Throughout my life, I have lived in communities where I knew only a handful of my neighbors. I didn’t ever ask to borrow a cup of sugar or flour like they did in the communities depicted in 1950s sitcoms. My mother, however, grew up in such a neighborhood, where there were 42 children living on one block. When kids played outside, all the neighbors looked out for them, not only the parents. In many ways, my husband and I have been seeking out such a community for our two young children.
My family will soon be moving to Belfast Cohousing and Ecovillage (BC&E) on the midcoast of Maine. Cohousing is collaborative housing where residents actively and intentionally participate in the design and operation of their own neighborhood.
Photo By Jeffrey Mabee/Courtesy Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage
BC&E is a 36-unit community on 40-plus acres that will soon break ground on the approximately 4,000-square-foot common house with a large dining room, commercial kitchen, guest bedrooms, laundry room and playroom.
The community layout—including restricted access to automobiles with parking on the periphery, clustered homes, community vegetable and flower gardens, and preserved open space—makes it a safe and dynamic place for children to call home. There are currently 11 member households with children or little ones on the way, as well as numerous senior households that are eager to have a role in these children’s lives.
Before deciding to join a cohousing community, I spoke with other people about their experiences. “Living in cohousing is amazing for children,” says Forrest Espinoza, a mother of two, ages 8 and 11, who lives in Troy Gardens, a cohousing community in Madison, Wisconsin. “My kids enjoy playing with children of all ages. They play outside so much more. Before we moved here, I had a hard time getting them to go outside because there weren’t other kids outside. The first couple years we lived here, I had trouble getting them to come inside!”
Espinoza believes this experience has been an opportunity for personal growth. “I’ve been thinking about how my children have to share a yard,” says Espinoza. “If you were in a typical community, you would invite other children to come into your yard. If your children weren’t getting along, you wouldn’t invite those kids to come over and play. In a cohousing community, they have to work things out. It was frustrating in the beginning, but our whole family has experienced incredible growth.”
In addition to having other children on hand to play with, there are also numerous adults that can enrich the children’s lives. “My children know more adults who care for them and have relationships that go beyond me,” says Stacy Lewis, who lives in a Seattle cohousing community with her husband and two sons, ages 6 and 9. “While moving here didn’t instantly give us twenty new grandma and grandpas or aunts and uncles, cohousing provides many opportunities for shared experiences, and our connections deepen over time. It’s true that we are closer with some folks than others, yet by the time they are grown, my children will have known and been known by many warm-hearted folks.”
Restricted automobile access with centralized parking is a common feature of many cohousing communities. In addition to helping preserve open space, it also makes the community safer for children. “I know when my children go out the door, they’re not going to get hit by a car,” says Nessa Dertnig, a member of BC&E and a mother of two. “They can ride their bikes around and I can feel safe, even if they are not within eyesight. That certainly isn’t the case where we live now.”
The parents can also benefit considerably from a supportive cohousing community, particularly with childcare. “The kids can run back and forth to each other’s houses,” says Espinoza. “We don’t have to call or text to work out all the details [for childcare] and we don’t have to drive the kids back and forth.”
From media exposure to conflict resolution, different parenting styles can present challenges for communities. My family is currently living in a cooperative house where there is a shared kitchen, dining room and family room. When a new family moved in, they brought a plastic battery-operated machine gun toy for the family room that lit up and made sounds when fired. I was shocked when I saw my 4-year-old daughter pretending to kill people with it. Thankfully, the other mother was receptive to keeping such toys out of common areas of the house.
Peacefully resolving potentially contentious situations requires a commitment to communication and the community. “To really get this community to work, we’re all going to have to really work on growing as people and taking responsibility for our own issues, and learn to work with all different kinds of people,” says Dertnig. “It’s going to be important that we figure that out, support each other, and get training when we need it.”
In addition to having other children on hand to play with, there are also numerous community traditions that kids can participate in. “I think we have richer spiritual lives,” says Lewis. “My kids have more rituals and traditions than they would living in a single-family home. Traditional celebrations include an Easter egg hunt, Passover Seder, and pumpkin carving, but we also have coming of age ceremonies for teens and a waking up the trees procession for winter solstice. These mark time and provide context for what it means to be a human being in relationship to others and the natural world.”
Uprooting ourselves and moving to BC&E is a big step for us and a leap of faith. My husband, Kiril Lozanova, grew up in a tight-knit Bulgarian village, where numerous families have lived as neighbors for generations.
“Humans are designed to live in communities, and it is much healthier to live that way,” says my husband. “It is a human desire to share.”
Sarah Lozanova is a mother of two, a holistic parenting coach, and a freelance environmental writer. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and has an MBA in sustainable development. View her natural parenting blog at RawMama.org.