Paul Howson’s Website

Personal Reflections

Cohousing That Never Was

Sometime in the 1970s the Danes invented a new way of collective living — neighbourhoods designed, built and managed by the people who lived there. The Danes called these communities bofoellesskaber. The English translation, subsequently the name of a seminal 1988 book, is “Cohousing”. The concept has since taken root elsewhere — in the USA for example there are now perhaps a hundred or more “cohousing communities” in place or in the planning stages.

In 1992 a friend dropped a copy of “Cohousing” on my desk. It was a revelation. Here was a roadmap, complete in every detail, drawn by the pioneers who had discovered a more meaningful alternative to the conventional house on a block of land in suburbia with a fence around it.

What’s more, the book presented examples of ordinary people inspired by an ideal who had then worked collectively to make it a reality in their lives.

It seemed just the recipe needed for the established intentional community we had recently moved into.

But, alas, it was not to be. Despite efforts to kindle interest — e.g. twice forming a “cohousing” group of residents; having architects design a common house; trying to create a “housing trust” to prevent dwellings being sold to people with no interest in community; marketing the community to attract new residents who wanted to live in a community — the Cohousing ideal was never taken seriously. Eventually we witnessed the gradual disintegration of that community.

So the lesson in this for me has been that you cannot retrofit a new philosophy and purpose (in this case Cohousing) onto a group of people with a pre-existing culture that does not fit with the new ideas. Cohousing, it appears, must grow from within the hearts and minds of those who really want it to happen.