"I don't have any fantasies about it being easy," says Coleen O'Connell, a Lesley University professor who plans to move from one "intentional community" (the Ravenwood Collective, in North Searsmont) to another when she relocates to the Belfast Ecovillage. People with different personalities, needs, and desires may well "bump up against each other," as she puts it. "People see the world differently."
Indeed, McKim outlines some of the resulting conflicts that may arise. "How do you govern yourself? How do you get the job done? How much time do we want to put into shared activities?"
As in any shared living situation, the questions can get even nit-pickier: Does so-and-so clean the common house — some type of communal building, with a kitchen and living space, is present in almost all cohousing developments — thoroughly enough? Are you allowed to enter my home without knocking (a so-called "open-door policy")? Should their children be allowed to watch so much TV? Does your dog bark too loudly? Are guns allowed in the community? Is smoking?
We already navigate these concerns in our private lives; co-housing adds more voices — intergenerational ones, with various backgrounds and biases. McKim wryly compares equilibrium in a cohousing community to "world peace on a micro-scale."
There's no magic formula to work out these equations. Some disagreements will be resolved on a one-on-one basis, others through community consensus. This is, in part, what cohousing residents are signing up for — open discussion, compromise, and a rejection of the impulse to simply retreat into one's private domain.
Remember, though, many of the Belfast members have been communicating with each other about these issues for four and a half years — over which time McKim says they've developed "more of a sensitivity" to each others' quirks and attitudes, resulting in more effective conversations and conflict resolution.
While the Belfast Cohousing and Ecovillage has been in the works for more than four years, the concept of cohousing came to America more than two decades ago from Denmark, where the first such development was built in 1972 outside Copenhagen. According to Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, the authors of Creating Cohousing (and the bringers of cohousing to the United States), there are currently more than 700 of these communities in Denmark — and 120 here in the United States, with dozens more in the works.
McCamant and Durrett believe that cohousing offers a real alternative to the modern American experience. Factors in this country such as suburban sprawl, the fragmentation of the modern family unit, and energy insecurity "call for us to reexamine the way we house ourselves, the needs of individual households within the context of a community and our aspirations for an increased quality of life," they write. "We continue to believe that cohousing provides a model to address these issues."
There are many reasons someone might be attracted to cohousing.
For O'Connell, two specific benefits fueled her desire to relocate from Ravenwood to Belfast. First of all, there are no more children at Ravenwood, which also serves as the site for Lesley University's sustainable practices summer program; the youngest resident is now 21. "It just felt like a bunch of growing-old people," O'Connell says. "It was missing the multigenerational spread."