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Stateside With Rosalea: Clayton's Communes

Stateside With Rosalea Barker

Clayton's Communes

Saturday, I was standing under a Norfolk pine in northern California reading about a housing development in Ranui, New Zealand. I was on a bus tour of six cohousing communities in the East Bay, and the book was one of many that had been put out for our perusal during our stop at the Berkeley Cohousing project.

We'd already visited three cohousing projects in the city of Oakland and one in the city of Pleasant Hill, in a valley east of the East Bay hills, where the summer temperatures are routinely 10 degrees F above those in the East Bay and 20 above those in San Francisco. The Pleasant Hill cohousing project had been developed from scratch--as the Ranui one has been--so it was more easily able to incorporate one of the signature themes of cohousing, energy efficiency. Without the use of an air conditioner, the home we viewed was a cool respite from the 100+ temperature outside.

A press release on the Waitakere City website from December 2004, when the city awarded a $300,000 grant to Ranui's Earthsong Centre Trust for development of their community house sums up the aims of many cohousing projects well. Quoting Councillor Clews, it says:

"Earthsong's vision aligns particularly well with the Council's Three Waters objective to demonstrate innovative water management and its Zero Waste, Sustainable Energy and Clean Air, Strong Communities and Active Democracy platforms."

Cohousing is an odd kind of concept. It grew out of the Danish bofaellesskaber movement of the 1970s, which has been described as a means of creating a strong social network for the nuclear family. Unlike the commune movement of that time, cohousing combines individual ownership of property and space with communal responsibility for the very localised neighbourhood it creates--not just the physical but the social neighborhood as well.

A simple illustration of this is that, ideally, kitchens are placed to face a communal area where children can play so that there is some sense that when your kids are out there playing they are under the watchful eye of people you know. You know those people because you've eaten communal meals with them, participated in communal work days, or been on a committee that manages some aspect of the cohousing operation.

But it's not just in those formal ways that the neighbourhood is created. The site plan of a cohousing project always places parking spaces, garages, and bike sheds on the periphery so that people need to walk through a central area to get to their homes, increasing the likelihood that you're going to bump into one of your neighbours and engage in some kind of social interaction.

In the USA, this is a very significant difference as most dwellings are created so that you drive straight into your garage without even getting out of your car, then use an internal entrance to your house. (Just think The Simpsons opening credits.) People might just as well be astronauts, docking their space shuttle and then communicating face to face only with those on board their particular space station.

Cohousing differs vastly from, say, a rural commune or ohu where you can go build your home in a tree miles from the communal facilities and interact very little with the other people living and working on the commune. But it also differs in many important ways from the typical condominium ownership structures that are a feature of US real estate scene. For example, rather than the governing committee being comprised of just a few residents running the condominium, in cohousing every household is represented.

By way of explanation, "condominium" roughly equates with "townhouse" in NZ parlance. They are a way for real estate developers to put the maximum number of units on the increasingly small amounts of space that are available within city boundaries. Most local authorities have passed laws that put strict limits--such as height restrictions--on the type of building and number of units that can be built, and often local and state laws require condominium developers to include some affordable housing units within the building.

This can be something of a problem for the groups of potential residents who are developing cohousing. The Berkeley group, for example, had to get the city council to pass a law to allow them NOT to include affordable units when they created a condominium legal structure so they could transform a loose-knit group of already existing houses into a cohousing project.

The East Bay is particularly strong on that "retrofit" style of cohousing. Besides the one in Berkeley, all the Oakland projects we visited were a mixture of in-fill purpose-built structures alongside original structures--in one case, a 100-year-old farmhouse now just half a block from one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city. The project in the tiny city of Emeryville was in an industrial area, and had been created from a concrete-testing facility and warehouse.

In their excellent one-page summation of what cohousing is about, Ranui's Earthsong Eco-Neighbourhood website at acknowledges that "cohousing communities are often criticised as being communes for the middle class." And one of the questions that was raised on our tour was to do with the lack of people of colour within the cohousing movement.

Yes, all the people we met who lived in these projects were middle class and were not conspicuously anything other than "White, non-Hispanic," as the demographic forms you fill out in the US would say. There were a couple of Asian women and an architect from Mexico on the bus tour, but I didn't get the chance to find out how they felt about the concept of cohousing.

It seems a particularly Western European concept to me. I imagine it attracts selfish people who feel uncomfortable with their selfishness and lonely people uncomfortable with their loneliness, but who don't have the will to move themselves on from their selfishness or loneliness. So they need some kind of structure that will force them to participate in something larger than themselves, and which creates a safe space for that to happen in.

But having said that's the kind of people it attracts, I'm not sure that that's the kind of people who are suited to being in cohousing. Which is why the process of forming a group and creating the project from scratch is so fundamental to the cohousing vision.

During that process, people who aren't committed to the larger goals of cohousing--such as more sharing and caring about your neighbours, and a participatory process that eschews a hierarchical management style or structure--drop by the wayside as they lose interest, so you're left with a group that actually wants their project to work for all the right reasons.

Time and again in the questions that came up as we visited and talked with our cohousing hosts, talk came back to how much of a time and work obligation was involved, and how were inevitable conflicts of interest resolved. And time and again in the responses, it was obvious that sometimes the obligation--small as it is--feels like a burden and that sometimes the conflicts don't get resolved.

But as one host said, "Isn't that the way with any family?"

(The Cohousing Association of the USA website is at


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