Cooperative Housing: An American Dream, Revisited

Columbia Ecovillage in Portland, ORimage:
Columbia Ecovillage in Portland, OR

If, like me, you are already biking to work, growing kale in your yard, and composting your carrot peels, then you may be asking, “What more can I do to address our country’s social, economic, and environmental challenges?”  One answer may be cooperative housing (or cohousing) – a people oriented solution to many of the social, economic, and environmental impacts of typical automobile oriented, single-family suburban sprawl (a.k.a. the “American Dream).  Although much of current US policy and practice continue to favor suburban development, “the times, they are a changing”.

What Is It?

According to the Cohousing Association of the United States, cohousing is “a type of collaborative housing in which residents actively participate in the design and operation of their own neighborhoods. Cohousing residents are consciously committed to living as a community. The physical design encourages both social contact and individual space. Private homes contain all the features of conventional homes, but residents also have access to extensive common facilities such as open space, courtyards, a playground and a common house.”

While not all cohousing communities are equal, the following six characteristics distinguish cohousing from other types of collaborative housing:

  • Participatory Process
  • Neighborhood Design
  • Common Facilities
  • Resident Management
  • Non-hierarchical Structure and Decision Making
  • No Shared Community Economy

With US roots in the colonist settlements of the 1700s, union cooperatives of the 1920s, community-oriented living has not only persisted, but is a growing trend (Freedman) with examples of this alternative way of living popping up around the globe.  For instance, Sweden and Norway have invested greatly in cohousing, and in India, housing cooperatives contribute 10.8% of the entire housing stock, demonstrating the potential for this model’s success (Ganapati 370).

Examples from “Portlandia”

Close to my home in NE Portland, Oregon, I have the good fortune of witnessing three examples taking shape. The first, Columbia Ecovillage, “a 37-residence cohousing community composed of a combination of private homes and common facilities”, is just down the street from me. The village is “on 3.73 acres that include play areas, vineyards, vegetable gardens, and mature fruit and nut trees”. Located on two frequent-service bus lines, “community members share a concern for the environment and a desire to live lightly upon the earth, while strengthening social ties.  Residents range in age from three months to 82 years old.”

Columbia Ecovillageimage:
Columbia Ecovillage

The second is Cully Grove, described on their website as “an old-fashioned neighborhood built in a new-fashioned way, with shared bike parking and solar panels”, sprouting from nearly 2 acres along my dog walking route at NE 48th Avenue and NE Going Street. The project is “16 homes and a shared common house… [that] will provide fun and bountiful gardening for urban homesteaders of all ages.”  The project is a few months from occupancy.

Cully Groveimage:
Cully Grove

Third, across the street from my son’s high school, Zen Buddhists are restoring a former non-hazardous waste landfill with a temple and cohousing community called the Householder Refuge at Siskyou Square. The project will include approximately 22 units of attached townhomes and flats, community amenities, shared resources, and a creek restoration. The co-housing community is oriented towards Buddhist practitioners, and provides a synergistic relationship that supports the development of the temple grounds. I have been helping Dharma Rain prepare a landscape master plan for the site that emphasizes surface stormwater management and native plantings. An interesting and unique design challenge of the project is the shared, semi-public space between the residential buildings – a critical element exemplifying the opportunities and need for landscape architects to play a strong role in cohousing projects.

Dharma Rain Zen Centerimage: James Hencke
Dharma Rain Zen Center
image: James Hencke

A Convenient Truth

Wasteful and inefficient housing are in no one’s best interest while the benefits of communities based on social interaction, common vision, and sustainability are too great to be ignored. As described in The Cohousing Handbook (2005 by Scotthanson and Scotthanson), these include:

  • Cohousers appreciate the opportunity to share their skills and talents with other members of the community such as music, fixing bikes, cooking, and gardening.
  • Sharing resources with others puts less strain on the environment. Working as a group, there are more opportunities to reduce, reuse, and recycle.
  • By clustering homes, cohousing communities preserve much of the green space on the site where a traditional neighborhood would use every last inch for houses, streets, and parking.
  • Shared meals, bulk buying, sharing of resources such as carpooling, sharing baby-sitting, trading goods, and less travel due to more on-site activities are some examples of how daily living costs can be reduced.
  • Cohousers have more free time because of shared meals, shared chores, less travel time due to more on-site activities, and less time minding the kids.

It is past time to revisit the idea of the American Dream, and embrace cohousing – a proven model that provides better social, economic and ecological performance. Check it out.  With some easy web browsing searches online, you may be checking in!


Freedman, Samuel G. “American Radicals as Co-op Housing Pioneers.” The New York Times. N.p., 26 Apr. 2009. Web. 6 Feb. 2013.

Ganapati, Sukumar. “Enabling Housing Cooperatives: Policy Lessons from Sweden, India and the United States.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 34.2 (2010): 365-80. EBSCO host. Web. 31 Jan. 2013.

Learn, Scott. “Northeast Portland Cohousing Group Blends Sustainability and Sociability.” The Oregonian. N.p., 20 Nov. 2009. Web. 6 Feb. 2013.

Matarrese, Lynne. “A Brief History of Levittown, New York.” Levittown Historical Society. N.p.  Web. 18 Feb. 2013.

Meadows, Donella. “Better Not Bigger.” Sierra Club. N.p., 4 Mar. 1999. Web. 17 Feb. 2013.

Meltzer, Graham Stuart. Sustainable Community: Learning from the Cohousing Model. Victoria, B.C.: Trafford, 2005. Print.

Ruff, Joshua. “For Sale: The American Dream.” American History 42.5 (2007): 42-49. EBSCO Host. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.

Saegert, Susan, and Lymari Benitez. “Limited Equity Housing Cooperatives: Defining a Niche in the Low-Income Housing Market.” Journal of Planning Literature 19 (2005): 427-39. Sage Journals. Web. 31 Jan. 2013.

Williams, Jo. “Predicting an American Future for Cohousing.” Futures 40.3 (2008): 268-86. ScienceDirect. Web. 6 Feb. 2013.

by James Hencke, ASLA chair of the Urban Design PPN

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