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S400: Bringing Community to the Micro-level – The Opportunities of Urban Cohousing

2012 March 5
by Josh Mahar

< Daybreak Cohousing in Portland - Common areas aren't used a couple times a year, they are focal points for community interaction - click to enlarge; photo by Grace Kim >

The idea of cooperative housing is not new. For many of us it conjures up utopian dreams of cultish flower children. But over the past 20 years a new form of communal housing, cohousing, has developed into an intriguing, and more down-to-earth, approach to collective living in the United States. Rather than far-flung communes in the woods, many cohousing communities are choosing urban locations to capitalize on the social benefits of denser neighborhoods. Here in Seattle, there are currently three communities, Duwamish and Puget Ridge in West Seattle, and Jackson Place in the Central Area. Capitol Hill Urban Housing, the most urban project of all, is currently in the works on 12thAve.

There hasn’t been much popular interest in cohousing to date; but a number of recent studies suggest that cohousing could be one of the most effective ways of addressing sustainability goals: socially, economically and environmentally. Perhaps it’s time we stop thinking about communal living at the fringe, and start considering it a fundamental part of creating better, more livable cities.

< Quayside Village Cohousing, British Columbia - Rather than dead space, walkways are considered communal and used to the fullest; photo by Grace Kim >

Cohousing in many ways is the goldilocks solution to modern housing. It provides just the right amount of communal interaction but with clear places for personal space. The key physical differences of cohousing are that it is designed through a participatory process and incorporates shared spaces. These come in diverse forms: from gardens, to kitchens, to guest rooms, or even wine cellars.  Other than that, the only real distinction of cohousing is that residents are “consciously committed to living as a community”. While each person has their own home, residents come together for various kinds of activities, such as monthly shared dinners. They also use group decision-making to deal with maintenance issues and other community concerns.

This may not sound all that different from a condo building with an HOA and a shared gym, but the intentionality of cohousing makes a world of difference. A 2011 survey of cohousing residents by COHOUS found that a majority of cohousers frequently helped with childcare, provided support to sick or injured neighbors, and exchanged services and equipment. What’s more, a whopping 48% said they occasionally provided voluntary financial aid or assistance to a neighbor in need. Way beyond the intermittent cup of sugar, cohousing neighbors provide a web of support to each other that forms a robust social and financial safety net.

< Quayside Village, British Columbia - Nothing special on the outside; it's what's on the inside that counts. Photo by Grace Kim >

It should come as no surprise that this collective living pays environmental dividends as well. An EPA study of a Colorado cohousing community found that their utility bills were around 50% lower than surrounding homes. Other research suggests that water use and driving are significantly lower in cohousing communities as well.  Although some of this comes from shared space and group activities, much of the efficiency and savings come from the ability of cohousing communities to leverage each other’s skills, knowledge, and resources to integrate and maintain green technologies in their homes.  As of 2011, at least 39 of the country’s 120 cohousing communities had won one or more awards for excellence in sustainability.

Communal living has never been popular in a country founded on the values of individualism. But, humans are by nature social animals; a strong social fabric is how societies collectively overcome hard times, and thrive in good. If we fail to cultivate these bonds, our efforts toward sustainability, literally, our ability to endure, are necessarily doomed. Cohousing is a good opportunity to leverage the benefits of communal living to make our cities more resilient to climate challenges, while respecting our tradition of personal freedom.


Josh Mahar currently helps with community engagement at Seattle’s P-Patch Program. He has worked on community development issues with a number of organizations including Forterra, Historic Seattle, and the Capitol Hill Community Council. He is pursuing his Master’s Degree in Public Administration at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs.

Note: Information for this post was provided by Grace Kim, principal at Schemata Workshop and past Board Chair of COHOUS. Contact Kim for local cohousing opportunities or to set up a cohousing informational session.