A neighborly lifestyle Sense of community: Cohousing developments, where residents know their neighbors and share everyday life with them, are gaining popularity.

November 27, 1995|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

AMHERST, Mass. -- They migrated to the valley of this New England college town from suburbs and cities and rural spreads in search of a lost America, a simpler place with a small-town rhythm where neighbor depends upon neighbor.

Amid tall, narrow houses clustered on a hill, in a community that feels like summer camp grown up, the 80 residents cook together, eat together, play together, share chores, govern themselves by consensus and help raise one another's children.

You'll find no fences or driveways or garages. You won't find a lawn mower or washer and dryer in every house. There's no TV in the sprawling "common house," the community nerve center that looks like a vacation lodge tucked at the bottom of the hill. That would discourage real conversation in this "collaborative community" built a year ago on a simple guiding principle: Know thy neighbors, and share everyday life with them.

At Pioneer Valley cohousing -- like a growing number of such developments across America -- the '60s commune meets the '80s condo and ends up a lot like a 1930s town. To residents, this idea imported from Denmark represents an antidote to the anonymity of traditionally designed suburban tracts or city blocks.

At a time when much of middle-class America converses in cyberspace, cocoons in home theaters and basement exercise rooms, and keeps moving up and out to bigger homes, cohousing residents are scaling back in a lifestyle that brings them face to face with neighbors daily. The communities vary in location, amenities and design but always have private homes, shared common buildings and a layout planned by residents to bring people together.

Coming to Maryland

A Maryland group is designing such a place in the Frederick County town of Libertytown, transforming a 27-acre farm into a cohousing community of 30 semi-detached, clustered homes.

Nine families from the Frederick and Baltimore areas now make up the Libertytown Cohousing Partnership. So far, they have bought the land, acquired part of the necessary residential zoning and hired Charles Durrett, one of the architects who brought cohousing to the United States, to help them design the common house. The group is seeking more families to join and hopes to start building next summer.

Pioneer Valley spans 25 acres of a western Massachusetts valley rich with farmland and colleges. Residents built 32 Scandinavian-designed homes in a kaleidoscope pattern of shapes and heights, set close together and connected by a pedestrian road that winds past front porches. From cozy efficiencies to four-bedroom dwellings, homes sold from $68,000 $179,000. The common house, part community center, part private chalet, belongs to all.

Unlike retirement villas or student apartments, this development appeals to a mixed crowd -- families, young singles, retired people and single parents. A yearning for community and companionship, not a shared political ideology, brings these people together.

Alan Parrish, a 53-year-old engineer, lived in a rented cottage on 20 acres with breathtaking views of the hills in Amherst. The house had everything, the bachelor said, except what he most desired: company. So last year, Mr. Parrish gave up the cottage and settled at Pioneer Valley.

"I moved in to be in a more social situation," he said.

Growing quickly

In what is perhaps a measure of the alienation and anonymity fueled by television and a proliferation of cookie-cutter bedroom communities, cohousing has rapidly caught on since construction of the first such community in the nation four years ago in Davis, Calif. Today, two dozen cohousing communities exist in eight states, with more than 100 planned from cities to rural areas.

"The primary reason cohousing is starting to take hold in the U.S. is that it provides residents with a sense of community, and that's what many people seem to be looking for, informal neighborly relationships where they can exchange services like child care, shopping and food preparation," said Willem van Vliet, a cohousing expert in the University of Colorado's college of architecture and planning.

Sharing with neighbors is not a concept left to chance. It began at Pioneer Valley before the place existed. The residents -- about half of whom moved from places such as New York City, Connecticut or Vermont -- had to sit down for nearly three years and plan the community.

Rather than having distinctly separate backyards with a swing-set in each, the families share acres of grounds and an expansive playground with a play fort, basketball hoop and collection of toys, bicycles and wagons, all shielded from traffic.

To Dan and Randa Nachbar, the setup seemed perfect for raising children, and it factored heavily in their decision to flee suburbia for Pioneer Valley.

"On our block, there were many families with children, two families had children the same age, and we never saw them," said Mrs. Nachbar. And with cars on the street, "I didn't let the kids out to play by themselves."

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