Intentional Neighborhoods in Co-Housing
Conversation with Sarah Arthurs ~ September 24, 2019
About every six weeks for the last five years, John and Peter have hosted online / dial-up conversations with community-building social innovators as their guests. For their September 24, 2019 dialog co-housing advocate Sarah Arthurs joined them to talk about how co-housing neighborhoods foster the most intimate, kind and generative of communities.
Sarah Arthurs has lived for more than ten years in Prairie Sky, Alberta, Canada’s first co-housing cooperative not far from downtown Calgary. In Sarah’s view, it is not so much the physical attributes of co-housing developments that support community building. “You can find yourself in the most intimate, kind and generative of communities,” she says, “but the extent to which you experience this intimacy and kindness and generativity is shaped and determined by your capacity for such…how many receptor sites you have.”
John and Peter talk with generative journalist and longtime co-housing advocate Sarah Arthurs about how the built environment, governance and intentionality of their citizens make co-housing neighborhoods a lifestyle and home ownership choice that builds and supports communities where ordinary people express their values of neighborliness, living lighter on the planet and promoting civic engagement.
Peter Block: Sarah calls her work Co-housing Connections, and to me it’s important work. And we’re kind of divided in this culture, not by what you read in the newspaper, but there’s this development community and then there’s an activist community. And it seems to me, Sarah, that you’re finding a way to integrate and find an alternative to the gentrification movement, all this stuff about misplacement, and you’re saying, “Well, let’s find a way to live communally and maintain our privacy and deal with the crisis of romance that most of us feel.” And it’s amazing work. You’re giving form to the common good, the common interests, the commons. In the last 400 years, the dominant movement has been to privatization. It started in England with the Enclosure, and so I just think what you’re doing has practical, political, and it’s a healing process. Could you just tell us a little bit about why this matters to you? We’ll get into methodology later.
Sarah Arthurs: There’s lots of reasons why this matters. But I’d like to kind of link it back to this event and chatting today with you and John. So probably about 25 years ago when I had been hired to create some courses for a local college, I discovered John’s book The Careless Society. And I had just finished chartering as a psychologist, and there I read this challenge to the whole kind of client mode of being in the world. And it resonated profoundly with me, profoundly. So from that point on, my direction changed, and I was focused on any movements, opportunities that brought people together as peers, as neighbors, as colleagues, as citizens. So for the last 25 years, I’ve been kind of like a Golden Retriever, “Where is the scent?” So it’s taken me lots of different places, and it’s taken me to co-ops. I’m on the board of a credit union.
But one of the places it took me is to co-housing. My family and I have been living in co-housing for 11 years.
Peter: What does that word mean?
Sarah: Co-housing is a model of housing which came from Denmark, was brought here about 30 years ago from two architects from California: Charles Durrett and Katie McCamant. They discovered this amazing model in Denmark. They saw this kind of housing as a kind of connection, where there were people outside talking to one another, and there were children playing and adults chatting. They were so surprised. This was such an unusual thing that they explored it more and discovered this model called co-housing and brought that back to North America. And have been helping it to grow ever since.
Co-housing is a model which has as its root intentional neighborhood and a smaller footprint. So you’ll get a collection of say 25-30 units. Everybody has a home that is self-contained.
Peter: Is a unit a building or part of a building?
Sarah: It could be a townhouse. It could be a stacked apartment, depending on where the co-housing community is located. It could be a private home. But usually they’re located closer together because it’s partly proximity that helps the connections to come between people. So you really want to use the design of the space to help you move further with your goals of getting to know your neighbors. And then we have a common kitchen, dining room, and lounge. So tomorrow at Prairie Sky, we’ll be having a potluck dinner together, and I’ll meet my neighbors at six o’clock. We’ll hang out, have some wine, have some dinner.
Peter: Is that a separate building?
Sarah: The common house is attached.
Peter: It’s its own space now. Am I looking at your house now? Your unit now?
Sarah: I am in my townhouse on the second floor, and yeah, a few steps away is the common house. So it’s large enough, we have house concerts there. My friend does Jane Austin dancing. We have political meetings. We have book clubs. There’s all kinds of things people do in that space. So all of us who live here, we treat that like an extension of our home, and so we invite all of those things that we’re interested in can happen in that space.
Peter: Can you use that space for your own private parties and stuff?
