“You guys would love cohousing! It’s exactly the sort of place for you!”. “No way” was my response, imagining a “commune” where no one had their own space, the inability to have the robust discussions over differences that my husband and I indulge in, our loud lively kids’ impact on the place. Then we had the opportunity to live there. In 2004 our house caught fire. We were going to be homeless for two weeks while repairs were carried out. One of our friends who lived at Cascade Cohousing (which incidentally is the first and longest running cohousing community in Australia) offered us his home and we gingerly went about living in community while he went overseas. From the street the place is beautiful. Small solar passive homes curled in a ‘J’ shape around a central common area that is comprised of two car parks and a common house as well as yard space, banks of native plants and lots of fruit trees and flowers. Common meals and hordes of playmates and bushland right over the fence. Warm welcoming people, beautifully built homes and the common house with its wall of cups and big kitchen. When we moved back to our suburban rental we weren’t quite so wary of this cohousing life. The lack of privacy never eventuated, if anyone heard us raise our voices they were too polite to say so and they loved our kids who fitted in almost as if they were born there. So when the opportunity to move in long term arose we didn’t have to debate or discuss we just knew it was the right place for our family to be.
WHAT IS COHOUSING?
Pioneered in Denmark in the early sixties, cohousing communities seek to re-establish the best parts of traditional European villages. There are many different forms of intentional communities of which the cohousing model is but one. In this concept, there is a strata title on the land with people owning their own homes (with kitchen, bathroom(s), bedrooms etc) and sharing in the common lands and common facilities which are usually housed in one building. The houses that make up each community are also built with the environment in mind, to minimise disturbance, make the most of solar passive vantages and constructed with materials that are environmentally friendly. The common house is often the focal point of the community and most of the residents will have had a hand in building it. Here there is a space for meals, laundry facilities, a workshop, guest rooms and any other shared facility that the community might feel necessary. Unlike other intentional communities there is no particular belief or ideal required to tie the group together other than the wish to create a community.
Part of the contribution that each household makes to the community is in the form of “sweat equity”. We participate in monthly working bees that keep the common land and buildings cared for and in good working order. There are a certain number of hours per quarter that are expected. Adults are expected to participate and children are encouraged to. There are always jobs that little hands can do, from weeding to litter collection to ringing the bell for morning tea.
Another facet of cohousing is to have no car access to each house. Instead carparks are designed to fit into the common spaces which makes it safer for all, especially the children and means that houses can be grouped more closely together. Spaces that might ordinarily be used to “house” a car are freed up for human living and meeting up at the carpark is another way for people to catch up with each other.
We share food on a regular basis, called variously the dinner club, the supper club or common meal. Some cohousing groups eat together every evening, in others there are fewer nights and/or the nights for the common meal are not fixed. These meals cement the community by bringing it together, giving us time to relax and catch up with what seems to be one giant extended family. The common house contains a laundry, a bathroom, toilet facilities, a guest room and media room as well as a kid’s play room and the great hall where meals, meetings and parties happen. Most cohousing groups charge per head for the common meals, even if they happen every night. Ours doesn’t but it works well. Graham Meltzer says in his book Sustainable Community- Learning from the Cohousing Model (2005:103) that “the details of the cooking system are worth reporting here, particularly because common meals are so successful. The system is probably the most unusual in cohousing, perhaps even unique. Residents can partake of common meals as often or as seldom as they like, yet there is no record kept of participation nor is there any monetary accounting. No money ever changes hands. The system encourages members to attend common meals three times per week for a cooking commitment of once in approximately seventeen meals. It is premised on the adage, “what goes around, comes around”. It is simple, trusting and casual – a quintessentially Australian innovation, perhaps.”
HOW DOES ALL THIS RELATE TO RAISING CHILDREN?
Here there are as many different models for raising children as there are families to say nothing of the expectations and kindnesses of the people here who have grown children or none at all. There are clear guidelines for expected behaviour in the common areas and there have been many meetings to nut out how to deal with the different parenting styles and the behavioural results. Bringing in third parties, those residents who don’t have young children, has meant that guidelines have been created that all feel willing to follow if not necessarily in agreement within the common spaces.
One of the residents emailed me as I was writing this article to say that she thought they (being Cascade Cohousing) “havent done a particularly good job of planning for children. The design was put together when most of us either had only limited experience of parenting or were past that stage. So that there were a lot of things we could have done better. I would still like to see an area around the common house fenced off to allow parents of young children to relax and know their children cant run onto the road. The kids’ room was put on the south side of the building where it is cold and dark and uninviting to visit. The kitchen is isolated from seeing people wandering up and down the path – those two rooms should have been reversed at the very least.” While it’s not really possible to move the kitchen and kids’ room, this sort of reflection seems to be an inherent quality in the community members. Difficulties or conflicts are talked about so that solutions will emerge. Here efforts have been made to make the kids’ room more inviting and the kitchen looks out on one of the main pathways into the common grounds.
