By Faiza Elmasry
The neighborhood in northwest Washington D.C. looks like a typical American townhouse development, but Takoma Village Cohousing is anything but ordinary.
The privately-owned units cluster around a shared open space, and the 80 or so residents share a common building with a kids’ playroom, study room, laundry, kitchen and huge living area, and they have meals together there several times a week.
It’s all part of an intentional community, similar to an old-fashioned village, where everyone knows everyone else.
“What I like most is I know all my neighbors. It’s just like a family,” says Sharon Villines, one of the first residents to move into Takoma Village Cohousing when it opened in 2000. “There is a Monday night group that consists of 30, 40 people. It varies. Two or three people would cook each week and serve other people. We have lots of pot-lucks where people bring things. That works very well.”
This community – a child-friendly, multi-generational, ethnically diverse and self-managed neighborhood – is one of more than 150 cohousing communities across the United States.
“For me the most important advantage for cohousing is diversity,” says Abe Hussein. He and his wife left a house in upstate New York, with four bedrooms and an indoor swimming pool, to move to Takoma Village six years ago.
“One good thing about cohousing is it’s also a great place for raising kids. They don’t have any strangers because they see their neighbors every day or every week,” he says.
The concept of cohousing began in Denmark and was brought to the United States by architects Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant.
“My husband and I were young architects studying in Denmark when we came across this idea. It really intrigued us both on a personal and a professional level,” McCamant says.
They wrote about it in a 1988 book, called Cohousing. They recently published a second book, Creating Cohousing.
“It’s the oldest idea about how people lived together. I think what we did was sort of take the Danish model and adapt it to an American model, to our crazy, modern 21st century lives,” McCamant says.
One of the most distinctive aspects of cohousing, says Ann Zabaldo – who is very involved in running the community – is how neighbors take care of Takoma Village themselves.
“We have a group of about four or five people, who – as part of what we call work share, or their part of the contribution to the community – is every two weeks, they clean the common house. We have a specific person who cleans the bathrooms and in between, people are expected pick up after themselves, when they use the common house.”
Residents run the community by consensus, and openly discuss problems they see.
“We don’t have a children’s council, for example, that makes rules and talks about how children will or will not behave in the community,” Villines says.
Hussein adds, “One of the areas I have a lot of troubles with is work share. The assumption here is that everyone will do some work, and most of the people do, but there are a few people who don’t.”
Cohousing, says architect McCamant, is an efficient, economical and environmentally-sound way to live.
“We have chosen to live in smaller houses with more community facilities and very energy efficient houses; we live more sustainably. We use less of the Earth resources, less energy and drive less.”
Cohousing is also about creating a better quality of life.
“It’s hard to talk with your neighbors when you don’t know them,” says McCamant. “But by building that sense of trust, by working with them in the gardens, or with some kids’ projects or we need to repaint this building, just really simple day to day things, you begin to build that trust and then you can work through problems as they come up.”
Those interactions help make every cohousing neighborhood different, as neighbors shape life inside their community through their initiative, imagination and participation.