Size Matters

The best size and number of households seems to be one of the big challenges facing cohousing in America. Cohousing communities in Europe have shown over and again that the optimum size is not too big and not too small.

Create a community that is too big and an institutional feel and sensibility will result. Create a community that is too small, and it will become more like a large family, not a neighborhood of actively engaged households.

Create a community
that is too big and
an institutional feel
and sensibility will result.

One reason has to do with management. As the Danes established long ago, “Don’t try to get consensus with more than 50 adults.” This came about after one community (Viegard Bymidt) with 40 households failed. They trimmed it down to 34 households by selling off six units as regular condominiums. Another community of 36 households also failed. Since those two examples, they have never again built a community of more than 33 houses.

Why is 50 adults a ceiling? After 50 adults, there are too many agenda items to manage in a monthly common meeting – which means items have to be delegated to committees. Then one morning you find your favorite tree being cut down, and you didn’t even know it was happening. The decision was delegated to the bureaucracy as in any town or city. There’s enough of that in our lives – we don’t want to delegate the key decisions in our neighborhoods.

Then there’s the emotional side. I don’t have the emotional energy to deal with strangers when I’m home. I feel very lucky if I get the chance to connect with the people and the kids who already live there. I feel lucky if I get the chance to stay socially connected with the people I care about, so that when the tree issue comes up, it’s not just about the tree, it’s also how I feel about these people and how I can make sure to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Getting Heard.

More than 50 adults, and everyone’s agenda item can’t get heard. “I’ve been trying to get the new fruit trees on the agenda for five months,” said one frustrated resident of a community of 60 adults.

Also, when there are more people, there are more houses spread over the landscape making it more difficult to manage the project just by walking around. As a maintenance committee member, yesterday I rearranged who was going to manage eight chores just walking to and from dinner on the central path. In a large complex, the more “estranged” houses bring miscellaneous agenda items to the common meetings and 20 pairs eyes glass over because the items doesn’t concern them.

More than 50 adults, and you can’t personally chat with all the folks that you know care about your new – but perhaps a little controversial – proposal. Everyone knows that you should at least be aware of what the concerns are before the meeting, but that seems impossible with more than 50 adults in the community, and the discussions get too long and convoluted. Even if only 30 show up for the discussion, that’s about right for a good, thorough discussion and a good decision.

We can set ourselves up
for success – but not if
we ignore what works
and what doesn’t.

As in a small town (or any viable politics, really), when you plan to float a potentially controversial item, you have to run it by the five to 10 people who care about that line item the most. But when the numbers run to 15 to 20 people, you don’t have time to discuss it with them beforehand. You don’t garner the support you need, and even if it does pass, it can fail later from lack of real support. Remember, in a small town, you only need five votes; in cohousing, you need every vote.

When I think of cohousing, I think of a functional neighborhood where people discuss the issues of the day and resolve mutual concerns – like a functional family. But the scale has to be one that works. Unlike the Danes, Americans shy away from the social side of what works or what doesn’t, and even if they do know it, they still rationalize bad decisions. “We had to build 40 units or it wouldn’t pencil out.” But really, it’s like how many people are coming to dinner to your house tonight? At some point, you’d like to know how many, and you’d like to know them personally.

Using What Works.

The Danes have a long history of cultural workers: people who consider what makes a town or city work well. (Copenhagen being the most livable city I ever lived in.) That has percolated down to the practices that make cohousing work. Scale is the key. That said, lots of people argue that 20 to 50 adults works optimally. While “51 and above” challenges the whole concept of operating based on consensus, fewer than 20 challenges another basic probability: the likelihood of social connections. That is, ideally, every adult has four or five others that he or she really connects with. Then on Friday night after a week of hell at work, one or two of those people are around for a beer and a shoulder to cry on.

Cohousing is challenging enough, so let’s not do things we know don’t work. To make cohousing an enduring concept, let’s learn from our Euro brethren. I understand that the larger cohousing communities in the U.S. use their common house very seldom such as East Lake Commons in Atlanta, with 67 units, whose second common house was never built). Nyland, with 42 units, has ceased common dinners altogether, which makes it more like a nice but ordinary condominium complex.

Now that we have our own examples, hopefully we’ve learned from our mistakes and can stop setting people up for failure. Instead, we can set ourselves up for success and provide new and successful possibilities for community, communication, cooperation and sustainability – but not if we ignore what works and what doesn’t.

In community,

Chuck Durrett

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