The contemporary cohousing movement, like the family communes of the sixties and the community movement of the 19th century in the United States, constitutes an attempt, in these historical periods that are marked by an excessive emphasis on the “individual," to swing the pendulum back towards the “social." In all three periods, these movements can be seen as a reaction to the exasperation of the individualist ideology supported by the socio-economic system.
(Francescato and Tomei p. 7 2023)
Competitiveness, aggressiveness, and astuteness are considered valid values in the fields of work, politics, and the public sphere in general, and are excluded from the family world. Instead, the values of solidarity, collaboration, and generosity are practiced in the private sphere but are seen decidedly "out of place" in the public sphere.
(Francescato and Tomei p. 8 2023)
The cohousing movement is aided by a partial emphasis on the social, combining individual family houses with shared social space.
The members do not have to agree on everything, which hampered the success of community movements of the 19th century and family communes of the 60s. Cohousing represents a shrinking utopia but one that is growing in many countries.
The first cohousing experiment occurred in 1972, with low-rise and clustered housing originating in Denmark. These intergenerational communities began to spread slowly in Europe. Please view the first community and one in Massachusetts. In the 1980s, two American architects, McCamant and Durrett, came to Denmark to study cohousing with Danish researchers. Durrett facilitated the introduction of co-housing in the US. He published several books, including his most recent Cohousing Communities: Designing for High-Functioning Neighborhoods, with many examples from the US (Durrett 2022).
The Cohousing Association of the United States is the major national nonprofit organization supporting cohousing communities in the US. According to the association, cohousing shifts the culture toward a new American dream where every home is surrounded by caring, collaborative neighbors who use less of the earth's resources while living an abundant life.
The common characteristics of intergenerational cohousing are:
- Homes are privately owned with all the usual amenities, including kitchens. They are designed to be close together, reducing expenses and looking out on the community. A major initial decision is whether the community should be urban or rural.
- Shared property, usually including a common house (or room), is part of what defines cohousing. Usually, there is a kitchen, dining room, laundry, recreational areas, outdoor walkways, open space, gardens, and parking - designed to support active and interdependent community life. Members can use these spaces to play together, cook for one another, share tools, and work collaboratively.
- The ideology of the community varies, but care for the environment is a concern in many cohousing projects. Living in a community, sharing resources, designing for lower energy use, and greener living help reduce costs and the impact on the environment and climate.
- Lengthening one's life in a supportive setting, outside of institutional medical facilities – is one of the unstated goals for seniors. There can be important health benefits to this type of living arrangement. The earlier families enter the cohousing community, the greater the potential benefits.
- Members care for each other and have a feeling of security in the community. They must build and manage the shared space, which is not always easy. Cohousers are smart and increasingly use consultants to help them, often employing the Gordon method of communication. Another critical issue is finding compatible new members. Most communities find 20-40 units is about the right size to know each other well.
There are two international scoping reviews on the possible health benefits of intergenerational cohousing. The first regards social capital, and it was observed that social bonding occurred, and to a lesser extent, social bridging and linking.
The ability to develop and benefit from meaningful connections with others, as part of a social network, can encourage conformity to social norms around health-promoting behaviors and offer resources that act to buffer the impact of stressors on health. Conversely, it has been argued that social isolation not only predicts poor mental health but is also a stronger risk factor for premature death than obesity or smoking.
(Holt-Lunstad et al. 2015, Warner et al., p.1, 2020)
Once established, cohousing communities are said to foster bridging and linking social capital by inviting neighbors to organized activities (sport, entertainment, cultural, leisure, social events) and opening up communal facilities such as green spaces and common rooms for others to use as parks, garden allotments, and meeting rooms.
(Droste 2015, Ruiu 2015)
These actions will ultimately contribute to the acceptance of cohousing and the recognition of communities for their hybridity, diversity, and openness, and involvement in enhancing the wider neighborhood social life.
