Academic journal article Utopian Studies

Second-Wave Cohousing: A Modern Utopia?

Academic journal article Utopian Studies

Second-Wave Cohousing: A Modern Utopia?

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Cohousing is an increasingly popular form of tenure that combines elements of private and collective ownership and affords its occupants a combination of the advantages of individual proprietorship with some of the benefits of living in a community that shares some of its space and activities. People join cohousing groups because they believe that there is something wrong with life in most villages, towns, and cities and they want to develop a better alternative. Sometimes this has been seen to articulate a utopian aspiration to secure a better way of living, of the kind more normally associated with self-consciously intentional communities. But many influential spokespeople in the contemporary cohousing movement, in North America particularly, deny this association and take an explicitly anti-utopian stance, distancing cohousing from the communal movement and intentional communities. This article undertakes an examination of cohousing in North America today and asks the following questions: What is the real character of people's lived experience with modern cohousing? Why do people choose cohousing? Is it a form of intentional community? Is it utopian? Or is it just an attractive form of housing tenure for people who want a nice place to live with good neighbors?

Cohousing is an increasingly popular form of tenure that combines elements of private and collective ownership and affords its occupants a combination of the advantages of individual proprietorship with some of the benefits of living in a community with shared space and activities. It offers ways of owning property and organizing domestic life that are different from the way that most Western urbanites live today. For example, cohousing communities have entrance and exit rules and formalized internal activities and codes of behavior. People join them because they believe that there is something wrong with life in most villages, towns, and cities and they want to develop a better alternative. Members are seeking a more "neighborly" or "community-oriented" way of life. Sometimes this has been seen to articulate a utopian aspiration to secure a better way of living, of the kind more normally associated with self-consciously intentional communities. But influential spokespeople in the contemporary cohousing movement (in North America particularly) deny this association and take an explicitly anti-utopian stance, distancing cohousing from the communal movement and intentional communities. This article undertakes an examination of cohousing in North America today and asks the following questions: What is the real character of people's lived experience with modern cohousing? Is it a form of intentional community? Is it utopian? Or is it just an attractive form of housing tenure for people who want a nice place to live with good neighbors?

The discussion opens with working definitions of utopianism and intentional community. I then look briefly at "first-wave" cohousing in Europe, a movement that dates from the 1970s and which had explicitly utopian elements. I next seek to contrast this with attitudes in the contemporary "second-wave" cohousing movement in North America. I suggest that the characterization of this more recent movement as "anti-utopian" is an oversimplification. While some influential accounts of the North American cohousing experience, most important, the agenda-setting work of the architects Katherine McCamant and Charles Durrett, emphasize its anti-utopian character, this is a very partial view. My survey of attitudes in fifty North American cohousing communities shows that this newer form of cohousing (its second wave) is a form of intentional community and does display some utopian tendencies. The article concludes by suggesting that this might be a truly modern utopia: one that seeks the good life without challenging mainstream values.

Utopianism: A Working Definition

Utopia is a contested concept, but in this article I will adhere to certain conventional usages. …

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