Bellingham Cohousing Community

2015-06-19 12.23.17 the other community entranceThe Pacific Northwest had been an enticing proposition for a long time being such a hot spot for progressive minded, Cultural Creative types who for years, have been improving quality of life for themselves and others in a socially and environmentally sensible way. Aiming high for the Common Good is encouraged here. This is a generalisation of course but just reading the papers there it does seem to hold true.

For example: …… A group of young, (not yet voting) teenagers has successfully petitioned the Washington State Department of Ecology to develop policy “limiting carbon dioxide emissions based on best available science.” This has been upheld in what Andrea Rodgers of the Western Environmental Law Center and an attorney for the teen petitioners called a landmark ruling. “The effect of this decision” she said, “is that for the first time in the United States, a court of law has ordered a state agency to consider the most current and best available climate science when deciding to regulate carbon dioxide emissions”. The paper reported that “The court directed Ecology to apply the agency’s own findings that climate change presents an imminent threat to Washington and demands immediate action. The ball is now in Ecology’s court to do the right thing and protect our children and future generations.” Judge Hill ruled that climate change is a reality and negatively affecting Washington’s environment.” (1)
YAY!! Go kids!!
Go Washington State!!

And really no visit to Washington State would be complete without calling in on Bellingham Cohousing Community. This cohousing is another example of a Chuck and Katie design which, in the 80s, pioneered a way of housing and building community that was new to America. It was introduced to the mainstream and still works so well providing private and community spaces in a homogeneous mix that saves money, is environmentally sound and is pleasing to the eye as well. The model achieves so much and continues to challenge all involved to “live together and do it better”, raise the bar locally and stay current to our times and global needs.

Being hosted by Kathleen Nolan, the first to move on site fifteen years ago in March 2000, and long term founding member, was a bonus. Kathleen is the current community president, is very committed to living in community and very involved in the operations and administration of the community.  She is also revamping the website info kits and seeking to make more space available for young families. Having come to Australia recently to visit Earth Coop’s cohousing community in Melbourne – Murundaka – Kathleen is a friend now too which of course provided an added incentive to visit Bellingham.

Bellingham is a community of thirty-three households which sits on nearly six acres of land. The buildings are located together to the north. The north in the Northern Hemisphere is of course the equivalent of the south in the Southern Hemisphere and building in this way means the maximising of the sun filled part of the property.

A number of units have been bought by community land trusts and made available for affordable housing.

2015-06-19 12.29.15 CH dining roomThe old farmhouse has been retrofitted to create the Common House. The big dining area is sun-drenched on this June day with the skylights adding further bright light to the space.

2015-06-19 11.35.17 common house 1It has a beautiful quilt hung on the wall – appreciation of art and aesthetics is an aspect of many cohousing communities.

2015-06-19 12.29.34 tea and coffee nook

The coffee nook is well used by the community. Bellingham has a lovely ritual for whoever’s around meeting every day at 10.00 a.m. to have coffee and a catch up. As well as being a chance to have a smile and a laugh it provides an easy-going forum for any community issues to be discussed.

Thomas stepped forward to be a tour guide. Starting with the sumptuous, spacious, light-filled and delightful Common House we went through the kitchen, the kid’s room, the server cupboard, one of the lounge rooms, the office and the laundry. He took particular pleasure in pointing out the old door which had come from the original farmhouse. Stripped of its lead-based paint and repainted in the original colours and design, it looked great. Upstairs in the Common House are the guest rooms and two bathrooms: one of the best Guest Rooms to stay in ever – just beautiful.

Over to the well-equipped and well-organised Workshop and to the nearby compost, recycling and discards area where the kayaks were also being stored. Above the workshop are some offices including an architects office. This is where Marinus works. One of the early members he has maintained an office rental space there that gives the community some income. The next door room was the gym, multi purpose, youth room, and sometimes the over flow room.

Looking back to the old farmhouse, the gardens near this area are flourishing in the late Spring conditions. Nearby is the hot tub. Purchased second hand in the first place it was a toss up whether to invest money in it or replace it. The decision was to renovate and keep it going for a bit longer.

2015-06-19 11.58.48 kitchen in a unit2015-06-19 12.00.16 great photo - hippo and manPopping into Thomas’ spick and span unit, with its spick and span kitchen, it was lovely to see their treasured pieces of furniture and a gorgeous old photo of an old codger sitting comfortably with a hippopotamus resting its head in his lap. Such beautiful companionship – heart warming.

Past the raised garden beds out the front of the Common house, the PV panels on the south-facing rooftops and the evacuated tubes providing the hot water to the Common house. Past the West Node and down to the Wetlands that the community stewards to the south.