Sarah: Oh yes, absolutely. When people have more folk than they can fit in their home, like we can fit 11 people in our house and then it starts to get a little cozy. So then we would book the common house and use that space for a larger gathering. And then we have a guest room in the common house. We have some studio space. There’s shared laundry there. If people want to do their laundry in the common house, they can do that. Everybody also has a laundry room in their own units. We have gorgeous, gorgeous outside common space. It’s been 16 years so all the trees are tall, and we had a landscape architect who was part of the design and development. He had my neighbors lifting sandstone at the very beginning. So now we’ve got the fruit of all that beautiful labor, and it’s gorgeous. People come in and they can’t believe we’re in the middle of Calgary.
Peter: Now did you all come together relationally before you designed this space and bought the property?
Sarah: Co-housing happens a couple of different ways. One way is that people find out about it and they are smitten. They’re like, “Oh my goodness. I have been looking for this all my life.” And they find other friends and neighbors and colleagues who catch the same energy, and they may work really hard to do this. They find consultants, and it might take a number of years. So that’s how Prairie Sky started. It took seven years from my wonderful neighbors to make this project happen.
The work that I’m doing is I’m developing a different model. I am promoting this opportunity to developers, and I’m saying all of the things we were talking about earlier. There’s an epidemic of loneliness. There’s a lot of aging Baby Boomers that are wanting something different than what their parents had. There are Millennials who have a different attitude towards home ownership, and who want to live with other people that their children can play with. So I’m reaching out to them and saying, “I’ve got a database of people in Calgary who want co-housing. Do you have property? Let’s make this go.” And then we onboard people through a series of weekend design workshops where they get to know one another, and they get to start working within the parameters the developer and the architects offer to think about what we can do to create a co-housing neighborhood.
Peter: The aging in place is interesting. I’m just learning about that, since I’m aged and in a place. It’s quite amazing because it allows people to grow old but not warehoused with other old people.
And most aging, golden years programs, there’s a kind of warehousing. They promise you a lot of activities. But all you see is people your own age. So there’s something powerful about this that allows me to be in a place that offers me some care, and I’m sure as you get older, you can bring more care into your place. But doesn’t isolate you by age or class or anything.
Sarah: Yes. So certainly I think a lot of co-housing communities are really asking questions about accessibility as part of their design.
You can really make sure that their neighbors and friends don’t have to go somewhere else because their unit has too many stairs. I imagine if I’m so fortunate as to be here when I’m 80 or 90, my hope is that if we’re getting tired of cooking, we can together hire someone to come in a couple of days a week and cook for us, right? But I think what’s different is that within co-housing, you continue to have more autonomy. You have community but you also have autonomy to make good choices. It’s not like you’re a client and they’re looking after you, and it’s a very passive reality, versus this situation where we’re kind of doing, we’re planning things ourselves.
Peter: The other thing, the whole issue with the disability world is that all your friends are paid, and John has been very active for a long time with a lot of places to say that. So you’re saying that I can be surrounded, get the community and support I need and be with friends that I don’t have to hire. That’s stunning.
John McKnight: Sarah, do you see in any of the co-housing examples that you’re aware of that people who might otherwise be on the margin, other than us old folks, are participating in the life of the community so much? The struggle for families who have kids who might be labeled developmentally disabled or having autism.
Peter: Or addicted.
John: How do I get my child into a communal relationship? I’m just wondering. There are some houses, a movement in which there’s a house where people who are abled and people who are disabled live together, but I’m wondering whether or not you see almost naturally the integration of people who might otherwise be isolated because of their label? Here now, they have a way to be a part of a real community.
Sarah: I think you were speaking about L’Arche.
Sarah: I think co-housing really does open up the opportunity for people of different abilities and interests to come together. It’s a bit of a balancing act because you have to have enough people, you have to have a critical mass of people who have social capacity, the kind of organizational capacity to keep the core of the community functioning. Because otherwise it won’t work.
Having said that, I’m really excited to be working with a group of families in Alberta who have children on the autism spectrum. And they are very interested in using the co-housing model to create a situation where they would live and their adult children would live. They would live in their own private unit. Their child would live a few steps down the road, perhaps with a caregiver or with a roommate. So they would have more independence and autonomy themselves as would their adult child. But they would be in community together. So it wouldn’t be like their child would be in a group home or be separate. More like having an extended family situation. They are bravely stepping into this space of being the first community I know of who are going to experiment with this model in terms of having the parents still connected to their children, but their children having some more autonomy as well. We’re working on that together, and it’s very exciting.
One of my colleagues is part of the work with the autism organizations in the United States, and she is totally pumped about how co-housing can be a place for folk who are on the spectrum to find a home. So her vision is an established co-housing community, 25 or 30 units. They might have one or two people on the spectrum that are part of the neighborhood. The same percentages that you would expect in any other community.
