The day started with a meeting in Stanford University discussing 100% Renewable Energy, Safe Climate Restoration and reasons for optimism with Professor Mark Jacobsen, Director of Atmosphere and Energy. Driving up to FrogSong Cohousing Community from Stanford meant travelling through San Francisco city and over the famous Golden Gate Bridge. The city’s old buildings and steep hills were familiar from countless ‘car-chase’ and other movies set there. Spotting a tram, then driving into the large park – nearly three square mile (six km²) –called Presidio and being assailed by the familiar smell of eucalyptus from all the gum trees on the hot day – kicked in the yearning for home. The country-side to the north of the Bay was uncannily like our south-eastern part of Australia. After over three months away, departure date was fast approaching and with it the desire for home.
Listening to the radio was reminiscent of Australia too. “Oregon and Washington have never been this dry. .. The Eastern slopes have already seen big fires. It was 109º F a couple of weeks ago. … This is a wake-up call ….A wildfire burning into a neighbourhood? That’s more California than Washington” and “There are at least six huge fires burning out of control up there. More lightening and hot weather moving in on the weekend.”
Arriving at FrogSong to be welcomed by Eris Weaver, last seen back at the Cohousing conference in Durham five weeks ago, was a great way to finish the day.
Called FrogSong for the frog chorus that fills the wetlands at a certain time of year, FrogSong Cohousing was designed by Chuck and Katie. FrogSong is a glowing example of cohousing working well. Located in the broader Bay Area of San Francisco, cohousing is quite prevalent in these parts. We are in California after all.
California is one of the most forward-thinking states of America. Mark Jacobsen had told me earlier that day that California and New York have adopted eighty per cent of the plan his Department have developed for cutting emissions radically and quickly. This works out to be a big step in the right direction. “California, which was the focus of Jacobson’s second single-state roadmap to renewables after New York, has already adopted some of his group’s suggestions and has a plan to be 60 percent electrified by renewables by 2030.” (1)
FrogSong is thirty households on two and a half acres. Most homes are two stories and either four bedders, three bedders or two bedders. After five years of getting it together, they arrived here, twelve years ago, to bare dirt. The garden now is a cornucopia of fruit trees and productive gardens. They decided to wait to locate the community patios until they had lived there for a while and knew their own spaces better. We all sat down at the ‘Gathering’ Node. At FrogSong ‘node’ is also a verb, ‘noding’, meaning to gather and be social.
Long ago this was the location of a chicken ranch and farmhouse. The early community members kept some of the wood from the barn that they ripped down and used it to build outdoor furniture.
Artification – another FrogSong word – pertains to their enthusiasm for the many participatory art projects that they continue to undertake.
When they moved in they had a lot of young kids but over the twelve years the kids have grown up and there’s not been a lot of turnover. The Bay area is one of the most expensive in America. San Francisco is more expensive even than New York. The high cost is one of the major deterrents to families moving in. The university is down the road but the area is mainly wine and tourism and some other industries including dairy and agriculture. They have lots of green belts in this region which is great but it has meant less development. Young adults need rental options. The County has not been building new housing. One of the FrogSong units has been on the market for a while and some members of the community are considering getting together to buy it to be able to rent it out to young people. They could accommodate up to five people in there. They realise there are challenges in being a landlord though.
Eris said the Common House works really well as far as light is concerned but not so well for noise. They have lots of house parties and dances and are one of a tiny minority of communities that have their own professional sound system.
Eris has found their tables to be good but heavy and hard to move. Her preference would be for them to lighter or on wheels.
There’s that issue about tables again!!
The community has a Special Project Fund for capitol projects such as the Kids’ Playground. The kids can move bit around to suit their needs. This day they had moved the slide to make it a water-slide.
The community dues (ie. Amenities and Facilities fee) vary per square foot with the smallest unit with no carport costing $247 per month ($334 AUD) and the biggest $360 ($487 AUD) per month. This of course doesn’t include the up front purchase price or their rates but does cover water, hot water, garbage, gas and wifi plus laundry and guest room use – everything except phone and electricity. They are working on a solar project which will take the electricity down.
In the Common House there is also a Play Room for the children to ‘bounce around in’ that is just far enough from the common Dining Room to not create a noise issue. They have two Guest rooms, one is called the ‘Lilly Pond’ because it’s all green in there and the other the ‘Queens Chamber’. Up the artified and ornate staircase from the kids Play Room and over the Queens Chamber is the ‘Queens Attic’ which has a library and is multi-purpose. Sometimes this is used as guest-room overflow or more usually a quiet working space, a space for small meetings and a place for movies, etcetera.
