Creating intentional community in Seattle's Duwamish Cohousing
Seattle architect Craig Hanus moved around frequently as a child. It's a circumstance that meant he never really made the kind of friends in childhood that he could look forward to calling and catching up with throughout his life, the kind of lifelong friends that he would naturally invite to a wedding or other major occasions, share birth announcements with, or who – when visiting in person – would refrain from telling his kids too many embarrassing stories about the time …
"My wife has known her best friend since she was young, and I envy that. That's what I want for my kids. It's why we're here," says Hanus.
"Here" is Duwamish Cohousing, a 23-home intentional community located in West Seattle that is home to some 70 people, including nearly 20 children. And at the moment, many of them are running around the Duwamish common house. Hanus surveys the room where about 30 residents have gathered for a community meal in the spacious, homey building where residents share food, hold meetings, play and enjoy other activities as they work to build friendships and strengthen a united commitment to community.
Most of the kids at the table on this particular night are under age 5, and they are running gaily around the room, squealing often, wrestling and otherwise creating a joyful under-buzz to the din of adult conversation happening around them. Their parents and other Duwamish residents linger around dinner tables interrupted now and then by kids' questions or requests. The kids here know they can approach any adult with their needs, whether or not the adult is their actual parent, and that person will listen.
Why families come
Hanus smiles, looks around, and indicates with a hint of melancholy:
"I wanted my kids to grow up with all these kids and to have the kind of long-term friendships I didn't have."
Hanus and his wife, photographer Mhari Scott, moved to Duwamish with their two young children (Ethan, 6, and Leila, 2) more than a year ago to give this gift to their kids. What they've learned during their time in this community explains why they will continue their family's cohousing experience when new work takes them to Portland in March. This week, the couple traveled to Oregon to interview with a new cohousing group.
Over the past year, Hanus and Scott have grown into a deeper understanding and commitment to the values of the cohousing movement: neighbors working together to build community through shared activities and self-governance, negotiation and consensus, stewardship of shared property and community resources (each family is responsible for its own financial well-being), and creating a safe haven for children. They are disappointed to leave Duwamish but grateful for its lessons.
"We're just learning how to communicate in a cohousing environment," Hanus says. "But we already know this is what we want for our kids."
The cohousing neighborhood model "reminds me a little bit of the freedom that I had when I was a child," adds Scott. "The children in the community have the ability to explore their environment with a level of freedom that is exceptionally rare in today's society."
At Duwamish, each parent is responsible for giving his her children physical boundaries. For example, Hanus and Scott allow Ethan to go as far as the stairs in the south circle of the community property. The community was designed from the start to promote resident interaction and safety: homes are separated by a walkway, there are no streets between the houses, and houses have enormous windows that look out into the common grounds.
"It means that Ethan has a lot of free time to just be a child and be creative without having to be placed in structured environments to be taught creativity and dream about adventure," Scott says. It also means that when a smaller child strays outside his or her boundaries, other community members feel comfortable re-directing the child.
"I love that my kid is safe when she runs out the door when I am not looking," says Lena Eivy, whose family is now in their second year at Duwamish. "I know that even if she walks through door of a neighbors house, they are going to laugh and say, ‘Uh oh, Ilya's escaped again!'"
"For families, you just can't beat it," says Jonathan Faunce, who moved to Duwamish Cohousing with his wife and kids (Ethan, 4, and Eliana, 2) last October after relocating to Seattle from San Antonio, Texas. "I trust the parents here to help me keep my kids safe."
Recreating the village
Other families have opted for cohousing to recreate the sense of family – of village – they knew as children. Cecelia Hayes was raised in the south in a neighborhood where adults had no qualms about correcting and safekeeping kids. If you did something wrong, your parent knew before you made it home. She moved to Seattle from Chicago with her daughter Julia-Ana, now age 2, to be part of a group of people who are close in the way of her childhood – close like a large extended family is close.
"I am a single mother by intention, raising a young girl on my own. I knew my child would be an only child, but I never want her to be a lonely child," Hayes says.
All of these parents agree that they've benefitted form one unique aspect of Duwamish – the community is home to an unusual number of renting families compared to traditional cohousing projects. In fact, most of the current residents with young children rent from the owners who originally designed and launched the community 12 years ago.
"(Renting) allows families to try the model. It's not just buying a house, it's a huge investment," says Hanus.
That's because living in cohousing comes with requirements. Residents in Duwamish commit to a minimum of four hours a month working for the neighborhood. They may help with community gardens, serve on one of the numerous governance or facilities committees, help introduce new families or perform other needed tasks.