(Droste 2015, Ruiu 2016, Warner et al., p.2, 2020)
Cohousing, according to Garciano, offers many benefits for residents. "They live in a local supportive community with neighborly connections encouraging the sharing of resources and time-consuming responsibilities and providing a greater sense of physical security. For the young, social networks for tutoring, education, and job training thrive, while a diverse group of adults provide proper positive role models (Garciano, 2011). Being able to call on nearby neighbors for help and less reliant on driving makes cohousing an optimal choice for the elderly, while the pedestrian-friendly set up allows greater mobility and access to an environment full of natural activities and engaging opportunity for persons with disabilities" (Warner et al., p.2, 2020).
Another study indicates cohousing has the benefits of delaying the need for medical care through neighbor support, increasing mental stimulation through community involvement, and increasing feelings of efficacy and self-esteem that come with helping other community members (Lubik and Kosatsky 2019).
The second scoping analysis is more cautious. Researchers found that in eight of 10 studies, there was a positive impact of cohousing on physical and mental health or quality of life and wellbeing. However, the quality of evidence was low, and the number of studies was limited. (Carrere, J., et al 2020).
To achieve a causal-based interpretation, more research is required. However, there exists ample evidence of cohousing's positive impacts. There is even concern about providing the benefits of cohousing to lower-income families. In some countries, such as Italy, public incentives for cohousing require a minimum participation of lower-income families. I have visited cohousing communities in Berlin and have been astonished by the beauty and low energy consumption of these buildings. German architects have been very attentive to the cohousing movement.
The economic benefits include lower health costs, particularly for the seniors, lower home property costs due to smaller plots for homeowners, and possibly lower energy expenses due to better investments and management because of the environmental outlook.
Intergenerational cohousing is new and relatively unexplored by the public. There are 165 communities in the US, with about 140 on the way. The start-up efforts can be significant, but joining an established community is a worthy consideration. An excellent way to begin in the US is through the Cohousing Association of the United States, using the directory of existing cohousing communities. In Italy, contact with the local municipality is recommended.
Finally, we should remember our population's rapid greying (not to say aging) and the pressure that will put on our health systems. In the US, by 2030, those 65 years and over, 73.1 million persons, or 21 percent of the total, will outnumber children under 18. In Italy, with Europe's oldest population, the group of 65 years and over has already reached 23.5 percent of the total, and it could go to 34.9 percent by 2050.
If you can increase your health and wellbeing through better design of housing space, return to social values and behavior, reduce costs, and delay medical treatment for seniors, perhaps you should give cohousing a try.
Carrere, J. et al, 2020. The effects of cohousing model on people’s health and wellbeing: a scoping review, 6 October, Public Health Reviews, Article number 22.
Droste, C., 2015. German cohousing: an opportunity for municipalities to foster socially inclusive urban development? Urban research & practice, 8 (1), 79–92. Durrett, C., 2022. Cohousing Communities: Designing for High-Functioning Neighborhoods, John Wiley and Sons Inc.
Francescato D., Tomai, M. 2023, Fondamenti di psicologia di comunità. Principi, strumenti, ambiti di applicazione, Chapter 12, (in publication) Carocci Editore, Rome.
Garciano, J.L., 2011. Affordable cohousing: challenges and opportunities for supportive relational networks in mixed-income housing. Journal of affordable housing & community development law, 20 (2), 169–192.
Holt-Lunstad, J., et al. 2015. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on psychological science, 10 (2), 227–237. Lubik, A. and Kosatsky, T., 2019. Public health should promote cooperative housing and cohousing. Canadian journal of public health, 110 (2), 121–126.
Ruiu, M.L., 2015. The effects of cohousing on the social housing system: the case of the threshold center. Journal of Housing & the Built Environment, 30 (4), 631–644. Ruiu, M.L., 2016. Participatory processes in designing cohousing communities: the case of the community project. Housing & Society, 43 (3), 168–181.
Warner, E., Sutton, E., Andrews, F., 2020. Cohousing as a model for social health: a scoping review, Taylor & Francis Online, 29 October.