Peter: Exactly. Somebody just said, “Seventy percent of adults with disabilities live in their family home, and over 24 percent of their caregivers are over age 60.” So you’re really doing something about that. It’s just an amazing option.
I think you need a core of people who can manage it because it sounds great, but living and deciding in co-housing––family dynamics, the collective… So what kind of nightmares do you run into in this?
Sarah: First I have to tell one of the most amazing things about co-housing.
The first thing that’s really important to know and to shout out about co-housing is that co-housing communities all across North America and Canada, they make all their decisions through consensus. So we have developed a refined consensus model which supports the group in actually making those really complicated decisions about finances, about land, about kind of hanging out together. And the model that we’ve developed works very well, and I think that that’s something that should be promoted because the [prevailing] idea is that we can’t do that, that’s not a useful way, a useful governance model. But my experience at Prairie Sky is that it works fantastically well, and part of the challenge is that with a small group, like 30 households, you can have a disenfranchised minority. You have to come up with decisions that work for most of the people most of the time, otherwise you’ll have feuds and really uncomfortable tensions within this very small, intimate neighborhood. So that is part of what people commit to when they commit.
Peter: I got that. But you said something very important. You put an adjective in front of consensus. You said “refined.” So tell me what refinements you do so you don’t have the tyranny of people having to lie to move forward.
Peter: Well, does everybody agree and you want to move forward, there’s got to be space for somebody to say, “I don’t agree, but I will support the movement.”
Sarah: Oh, absolutely. The model we have of making decisions, dissent is really important. Because we know that you get your better decisions when you hear all of the perspectives about something.
Peter: So it’s Quaker-like.
Sarah: Yes, that is part of the model. Sometimes in the process of the dialogue, they’ll be a pause for people to sit and to reflect on what’s been shared before they make further statements. We also use, and I should have brought them, a card system where people indicate whether they wish to speak or not. We have lots of structural tools that help to constrain and direct our dialogue so that it happens in an appropriate way.
Peter: Wait, she promised a nightmare. I want to get there.
Sarah: The complicated conversations in co-housing, I wonder if you can guess what you think they might be. Want to guess?
Peter: I would say entitlement must come somewhere into it.
Sarah: Entitlement. Well, could be. The things that get complicated are pets. So do animals and our puppies and our cats kind of roam around the neighborhood? How is that? What are our kind of understandings and agreements about that? That’s something that can get complicated. We get complications around children because there could be conflicts between some of the children. There can be different attitudes towards parenting. There can be different expectations about the children’s behavior. I know when we first moved into Prairie Sky, one of the things that was a concern was bicycles and tools left all over the place.
Sarah: Yeah. So those kind of things become concerns.
Peter: Those things happen within every family.
Sarah: Yes. And they happen in every neighborhood too probably.
It’s just that in co-housing, we have a commitment to kind of speak them through respectfully and to come up with ways forward that work for everybody, for most of the people most of the time. That’s the kind of middle line we’re going for. Most of the people, most of the time.
Peter: Some people call that democracy.
John: Do you have anything written about this practice?
Sarah: About consensus?
John: Yeah. For people who are joining us who might interested in the consensus methodology that you’ve developed. Is there something that they can read?
Sarah: Yes. I can certainly provide some links kind of after the call. I’m not sure what would be the best way to do that, and I need to be really clear that I have not developed this. I have received the best practices that have been evolved over the last 30-40 years about what works in co-housing. And I know other organizations use this model as well for making decisions. So it’s something that’s being used by organizations in civil society and different places.
Peter: On the chat, there’s a lot of resources. Somebody has a question about financing. How do you navigate the financing of this in a world that’s very much [concerned with] investor return, et cetera, et cetera. How does that work out?
Sarah: So as I said, there are two kind of ways that co-housing has developed, and when my neighbors built Prairie Sky, they came up with the money to buy the land themselves initially. They came up with kind of a lot of money from themselves and family and friends in order for the project to go ahead. They made terrifying commitments in order for Prairie Sky to be built.
Peter: So you have a financial benefactor.
Sarah: Well, it was all of the individuals, everybody who was part of it. There might have been 10 households. Initially they bought the land together, and then as more people came on, they contributed to the design costs, the zoning work. So everybody supported it. With the model that I’m developing, my intention and hope is to work with developers so that they will cover more of the financial risk of the project. So folk that want to live in co-housing will still need to come in with a 10-20 percent down payment on the unit, on their home. But they’re not going to have to come up with $3 million to buy the land because they’ll be working with a developer who will cover that cost.
