Cohousing and the Cure to Loneliness

Communal living can be a tricky thing to talk about. The most widely known iteration of communal living, which is bound to pop into most minds when they hear the term, are the hippie communes of the 1970s. Visions of free love, long hair, and vegetable patches dance in our heads. Modern re-imaginings of communal living situations seem to be aware of this and the biases that come along with it, and largely avoid calling themselves “communes.” Instead, they prefer such terms as “cohousing” and “co – living.”

Still, talking about communal living can be met with derisive dismissals or, perhaps more commonly, a reply along the lines of “sure, I guess that can work for some people, but it isn’t for me.” Fair enough, and when I started researching this piece that was exactly what I thought, too. But when I sat down and looked at all the benefits built into cohousing models, I found myself asking the question: wait, why isn’t it for me?

“The sprawling suburbs of single-family homes, pillars of the antiquated American Dream, are no longer adequate.”

Did you know that former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy declared loneliness to be a public health epidemic? That more and more studies are finding that loneliness shortens your lifespan? That loneliness is mentioned alongside smoking and obesity as causes of premature death? So now not only do you have to study for that midterm and write that essay, you have to make more friends or risk an untimely demise.

Let’s back up for a moment. If these places aren’t hippie communes, what exactly are they? Unfortunately for this writer, there is no one standard model for cohousing. Cohousing situations vary depending on many factors, such as an urban versus rural setting, financial structures, and the philosophies of each group. Even with all of this variety, each of these different cohousing and co – living arrangements do share common themes . They believe in radically rethinking the way that we organize and think about our homes. They are reimagining the division between public and private lives. And importantly, they believe that intention is the key to community building.

“Cohousing models do not ask you to throw away your privacy, they ask you to create spaces for community activities, and, most importantly, to use them.”

Intention is the word you’ll hear over and over again from members of cohousing communities. Grace Kim is an architect who designed and developed a cohousing community in which she now lives. She has presented a compelling TED talk on the subject, in which she invites us to rethink our built environments. Kim’s talk asks us to take a step back and consider the way our homes and cities are designed, and the ways those designs influence our daily lives. The sprawling suburbs of single-family homes, pillars of the antiquated American Dream, are no longer adequate. Cohousing models do not ask you to throw away your privacy, they ask you to create spaces for community activities, and, most importantly, to use them.

Successful cohousing requires common spaces, areas for people to bump into each other, eat together, vent about the day’s trials at work, and to ask for an egg or a favour. Streets lined with single-family homes do not make room for these spaces. Many apartment buildings do not have communal spaces, unless you include the handful of chairs one inspired manager decided to scatter around the lobby. This is changing, and some apartment buildings are beginning to include communal spaces, but they’re still missing the key ingredient: intention.

And this is the thing that can make communal living a tough pill to swallow, because it doesn’t just happen. It requires continual effort. Perhaps more than we are ready or willing to put in. But if it is literally going to save our lives – is it our responsibility to put ourselves, to force ourselves, into these uncomfortable situations?

My colleague Ruby Thelot has written a beautiful piece expressing a lot of the angst and apprehension we may feel as we see condominium after condominium encroaching on our skyline, but I hope that we can also have a discussion that doesn’t position these new developments as evil incarnate. In fact, I’ve found that some cohousing communities even share features of condominiums regarding individual ownership of the separate units. The thing is, condos with communal spaces are on the rise, and these spaces are often touted as big selling points among buyers. People want space to interact and mingle with their neighbours. What they’re missing? A statement of this shared intention.

“Cohousing asks you to simply throw away what you’ve known your whole life about independence and privacy.”

It’s more difficult and more uncomfortable than it seems, and it goes against many of the traits that we are taught make us “grown ups.” I was taught that adults are independent; that they make their own doctor appointments and update their credit card information when the car2go app prompts them too (instead of ignoring the notifications until they eventually get booted off the app, at which point they decide they don’t need car2go anyways and are currently in their third month of a car2go-free life). Independence often translates as “going at it alone,” and being able to do it all yourself, but that isn’t what it means at all.

Independence can be understood as being free from outside control and not depending on another’s authority. Building a strong social network that links you to your neighbours, as is the central aim of cohousing, is not putting yourself under someone else’s authority. Having people you know who you can count on to cat sit when you go on vacation or lend you some butter in a pinch is, if anything, increasing your ability to do the things that make you a happier, healthier human.

The commodification of privacy has pushed cohousing to the fringe of what is deemed either acceptable or desirable. Mansions surrounded by high, thick hedges, penthouses advertised for their state of the art soundproofed walls – privacy, exclusion, and status are deeply intertwined in our collective psyches. Cohousing asks you to simply throw away what you’ve known your whole life about independence and privacy. Like I said, a tough pill to swallow. But, whether you like it or not, it is also an increasingly necessary change.

The recent resurgence of communal living is a response to many realities of life in the 21st century. Loneliness is one such reality, a reality that we have all experienced at one point or another. Whether you see it as an issue in and of itself, or a symptom of a larger problem, it is something that affects our daily happiness and long-term health, and communal living is one possible solution. The spread of communal living doesn’t have to involve an overnight revolution; in fact it’s much more likely it will be a slow evolution – the next natural step in human housing models.

1 Comment

  • Annamarie says:

    Totally agree that we place too much emphasis on independence and not enough on helping each other. There is the age-old, somewhat simpler, sharing an apartment or a house. The key to making it work is being careful to live with compatible-in-life style people, who are mature enough to live by the Golden Rule. And guess what? It’s fun to have someone to talk to at the end of a day. Wrote a book on how to select a housemate, Sharing Housing, A Guidebook for Finding and Keeping Good Housemates..

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