Conservation Land Trusts, Co-Housing, Co-ops & Communes
Some forward-thinking cities are making efforts to make communities more livable by designing for children. But it’s a slow process. If you miss the days when children played in the streets, everyone knew their neighbours, and a parent could afford to stay home or work part-time, intentional community living might be for you. There are several kinds of shared living arrangements, so read on to find out more about it!
Who’s feeling nostalgic?
My children and I love a book series called The Moffats that takes place early last century in upstate New York. It offers a lens on another reality – a time gone by. This family of four, with their single mom and their constant lower-middle-class-poor kind of family always has enough healthy food to eat, enjoys fun adventures together (without their mother needing to be there – she’s at home working) and the entire town shows up to do things like celebrate the “Oldest Inhabitant turning 100”. My work background is in community planning and I love statistics, but this is a different kind of research that’s just as important. It’s the power of the stories that begin with: “When I was young, we used to…” It doesn’t take long to find some neighbour who is willing to talk about how things were when they were young with more than a hint of nostalgia.
Who needs community?
“When I was young there were more than twenty children that lived on my street. We spent all day outside. We played street hockey, we explored, we were never inside, we didn't get driven to organized after-school activities and we weren’t dependent on our parents to play with us,” reflects my forty-something-year-old friend Vlado Milanovic as he stands in my kitchen helping us move houses. He is a newer friend and he is one of the most neighbourly people I’ve met in Canada. “It’s just not like that now,” he says. He grew up in Prince George, BC, his parents were from Croatia and he is one of the many people I know seeking more of that sense of community they grew up with.
According to CIFAR, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, whose work has shaped things like the new World Happiness Report, happiness comes from such things as a sense of belonging to a thriving community. The Vancouver Foundation did a study in 2012 examining social connections and engagement among 3,841 people in the metro Vancouver region. They found that many in the area felt isolated, wished they had more friends and didn’t know their neighbours. Rarely did anybody invite a neighbour over for dinner or a get-together nor did they reach out to each other for the kind of help one associates with the run-over-to-the-Jones’-and-ask-to-borrow-cup-of-sugar Canada of the past. The survey “…found significant benefits to connecting with neighbours in more than just a superficial way. This is backed up by other research that shows that when neighbours know and trust each other, streets are safer, people are healthier and happier, our children do better in school, there is less bullying and less discrimination. We are simply better off in many of the ways that matter.” If neighbourliness makes for happier people and better societies, then perhaps the most troubling aspect of the report is how isolated and pessimistic most 25 to 34 year olds feel in their communities. Notably, that age group was the least likely to trust that a neighbour would return a lost wallet.
Young family seeks land with nearby cultural amenities, diverse community, ocean views, and a composting toilet…
Laura House is one of those early twenty-somethings looking for a community in which to raise her family. She says, “Our challenge is that we love art and culture and music and diversity. So we find ourselves in the city with our anti-racist, feminist ideas. But we also crave this rural, pastoral life where we can let Henry go play in the woods. Most of the small towns we have found are lacking in culture and have less diversity of gender preferences, sexual preferences and ethnicities. We are seeking that balance, but it isn’t easy.” She also explains how in Vancouver that has meant living with as many as nine other adults in a home and, before baby Henry, even living in a community of vehicle dwellers on a park.
Where are these communities from our past now?
In another article I wrote about how to design our communities for children—what has happened in such a short time that even those people in that 25 to 34 year old age group don’t feel that they can recreate the childhood that they had just 10 years ago? Increasingly, Canadians are looking toward more “intentional communities” to provide an answer. These are communities designed around a shared vision that often includes a kind of olden-days neighbourliness. According to the Foundation for Intentional Community, keepers of the Intentional Communities Directory, there are likely a few thousand intentional communities across the world. While what comes to many people’s minds is the communes of the 1960s and 70s, that doesn’t do justice to the breadth of options now available. If intentional communities were placed on a spectrum, on the extreme end would be communes which involve sharing of almost everything. On the other end are tools like residential land trusts where the community may simply be shaped around preserving a bit of green space or long-term affordability.
There are four types of intentional communities that might provide more immediate answers for families looking for community.
Conservation and Community Land Trusts
According to the Schumacher Center for New Economics, “The central principle of the community land trust is that homes, barns, fences, gardens, and all things done with, or on, the land should be owned by the individuals creating them, but the land itself—a limited community resource—should be owned by the community as a whole. A community land trust takes land off the speculative market and places it in a regional, membership-based, non-profit corporation.” In other words, land trusts work on the idea that while individuals can and should own their homes and the improvements on their property, the financial benefit that comes from an area that is suddenly becoming “hot” should be shared throughout the community and not just be profiting an individual.
The Ontario Farmland Trust is one such charity working to value and permanently protect working farmland and farms, even while skyrocketing land values are forcing farmers to abandon this prime agricultural area. The Vancouver Land Trust is using the land trust model to protect long term affordability—for renters and owners— in the city of Vancouver.