Peter: How much does a unit cost?
Sarah: It depends where it’s located. If it’s on the outskirts of Calgary and suburbia, it might be $200,000. If it’s in inner city Calgary, it might be $400,000.
Peter: So it’s about the same domain as a private purchase would be.
Peter: It’s in that neighborhood. But you’re getting so many amenities and so much of a future.
Peter: It’s a low-cost investment. Now can you sell your unit anytime you want? How do you get out?
Sarah: Yeah. The units are bought and sold at market rates. Usually co-housing communities have a process of inviting people to check it out before they buy obviously and for the community to screen people who want to move in because there needs to be an alignment of values. So we have a mission statement and a value statement that we ask people to sign before they become an owner because it’s really important that people aren’t just buying a unit because it has a gorgeous courtyard and it’s close to the airport. There needs to be something more than that. So we have a process where people have to come to business meetings, which we have every month. They need to come to some common meals. They need to be interviewed by our community care team. So there are various steps. And so far since I’ve been living here, people self select. Usually folk are interested who are a good fit.
John: Here’s a problem I think that we see everywhere, and that is that on a block there may be some people who have propensities toward cooperative living of some kind. But, in fact, most blocks are made up of people who live in relative autonomy, very little commonality. I’m impressed by how important it is as to whether or not there is a place to gather, a place for mutual activity, and a place seems to me of that nature to open up all kinds of possibilities in a place. I’ve often thought, “Well, maybe if we had one house that we all owned that was the common space, the place where we can be face to face rather than a sporadic nature of present relationships.” Do you see any of that kind of development taking place?
Sarah: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Very close to where I live is the local community association building. So when Calgary, the city I live in, was first developing, there was a real movement around building community centers with inside space and skating rinks and a hub for activities for the neighborhood. So we have that physical building within walking distance of where I live. But what I experience, and I’ve been on the board of that community association, is that––I don’t want to disagree with John, but––you can have the place, but if you don’t have the intention and the infrastructure of the social connections, and people who are willing to knock on the door and say, “Hi. I’m really interested in knowing you.” Blah, blah, blah. However you’re going to do that. The space doesn’t get used, right? So there has to be this attitude of wanting to know your neighbor and wanting to have that connection.
And I think also the whole cultural thing that’s happened, John, as you know better than I do. This cultural norm of being disconnected, right? I love our friend Howard Lawrence, and he speaks about neighborhood ambiance and that we’ve lost that. So how do you just raise the whole level of neighborhood ambiance? And I think there are things that can certainly do that for sure, and it needs people who have some alternate vision of that, of that possibility and of why that’s important, and who have the energy, time, heart to make it happen.
John: So you’re saying you think that what comes first is people of common values, then a place. But being a place does not mean they will come.
Sarah: No. Because that’s what’s a lot of developers are finding. They’re building condos with kind of wonderful amenity space, but nobody ever uses it.
John: Yes. Right.
Sarah: Because they don’t want to see these people. Who are these people I try to avoid in the elevator?
John: Yes. Very good.
Peter: I think it’s not a place of common values. It’s a place of people that value the commons. Like-mindedness scares me to death. But this is people that value the commons, the interdependence even though we’re different. We’re strangers. And some people not going to like their neighbors. So you don’t choose your family. You don’t choose your neighbors.
Peter: But I think what you’re creating is a different context than a co-op.
So people build co-ops, developers bring this model management, society says you’re all going to be in this. But they don’t have a context. They don’t do the pre-work as part of the entry process, you called it onboarding, to say, “We’re here to care for the well-being of the whole even though I might be a person that doesn’t like to talk to others most days.” And the fact that you’re bringing developers into the conversation is quite radical because most developers are afraid of the conversation with communities and future owners. So this is just amazing the way you’re framing this and you’re calling it connections. There’s a point and then we’re going to throw a house [at it]. We’re coming to get connected. Raise a child, be with marginal people, and then we’ll use a house as a delivery vehicle for connections instead of building a housing co-op and saying, “How do we get these people together? Let’s have a gathering once a month.” So it’s quite radical in your priority. That’s quite beautiful.
And then somebody asked, Can you do this in the inner city? I guess it’s just a matter of getting people together.
