Wild Sage and The Choreography of Co-housing

The man walking his two German Shepherds on the ‘sidewalk’ was wearing a t-shirt about fighting the environmental threat of the introduced and venomous Lionfish now upsetting the natural balance in the Atlantic around Florida, the Carribean and beyond. In a natural pond in Boulder, where someone unthinkingly disposed of a few gold fish, the numbers grew into the thousands similarly competing with native fish and disrupting the local wildlife. The man’s t-shirt was raising awareness about the dangers of releasing pet aquarium fish into the waterways or oceans.

This is Boulder, Colorado today. Environmentally aware, avante guarde and known for its progressive politics and action especially on climate change.

Boulder’s earlier history includes a long and inglorious chapter where white gold miners and settlers intruded into Arapaho country. For some years they were tolerated, even welcomed by the local Chief who hung onto the belief that peace was a safer bet right up until the massacre that took his life and that of over a hundred others mainly the old, the young and the women. It was called an atrocity and it prompted Abraham Lincoln, in the middle of the mayhem of the Civil War, to call for a congressional hearing resulting in the Governor being sacked and Colorado being put under martial law. In the ensuing decades of the ‘Indian Wars’ that this massacre helped start all the remaining Arapaho (and the Cheyenne too) were killed or driven out to a reservation in Wyoming. The last fight they put up was against Custer and Buffalo Bill at Little Bighorn in 1876.

Not even a century later, back in the 1950s, Boulder became the chosen destination for hippies and the awakening that accompanied the Cultural Creatives back then has helped to properly protect its nature and people ever since.

Screenshot 2015-07-06 05.08.20 culturalcreatives.org“Two key dimensions of values are more important to Cultural Creatives than to others:
1) having green and socially responsible values, and
2) personal development values, including spirituality and new lifestyles.” (1)

“Their most important values include: ecological sustainability and concern for the planet (not just environmentalism); liking what is foreign and exotic in other cultures; what are often called ‘women’s issues’ by politicians and the media (i.e., concern about the condition of women and children both at home and around the world, concern for better health care and education, desire to rebuild neighborhoods and community, desire to improve caring relationships and family life); social conscience, a demand for authenticity in social life and a guarded social optimism; and giving importance to altruism, self-actualization and spirituality as a single complex of values.” (1)

2015-06-10 16.15.43

2015-06-10 16.15.18Back then, with the threat of trophy homes going up higher and higher into the foothills around Boulder, a Committee for the “Blue Line” was established to protect open spaces above an elevation of 5750 feet (1,752 meters). The Blue Line was to be a contour line at an elevation something like 30 feet above the mean water level in the Chautauqua Reservoir. A document titled Recollections of the Origin of Boulder’s Blue Line City Charter Amendment captures the enthusiasm to address environmental threats and the process used. Albert A. Bartlett, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder, describes how it was done. It is a lesson in how to enshrine such a change so it can not be undone later without taking it to the people. (2)

So Boulder had experienced success. The “Yes for the Blue Line” campaign morphed into a “Yes for Greenbelts” campaign and at the election on July 1959 the Blue passed by a vote of 2735 to 852.
They won. (3)

The citizens of Boulder voted several years ago to impose a tax on themselves – a carbon tax – that would raise funds to reduce emissions, protect the environment and to build resilience in the community. The Boulder PLAN organisation is currently lobbying for a moratorium on fracking.

“Boulder (Colorado) implemented the United States’ first tax on carbon emissions from electricity, on April 1, 2007, at a level of approximately $7 per ton of carbon. According to the City of Boulder, the tax is costing the average household about $1.33 per month, with households that use renewable energy receiving an offsetting discount. The city expected the tax to generate about $1 million annually until its expiration in 2012, with the revenues used to fund Boulder’s climate action plan to further reduce energy use and to comply with the Kyoto Protocol (Kelley 2006). In June 2009, the City Council voted unanimously to raise the tax level, effective Aug. 6, 2009. Although press reports did not specify the new rate, the expected increase in revenues, some $810,000 annually, suggests that the increase is on the order of 80%, or perhaps $5-$6 per ton of carbon (on top of the original $7/ton).” (4)

In 2012 they voted overwhelmingly to extend the tax for another five years. They use the money to support the SmartRegs program which mandates energy-efficiency standards for rental housing. The money from the tax provides incentives to help landlords reach those mandates. (5)

When Australia voted to repeal the Price on Pollution – alias The Carbon Tax – our emissions reverted to climbing back up – steadily and steeply.