The boundary on the southern border is defined by Connelly Creek. The wetlands have a long boardwalk going down into them which was built from all the ramps that the downstairs units had been required to have when they first moved in. Having decided they didn’t need or like them in those locations they found a really good solution. In the flat area they have occasional bonfires in the fire pit and on the other side is the orchard each tree protected from the destructive deer gnawing on the trunks and taking the young leaves. Lots of fruit trees coming on and promising a good harvest this summer.

The creek itself needs the protection of the community to help fend off the intruding cattle that damage the banks and degrade the little eco-system there. They are also vigilant about noxious weeds and try to stay on top of that situation.

From there the tour took us past the outdoor games area and to the east node and then out to the park and playground area that the county had bequeathed to them. It has an undercover picnic spot and is connected to a public walking track that goes down to the creek and beyond.

Back in through the gateway that alerts people to the fact that this is private property and into the car parking and garage section which, in true cohousing style, is kept to the outer perimeter.

Kathleen cooked a beautiful dinner of salmon caught in the region with fresh seasonal asparagus and a delicious green salad accompanied by a white wine that was perfect for the meal. Dessert was an amazing locally produced and irresistible ice cream and the conversation was intensely interesting punctuated by a fair bit of laughter.

One thing Kathleen mentioned was that they have a wine-tasting dinner every year with sixty-five to seventy people attending from the thirty-three households. This is a good boost to the social engagement of the community and it helps that they have a friend who is a wine merchant.

The next morning brought a trip into Bellingham town – just a hop, skip and a jump away, and to a café that served excellent coffee, breakfast and internet.

Kathleen wanted to show off her lovely town and so we went down to the waterfront, had a walk around and got to see Bellingham from a different angle. Even a “Food Not Bombs” protest there that’s been going on for years in Bellingham – and also in Australia too.

Bellingham community have been through the dynamics for creating and stabilising and have a waiting list of people wanting to buy in or rent. There are a number of owners who, for one reason or another, are happy to stay connected and rent their properties. Renters are actively encouraged to actively participate in the community. The community is seeking to formalise this more and more as every cohousing neighbourhood relies on participation.

There were lots of important conversations had over that short while. Some of it is reflected in the website:

“An important element that sets Cohousing apart from a typical neighborhood setting is participation, which acts as a kind of glue that strengthens our relationships. Neighbor participation is expected here at Bellingham Cohousing and can occur in several ways. For example, we do most of the landscaping and maintenance ourselves. Doing work around the property is a way of both keeping the place tidy and of interacting with neighbors. Committee and general community meetings are held on a regular basis, and participation in these is a way to contribute ideas to the collective wisdom of the community and to make sure that decisions are made in the best interest of the entire community. …… Bellingham Cohousing is a living situation that requires considerable neighbor participation. Bellingham Cohousing residents dedicate as much as 20 hours per month attending committee meetings, planning meals and community activities, and working on community projects. …… Although Bellingham Cohousing is a supportive community, it is not designed or intended to be an environment for individuals needing therapeutic levels of attention or care.”

There are a number of members actively seeking to consciously face the issues of climate change as a community and to examine how their values and practices could be lived out in a more sustainable fashion. Yet here as elsewhere can be found the narrow self interest – the “but I want / I need”– sentiment that can all too get frequently in the way of this.

The many valuable topics we discussed are perhaps for a different post on another day but suffice to say that Kathleen has a wealth of experience to draw on, has been intelligently processing the experience for many years, is smart and humble and continues to ‘do the work’ and is therefore a great resource for me and others to draw on.

As are the resources that she is helping to create for her community – and for anyone else – to tap into through the Bellingham Cohousing Community website itself.


2015-06-19 22.39.11 night-time view

I left Bellingham deep in thought. Catching the train down the spectacular coast of the Puget Sound and into Seattle. I thought about how the last three months travelling have taken me from one cohousing community to another. I thought about how I have been exposed to some communities that have decades of experience up their sleeves and are still finding things they are only just confronting and others that are very new and seem to be hitting the ground running but no doubt with a few blind spots yet to be discovered.

I have been learning so much along with way and, with my own experience as well, have realised a few things.

One thing I’ve realised is the reality that the collaborative path is a long and sometimes arduous one. It works in cycles and requires reviews and revamps. There is no “resting on one’s laurels” in this space. Energy for “Continual Improvement” is needed to resist the trend towards apathy or learned helplessness and the self-serving boundaries people put around themselves that whilst sometimes positive, can block the flow and undermine community. We have to consciously and collectively stay on the job to Raise the Bar.

I have also come to the conclusion that comfort and complacency are the twin evils of middle class individualism that feed a level of passive aggression that can be toxic to those with energy for change. How Cohousing communities can make a significant, positive contribution to the Rapid Transformative Change that is so needed in our societies in these days of our shared global Climate Emergency is a conversation that I believe needs to be put on the Agenda and actively ventilated.

What I have seen encourages me to believe there is enough good energy for this and it is starting to happen.

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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