The kids’ room has been livened up with murals and a wall length chalkboard on which great artistic works appear, the dress ups have been sourced from most of the houses and the nearby tip shop and op shops, one of the parents installed a loft area and the children often disappear into the room to emerge inviting us to plays that they come up with sometime between dinner and “pudding time!”. A separate heater has been installed as well so that the room is now warm even in the depths of the Tasmanian winter. I have the youngest child at cohousing and the unfenced areas do give me cause for concern at times because now she often toddles off in search of the other children and I’m just not quick enough to stop her. However she does have a rapt audience of protectors and her mere appearance at meal times can be enough to cause the rest of the children to stop whatever they are doing and flutter round her like a cloud of butterflies. When she was born (here at cohousing) I suddenly realised why space and boundaries have never been an issue since moving here. People didn’t inundate, they gave us the perfect gift – a roster’s worth of obligation free common meals, did loads of washing, took our older kids to play so my partner and I had some wonderful in bed time bonding with our newborn and visited when it was convenient because they could just walk up the path. If it wasn’t the right time noone had wasted a car trip or better part of a day coming to visit. They could just walk down the path home.
Now there are several teenagers coming of age in the community, most of whom have grown up here. This means excellent babysitting rates, people that our children are familiar with and no hassles driving them home afterwards. They also make brilliant “older siblings” and for those one child families it means that their children have lots of other children around to play with or in the case of the teenagers, hang out with. This year three of them are going to the Falls Festival and two of the parents are going as well, ostensibly as chaperones but I well know from more conversations over dinner that the teenagers are fairly worried they’ll be the ones looking after the adults. The common house also serves the needs of the teenagers by giving them space to have parties or sleep overs without too much difficulty. There is also always another parent on hand for any of those sometimes challenging life lessons that need to be taught. Parents can back each other up or be a sounding board for someone else’s child.
There are a list of agreements “about and for” children in the guidelines, some of these have been in effect since 1995, others since 2004. These do not apply to children within their own homes or yards but specifically to the use of common spaces. Everything from setting out expectations for behaviour at mealtimes to the sort of toys that are welcome in the common areas – for example weapons are out but water pistols are fine. Arsenic hour doesn’t seem quite so hard when you know you haven’t got to push on to cook while the house descends to chaos around you. Many of the younger children look forward to the common meal rite of passage – choosing a menu and helping shop for and prepare the food.
There are inevitably a few kids around after school or during the day so there is rarely a shortage of playmates and adults to keep a gentle eye on them. There are two trampolines, swings, a cubby house and a great swathe of lightly forested land at the bottom of the block. There are also holiday activities from bushwalks to swimming excursions and yearly camping trips for any and all who want to come. Word of mouth ensures that there are usually groups of cohousing people sharing rides to concerts or plays or summer activities. This year with nearly all the children at school routines have evolved so that after school care is provided by a different parent each day and the others can stay at work knowing that their children are having a healthy afternoon tea, have space to start homework or play and are well cared for.
Several times a year our resident ceramic artist leads pottery days which are meant to be for the children but more often than not you find quite a few adults getting their hands sticky and relaxing into the peace that creation brings. We’ve even gone bioregional by using clay excavated from the workshop extensions in our last pottery day. There are also several parties a year – winter solstice, Halloween and Christmas. The joy and hullabaloo that accompanied the cutting of the Christmas tree and installing in the common house last year was memorable to say the least. The children also have the opportunity to learn about a huge range of life paths from the adults who make cohousing their home. We had a Zimbabwean musician living at cohousing last year and this year an instrument maker and performer, among others there are Morris dancers, yoga teachers, musicians, singers, university students, a cartographer, artists, computer experts, botanist, authors, a cameraman, actor, midwife and two archaeologists. Some of the residents combine two or more of these!
Cohousing is not for everyone, the creation of the community takes a great deal of maturity and focus but when it works it is truly a thing of beauty. The community is being formed right from the first meetings of interested people, through the construction of the homes and as the years pass in the coming together for meals and meetings and celebrations and quiet evening chats with neighbours. When the community works well it is like a large extended family that cares without smothering and engenders a true sense of belonging.
Kris Erskine Campbell would like to be a stay at home mama but finds herself in the car more often than not. She lives in the foothills of Mt Wellington in the Cascade Cohousing Community with her wickedly funny husband Gordon and three junior comedians, Dara (6), Kell (3) and Fern (1). Breastfeeding is one of her delights.