Shame on our country for its inability to resist the bullying and coercion of the fossil fuel industries and the corresponding corruption in our major political parties. (4)

Screenshot 2015-07-06 04.44.19 www.carbontax.orgThis is something still to be rectified.

Last year Boulder introduced a carbon tax on cannabis to offset cannabis carbon emissions. Hot and sunny Colorado is one of America’s most enthusiastic marijuana growing states yet most of the growing is done in sheds under lights. The realisation of the emissions involved (and pesticides too) has catalysed a response including the imposition of a cannabis carbon tax.

In February this year boulder expanded its ban on outdoor cigarette smoking. “Boulder smokers will no longer be able to light up in the downtown business district, in city parks, open space or within 25 feet of bus stops, multi-use paths and entrances to buildings. The Boulder City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to adopt the outdoor smoking ban” (5)

It’s a big place, Colorado. At over one hundred and four thousand square miles (about 270,000 square kilometers) it is ranked eight largest state and has a population of over five point two million.

The gregarious, entertaining man who runs the Hunting Knife shop up in the mountains in Idaho Springs concluded his rave on how great Colorado is as a gun-toting, so-called ‘freedom’ preserving state, with a warning not to go to Boulder. “Boulder ruins our reputation! They’ve even banned smoking outside in Boulder.”

It’s not so surprising then, in this highly aware, intelligent, avante guarde city of Boulder, to find co-housing alive and well. 2015-06-10 12.27.53And it is also flourishing in and through Brian Bowen, the person responsible for this visit. Brian had been slated to present at the Durham Cohousing Conference on ‘Sustainable Design’ but had had to cancel after seriously breaking his thumb the day before using a circular saw on what had turned out to be an unpredictable piece of wood. 2015-06-10 13.53.33And now sporting a very flash purple cast on his left hand.

Over lunch in a nice restaurant a short walk from his work, Brian told his story. He lives at Wild Sage Cohousing Community which sits right over the road from Silver Sage in a neat and tidy development of contemporary, modern, two storey buildings that complement the street-scape. Most houses had well-tended gardens and there were no unkempt lawns or broken fences were to be seen.

As well as Wild Sage and Silver Sage there are seven other cohousing communities in the state of Colorado. Reinventing Community in Lafayette, Harmony Village, Heartwood, Casaverde, Highline Crossing, Hearthstone and Louisville Artists Cohousing.

Permits were given to zone part the area as ‘Mixed Use’ within the general resident neighbourhood blocks of this development. So they were built as housing but with flexibility to create small businesses – usually on the ground floor. Architects, engineers, medicos, consultants etc. and they can often have residential above. This creates a great ambience that the workers love. The pathways between the buildings open out onto each other so people can interact. They provide a sense of spaciousness and distance. A lot of the workers live close by and can walk to work. Weather permitting, they open the – what could be – garage doors and spread out into the courtyard and shared spaces.

Brian is an architect designer working with, Caddis Architects, who himself lives in cohousing and specialises in cohousing communities, net zero energy and sustainable design and is interested in the innovations coming along will raise the bar further. Our discussion went beyond designing for low emissions living into actual Restorative Living tackling the sequestration of our historical carbon pollution. This is surely the new frontier and the urgency does not escape those who know the extreme danger we are collectively experiencing as we continue to push up the temperature of our planet.

Brian enjoys a challenge. He likes being challenged by groups and clients who may not want to take the co-housing stream-lined route but who might be wanting to do something more innovative. Brian agrees that innovation is an overworked word these days. He also happily admits that his company is a leader in Boulder.