Heather Tremain, Director of Planning and Development of the non-profit organization, Options for Homes, is using a hybrid land trust model to create affordable apartment and town-home units in the greater Toronto area. They have managed to provide 4,000 low and middle-income units in the greater Toronto area and have 1,000 more coming. They do this by providing a sort of family-style loan as a down payment, foregoing much of the developer overhead, and creating shared amenities such as car-sharing, meeting rooms, and the like.
“Social isolation is well documented as being a big problem in big cities and I think [co-housing] is one model for providing the resilience that we need in our cities—using fewer resources and consuming less but having a high quality life,” says Odete Pinho, a municipal planner who now collaborates with Cohousing Development Consulting, the Canadian organization responsible for more Canadian co-housing developments than anyone. In co-housing, everyone has their own home—from a unit in a building to a free-standing home—with all the things that typical homes have but with extra amenities developed to create spaces for participation and interaction. This may take the form of community meals a few times a week and taking some amount of responsibility such as helping to cook, clean or tend to the garden. “Collectively we are greater than the sum of our parts,” says Ms. Pinho. An individual home will still have its own kitchen, but it might not need to be as big because large gatherings can happen at the common house. Similarly, the common house might have guest rooms, office space, and all the associated equipment making it easier for a family to forego that extra bedroom in their own space.
In North Vancouver, the co-housing development of Quayside Village takes the shape of apartments and town homes built around an inner courtyard with gardens and play areas. There are even commercial spaces built into this urban development, along with the usual co-housing amenities of a common area where residents can choose to take part in a meal.
“There is a downside,” says Ms. Pinho. “It’s not affordable housing and the big issue in cities now is the land cost.” That’s not the only issue. Co-housing is developed by the future owners and thus the design and shared amenities reflect the values and intent of the community. That process, however, takes time, cautions Ms. Pinho. These are things that young families have very little of these days and for some of these reasons, there are currently no existing co-housing communities in the cities of Victoria, Vancouver, or Toronto.
Housing co-ops can refer to anything from informal shared homes to formalized associations of people that democratically manage their collectively owned homes. In Canada they are typically referring to a non-profit arrangement that is more similar to a typical rental model with security of tenure. Co-op members pay a housing fee, elect managers from among themselves, and work together to determine the values and rules of their cooperative. These co-ops provide a form of rental control and members are “owners,” but they don’t get to sell their shares or walk away with any profits.
There is a growing movement of “People creating their own shared ownership opportunities,” says Ms. Tremain. She points to everything from a small group of adults coming together to rent large, multi-bedroom homes to people doing something similar while buying. “It creates affordability and community,” says Ms. Tremain and she says Vancouver especially is seeing a lot of these examples. Vancouver’s largest credit union, Vancity, has created a Mixer Mortgage to allow for the collective ownership of property.
Marnie Goldenberg is one of the people that helped that mortgage option come about when her family and two others, mere acquaintances at the time, decided to come together to buy a triplex that straddles two lots. “We started out with the intention of being really good business partners, but now I couldn’t bear being away from this relationship.” She notes that there are economic benefits. “We share a backyard and multiple picnic tables and use it collectively. We have one lawn mower. We share one really snazzy ladder. We have one play structure and a trampoline. We share a property tax bill, a water bill, and property insurance.” Each of the units also has a rental unit. “It’s a great example of dense living without it feeling crushing.” The real advantage, however, has been the community. “My kids are collective kids. They have two other homes that they can run into and other adults that are invested in their future and offer guidance and help parent them.”
That brings us to communes. Most of the community planners that I spoke with were quick to point out the differences between the intentional community development models mentioned above and communes, which often have negative stereotypes of hippies or radical religious groups. In truth, however, communes can take many forms of shared living and just involve a higher degree of sharing than in most of the other types of communities mentioned above. In communes the members might share a home or homes as well as income, work, and beliefs.
Despite the connotation with the 1970s, there are still many active and forming communes in Canada according to the Communities Directory. And there is much to learn from these communes in designing communities today according to Sadhu Aufochs Johnston, Deputy City Manager of the City of Vancouver and co-author of the Guide to Greening Cities. He is also my husband and he grew up in a religious community that included communes in India, Germany, and the U.S. “I did see growing up there, in some ways, a utopian sense of the sharing economy. In retrospect, I find it quite inspirational and with components that are being replicated in cities across North America and the world.”
He points to the many examples growing up out of peoples’ desires to share—tool libraries, babysitting co-ops, car sharing, bike sharing, kitchen incubators, and shared work spaces—as examples of a “…revolution happening in cities across the world, rethinking how we use our infrastructure.”
“The majority of people now live in cities and that number is growing. We have all seen the potential downside of city living—isolation and anonymity and breakdown in family structure and youth violence—and the subsequent sense of fear and sheltering for our children.” He contrasts his upbringing where he knew he was “…safe and could go up to any adult at any time for help,” with today “…where we don’t let kids run out and play in the streets and parks like in the old days.” But he believes that it is the impulse behind things like the sharing economy that will help rebuild our relationships and build surrogate family within our communities.
“We haven’t missed our chance to build community,” he says. And, like a good wife, I believe him.
Learn more about Intentional Communities and even find one near you.
- Foundation for Intentional Communities
- Canadian Cohousing Network
- Cohousing Development Consulting
- Options for Homes (Toronto nonprofit developer)