Last weekend my husband Thom and I drove to Tucson, AZ to visit three thriving cohousing communities. As I wrote about in January, even though the concept of cohousing is still relatively young, it’s appeal is growing as others discover the benefits. Ever since I first heard about them, I recognized how many ways they mimic the advantages I find from rightsizing. After touring all three facilities, it is also evident that they embrace the core values of SMART*. Is cohousing a wave of the future? It likely depends on whether you value community, and if you see them as a path to living your values.
Tucson is unique because they have three cohousing communities within their city limits that have existed for over ten years. Fortunately for us, Tucson is only a six to seven hour drive from where I live in Southern California. Each of the three communities has a website and contact information, so it wasn’t difficult to arrange tours with enough notice. Is there a cohousing community near you? The best way to find out is to go to the website: cohousing.org where they have an extensive list of all existing and forming cohousing communities in the U.S. The organization is also planning a nationwide “open-house” on April 30, 2016 with more information on their website.
The first community we visited is named Stone Curves Cohousing Community and it rests on 5.1 acres about four miles from downtown. There we met a young woman and resident named Kat who enthusiastically showed us through her community. From the outside, Stone Curves looks somewhat like an attractive condo project. A big difference is that the parking exists solely on the outside perimeter, and none are connected to the homes themselves. Why? This makes
people walk to-and-from their front doors. Even better, it creates friendly spaces for people to wave or connect with their neighbors as they come and go. After living in a large suburban home for many years, I can attest to how easy it is to drive into a three-car garage without a word or even eye-contact with your neighbors. That’s just not possible in a cohousing community—and that’s the point.
The 48 residences at Stone Curves are clustered into five “villages” built around a central courtyard area with a table and chairs under a variety of different canopies. Each “village” features a different personality, plants, and artist touches designed and maintained by the residents of that village. Stone Curves is multigenerational with floorplans ranging from one bedroom-one bath homes for singles, to up to four bedrooms for families.
Another thing that makes cohousing communities unique is the intention to sacrifice large square footages within the homes in order to make both the space and the resources to build and maintain common space and facilities with others. In other words, cohousing promotes sharing resources to benefit everyone.
Stone Curves has a 3,850 square foot Common House built around an open courtyard. In the Common House, there is a big kitchen with commercial grade appliances, a dining room with seating for up to 100 people, a laundry room, three guest bedrooms, a library, living room, children’s room, exercise and yoga room, and more. Beyond the Common House is a swimming pool and Jacuzzi, an 800 square foot workshop, outdoor barbecue area, children’s playground, a community garden, a dog run, a chicken coop and yard, and a large open space lawn for games, picnics and outdoor movies.
Of course, other housing developments and condo projects may contain some of these amenities, but what makes cohousing properties even more unique is that they are self-managed and maintained. At Stone Curves, every adult resident is expected to volunteer to do a task of his or her choosing. For example, I asked about an art room for residents and was told that a previous resident offered all sorts of art classes and projects, but when that resident moved, the benefit dropped away until someone else takes up the offering.
Another clearly visible distinction was a design embracing the natural environment. Like most cohousing communities, the Stone Curves community aims to live sustainably and in harmony with nature. Using low-water plants and landscaping, indigenous fruit trees, a permaculture design, composting and rain-water capture and cisterns for irrigation, they strive to live lightly on the planet.
Our second tour was the nearby Sonora Cohousing Community. Sonora was the first project in Tucson built in 2000 and contains 36 homes on 4.8 acres. At Sonora a resident named Martha strolled proudly through her community sharing details about how she helped to create the property. Like most cohousing neighborhoods, the idea of the community began long before construction ever starts. By bringing together people with shared intentions, the design, location, financing, and creation, all followed those early meetings that began back in the mid-1990s.