Forward-thinking Boulder is now seeking to take over the management of their city’s own utilities such as electricity etcetera. They are calling this ‘Municipalisation’ and it is strongly supported in the community.

Boulder, with a population of just over one hundred and three thousand, also punches above its weight as a city in terms of research organisations that are located there. The Nature and Ocean Association, The National Centre for Atmospheric Research and the NREL – the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to name but three.

Some of Brian’s work is with clients such as BHP (Boulder Housing Program) who seek to build elements of cohousing in the renovation of three hundred and fifty units of affordable housing where they are doing sustainability upgrades and modifications.

Brian lives and breathes co-housing and loves it. He participated comfortably in the topic of Active Membership Requirements and Participation and, in answer to a question about how far the buildings themselves can go toward fostering participation said that, whilst it’s important the designed elements don’t make participation feel obligatory, smart design can basically ‘insist’ that residents at least have the opportunity.

He describes his work in this area as a form of choreography. For example, linking the recycling depot to the mailboxes means people have more reasons to be at that physical location. They are therefore likely to spend extra minutes there sorting their recycling as well as collecting mail. These time and proximity factors mean they are more likely to see other people and have some communication, are more likely to keep the area itself tidy, are likely to pick up useful information about recycling, perhaps by osmosis, as well as also be encouraged to maybe do a bit more in that department by the role modelling they witness.

2015-06-10 12.32.47In the town there is evidence of this sort of community connection points. A creative little mushroom-shaped ‘library’ out in the park encouraging children to borrow books and to share. A community noticeboard in downtown Boulder adjacent to some buzzing cafes, architecture firms and business zones.

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This participation brings with it a sense of familiarity and connection that is very real and which naturally fosters neighbourliness and from there, greater participation.

Wild Sage has a ratio of two adults to every child, altogether fifty adults in thirty-four households. It is a very intergenerational community which has seen a fair turnover since its commencement in 2004. This in turn has brought in a great continuum of little kids. Over the last few years Boulder has seen huge price rises in housing and Brian shares a concern that this will make it more difficult for families with children to be able to afford to buy in.

The conversation somehow veered once again to climate change and to how the intensification of the effects they are already experiencing – droughts, wild fires, shrinking snow-fall and the significant escalation in serious flooding – is being catered for in design and materials.

Brian explained that they are working to achieve net zero water, net zero energy and to take on the responsibility of sequestering carbon. 2015-06-10 13.50.53Brian is also similarly interested in food production and Permaculture in co-housing and how co-operatives and enterprise opportunities can be situated within or close to home. He mentioned other interesting variations such as the inclusion of a mini student dorm and co-household models.

2015-06-10 13.50.56There is a housing building boom in Boulder and the work is piling in. Text messages beckoned, deadlines were looming and our time had run out. With promises to visit Australia one day (“It’s not so far”) we shook hands and hugged and said good-bye.

(1) http://culturalcreatives.org/cultural-creatives/
(2) Albert Bartlett – Recollections of the Origin of Boulder’s Blue Line City Charter Amendment
(3) http://bcn.boulder.co.us/basin/news/blueline.html
(4) http://www.carbontax.org
(5) http://www.dailycamera.com

About Giselle Wilkinson - 4allsentientbeings

Environmental conservation, community and cooperatives have been enduring threads in my life. Promoting sustainable lifestyles and more lately, focussing on restoring a Safe Climate, is work expressed predominantly through organisations such as The Sustainable Living Foundation (which I co-founded in 1999 - current President) and the others listed as links below. I am some way into a professional doctorate with MIECAT on "Mobilising Whole Communities to Restore a Sustainable Environment" and have in recent years moved into MURUNDAKA – a (more) sustainable, (more) affordable co-housing community / housing cooperative in Heidelberg, Melbourne (for which I gave up my co-op house of 19 years including veggie garden and small orchard) and it's great. I'm also a mum of two grown up daughters and have five step children.
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