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Urban Ecology Article

This is a draft of a piece by Stuart Staniford-Chen which appeared in 'The Urban Ecologist' a couple of years ago.

Most Americans don't know their neighbors. If you ever think the people over the wall seem like nice folks and wish you could get to know them better, there are things you can try. Options range from just asking them over for coffee once in a while to organizing a neighborhood association with street parties and potlucks. Or you can go all the way and take the fences down and start living as a community.

In N Street Cohousing we've gone all the way. We have a community of twelve adjacent houses where we've taken out all the fences. Although each household owns or rents its premise separately, we eat together several times a week, share ownership of a variety of tools and buildings, and manage our efforts through monthly consensus-based meetings. We are also good friends, share much of our lives with each other, and have a great time. We can still retreat to the privacy of our own homes when we need to.

How did this happy state come about? N Street began as a neighborhood of ugly, low budget, ranch houses in a subdivision on the east side of Davis, California. The houses were built in 1955. The area is poor but relatively safe - it is dominated by student-rentals. The seed for the cohousing community was planted in 1979 when 716 N St, which was a large house with a second story addition, became a cooperative house. As in many other cooperative houses across the country, residents tried to create a supportive atmosphere for each other and share the work of cooking, growing vegetables, and looking after the house. Amongst other things, the residents were very interested in permaculture.

In 1984, the owner of the house (who was not a resident), decided to sell. To avoid losing his home, Kevin Wolf, one of the residents, bought the house. This taught Kevin a lot about how real-estate transactions work. Around this time he and his housemates began looking over the fence at the house next door, and dreaming about how wonderful it would be to buy that house too, take the fence down, and start to develop a small oasis in the desert - a permacultural community amidst the sterile suburban landscape.

In 1986, Kevin's new partner, Linda Cloud, was able to purchase the neighboring house (724 N St). However, the seller also owned 732 N St and, worried about his property values, he forced Kevin and Linda to put option money down on 732 as part of the purchase agreement on 724. Subsequently, they were to buy this house also. Renters interested in the nascent community lived there.

During the late 1980's, residents met and struggled to define their vision for the community - how it should operate and what is should become. They adopted a consensus decision making procedure. In 1988, McCamant and Durrett published the Cohousing book. After much discussion, the residents decided to adopt the cohousing model and the cohousing name for what they were doing. It was this vision which really created N St's momentum.

At this point, other people became increasingly excited about the project and began a pattern that has continued ever since: buying or renting the houses on the periphery of the community, taking down the fences, and joining in the fun. "Fence tearing down parties" are now a community institution. Today there are twelve contiguous houses as part of the community, but it is likely to grow further.

It was not until 1991, however, that the community took its present shape. In that year residents finally converted the back half of the original community house (716 N St) to common dining, cooking and meeting facilities. In the cohousing lingo, it became the Common House.

Eating meals together regularly has become a part of the life. Initially, this took the form of potlucks in the different houses, but has since evolved into meals cooked by a team in the common kitchen. Many residents say that regularly eating home-cooked meals surrounded by a crowd of laughing chattering friends/neighbors is the best part of living here.

N St is atypical of cohousing communities. In the usual model of development, a group excited about cohousing meets regularly to discuss it. As they become more committed to the idea, they begin to look for a suitable site. Finding one, they buy it and start to design and build their community. When it is complete, they all move in and start living together. In most cases, a green-field site is used, and brand new houses are built. The first community of this kind in the U.S was Muir Commons, which is also located in Davis. They moved in during August and September of 1991. In other places, existing buildings are bought and converted to a cohousing community - an example is Doyle St. Cohousing which converted an old warehouse in Emeryville, CA.

Whether the buildings are new or rehabs, the process is a hard one for the group involved. They must learn to work together as a group making tough decisions involving thousands of their own dollars. They must find a site and learn how to buy it and develop it. They may have to convince local government to rezone the land, or allow them code variances to design their community the way they want it. They have to convince banks to loan them the money to do the construction. They must design their community and then get it built. Although groups usually pay a number of professionals to help them, they still have to acquire a great deal of their own expertise as real-estate agents, designers, developers and contractors. The process takes years, and only at the end of it does the group start to reap the real benefit - actually living in their community.

N St is different because it takes one existing house at a time and adds it to the community by the simple process of taking the fence down. This has two major benefits. The first of these is that it is a great deal easier on the group. From the moment that fence comes down, the new residents are living in a cohousing community, with all the benefits that brings - sharing their chores and their lives with their neighbors. The city and the bank do not have to be convinced of anything unusual - nothing is happening except a normal sale of a single family dwelling.

This is not to say the process is trivial - we still have had to learn to live with each other and work as a group. Developing our common house and other institutions has been a long process involving much discussion and agonizing. But the pressure on us has been so much less - if we cannot agree on something we can simply leave the decision for later - we will still be living together. No purchase or construction process places time pressure on us.

The other major benefit is that our environmental impact is much lower than many other cohousing communities. The houses we use were already here - we did not have to despoil more forests or agricultural land to build them. Nor did we require lots of new resources in the form of building materials to make our community. Indeed, we freed up a large amount of resources that were previously performing a useless task - being fences - and put them to work as compost boxes, hot-tubs and raised garden beds.

The word 'permaculture' is not often heard around N St these days, but the kind of thinking it encourages is still alive and well here. All food wastes go either to the compost bin or to the flock of chickens we maintain in our common back-yard. Many of us grow as much of our own food as time allows. The community is dotted with small fruit trees we have planted to provide more food in the future. All of us recycle, and we keep stockpiles of old lumber and other materials pending the day when we can re-use them. We began by re-using our houses, and we are committed to re-using everything else we can. This comes right down to the crockery and cutlery we use in our common kitchen: all of it came from thrift stores.

The disadvantage of our model of developing cohousing is that our design is heavily constrained by the existing layout of the houses. We did not have the freedom to cluster all the houses in one part of the site, or to put all the parking together, or many of the other nice design features that other cohousing groups have incorporated into their layouts.

Can our way of doing things be replicated elsewhere? Yes, undoubtedly. There are several other groups pursuing this direction. In some cases they figured it out themselves, and in other cases they were inspired by our example. Ongoing Concerns in Portland, OR, and Erie St. in Cambridge, MA are two examples of other groups involved in turning existing neighborhoods into cohousing.

There could be a lot more. There is an awful lot of bad, alienating, separate housing in this country which could be made into real communities. All it takes to get started is to buy or rent the place next door and start taking the fence down.


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