Elitist lifestyle or public good?
From: Cohomag (Cohomagaol.com)
Date: Thu, 16 Oct 1997 15:09:38 -0500
Cohousing has gained a great deal of attention recently from major media
organizations, and there seems to be a growing wave of interest among
Americans in general.  For-profit and nonprofit developers are starting to
experiment with the concept; some, like Jim Leach in Colorado, see that
cohousing is an innovative product for a growing market ("cultural
creatives," college-educated baby boomers, empty nesters, new agers or
whatever).  Instead of building condos with a lot of flashy amenities, they
are building housing that encourages interaction and mutual support among
neighbors.
Still, the growth of cohousing ultimately depends on getting some kind of
buy-in from city planners and government officials as well as the academics
who help shape the outlook of these people. Based on a symposium I went to
last night at Berkeley?s College of Environmental Design, we still have a
long way to go.  I am submitting a rather lengthy summary because I think the
cohousing movement as a whole needs to grapple with the issues.
The symposium was entitled, "The New Urbanism:  Is It Good Design?"  About
half a dozen graduates from the college addressed the topic in different
ways.  In many ways the speakers were in agreement about the goals of New
Urbanism:  developing more livable, mixed-use, walkable cities and
neighborhoods, decreasing urban sprawl, etc.  A lot of the debate simply had
to do with the way in which New Urbanism is package and promoted.
Finally, far into the Q&A period, Clare Cooper Marcus (professor emeritus,
and a member of CoHousing?s advisory board), spoke up to say that she sees
two parallel movements operating at the national level to promote a greater
sense of community:  New Urbanism and cohousing; she asked one of the
speakers (Shelly Poticha, Executive Director of the Congress for a New
Urbanism) to comment.  
Shelly responded that she does in fact see cohousing as a movement compatible
with New Urbanism, and indicated that someone from the cohousing movement
(probably Katie McCamant, as I later found out) would be invited to make a
presentation at next spring?s annual meeting of the CNU.
Later, glad that someone else had broached the topic of cohousing, I finally
arose to make a statement:  cohousing is important because the movement is
starting to change the image of the American Dream.  That is significant, I
said, because one of the panelists had already suggested New Urbanists will
not get very far unless the general public starts to demand the kind of
neighborhoods that New Urbanists envision.  Pointing out that there was a
2-1/2 page spread about cohousing in the morning?s San Francisco Chronicle, I
suggested that the Cohousing movement is starting to re-shape cultural
expectations about the American home in a way that is consistent with the
aims of New Urbanism (e.g. promoting a more compact development style).  I
said that planners should try to tap into the growing hunger for a sense of
community, because the housing forms that help to create and sustain
community are also forms that fit quite well within the New Urbanism
framework.
Surprisingly, this statement elicited an instant response from Roger
Montgomery, former dean of the College of Environmental Design.  Approximate
words:  "Are you sure that cohousing is tapping into a hunger for a sense of
community?  Or are these a bunch of elitists who want to build walls around
themselves and keep out African Americans?"  
I was quite shocked at Roger?s remark, and shot back that I myself live in a
cohousing community right in the middle of an urban neighborhood, it is not
hermetically sealed, and we actually have African Americans living here.
 (They happen to be children of mixed race relationships where the surviving
adults are white.)  Roger Montgomery is not an African American, and I have
no idea where or how he came up with such a skewed perception of cohousing.
At this point we heard from Rick Williams, an affordable-housing architect
who was a member of the panel.  His initial retort to my comments was that
cohousing is irrelevant because only a handful of communities have been
built, an infinitesimal percentage of the American housing stock.  I was
tempted to respond along these lines:  "That?s like IBM arguing in 1979 that
personal computers are irrelevant because only a handful have been built."
 In other words, major cultural changes always have to start somewhere, and
there will always be established institutions and practitioners who refuse to
believe that there might be a different way of doing things.  If cohousing is
irrelevant, if it does not tap into a deep yearning for community among many
Americans, then why is it generating major stories almost daily from the
likes of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Good Morning
America, Metropolitan Home, Urban Land, CNN and NBC Dateline?  If cohousing
is irrelevant, why do I get unsolicited calls practically every week from a
reporter for a major publication or TV network?  
I kept these thoughts to myself however, as Rick continued.  "I went to
school with Chuck Durrett," he said, as if this fact should suffice to
qualify him as an expert observer of the cohousing movement. "I can tell you
that cohousing will never appeal to more than a tiny minority of the
population."  Well, that is a debatable point, and we probably will not know
the answer for a long time, but I was a bit amazed that an architect steeped
in New Urbanism could simply dismiss cohousing with a toss of his hand
because, so far, the movement has not produced 10,000 units of housing in
this country.  I suppose I need to get used to such an attitude, because a
whole lot of professionals and academics are not going to pay any attention
to cohousing until the production numbers get a whole lot higher.  These are,
by and larger, not the kind of people who are pushing the envelope of
cultural change.  Only a precious few, like Clare Cooper Marcus, have any
appreciation whatsoever for the fact that it might be important to have a
sense of community in the neighborhood where you live.
The evening helped me to understand that cohousing, despite the recent wave
of media attention, has a long way to go before it will enter the
consciousness of city planners as something more than a curiosity.  For that
to happen, at least two things must occur:
1. We need to explain how cohousing supports public policy goals such as
inner city revitalization, creation of affordable housing, preservation of
farmland, neighborhood safety, reduction of infrastructure and service costs,
etc.  If a cohousing project cannot be clearly linked to a public policy
goal, few city planners or officials will go out of their way to embrace it,
no matter how much we rattle on about the "sense of community" that residents
will enjoy.  Why should the government get involved in promoting something so
apparently nebulous as "sense of community"?
2. We need to develop some kind of toolkit that will enable planners and city
officials to be pro-active (rather than merely re-active) about cohousing
development.  If we think cohousing should be part of the mix in any
large-scale land use plan or policy, what concrete steps can be taken to
initiate a project and see it through to completion?  If a planner sticks out
her neck to catalyze a cohousing project, what assurance does she have that
such a project will be marketable to future residents and sellable to
possible neighborhood opponents?  What assurance does she have that the
project will not become a time and money sink for her agency?

What do you think?  Is cohousing just a nifty new product for a niche market?
 If so, we can safely rely on the capitalist system to deliver the goods,
building more and more cohousing until the market is finally sated.
 Alternatively, we might ask:  does cohousing involve, in the parlance of
economists, significant "positive externalities"?  Does it yield a public
good over and above the private enjoyment sought and paid for by the
residents?  Is the public in some sense better off because we?re building
cohousing in a particular location instead of a conventional housing
development?  If so, it?s time to identify and establish the public benefits
so that we can start to be taken seriously by the people responsible for
planning the future of our cities and towns.
Don Lindemann
cohomag [at] aol.com

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