundry, community office, multi-purpose room with exercise equipment, guest room, and three washrooms.
Best of all, WindSong has won several awards for its environmentally sensitive design, and was featured in the January/February 2003 edition of Canadian Geographic as an example of one of the first eco-villages in Canada.
Are you developing a crush yet?