While never mandatory, the community plans several shared meals a month. Residents get together for community potlucks, fire pits, a monthly movie night and regular poker nights. They've had craft nights and casual music-making gatherings and recently put on a gallery showing in the common house.
"My husband and I always felt as though the idea of the village had been lost in the way our cities and towns and suburbs developed," says Scott of her family's decision to enter cohousing. "We get lots of opportunities to be ‘good people' here and feel like we're helping to make other people's lives better." And, she adds, smart home design and commitment have allowed Duwamish residents to keep their ecological footprint in check.
Still, taking the plunge was scary.
"It sounded terribly uncomfortable to me at first – the thought of going to a meal with strangers and having to socialize with them regularly," says Scott. "I suppose before visiting we were concerned that the people who lived here might be … odd … and that we'd be stuck in this community with people that we didn't want to be around.
"It wasn't until we moved in that we realized that the whole package turned out to be so much more," says Scott. "We've been really lucky that there are so many people here that we naturally connect with."
With community come challenges
The residents of Duwamish Cohousing easily sing the model's praises. But they are just as ready to discuss its challenges.
The art of negotiation and compromise, for example, are key living strategies in a place where all major decisions having to do with property, policy or living standards are made by consensus or community vote. Conflicts cannot be brushed under the rug.
"It's imperative that you learn how to address conflict constructively and with compassion. It can be challenging and sometimes even painful in the moment, but you come out the other end with a few more skills and a bit more maturity than you had before," says Scott.
And if you just don't like your neighbor? Again, compromise, often with oneself, rather than the object of one's distain, is key.
Says Scott: "Maybe seeing them regularly helps you to recognize traits in yourself that you'd like to change. Maybe it makes you appreciate them more when you might not have given them a chance otherwise."
There are other challenges. The majority of cohousing residents nationwide are white and middle-to-high income, and that fact has resulted in communities being less diverse than many state they would like to be.
"At this point, cohousing is very, very monolithic. Unless the community is structured from the ground up with these people in mind, it isn't going to happen," says Hayes, who is African-American.
Surrounded by good people
As the dinner winds down, kids and parents alike begin to swirl, bringing the common house back to its basic order. Together they clear their dishes, pick up toys, collect coats and wrangle young kids trying their best not to look sleepy at 8 p.m. The bright yellow walls of the main room cast a warm glow as people begin to split into their individual families and say goodnight to their intentional community.
As Hanus and Scott prepare to move from Duwamish to Portland, they say they will miss this chosen extension of their family, although they remain committed to what Hanus calls "the experiment."
"This sounds silly, but we want to be good people – people that are readily available to help out others out when they need it," she adds. "We want our children to grow up surrounded by people that care about them: people who can be mentors or role models or who can simply step in and gently guide them in the right direction when they go the wrong way."
What is cohousing? Six defining characteristics
According to the Cohousing Association of the United States, cohousing is a type of collaborative housing where families and individual residents actively participate in the design and operation of their own neighborhood. In a cohousing community, homes and neighborhood amenities are built to enhance social contact between community residents, big and small. Individual homes have all the normal amenities of homes commonly found in the local real estate market, but cohousing residents have the added benefit of access to (and responsibility of caring for) extensive common facilities – like a common house, playground or gardens.
According to the Northwest Intentional Communities Association, there are approximately 120 intentional communities currently running or being forged in Washington state. Below are the six defining characteristics of a cohousing community.
1. Participatory process: Future residents participate in the design of the community so that it meets their needs.
2. Neighborhood design: The physical layout and orientation of the buildings (the site plan) encourage a sense of community. For example, the private residences may face each other over a courtyard or walkway and are clustered on the site, leaving more shared open space. Cars are usually parked on the periphery. Often, the front doorway of every home affords a view of the common house.
3. Common facilities: Common facilities are supplemental to the private residences. A cohousing common house typically includes a common kitchen, dining area, sitting area, children's playroom and laundry, and also may contain a workshop, library, exercise room, crafts room and/or one or two guest rooms.
4. Resident management: Residents manage their own cohousing communities, and also perform much of the work required to maintain the property. They participate in the preparation of common meals, and meet regularly to solve problems and develop policies for the community.
5. Nonhierarchical structure and decision-making: No one person has authority over others. Most cohousing groups make all of their decisions by consensus.
6. No shared community economy: The community is not a source of income for its members. Residents are responsible for their own finances.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in March of 2012.