Sarah: Yes. It’s a matter of getting people together, and I think one of the things I had mentioned was one of the places I see huge, huge opportunity is with mainline faith traditions that are having buildings that are closing. Churches or synagogues are being closed. They have land in inner city spaces, a value around neighborhood. Why not use that as an opportunity to build co-housing?
Peter: I love that. I’ll tell you, I’ll give you sales lead, okay?
Peter: The Sisters of Saint Joseph. They have all this land. And the sisters are shrinking. What do they do with this land? And this to me is an amazing possibility. They could create a co-housing connection situation that embodies all the values that they’ve given their life to.
Peter: I had a friend of mine in Sisters of the Poor, and I said, “What’s going on here? Everybody’s trying to fight poverty. You chose it.” She said, “Yeah. Because I knew I would always be taken care of.” And you’re implying a promise that there’s a caring surround even though it’s not perfect, kids and dogs and stuff. And it’s also a great alternative, a positive alternative to all the stuff that’s going around about housing and class. And I can see where you could have different arrangements within a co-housing space. So people of different wealth could live in different ways, still be connected.
Becky Robinson: We’ve had so much engaged conversation in the chat that surfacing the questions that we haven’t yet asked or answered is a little bit challenging. If you would like to speak your question and come on video and audio with Sarah and John and Peter, you can use the hand-raise function to let me know that you’re willing to come on camera to talk about your question.
It’s at the bottom of the Zoom panel. It looks like a little hand, and folks can use that hand-raise functionality to let me know that you’re willing to come on. And then I can bring you on as a panelist. In the meantime, we will be reading some of these questions out and continue to have some conversation. So Sarah there is a question here from Evan, and he’s wondering if you’ve seen co-housing principles, values transition well to a suburban block anywhere in Calgary?
Sarah: I don’t know that I could speak to that. Is this Evan Spencer, who’s working with the Abundant Communities model in Calgary? So I think he’s taking Howard Lawrence’s ideas and is working with them in a community in Calgary. So, Evan, I think you probably have a better answer to that question than I do.
Becky: So, Evan, if you’re willing to come on, either tell me in the chat or use the hand-raise function, and I’ll be glad to bring you on. There’s also a question here from Lisa who’s wondering, Sarah, if you can share a bit more about how you deal with some of the challenges that you mentioned kind of in navigating differences related to pets, children, et cetera.
Sarah: Part of co-housing is that everybody is part of a team. So we have various teams that help our life together because we don’t hire out. We don’t hire in snow removal or gardening services. We have a landscape team, a social team, community care coordination, geeks, building care, common house. We have different teams, and so in terms of dealing with challenging situations, one of the things we do is we make sure we keep our pot full of good feelings. There’s marriage and family therapists, the Gottman’s, who say that I think it’s 90 percent of the issues you have with your partner are never going to go away. But what you need to do is keep the pot of good feelings full and overflowing. So that’s why we eat together, that’s why we play together, that’s why we have coffee on Saturday mornings because we want to keep that all of those good feelings, those strong lovely connections fruitful and ripe. So that’s one of the things we do to help kind of deal with kind of conflict.
The other thing we do periodically is a kind of skill improvement session with one another around listening or conflict resolution or Myers Briggs or Enneagram or some kind of tool like that that helps us to either improve our capacity to communicate clearly or help us to understand our neighbors who maybe different than us.
Then the other kind of final spot would be we have a team called community care, and their role is if there ever is conflict that individuals are not able to work out themselves, they can come along as a third party to help manage and help the individuals talk through and find resolution to whatever is the issue. And then in one very extreme situation, we were able to bring in outside mediator.
So those are the resources that are available for co-housing communities to work with things if they get complicated. But most of the time, we work it out together and plan ways forward.
Peter: It’s not much different than a neighborhood.
Sarah: No, except in this situation, people are intentional about wanting to work on it together.
Peter: But I live in a neighborhood, and this is not an intentional neighborhood. And at the same time, I have to see these damn people all the time. I’m involved in the neighborhood council., and there’s some people there that you go to the grocery store and you see them in the produce department. And I decide, “Well, how hungry am I?” And I think what you’re doing is make explicit neighborliness, which in John’s and my term is the willingness [to depart] the patriarchal empire that most of us live in. You’re isolated. You get in your car, you go to your backyard, and I really feel that your stance for neighborliness that gets a beacon to that. Something you said, they live in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. So these things are all over. And I feel you’re part of a neighborliness movement. And you are just a little more organized than the rest of us.
Peter: Because like Howard has a different structure with the Abundant Communities Initiative and all these structures. I think it would be fun to create a collective of people who are taking a stance of neighborliness and [moving] all these options in that direction.
