Families find stronger community in neighborhood design called co-housing

Published: Monday, March 19 2012 11:00 p.m. MDT

Sharon Leopardi, left, and Vicky Wason walk into the garden area. The Wasatch Commons co-housing community Thursday, March 8, 2012.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Sunday is potluck night at the Wasatch Commons co-housing community. Neighbors trickle in at dusk to the common house and choose from dishes displayed on a foldable table.

"How do we get eggs from you?" a man asks Sharon Leopardi, 25, who has a garden with chickens in the neighborhood.

Eventually people find seats and begin eating and talking about the week.

As families elsewhere in the city are in their own homes eating dinner or watching television, neighbors here mingle, which they will tell you is the point of living here. Wasatch Commons is a neighborhood designed to encourage interaction between residents, a new social experiment that is slowly gaining popularity around the world.

Nostalgia for an old-fashioned neighborhood life — village rather than suburban mindset — has caused some to reorganize their communities from the ground up. Wasatch Commmons is an example of one way people are coming together voluntarily to form the type of communities thought by some to be declining in America.

Some research suggests that Americans today are more likely to be socially isolated where they live. In 1985, 80 percent of Americans had at least one confidant who was not a family member. By 2004 that percentage was down to around 57 percent. The average size of an American's social network has decreased by a full person in those 20 years to around two in 2004.

And neighbors and members of voluntary associations decreased the most, according to the 2006 study "Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades" published in the American Sociological Review.

A concept borrowed from Scandinavia, co-housing communities are somewhere between commune and involved homeowner's association. There are some communal facilities such as a common house and shed, management is democratic and the architecture is unique. But finances and homes are private. Income is not shared and residents work outside the community.

Wasatch Commons members expressed a number of reasons why they live there — to have a greater connection to their neighbors, to share some values with those they live around (environmentalism and self-sufficiency for those in this group), or to allow their children free reign in a neighborhood with people they trust.

Whether because of its design, with closely packed homes and advertised common space, or the type of people who live there (who see it as a sort of duty to get to know their neighbors), a visitor gets the sense of a more connected community compared to the average neighborhood.

"It's like having 26 in-laws," a resident said.

Walking the 5-acre property, Hans Ehrbar, a founding member and economics professor at the University of Utah, points out its features.

Windows in the dining room of homes — "That's where the action is," Ehrbar said — face a walking path looping the property. Per residents' design, no roads intersect the neighborhood and the parking lot is located on the periphery to provide the kids a safe space to play.

The homes are positioned to provide a view of the common house, which is meant to be more than the average activity center. It's a modern-day Viking longhouse that from the inside looks more like an upscale model-home. Its purpose is to provide space for community gatherings. In it community meetings are held twice a month — to discuss and vote on things like painting a building — and residents host various social clubs. Leopardi teaches a weekly yoga class. There is a line of laundry machines and driers in the back, a kids play room and a full kitchen, all paid for and used by the residents.

Neighbors gather with blankets and lawn chairs on some summer nights to watch movies projected on the side of the building.

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