I grew up in Easton on three acres of land with apple, pear and peach trees in the far field. It was an idyllic setting that my parents adored. There was one teensy-weensy problem with it, as far as I was concerned: Where were all the freaking neighbors?!?
I seethed with jealousy at my friends who had close-knit neighborhoods. They could just flop in any direction and there were kids to play with as far as the eye could see. While I had to arrange with my parents to drive me 15 to 20 minutes away for a play date, my friends could trick-or-treat within yards of their homes. I had the old guy in the far field across the street that, not surprisingly, wasn’t very fond of children.
Wouldn’t it be great to have the best of both worlds: An affordable home in a community setting? That’s exactly how the members of Green Haven Cohousing Community feel. For the last few years, they have been working toward building a sustainable existence in the New Haven area. They have hired sustainable business consultants, architects, and permaculture experts. They are planning for 33 single-family units that they hope will include a community garden and the ability to raise animals.
Originally, the group of cohousing members looked in downtown New Haven to make the community more accessible to the city center. But they couldn’t find a tract of land big enough to support their needs. Now, they’re looking at seven acres in Milford.
Green Haven member Marie Pulito is excited about the
prospect of obtaining the space. “This property rose to the top because it’s so
close to mass transit. It is less than two miles from the train station,” she
said excitedly. “It includes an orchard and it’s across the street from a park
with hiking trails, tennis courts, a playground, and bridle trails. That means
we could raise horses if we wanted to.”
Horses and a bunch of fruit trees might sound nice, but the main point to a housing community like this is to provide an environment in which everyone benefits. They seek a multigenerational atmosphere that is socio-economically diverse. The housing units will be surrounded by a “pedestrian-friendly layout” that centers around a general meeting house and community space. They are also planning for a children’s play area and a teen lounge along with office space for those who work from home and extra guest bedrooms. So when your mother-in-law comes to visit, she’s got somewhere else to stay and you didn’t have to pay for a hotel!
As a utopia of sorts, the group works together making formal consensus decisions. They post rules members are expected to follow when speaking to one another: Listen attentively; Speak honestly; Show respect; Assume good intentions.
While this may sound like making nice in the sandbox at preschool, members say the system works well. “Sometimes things get heated,” said group member Dick Margulis, “but we always get back on track.”
Margulis said their meetings are an intense two hours, but they get things done because they stick to their agenda. “All of us have found that bringing that kind of structure to a meeting really works,” he said. “This is not a college dorm consensus. When ideas come to the group, we approach it in a positive way. It has a good, centering influence.”
Pulito agreed. As a nurse and lactation consultant at Yale New Haven Hospital, she said she has been able to apply what she has learned about consensus opinion at her job. “This process has been a growth for me,” said Pulito. “I see it as a benefit because everyone has an equal voice.”
While this community group will be the first of its kind in Connecticut, it is not the first in the New England area. In Brunswick, ME, Two Echo Cohousing Community has existed for a number of years. As they state on their web site, their community is “by the people, for the people.”
It is born out of an original concept developed in Denmark. According to the Cohousing Association of the United States, a Danish architect got several of his friends to go in together on terraced houses built around a common house and a swimming pool. That was in 1964. While the construction of the community on the outskirts of Copenhagen didn’t take place until 1973, an idea was born. By 1982, twenty-two cohousing communities had been built and occupied in Denmark. Since then, a number of housing communities have continued to pop up for the very same reasons: Having a safe place to live.
At Two Echo, they all work together and share their living experience with one another. They will happily exclaim that even when the first residents moved in, neighbors shared dinner together and set up mutually beneficial childcare arrangements. Who wouldn’t want that on their first day in the new pad?
If you’re looking for one in your area, visit the the Cohousing Association’s web site and check out their national directory. In the Northeast, there are cohousing communities available not only in Maine but in Massacusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York. Some are completed while others are still forming. But each of them has the goal of living together in harmony with nature and one another.
“Given the trend of culture to live isolated suburban lives,” said Margulis, “this pushes people in the other direction. It’s getting back to the way things used to be.”
Image courtesy of the Linking, Learning, Leveraging project.