Sarah: Yeah because we all have things we can share to help move it along.
John: I notice that you have an association in Canada of co-housing groups. Is there one in the United States that people might examine?
Sarah: I think someone posted it. It’s called The Co-Housing Network.
So there definitely is one. And then the woman that I’m mentoring with. Katie McCamant, she is with Co-Housing Solutions. And she was part of the couple that brought co-housing to North America, and she is now mentoring people like me who are bringing our skillsets to co-housing. So she’s helping us to figure out how to make this happen more because of her commitment to the model.
Peter: I’m sure you’re accused of being idealistic, and when people accuse me, I just say, “Thank you.” This is not utopian because utopian is something that will never be achieved. There was a whole utopian movement in the late 1800s. But it seems to me that you’re giving practical form to community development because John for years said community, economic development, and we’ve had these ideas and it’s never quite worked out because the developers have had a different concept: “Well, every piece of land is measured by its highest and best value.” And you’re reframing that. You’re saying, “Well, this piece of land, the highest and best value, is a place where people have an intentional communal purpose.” And whether it gives the same return to the developer, I think you’re saying you’re finding developers that care about the quality of life after they’ve developed.
Sarah: Yes. Yes. I am finding developers that are interested in that and that see the importance of the housing they create as being where community happens, and they want for their buildings to support that. So I am finding folk. We are learning together about how to do this.
Peter: That’s radical. It’s beautiful. Because then they’re not the other any longer, and they do get it.
Sarah: Part of it is there is benefit for the developer because it means that they have committed buyers [before they] start building. So they know for sure that it’s not like they’re building something on spec, and then waiting for people to purchase it. They know ahead of time, “Okay. I got 30 households here that have put in X amount of money.”
Peter: My daughter is participating in the development of a Zen retirement community.
Sarah: Oh, fun.
Peter: Of course, it’s in Marin, California so it doesn’t count. But in one month, they got 800 people to sign up. Because the promise is something more than just a place.
Sarah: Yes. Exactly.
Peter: So the developers have a base to market. Now, Mary, welcome. Nice to see you. What’s your question?
Mary: Hi Sarah. My question is to draw a little bit more, I’m really fascinated about what you’re talking about in terms of the physical ingredients of co-housing, and I’d like to ask if you can say a little bit more about that. You mentioned town housing. You mentioned stacked apartments, and you mentioned the common house. And you talked about proximity. I’m wondering what you mean by that proximity. I mean, what makes the difference between a physical environment that makes co-housing possible and let’s say the suburban model where it seems like it’s much harder if not impossible. So what is it about proximity that works? What does that proximity look like?
Sarah: I think often our buildings these days are built apartments with privacy as the primary kind of value. So how do I make it so people can have as few interactions as possible with the people that live next door to them? In co-housing, say for example, one of the choices that we’ve made is that cars are on the outside or underground. So I really hate when I go to see housing complexes where all the cars are in the middle. The cars don’t need to talk to each other. It’s the human beings that need to talk to each other. So one of the factors that we make sure cars are a necessarily evil so they’re underground. We have an underground parkade, or they’re on the outside of the complex.
Our parkade is underground. We come up through the common house so that everybody comes up through the common house, they can see what’s going on. So they can look and see, “Oh, someone’s having a party,” or they’re having coffee, or there’s something going on. And then there’s all the kind of our information hub in right there so that people see, “Oh, there’s the common meal tomorrow night. I need to sign up.” Somebody’s going hiking on the weekend. They’re wondering if anybody would like to come. Whose birthdays it is this month. So they kind of get all this information and kind of touch points as they’re moving towards their unit.
And then what happens is the community was designed so that all the units look in to a central kind of pathway and a central courtyard, so that we can look out our window and I see my neighbor, “Oh, she’s going off to deep water workout.” She does that every Monday and Wednesday, and I see her. Or the little six year old who lives at the end of the complex waves at us and knocks on the window every time we go down the stairs to go off to work. So this kind of design of the kind of physical layout enables us to see one another. So the statement is you know you live in co-housing when it takes you an hour and two beers to get from your car to your unit because you stopped and you connected with your neighbors along the way.
And then each unit has our private space in our individual home, and then we kind of have this semi-public, semi-private outdoor space. We have a porch where we often eat outside, and so we see our neighbors. But we also have some privacy there as well. Then all the units look in to one another, and then they’re physically close together so that it’s a couple of steps so that we’re not like far away from each other. And even within that, I find that I know my neighbors at my end of Prairie Sky perhaps a little better than the folk that live at the other end just because of the fact that you bump into them more.
