For those who like to put things in context, read this post covering the big picture of One Planet Thriving and how community fits. For another neighbor’s point of view on the same cohousing community, see Top 5 lessons learned living in a village: A psychologist’s view.
Since moving to Troy Gardens Cohousing Community last November (2012), many people have asked me what is cohousing and what does it actually look like. I’ve spent some time trying to process my own experience of living here and to communicate why cohousing is an important option.
Our society is organized in a way that encourages separation and competition between people. This escalation of individualism and competition has brought people into a solitary existence. The inevitable consequences can be seen in multiple areas, from poverty and political corruption to mental illness. When a society rewards competition more than cooperation there is going to be inevitable destruction to ourselves and our environment. This destruction is observable all around us, there is no doubt that our Planet is suffering at the hands of human greed. The oceans are full of garbage, a sign of our careless consumption. Other signs include global warming, depletion of the Earth’s resources and wildlife. Our ever-increasing need for more and our addiction to convenience leads to more waste and churns the cycle of destruction. Corporations and governments operate in and propel this system of competition and consumer greed; the divide between rich and poor is expanding, profits are gained at the expense of the Earth and human beings, economies are failing, and a generation of processed-food eaters are sick. Humanity is suffering and in need of a solution. In fact, we need many solutions, a whole sea of solutions. One of those solutions may be each other — we need people. We need to have connections with the people around us and the Earth on which we depend.
Intentional communities are one way to address these issues. Sharing resources, working together, growing food and learning to cooperate are things that not only help the Earth but our own mental well-being. Understanding our need for others, and learning to cooperate and build community will help mend the competitive culture resulting in a society that upholds stewardship and respect for each other and the Earth.
Intentional communities come in all different shapes and sizes, just like the people that inhabit them. Three main types are eco-villages (like Tamera and Hummingbird), communes and co-housing. Some suggest that co-housing is an optimal solution to our current individualistic society because it provides an easier transition to sharing spaces by balancing privacy and connection. Here at Troy Gardens Cohousing Community (TGCC) we have 30 homes on 5 acres of land. Our property connects to a larger chunk of land (25 acres total) that is run by Community Ground Works which stewards a community garden, restored prairie and Troy Gardens farm (organic, community supported agriculture farm). At TGCC we have private ownership of our homes while we lease the land from Madison Area Community Land Trust and share responsibilities to take care of our land and community life. Our Vision statement is, “Troy Gardens is a welcoming co-housing community where we cultivate sustainability and meaningful connections with one another and the land through celebration, cooperation, and open communication.” The other unique thing about TGCC is that it is mixed income, meaning that 2/3rds of us who live here are below 80% on the HUD income levels. These low-income houses can only be purchased by qualified low-income households and must be re-sold as low-income.
Monthly community meetings are held to discuss issues that arise. There are various committees dealing with social planning, finances, landscape, maintenance, etc. We participate in the planning and development of the community. We have a non-hierarchical structure where there are leadership roles but not leaders. The community is not dependent on any one person. The physical design of TGCC encourages community interaction by the architectural design and pedestrian-oriented walking paths with cars parking on the periphery and open courtyard space in the middle.
My own experiences have led me to become a strong believer in community living. I have lived in shared spaces and individual spaces here and abroad. Becoming a parent has brought me to the utter realization of my need for other people. The first two years of my daughter’s life, my husband and I lived in a small flat in London. It required a lot of effort to get out the door (and on a bus or train) with a baby. This meant as I stepped into my new life as a stay-at-home mom, I often felt alone and isolated. I feel very honored and committed to being at-home to raise my kids but it is hard work and human contact and support can make all the difference. Now, with three children ages 5 and under, my need for support and adult human contact is magnified.
It has been 10 months since we moved to TGCC. It is hard to find the words to fully communicate how wonderful it is to live here. So, I will share a typical summer day in our life at Troy Gardens. My day begins with one of my little ones crawling in bed with me, waking me up. While I make breakfast, I send one of the kids out to pick some kale from the garden. One of my neighbors, a fellow stay-at-home mom stops by and gives us some homemade apple sauce. We talk for a few minutes as I continue to work in the kitchen and serve breakfast. After we are ready for the day, my two older kids head outside to ride bikes around the courtyard and play at the playground. Another neighbor friend stops in with a computer question for my husband. He takes a few minutes to help fix the problem and she sweeps my floor while he is working on it. Later we go outside with my toddler on my back and find my other kids plus a couple extra kids and moms and we head out for an adventure. We stop by the community gardens where I pick a few ripe tomatoes and cucumbers from my garden plot. Then we go to the prairie and permaculture-inspired edible landscape and pick apples, walnuts, mulberries, pears and crab apples. We walk back to the community with basketfuls of fresh, organic food. We all go back to our houses to feed our kids and have some naptime.
In the afternoon, the kids meet up outside to play and jump around between houses. I walk around the community following my toddler as he plays with the community toys in our shared spaces. I chat with friends as we pass and my son helps himself to some of the neighbor’s cherry tomatoes. I pick a few weeds in our garden, help the kids as needed, and enjoy the sun. Later, I make dinner with the Troy Gardens Farm produce while my doors remain open for kids to come in and out as they please. Another neighbor stops in to let me know she is heading to the store and asks if I need anything. I tell her a few things my fridge needs and she leaves her kids with me. At dinner time, a couple of families decide to share a meal and we all bring our dinners to the picnic tables in the courtyard. We eat good food, we talk, and the kids play. Then we all go back to our homes and go to sleep.
Of course, not all days are this dreamy. Like every other family we have bad days, and those inevitable ups and downs. Also, not everyone at TGCC has a similar experience to mine. Everyone chooses to be involved in different ways and at different times. As a stay-at-home mom, I am home a lot and have time to interact with the other moms (and dads) who are home with their kids. There are many opportunities to be involved in the community, connect with people and contribute. Almost every day there is a group email from someone in the community offering something to give or seeking something they need. It is a constant give and take of food, material objects, ideas, skills and child rearing.
Living in community inevitably brings up issues of conflict and working out differences of opinions and ideas. When issues arise, instead of ignoring our neighbors and driving our cars directly into our garages to avoid any contact with those who live on the other side of the fence, we engage in open communication to work out the issue and find a solution. Anyone who is in a relationship with another human being knows the difficulties of compromise; it is an inevitable part of life and forces us to grow. In spite of the extra challenges that living in community brings, I am so grateful to have this experience and don’t want to live a solitary life again. More than ever before, my life feels rich with the most important things in life: family, community, close friends and beautiful land to grow food and watch my kids grow.
– Brianna Z. Kauer from Create Behavior Solutions
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