Linda Viscardis had never heard of the word cohousing when she first began imagining a different kind of housing scenario for her daughter, Laura.
Laura was born with an intellectual disability and the passion of Linda’s heart has long been seeing to it that Laura has a place where she belongs, she is loved and she can share her beautiful gift of unconditional love in return.
Thirty years old now, Laura has been living in her own apartment for about six years — without a paid support person living with her and in a building that includes residents with many different abilities. In many ways, it’s the realization of a dream Laura first voiced when she was 10 years old — a seemingly impossible dream for many reasons.
But while Laura’s current living situation is positive, Linda sees even greater possibilities for her daughter in the cohousing model.
“(With cohousing), they talk about sustainability and reciprocity and people coming together in shared space and it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh so this is what heaven is going to look like’,” Linda says.
Linda is among a small group of Peterborough residents that has begun meeting and is energized by the possibilities they see in cohousing. They are very much in the early stages of learning about cohousing and identifying what place they might fill in bringing this housing model to Peterborough.
Scott Donovan is also involved with the group. A Peterborough architect, he just returned from an 18-month work term with cohousing experts Kraus Fitch architects in Amherst, Massachusetts. He has since presented to three Peterborough organizations on the model, including two church congregations.
Linda and Scott are both passionate about creating strong community and see the cohousing model as one way to do that.
Reports from residents of some of the 119 cohousing communities that have been completed in North America since 1991 support their thinking.
A Washington, D.C. cohousing project is creating what it intended — a close-knit, village-like community, according to resident Ann Zabaldo. She was part of the original group that planned Takoma Village.
The strong cohesion at Takoma Village happens in large part because the community members — more than 60 adults — have “good, solid, important work to do together,” Ann says.
Everyone contributes to managing the $15-million facility, which includes privately-owned condo dwellings as well as a common house.
“We’re running a business together, essentially, and to do that we have to co-operate with each other; we have to find ways to resolve conflict, we have to find a way to communicate with each other,” Ann says.
The work includes both looking after the physical site and caring for the individuals in the community.
“They talk about sustainability and reciprocity and people coming together in shared space and it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh so this is what heaven is going to look like’.”
— Linda Viscardis
The democratic decision-making process that the cohousing model commits to is another critical element in ensuring it continues to be the community it’s intended to be, according to Ann.
John Mitchell (Mich), a founding member of Prairie Sky Cohousing Co-operative in Calgary, says cohousing helps create community in part through its physical design. The intentional proximity of the privately-owned units, large common space complete with a full-service kitchen, lounge and ping-pong room, are among the physical features making it easy for folks to cross paths and enjoy one another’s company.
There’s also the intentionality of those who’ve joined the community; they’ve come looking for close community and are therefore more likely to be open to arranging and joining social events, helping their neighbours, and working through the inevitable challenges that arise in this kind of housing scenario.
Like Ann, Mich mentions the business dealings related to running the cohousing as a component of community building.
Typically, at least 14 of Prairie Sky’s 18 households attend these monthly meetings.
They begin with an invitation for members to share about their lives. Prairie Sky also operates on a consensus method in making decisions. This enables residents to get to know one another even better while providing an opportunity to demonstrate mutual respect for one another’s opinions.
“When you have consensus as a method of making your decisions, no one feels steamrollered, no one feels that, ‘Oh they didn’t listen to me’,” Mich says.
Physical design, work to be done together, the decision-making process, residents with a shared passion for community: these are a few of the cohousing model features that make it a promising way to build community.
Linda is convinced some form of cohousing will yet take shape in Peterborough, though the manifestation of that dream is likely a few years down the road given the issues to be addressed such as those related to zoning bylaws, bringing on key partners, including a building developer and funding.
“It’s community that we need to reconnect with, and not because it’s ‘a good idea’ but because it’s part of who we are.”
— Scott Donovan
In the meantime, Scott and Linda are even more convinced of the need to do more to build strong community in Peterborough. Both cite the value of the Peterborough Dialogues in this respect.
“Every single person has strengths, gifts and capacities to contribute and when everybody contributes then we are strong (as a community),” Linda says.
“But we are not strong because everybody doesn’t feel that sense of meaningful contribution, and there is a system in place that teaches people that you don’t have to contribute, we’ll look after you and anything you do contribute isn’t worthwhile.”
“It’s the community thing that we need to reconnect with, and not because it’s a good idea but because it’s part of who we are,” Scott says.
“There is a difference between some intellectual ideas that are imposed, but the community thing is something that’s within us to discover. We’ve just been distracted from it for a long time.”
To learn more about cohousing, visit the Canadian Cohousing Network. Scott also offers volunteer group workshops on cohousing, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org