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.
The idea of co-housing began in Denmark during the 1960s with a couple of influential articles — Bodil Graae's 1967 "Every child should have 100 parents" and Jan Gudmand-Hoyer's "The Missing Link between Utopia and the Dated One-Family House."
Now around 1 percent of Denmark's population — more than 50,000 people — live in co-housing communities, according to Matthieu Lietaert, a researcher at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. The movement spread to Sweden and the Netherlands in the '70s and was popularized in the United States in the '90s with a book on co-housing by architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett. There are now more than 100 cohousing communities in the United States.
And its demand makes sense to some experts. Things are different than they were in the 1950s, thinks Greg Townley, a community psychology researcher at the University of South Carolina.
"More people are living in fear of their neighbors, rather than seeing them as a resource," Townley said.
Social groups like churches, the local YMCA or sports groups remain a strong part of Americans' lives. But one is more likely to use home to escape everyday stress instead of looking to a neighbor for help, Townley theorized. Terrifying media stories can erase that '50s neighborhood mindset, he noted.
For those not able to pack up and move to a commune — or a co-housing community — technology has enabled more opportunities for virtual as well as physical connection.
"The internet hasn't closed us off," contends Townley.
People can bridge social — and virtual — gaps to socialize face-to-face with neighbors through Meet-Up groups, an online social networking site, or use of local blogs. For those who are shy, the internet can provide a comfortable and safe way to organize block parties, potlucks, babysitting or carpooling. Though neighbors still must take the intiative.
In 1980 Laura Fitch was studying architecture abroad in Denmark when she learned about co-housing. She joined one of the first communities back in the U.S., Pioneer Valley in Amherst, Mass., and started an architecture firm specializing in co-housing, one of around half a dozen firms now in the country.
"Privacy at the home, community at the doorstep," Fitch repeated when talking about her designs.
"The biggest benefit was that children can play outside, like when I was little," said Fitch, who raised her two children at Pioneer Valley.
No one set up "play dates." She felt comfortable letting her children loose because she knew her neighbors. Now that her children are older, 15 and 18, they interact with the adults more as equals. In such a close community there is a lot of mentoring from adults to kids, she noticed.
Vicky Wason was living in an apartment in Salt Lake City with her husband when she saw an ad about forming a co-housing community in 1997.
The group met in lawn chairs on the empty property in Salt Lake where Wasatch Commons now stands.
"It felt like people were excited about something new. There was a lot of smiling and laughing," Wason said. She felt like she was around her kind of people.
It took more than three years from the first meeting to development.
Many other communities across the country are similarly demand-driven. People meet to discuss what they value in the design and then search out a sympathetic architect.
Wason has two kids and teaches English as a second language with her husband. She said she and her husband could never own five acres of land on their income, let alone a common house with a children's play-room that includes a rock-climbing wall.
Raising children in cohousing can have many of the same aspects of a good neighborhood street, just made easier, Wason said. There is some casual babysitting and carpooling.
"There is a built-in understanding that as parents, everyone communicates openly. You can't just shut your door. They are your next-door neighbor and will be for a while. You are forced, in a nice way, to work things out," said Wason.
After Mary English's children were grown and gone, she found herself living in an apartment alone with bars on the windows. She recalls an elderly neighbor who passed away; it took weeks for people to notice the mail stacking up.
Around a third of non-institutionalized seniors lived alone in 2009, according to the Census. Intentional communities like cohousing have been suggested to ease loneliness some find in old age.
Although there are only four senior co-housing communities now, the option will be attractive for aging baby boomers, said co-housing architect Fitch. Already it is the most popular type of new co-housing communities built in Denmark.
"It might morph and influence other housing sectors," Fitch predicted.10 comments on this story
In Massachusettes there are affordable housing communities that have used co-housing design — a practice that was common in Sweden and the Netherlands, and she has seen veterans housing that looks similar. Designers of a foster-child community came to her community for ideas.
"They just aren't calling it co-housing," said Fitch.
Touring the land set aside for gardening at Wastach Commons, Ehrbar explains that these are individual lots owned by residents. He has fruit trees, now bare in winter, on his lot. When they bloom he lets his neighbors pick what they want.
"In challenging times, you can do better in a community," Ehrbar said.