Going outside to the front street side of the property, Eris was pleased to explain the gardens they have established out there. With the blessing of the County, which has a program to get rid of grassed nature strips, they have established their own ‘green verge’ including fruit trees and productive bushes, completely transforming the street-scape. The program, called Cash for Grass, helps subsidise ripping out lawns and replanting with native, low-water-use plants. FrogSongs ‘Verge’ garden is all supported with water from the laundry. Eris herself dug the trench by hand that enabled a pipe to go under the footpath.
All the exterior Common House doors automatically lock behind you.
In the laundry there is no charge for using the washing machines. They have gone with the flow believing “everything will come out in the wash” and apparently it does. There are three washers and three driers for the thirty households and there is hardly ever any congestion to worry about. They also have clothes lines out the back which are allowable so long as they are not visible from the road.
They already have PV for the Common House and it’s coming for the rest of the community. The obstacle until now is that the legislation insisted that each household was individually metered but they have some skilled and determined people in Frog Song who fought to change that law. One member spent a lot of time in Sacramento, the capitol of California and seat of the State Government, lobbying and keeping up the pressure until the law was changed. FrogSong was one of the first to take advantage of this and came in under the new legislation. They will end up net zero or energy positive in County Sonoma.
When the community was being designed they had to fight the local government strenuously to keep the car allocation down to 1.5 per unit. This they achieved and have found to be adequate most of the time with street parking out the back soaking up the excess when necessary.
They also have a commercial building which makes a profit and provides an income stream for the community. Part of the deal for getting approval for the cohousing site plan was that they also have a commercial Mixed-Use building on the site facing onto the street and out into Cotati. They call it their thirty-first condo and treat it as a business for the community. It is a community enterprise.
Eris says ‘mixed use is very trendy but it’s a bit of a pain in the arse too’. They have eight homes above and seven businesses below. One, the Bakery, has taken over a second space to have room for their expanded business. Cotati is really still a small rural village with a population of only eight thousand people. Expectations for peace and quiet are higher than in the cities and combined with the upstairs, downstairs configuration they bring with them certain ‘separation of space’ issues – specifically around sound and smell.
The artified design of the frog on the gate is also the FrogSong logo. It represents the six-sided Cotati Plaza called ‘The Hub’ which is know for its unique hexagonal shape. Along the south side of their property is a public bicycle and access path and the creek is right there too.
Every ground floor dwelling has their own Private Open Space which most have opened up to the community growing ever more bountiful fruit trees of many varieties. The kids have created a tunnel path through which big adults can’t easily travel along.
Eris and Leslie provided dinner from their home and we sat outside in the Node. Sure enough other community members walked past and said hello, the community’s softball team – the Croakers – in their dark green softball uniforms went off to hopefully win the final and first one and then another of the community women joined the party and the vibrant conversation. A couple of cats walked by one wearing a bib to inhibit the innate bird catching cat behaviour.
The next day over coffee and breakfast at Cotati’s popular hangout, the Redwood Café, we discussed the early days of FrogSong, the false start, trials and tribulations and the motivators that got Eris involved as a founder. We talked about the direct experience of living in collective houses and participating in various collective endeavours – women’s collective, student groups, etc that use consensus decision making. And we talked about how the sense of community that had prevailed only a generation before was missed and how intentional community rose up in response. The advent of television, walkmans, even the phone and air-conditioning, the shopping malls taking over from the local strip shopping centres to say nothing about the contagion of litigation which makes so many people and communities risk adverse – all these things mitigate against and connected community. The distance children are allowed to walk to school has continued to shrink over the years with no basis in actual fact of increased crime, just the media beat-ups and atmosphere of insecurity that prevails these days. All these generational changes have provoked amongst some a desire and commitment to restore community and reconnect human lives into a more normal, healthier and more environmentally sensitive way of living.
The conversation also went to the way power – being the ability to get things done – manifests in community and how structures need to facilitate the more equitable sharing of the responsibilities, bring in training and empowerment and also recognise smaller sub groups can be nimble and have certain autonomy too.
Eris said FrogSong had a retreat away every year up until they moved in. These days they have an annual Women’s Retreat and the Men have had one or two as well. They have a whole day Workshop at least once a year. Many members do lots of things together and some even go away on holidays together.
But she said the big thing that makes their community successful is that they have Good Process and Good Parties – and lots of them!