Did that answer your question, Mary?
Mary: That’s really, really helpful. Just maybe to just tweak it out a wee bit more. How much is it designed to encourage walking in the spaces that are around the houses, and also how much are your private spaces divided by fences and walls and things like that or not?
Sarah: Well, our individual homes obviously have walls, and in the front space, there are no fences. So there’s no private kind of green space. So we don’t really have any yard space to speak of. We have a very tiny spot at the back of our house, but mainly it’s used by the dog. That’s all the purpose it serves. It’s very small. So all of the green space is shared and interconnected. And then the units have their own kind of entrance, front door entrance, most of them.
Often what happens with co-housing is to be located in a neighborhood where there are lots of things to walk to. So coffee shops and pubs and that kind of thing. So we certainly have that.
Mary: Okay. Great. Thank you.
Susanne: Hi, Sarah. My question is to you. I’m a member of Kawartha Commons in Peterborough, though I live four hours away. I make that trip to help form the community. We are attracting in our orientation session some young folks, Millennials, who haven’t yet had the opportunity to raise a lot of equity and who might be––We’re so close to Toronto in Peterborough that Toronto’s actually chasing them out of the rental market there. How has Prairie Sky dealt with new young families coming into co-housing when there’s such a huge investment of capital that’s required, which works for those of us who are retired? Doesn’t work as well for the younger folk.
Sarah: That’s a great question. So part of our challenge at Prairie Sky is in some ways we’ve done our job too well. We have a lot of empty nesters who live in three or four bedroom units, but we don’t want to move because of course this is our community. So we’ve actually not had a lot of experience of being able to open up our units to people because we haven’t had very much turnover. But I do hear what the challenge is around people being able to afford to move into co-housing, and I think there are some possibilities, and I know some people are starting to think about different kind of investment models, where they pay us a smaller kind of mortgage. So I think there are some models out there, but we haven’t experimented with that yet.
Suzanne: How have you attracted your young folk then, the ones with families?
Sarah: Sixteen years ago when Prairie Sky first started, there were 29 adults and 23 children. But 16 years later, they’re all grown up and gone. So my family was 11 years ago… I had a 10 year old and an eight year old when we moved in, and so yes, we were attracted for various reasons. But we haven’t had to work hard at attracting families because we have nowhere to offer them.
Peter: I would say that the Millennials are being pushed out of the city. They’re going to live somewhere, and they’re going to pay rent that sustains somebody who owns the place. And I think it’s a mindset. I think if we had it in mind that we’re going to create even in neighborhoods that aren’t doing great this kind of communal––the way the Millennials could come in and live in a cooperative way, even without the upfront money. I think that’s a huge challenge, Suzanne. It’s a great question.
Peter: It’s got to be workable… Some people own these buildings, and if we could get eight buildings together to say, “Let’s create a different kind of context,” that would change everything. Because there’s a context is what’s radical. It’s not cooperative living. We’ve all lived near other people all our lives. But you’ve brought a different context to help us raise our children, to help us take care of people in the margin. I think that’s what’s really radical about what you’re doing, Sarah.
Evan: Hi, Sarah. Hey everybody. Hey, John.
Peter: Hi, Evan. Thank you for showing up.
Evan: Thanks for having me. Sarah, first of all, I’m jealous as I hear you talk about the built environment that you get to enjoy day in and day out. I’m curious about making suburban streets at least somewhat take this journey and how to do that. I mean, in my mind, community gardens and these things are obvious choices to start to have shared ownership and to be able to do things like practice conflict with each other and share a sense of shared ownership over things. But I’m wondering what is the most successful joint projects that you’ve had that aren’t maybe totally reliant on the context or the built environment that because you guys have spent so much time together, because of the built environment you’ve been able to experiment with and have been the most successful kind of joint ownership things that might transition to a suburban street.
Sarah: Well, I think I’m looking up and I’m seeing Peter’s lovely face there, and I’m just thinking about the importance of invitation. I think that relationships happen kind of one on one, right? It’s a process of making those connections with people and reaching out. I also think that it’s often about food. So the chances to eat together, to share with one another over a meal in different contexts is always a good way to come together. So I guess those would be a couple of thoughts that I have.