Like the other two, Sonora is a multigenerational community. What is evident at both Sonora and Stone Curves is that families are both encouraged and supported. At both properties we witnessed children playing freely with one another in the open spaces and play areas provided. It is easy to imagine why a parent would be appreciative of a community where their children are given safe and fun areas to play and the ongoing interaction with other kids. As one mom said when we stopped to chat, if I need a break, I suggest they find their friends and play outside. There is always one or another mom ready to keep an eye on them. Clearly a huge benefit is that children play outside with each other rather than on video games or sitting blankly in front of a television.
Many of the residences at Sonora are rows of both one and two-story homes with front porches leading out to the collective front gathering spaces. While the front porches invite interaction, all units have a private patio in the back. Martha made sure to tell us that the original residents of Sonora designed and built their Common House using straw-bale themselves. That building features a community kitchen and dining room, one guest room, craft room, children’s room, laundry and more.
The property has a swimming pool, a community garden, a chicken run and a dog run. Activities include weekly dinners, weekly yoga instruction, book clubs and art classes. Much like Stone Curves, the close-in neighborhood is walkable to grocery, other shopping and University of Arizona at Tucson. Miles of bike trails connect it car-free to many areas of Tucson.
The final community we toured in Tucson was Milagro Cohousing. The 28 homes of Milagro were designed and completed in 2002 specifically to create a more rural and secluded community than the other two with a stronger emphasis on nature. With a total of 43 acres owned by the community, the homes and community resources only occupy eight of those acres, leaving 35 acres of undisturbed open desert space.
The homes and the 3,600 square foot Common House are built using adobe blocks and passive solar orientation. Natural landscaping, permaculture and other landscaping compatible with the environment are all evident. Of particular note is the private wetlands and wastewater recycling program that sustains the community.
Milagro is the smallest cohousing community with the least amount of children, although as we learned this is a fluid event in all multigenerational communities. And although it feels much
more rural than the other two, Milagro is only a few miles outside the main part of Tucson and 12 minutes by car to downtown. The expansive views and the peaceful and quiet setting are part of its charm.
After spending just two days touring these properties, we felt slightly overloaded with impressions, questions, and ideas. Then at the last minute, we were graciously invited to attend a potluck being held that night at Stone Curves for all three communities. Although we had only spent an hour or so at each property, we were welcomed back in as old friends. Talking a mile a minute, eating piles of good food, and having a glass of wine (or two) while enjoying the beautiful balmy spring weather was pretty close to heaven.
Are there challenges? Yes. An answer to the question we raised during every tour was that you can’t expect to get along with every person in your community. Instead, as one resident told us, it’s good to expect that you will be close to about one-third of your neighbors, be able to co-exist peacefully with another third, and just be polite and tolerant of the final third. But in a neighborhood where there are 100 people, ranging in age from 9 months to 93 years old, that both reasonable and desirable. Plus just, knowing that those 100 people share your values for most things and are willing to not only pay for them, but continually do the work to fulfill them, is another testimony.
Also problematic is the co-management of the property and facilities. The majority of cohousing communities strive for consensus. But consensus takes time, patience and even training. Learning to get along, deep communication, sharing resources and ideas, and living peacefully and cooperatively is not something that most people strive for in typical neighborhoods. Cohousing residents live that way every day.
It has become very common in our society to turn over responsibility for the things we say we want to experience in our lives. We go to a doctor and expect him to fix us in return for payment, we expect our schools to educate our children, and our government run things the way we think it should be run. A cohousing community instead asks us to get involved, take responsibility for the things we say we value, and participate, even when it is hard. However, the payoff seems to be the authentic and deeply connected values that so many of us crave.
Are Thom and I moving to Tucson? Probably not. But the examples we witnessed there hold great attraction. For so many reasons community is important. Even more important is the reminder that it’s SMART to live your values.
*SMART = Sustainable, Meaningful, Aware, Responsible & Thankful
Note: The Cohousing Association of the U.S. is holding it’s annual conference May 20-21, 2016 in Salt Lake City. For more info go to Aging Better Together—The Power of Community.