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Cohousing, Part 3

February 12, 2007

Thus far I’ve discussed what cohousing is, and my involvement in cohousing locally, but I haven’t really touched on why cohousing belongs here in the Sustainapedia. Can the model of how we house ourselves really contribute to the sustainability of our dwellings? It sure can.

Cohousing in and of itself isn’t necessarily a sustainable practice. (It’s a good practice, yes – anything that promotes actually getting to know your neighbours and re-introducing that “small town feeling” into our anonymous suburbs is just peachy as far as I’m concerned.) There is the potential for more sustainable living with cohousing, and in large it comes from the many ways in which cohousing promotes densification.

Densification, also called intensification, is simply getting people to live in a smaller area. In some cases, that would mean simply giving people less land to do with as they please; build a townhouse instead of a single family home, for example. Of course, you’re fooling nobody when you give them a lot with 25′ frontage instead of 40′ – they know full well that they’re being packed in. (I speak from experience here.) Cohousing, however, can acheive densification without having to give up a nice big yard.

This is accomplished by pooling resources, in this case the resource being green space. Instead of dividing the available green space amongst all the residences and making these spaces private yards, each residence gets a small private yard with the rest of the space pooled to make common green space. Now you and the neighbour’s kids have a place to put a playground where they can play together, there is room for a community vegetable garden, and there is space to go for a walk. (As another benefit, a few mowers stored in a community shed can do all of the cutting instead of each household having their own mower.)

Windsong is a great example of this. It is built on a 5.8 acre parcel of land, but only 1.8 of those acres is used for the 34 residences, common house, and underground parking structure. The other 4 acres is left in a natural state. Could you imagine having 4 acres to romp around in? Wouldn’t that be so much nicer than having sole domain over 1/34th of that? Yes, the 4 acres are shared – but it’s still 4 acres of nature in an urban environment. You’d be hard-pressed to duplicate that kind of green space (and natural ecosystem) in a collection of private yards.

Another aspect of cohousing contributes to this pooling of greenspace. Although it’s not a defining feature of cohousing, most cohousing developments are arranged to keep cars on the periphery. It means just what it sounds like: the cars stay on or near the outer perimeter of the property. Access lanes may be provided for unloading nearer your front door and for emergency access, but generally vehicles are not front and center on the property. How does that lead to being sustainable? For one, you’ve seriously reduced the amount of road, driveway, and curbing you need, and all that space can be used for housing, open space, gardens, or simply reducing the amount of land needed for a given number of residences.

Speaking of residences, there are measures of sustainability in cohousing residences as well. First, as you donated all your unused or infrequently used space from your residence to the common house, your actual residence is smaller, and requires that much less energy to heat and ventilate (and clean!). Typically, cohousing residences are clustered to some degree as well, anything from duplexes all the way to single multi-unit residential buildings like Windsong. The more shared walls you have, the less exposure your home has to the elements, and the less energy transfer there will be.

What’s more, it seems that people that are attracted to cohousing also share many other traits, including a drive to live more sustainably. While building a single environmentally-friendly home could be more expensive due to the addition of sustainable features and/or components, building an entire cluster of green homes can make it more affordable. With so many people having a direct interest in sustainability, there is also the opportunity to incorporate a lot more sustainable ideas and features than any one person might come up with.

This is, of course, just a very broad look at how cohousing can improve the measure of sustainability for how we live. Each cohousing development is different, and each community will have their own goals and ideals. In general, it all boils down to doing what we were taught in kindergarten; to share. If we share, we can get by with less stuff. And the less stuff we have, the less space and energy it requires. Simple stuff, but profound in its application.

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