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Cohousing Community 

How new living arrangements can bring us closer together

click to enlarge CALEB WALSH ILLUSTRATION
  • Caleb Walsh illustration

In my family, Thanksgiving was traditionally celebrated potluck style. Dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins would crowd into my grandparents' house every year for Kay's famous cheesy potatoes. Friends and significant others were always welcome in our informal army of relatives. As families become smaller and people move around for more specialized jobs, celebrations like "Friendsgiving" and other creative ways of building new connections are increasingly popular.

click to enlarge mariahmckay.jpg

The strategy can even be applied to one's living situation in the form of cohousing. Originating in Denmark, cohousing in America typically resembles a condominium association in which private residences are clustered around a shared space, designed to meet the needs of that particular group. Shared structures, such as a "common house," include amenities like an industrial kitchen, guest bedrooms, children's play areas, workout equipment, a large gathering space and workshops or art studios. Exterior spaces share things like community gardens, playgrounds and pools.

Importantly, parking is typically located off to one side of a cohousing development. This design choice accomplishes three things at once: First, it prevents rolling directly into a private garage, where avoidance of one's neighbors is assured. Second, it invites residents to walk past the common house on their way to their front door, encouraging time spent there. Finally, it allows the front porches of people's homes to be built closer together, facilitating conversation and easy supervision of children.

While some cohousing communities focus on seniors, most are intergenerational. With the high cost of childcare and most families earning two incomes, a wrap-around community of trusted adults is an attractive amenity to many parents. Highly functioning cohousing communities organize shared dinners up to five nights a week. Imagine being able to enjoy meals with neighbors and friends any night of the week, but only having to cook once a month. Even neighbors outside the cohousing development benefit from having such a vibrant social center nearby.

Such efficiencies of scale add up quickly. With duplex, triplex, townhome or urban loft-style arrangements, shared walls mean energy savings, and communities often go in together on large solar arrays or other green building features. While America has a proud "Do It Yourself" tradition, many are rediscovering that "Doing It Together" can be more realistic and sustainable, given our demanding modern lives.

While cohousing certainly isn't for everyone, it does offer dedicated groups of individuals a way to come together to design the micro-neighborhood of their dreams. Developing the plans for cohousing together is an important part of creating the social ties and group decision-making skills that ensure a strong community over the years to come.

While there are already 22 cohousing developments in Western Washington, none are currently registered here in the Inland Northwest. Fortunately, a group of Spokane residents are coming together to pioneer this model locally. When their efforts prove successful, they could be the first of many such communities to call our region home. ♦

Mariah McKay is a fourth-generation daughter of Spokane and a community organizer campaigning for racial, social and economic justice. She has worked in biotech and government and currently serves as a public health advocate.

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