Peter: There are places that offer economic incentives to neighbors to do something together. And social capital is, do we trust each other and then what can we do to make this place better? And I do think food matters. But they’re not as powerful. Sarah promises something more powerful than how we’ve been thinking. A block party once a year we get together… Might even think is there some group with a little bit of money, $1,000, that would say, “Look, if we can gather with three other neighbors to decide how do we make this neighborhood better,” that question takes another step beyond social connection. And there’s something about being productive together that transcends, and the power of what Sarah talks about and John has written about and everything is producing something together. So you might call a meeting, you got a nice room, got great light, love your walls. Call a meeting. And I know you know more about this than I do, and say, “What would you do to make this neighborhood better?” For me, it’s being productive together that signifies what Sarah’s talking about. Even though in the suburban environment, which is designed for isolation.
Peter: It’s designed for safety. But people are not happy in their isolation. And so maybe you can imagine some––I don’t know. I just think the question you raise is very powerful because it goes against 50 years of development.
Evan: Yeah. I’m noticing on the Facebook, potentially one of my neighbors that has started a cooking club on my street is watching on Facebook. So, Michael, if you hear this, thanks for what you’re doing on our street already to connect people. Yeah. I love the idea, the audacious idea of trying to intermingle our economic outlook together somehow and collaborate in a way that forces us to connect and to interact at a level that we haven’t thus far.
Peter: You’re right. We are interconnected economically, we just pretend like we’re not. And this changes the conversation from maintaining values. Value my housing, all the arguments in favor of dark things have been about, “We don’t want to let the housing value go down.” But the idea of a cooking club, I would use that as an excuse to say, “How do we make the neighborhood better?” That’s different than, “How do we learn to be together?” Anyways, thank you, Evan.
Sarah: I’m wondering how much more time we have.
Becky: We have very little time. However, I did invite Dottie on. Dottie can be on audio only, and Dottie, if you’re able to unmute, maybe we’ll try to take your one final question. And then I do know that we have a special event coming up on November 19th, and it seems like potentially there’s some energy from this conversation to roll into that November 19th event, which is the next one. The topic or the title of the next event is You Are The Guest, which means whatever conversation the community wants to bring will be the focus of that November 19th conversation.
So, Dottie, I’m going to let you speak. We need to keep it brief. We only have two more minutes, but I want to give you a chance to share.
Dottie: This is a great conversation. I am co founder of Hope, a community in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. And my really direct question is it’s not an issue of finding people with intellectual development disabilities that need housing. How do we attract people into this community without disabilities, and my apologies if you already spoke of this, I jumped in late. Thank you.
Sarah: I think one of the things I was talking about from the co-housing kind of scenario is that there needs to be a balance of kind of critical mass of individuals who are interested and able to keep the connections and the flow of life and energy happening because this is people’s primary home, their primary lifestyle. And so I don’t want to paint it too rosy in the sense that people of limited bandwidths. They’re all raising families and kids, and they’re dealing with marriage and life is going on. So it’s not like we’re altruistic folk that are going to look after everybody. That’s not what happens. What happens is it needs to be a context where there are mutual friendships, where there’s give and take, and people are interacting as kind of neighbors and peers. So a community can be welcoming and inclusive of those of us as we become frail and elderly or children who are young and vulnerable or have disabilities, and there has to be kind of enough folk that are able to mow the lawn when it needs to be mowed or help make dinner. So it is a bit of a challenging knowing what the right mix is there.
Sarah: I really need to say something before we close.
I want to take this moment, and I might cry to say thank you to Peter and John for how good you are in terms of bringing up important things in our culture and making space for important conversations. I thank you for continuing to hold that space because it’s been very profound for me. I could say more, but I’m not great at––
Peter: You’re going to make John cry.
Peter: I want to say one more thing, and this partly to you, Evan. All you need is one person. We used to call them busybodies. But if you have one person in the neighborhood that’s a connector and sometimes they’re jerks. They can perform miracles. Clean up your goddamn sidewalk. Why don’t you cut––? I have one. All it takes is one super connector, and the sad thing is you may have to be it. Sarah, that’s very sweet. Thank you.
John: Sarah, thank you. I mean, you’re a great experimenter. We can learn so much from you. And I’m glad you identified ways that we can continue to learn more. Thank you.
Peter: This is how John receives love. Just say, “Thank you, John.” Thank you, Sarah. I like hearing that.
Sarah: Thank you.
Becky: Thanks everyone. We’ll see you next month, November 19th. You Are The Guest, and we’ll be in touch with this recording and other follow up from today’s event.
- Practices for Bringing the Co-Housing Concept to Life (Arthurs)
- Further Up and Further In (Arthurs)
Home page image: Liviu Ghemaru