Magazine article Sunset

City Living.New & Improved!

Magazine article Sunset

City Living.New & Improved!

Article excerpt

Communes, cohousing, just plain close quarters- Chris Colin has lived this urban trend and loves it.

How many times have hot pancakes materialized on your back porch? Never? Once? No more than twice, I'd wager. What a paltry number of pancake deliveries. Once, back-door pancakes were plentiful in my life, and at a certain level-a level some expert in Washington has surely calculated-things have gone downhill ever since.

When we were in our 20s, my wife and I moved into an old one-room Baptist church, one of three neighboring buildings that had been carved up and remade into an informal compound, on a dusty West Oakland street. Five couples shared a lush, buzzing backyard. All fences were pulled down. Laundry was done en masse; clothes were swapped freely before parties. We lived on top of one another in a way that made real estate agents blanch and our happiness needles redline. And when people made pancakes, they made a mile of them, and our early sharing economy stood unrivaled.

Life was cheaper; there was that. More residents meant manageable mortgages, plus we shared expenses when possible-laundry soap, pancake ingredients. But even more valuable was the psychic boon. That community and connectedness had withered in late-capitalist America was hardly news. What surprised us was the ease of the solution: Cram more people into one smallish space.

Of course, thriftiness has translated into tight quarters since forever. At the edge of our shared yard stood remnants of old shacks once shared by early-20th-century railroad workers; they'd sleep in shifts. I wish I knew how they felt about it. Today, though, more and more urban dwellers are discovering that cozy co-living arrangements needn't be a sacrifice at all.

In the pages that follow, we look in on two such types of communities. The first was designed in advance to suit the residents-to-be. Against the woodsy backdrop of Boulder, three households of diverse ages and backgrounds came together for a kind of conscious downsizing. The commission of the project represented an embrace of "new West" values-sustainability, walkability, sociability-and a rejection of what one resident called "the suburban model of having to get in your car and drive everywhere."

The other community we highlight has an entirely different genesis. In the heart of not-at-all-woodsy Oakland, a developer bought a lot, took advantage of mellow zoning laws, and built a cluster of homes in a thoroughly mixed-use neighborhood. (Yes, that's a warehouse next door.) Built on spec, the units weren't tailored to a community; on the contrary, the developer had faith in a growing desire among Bay Area residents for a more intimate way of coexisting. It has worked out wonderfully for all involved.

Not that this should be news. A bunch of human beings living in close proximity is called a city. Okay, America may have forgotten the virtues of urban life and succumbed to the anesthetizing appeal of the suburbs and all that personal space. But we've swung back. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of Americans living in metro areas grew by 12.1 percent, while rural and suburban America shed numbers. Humans want proximity.

From this truth have cascaded concrete benefits. Having more bodies per city block brings more amenities, livelier streets, and better public-transit options. Environmental impact shrinks and so can the crime rate. Once considered a liability, density can, in fact, increase property values.

Metro areas have had to get smart about accommodating everyone. Vancouver, B.C., opted for tower-podium architecture, green space, and walkability and called it creative densification. "Vancouverism" became a guiding principle for other Western cities.

Policymakers throughout the West are now developing a slew of new tricks to cope with growing populations. Zoning reform, development of leftover lots, and improved public transportation have helped Washington, Oregon, and California convert massive urban influx into smart growth. …

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