Volume 19 Number 2
Creating a Village
01 April 2006
Many people in the USA and Europe are designing their own communities. David Bygott and his wife Jeannette recently moved into a cohousing community. What's that like?
SIX-YEAR-OLD EMILY flies her scooter along the twisty pathway between the houses of her Arizona neighbourhood, through flowerbeds alive with butterflies. She knows all her neighbours by name and greets them as she passes-her reading teacher, the guy from Africa who teaches her camping skills (that's me), the old couple going to the swimming pool, her friend's granny bringing the groceries in a push-cart, the architect taking his washing to the laundry room. She's safe from traffic, because everyone parks in the communal car park and walks to their house.
She jumps off her scooter and runs into the common house. The usual crowd is hanging out in the library, and offers her some popcorn. In the spacious kitchen, her mum and two friends are preparing the Saturday night common meal for about 30 people-smells delicious but Mum says wait! Emily dives into the playroom to play with two other kids.
Utopia? No, cohousing. They say it takes a village to raise a child. And if you haven't got a village, well, you can start your own.
Emily's parents and neighbours wanted a community more humane and eco-friendly than the developers' dream-those sprawling suburban estates of identical isolated nesting-boxes, where you drive into your house through an automatic garage door and need never see anyone.
They wanted instead to create a ‘village' where no-one need ever feel alienated or fearful, where neighbours cooperate, and where, by sharing facilities and space, they could reduce their impact on the land. They advertised in local papers and on ?intentional community' websites, and started to meet together to create guidelines for community life. Here they did not have to start from scratch. The cohousing movement began in Denmark in the 1960s and soon spread to the USA and elsewhere. From the experience of over 300 communities worldwide, they could learn what works, and what pitfalls to avoid.
Finding the right land was not easy, but after looking at dozens of properties they pooled their resources and bought 40 acres of desert on the edge of Tucson, Arizona. The next hurdle was to convince their new neighbours and the City Council that this was not going to be a hippie commune with tents, drugs and free love. Then, they had to find an architect who could translate their vision into practical buildings, and contractors to make it happen.
It took several years and many miracles to create our community so we named it 'Milagro'- 'miracle' in Spanish. Jeannette and I came into the picture in 2001, about halfway through construction. We were exploring south-west USA with a view to moving there after 25 years in Tanzania. We were focusing on cohousing communities because they offered the chance of integrating quickly into a friendly neighbourhood. We chose Milagro, out of the 12 we looked at, because it was well located with an interesting diversity of members. So we put some money down and, in 2003, after months of e-mail conversations, we moved into our new house.
We were welcomed by everyone at a big pot-luck dinner. We'd arrived with very little, but within days neighbours donated or lent spare beds, chairs, lamps and other items. Our new environment demonstrated all the main principles of cohousing: Resident participation in planning.
Resident participation in planning
The community had formed itself and planned the entire development, and we continue to hold general meetings every month to plan work that needs to be done, expenditure and social events.
We chose to cluster our 28 houses and other buildings on a quarter of the land, leaving the rest unspoilt as a wildlife refuge and buffer against encroaching development. The houses are designed to save energy-thick adobe walls and passive solar heating keep them warm in winter and cool in summer. They are arranged in two irregular rows, separated by a footpath and communal gardens landscaped into basins to trap every drop of rain. Behind our houses we have small personal gardens. A workshop, car park and garages are clustered in a separate area. A ?wetlands' system collects wastewater, purifies it in beds of rushes, and pumps it back to irrigate the communal gardens.
Everyone owns their own house, and a share of the common facilities. Our central feature is the common house, described earlier. We also have a well-equipped workshop for maintenance and repairs, and an electric golf-cart for transporting heavy items from car park to house. So, we each have access to a lot more space, but our own homes needn't be cluttered with so much stuff.
The day after we arrived we were helping to lay the main driveway! All necessary maintenance, landscaping and gardening is done or coordinated by committees of residents. We each pay monthly dues to cover costs of materials and hired labour. Decision-making without leaders.
Decision-making without leaders
We have no leaders, no central council. Our community meetings are chaired by two volunteer facilitators. When decisions have to be made, we aim for consensus, and everyone has a say. We use a voting system called 'fist to five'. Everyone holds up one hand. A fist means you have a procedural reason for blocking the motion; one or two fingers-you object; three fingers-you're equivocal; four fingers-you support it; and five fingers-you're prepared to take responsibility for it. The facilitators check around the circle and encourage objectors to air their views. Usually consensus is easily reached. If there's an impasse, a few minutes of silent reflection often clears the air, but sometimes after three hours we long for a dictator!
We're pleased with our choice. We've made a lot of friends, and we take care of each other. We can travel without worrying about the homes, gardens or pets we leave behind. We share wonderful meals, carpool, go hiking or camping together, trade skills and local knowledge, and enjoy having surrogate parents and surrogate kids like Emily.
Milagro was complex to set up, and the houses turned out to be more expensive than anyone imagined. Many groups have followed the simpler course of sharing one large house or adapting several adjacent houses in the same street. The first step of the journey is the will and the commitment to create a new life together.
How can you find out more? Learn about cohousing at www. cohousing.org There are many other kinds of intentional community, from self-sufficient farms to spiritual communes, and you can find more on www.ic.org Is there one near you? Ask if you can come and visit.
I have a relative living in Earthhaven Ecovillage. I would like to know more about Milagro, as the Tucson area appeals to my partner & I. Thanks, Kathie Weinmann
Kathie Weinmann, 27 March 2007