The US National Cohousing Conference 2015 held in Durham was fantastic. The town filled with enthusiastic cohousing advocates, practitioners, designers, founders, members and would-be members. A few people came from Australia and other places abroad including a team of designers and architects from China.
It was not the first time the conference had been held in Durham and the cohousing community there and the Cohousing US Association were ready for action.
Arriving a couple of days ahead of the conference was a very good move opening up the opportunity to meet the people from Durham Central Park Cohousing and some of the conference organisers before it all moved into full swing. One of those key people was Alice Alexander – also the CEO of the National Cohousing US Association. Her husband David was on airport pick-ups and provided a detailed down-load of info about Durham driving past key local points of interest and landmarks on the way to the AirBnB.
North Carolina is definitely part of the American ‘South’. There were significant battles during the Civil War in this region. Durham County had the largest Confederate surrender in the war negotiated between two Generals, Johnstone and Sherman.
A terrible shooting of nine people in a church in South Carolina on June 17th, not long after the conference, has reignited a lot of conversation about gun laws, the persistent racism and the ongoing use of the Confederate flag there even on the South Carolina number plates.
Durham by contrast has a much happier history between black and white Americans. According to Durham County Library documents, “Central North Carolina from around 1600 to 1750 was an isolated place that was home to a live-and-let live society where Native American, white, and black freely mixed.” They had their ups and downs over the years (centuries) and some not such glorious episodes but Durham is very proud of the strong black entrepreneurialism that flourished there especially the business that was to prove most successful – the North Carolina Mutual and Provident Society. There are plaques and information scattered through downtown Durham.
The houses in the old part of town to the north had a distinctly southern feel and look to them – lovely verandas, big trees, gracious and spacious.
David and Robin Arcus were the welcoming BnB hosts explaining how things work and providing a map of Durham and some pointers on best ways to go etcetera. One night they provided a lovely vegetarian dinner sitting outside in the long dusk when suddenly there were tiny flashes of light, split second sparks dotting the lawn and gardening. “Lightening bugs” making contact with each other and maybe looking for mates. It was beautiful … Never seen that before!! Tom and Kathy were the other guests there forming a cohousing community in Houston and also attending the conference. Their swing seat was a favourite spot in the cool of the early morning.
It was hot walking the twenty minutes into downtown Durham and to the cohousing community to join in their nightly “Happy Hour” on the Upper Community Deck. What better way to enter a conference? As the evening closed in the sky filled with clouds promising rain but few drops fell anywhere near the cohousing community.
Beating the rush meant making some connections with happy, welcoming members of Durham which led to getting a personalised tour of the community, a dinner invitation to one of the popular funky restaurants in the new wave of revival Durham is enjoying right now and also an offer of a couple of bicycles for the duration of the conference making getting around and seeing the town a breeze.
Whilst Happy Hour is very frequent Common Meals are less so occurring about once a fortnight and a pot luck every other week. The community is still very young – less than one year old (December 2014) and 39 member households.
Although the space for gardening and food growing was very limited some members were having a go on the north side (ie equivalent to the south side for southern hemisphere bods) it received little sun for most of the year. Set in the suburbs right on the border of the thriving downtown of Durham, the design of the multi storey building was very modern with lots of steel and mesh and some polished wood, wide generous spaces, amazing art everywhere, a well laid out kitchen, ample dining room and some great outside socialising people-friendly spaces. The Durham Cohousing Community kitchen and shared spaces coped extremely well with the hundred plus conference participants that turned up at the Reception they held there. They were pleased how well their facility coped with the numbers.
Well over four hundred people gathered for these few intense days of conferring. As with all conferences a lot of the great work happened in the corridors and over dinners. Many people seeking to establish communities trying to find answers, suggestions and way through the complexity. One person said that only five per cent of forming groups succeed in achieving a community. But whatever the statistic, a lot of forming groups DO get there and there are a lot of books on the myriad of related topics to help them along the way and once they get going.
One stunning statistic was that in America ten thousand people are turning sixty-five every day. They call it the Silver Tsunami. There are eighty-five million Baby Boomers and sixty-five million Gen X.
A great example used for promoting creativity was coordinating people in a community to choose the colour not for their own house but of the house opposite. Brilliant!!
Sessions attended were included David Entin’s excellent presentation on “Cohousing in Sweden and Denmark” (full notes of all the cohousing communiities he visited are available)
Denmark and Sweden are known for their strong endorsement of cohousing. Denmark in particular is commonly understood to be the home of cohousing since the 1970s.
David talked about the role of government in purchasing and subsidizing cohousing in these two countries and of the many public projects for the elderly, the sick and the poor some of which have, over time, been converted to cohousing as a more robust model; while there are many communities in the cities – fifteen to twenty just in Stockholm which is about a third the size of Melbourne – most of these projects are in the regions where it is local government doing it. In Denmark there are seventeen communities in Roskilde which is where Munksøgārd is located. There is a National organisation of Cohousing in Sweden but no similar organisation in Denmark.
David’s research showed that members are selected carefully. Most communities screen, some very well, (some interview twice – first to be external members and then to become a member) for appropriate members – some don’t screen at all. It is understood that it is very important to have greater understanding and expectations from the start and if you’re not up for that don’t move in. Cohousing communities are self-managed not using other agencies and it’s important to be clear about that.
Meal preparation, maintenance participation and active participation in community meetings are requirements. Some communities fine people for inadequate participation.
The mention of the word ‘Consensus’ often gets a laugh. “How do you do that?” they ask but communities do aim for consensus and usually a new proposal has to go before everyone at least a week in advance. However decisions are mostly made by majority vote or two thirds majority most often with a great deal of consultation leading up to them.
Some host refugees. Danes think of themselves as people who care about other people. Sweden also encourages racial diversity. David made the point that Sweden with a population of just under ten million took more refugees from Iraq than the US with three hundred million.
David asked them if they thought cohousing residents were typical of people in their country. The US don’t have too many Republicans in cohousing and they don’t either. Community people are more liberal and not typical of their country. Everyone is helpful and friendly and enjoying cohousing.
Some excellent topics were covered but it was of course impossible to get to them all. ‘Parenting in Cohousing’, ‘Making Cohousing Affordable’, ‘Community as an Economic Engine’, ‘Net Zero and Energy Positive Cohousing’, ‘A Modular Approach to Effective Policies’, ‘Sociocracy’, ‘Growing Up in Community’ to name a few.
In addition to the programme I helped catalyse a couple of extra sessions – a lunchtime discussion for Founders and a facilitated conversation on Climate Change and Cohousing.
One of the best parts of the conference was the cohousing communities tour which took a bus full of people to Soltero, Eno Commons, Elderberry, Pacifica and, of course, Durham Central Park.
Towards the end of the conference a special Reception was held at Durham Central Park Cohousing with the added interest of two little electric bicycle vehicles that people could test-drive in the car park over the road. The party was a great success and full of happiness and energised conversation.
The next day it was time to leave and Robin Arcus, the gentle host of the airBnB, injected a final gift into the departure as she volunteered for the airport drive using the opportunity to fill in a whole lot of the history of Durham – of Washington Duke, the “Bright Leaf Tobacco Company” and Duke University’s magnificent grounds and buildings, mostly from the 1930’s – on the way.