In a rapidly-growing city, ‘intentional communities’ create tight-knit, sustainable neighbourhoods

Many people dream of owning a piece of land, building a nice big house of their very own, and heck, why not throw in that two-car garage?

This dream has become increasingly unattainable for many Calgarians largely because of the rising cost of land and homes. In addition, there are those who say this dream is no longer necessarily a smart or sustainable one.

What alternatives exist in a boomtown where it’s often forgotten that many people can’t or don’t want to pursue that ideal?

Calgarian Jim Campbell thinks one solution could be “creating intentional communities, as well as reducing your environmental footprint, by sharing resources.”

 Campbell is the owner of a two-bedroom unit in the yet-to-be-built Dragonfly Cohousing development in Calgary. The Dragonfly concept was born in the summer of 2010, when two groups interested in a cohousing project merged to create the organization.

The rise of cohousing

Cohousing is a concept that started in 1964 in Denmark. The concept was born over the course of several months by architect Jan Gudmand-Hoyer and a group of interested friends. By 1973, the first known cohousing community was built.

In Dragonfly — as with most cohousing projects — each member owns their own unit, which come in a variety of sizes to accommodate different families. There is a common house in the community, which Campbell says can be a workshop, guest suites, or simply a place for members to get together.

“There’s a whole mentality in cohousing where people aren’t as strict in their mentality of ‘this is mine, that’s yours,’” he says.

Campbell adds that cohousing is quite common in Europe and surprisingly so in the United States. He says its popularity in Canada is slowly on the rise.

“The popularity in Europe is based on their population density,” Campbell says. “They simply can’t have what we have in Calgary.”

Campbell is referring to the surplus of land that surrounds the city of Calgary. That same land is becoming increasingly developed and dense with rows of houses every year.

Even with the luxury of land around Calgary, Campbell says he believes the city will start facing issues with the outward spread.

Campbell says the current paradigm is to work hard, buy a piece of land, and put up one’s own house.

“That worked 100 years ago, 50 years ago, but it’s not working anymore,” he says. “We can see it, so we have to think about shifting.”

Cohousing challenges

The members of the Dragonfly Cohousing community visit the site where they hope the community will be built by Dec. 2015.

Photo courtesy of Jim Campbell Jasen Robillard, another Dragonfly owner, says one of the biggest challenges the group has faced so far is getting everything up and running.

Dragonfly owns a piece of land in Crescent Heights where the community will be built. Over the summer, with 35 units sold and only one left to sell, the design plans for that piece of land came back 70 per cent over budget.

The Dragonfly group had to go back to the drawing board, faced with the decision to either redesign or find a different piece of land to build on.

“Real estate development can be an industry fraught with risk,” says Robillard. After their set back, the Dragonfly group decided to keep their land and redesign.

The expected move-in date based on the new plan is tentatively set for Dec. 2015.

Robillard says that a start-up cohousing group such as Dragonfly faces a whole different set of challenges than an established one.

“I’d say the biggest challenge might be the uncertainty,” he says. Robillard says that when a group decides to start a cohousing community, “they are taking a risk, they are putting the money in and they are putting the time in. That can be a daunting task.”

Robillard has a background in environmental engineering. He and his wife — who is a mining engineer — have an eight-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son.

Robillard says he joined Dragonfly shortly after its inception. He had looked into joining Prairie Sky — another cohousing organization in Calgary — three years earlier, but the timing hadn’t worked out.

He says he believes that cohousing can contribute to a more sustainable city with vibrant neighbourhoods.

“When cohousing developments are integrated into a community, especially at a master-plan level, they tend to act as the heart of the broader community,” Robillard says. “I think there is potential for integrating cohousing as a small portion of a community.”

How easy that is, however, is a different question.

City support

“In order for cohousing to become more prominent there needs to be a buy in from the city,” Robillard says. He says it also requires support from developers who want to help with that type of establishment.

“It’s not the way developers typically work,” he says. “Dealing with a group of individuals who have to deal in consensus can be a bit of a daunting task from the perspective of an organization that usually deals in more of dictatorial, business-like fashion.”

That being said, Robillard says he believes there are local politicians who would like to see cohousing happen.

“We’ve had friendly conversations with Gian-Carlo Carra and Druh Farrell,” he says, adding that he feels there is a generally positive attitude towards cohousing projects within the city.

A cohousing group does not need city approval to start a community, but their building plans do need to go through city planners.

“I think the major challenge is whether or not we’ll be able to transform our city government,” Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra says. Traditional city development standards can be a challenge for cohousing groups to work around.

For example, Robillard says the city wants developments to have houses with their doors facing the street. In a cohousing organization, the ideal is having doors that face inwards. This ensures that people enter the community before going into their homes.

For an established cohousing community, Robillard says the greatest challenge — and the greatest blessing — is interacting with the people within the community.

“You’re going to be dealing with those idiosyncrasies, those habits,” he says, adding, “that’s also where the richness is, in those interactions between people.”

Cohousing benefits

Robillard is currently living with another Dragonfly member and says he has already seen the benefits of cohousing in areas such as childcare. He says the couples alternate date nights and that it has been a huge help not to spend extra money on babysitting.

The couple that Robillard and his wife live with also have two children ages eight and six, and Robillard says, “The kids also benefit because they have permanent playmates.”

Some Dragonfly members are families with children, and Campbell says there are about 40 children in the organization altogether. He believes children benefit from growing up in cohousing communities because they “learn about sharing and working together, they see it and they live it every day.”

In terms of urban sprawl issues, Campbell says he thinks cohousing is a good way to start addressing housing development “without being draconian.”

In a cohousing community, “people still have their own homes, their own space,” he says.

While many cohousing communities have members who own their units, Dragonfly does offer a few rental units as well.

Campbell says this is because the group saw a gap in the 20- to 30-year-old age range. They decided to include rental units to accommodate younger individuals and families who might not be ready to buy, but who can contribute to a well-rounded community.

ogrecu@cjournal.ca

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