Putting “neighbor” back into neighborhood

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by Ervin Stutzman

Carina Young and Nancy Gunden, left to right, are helping launch the Harrisonburg Cohousing Development where they both plan to build houses in an intergenerational neighborhood that shares some community spaces. Photo provided

Nancy Gunden and Carina Young first met each other at the Farmer’s Market in Harrisonburg. Nancy is recently retired and lives alone, while Carina and her husband Dathan are the busy parents of three young children. Within days of their first meeting, Nancy and Carina began dreaming about a shared future.

Now they plan to build new homes close to each other as neighbors in the Harrisonburg cohousing development, which is planning to construct the first neighborhood of its kind in their area. The new village will contain about 30 dwelling units, built across from the golf course along Keezletown Road, just off Country Club Road. Nancy and Carina are pleased they’ll easily be able to walk to shopping areas like the new Aldi’s grocery store being built across Route 33 from the Valley Mall.

Nancy is used to seeing people’s faces wrinkle when she mentions her plans. “Cohousing, they ask, What’s that? Are you going to live together in a commune like hippies?”

“No.” She shakes her head and laughs. “I like my privacy too much.” She likes to point people to the two definitions of cohousing on the planned neighborhood’s website (http://harrisonburgcohousing.org/cohousing/). “Cohousing is a form of collaborative housing that offers residents an old-fashioned sense of neighborhood. In cohousing, residents know their neighbors well and there is a strong sense of community that is absent in contemporary cities and suburbs.”

CoHousing Solutions, a Nevada-based firm that is helping to launch the local venture, also notes, “Cohousing communities consist of private, fully-equipped dwellings and extensive common amenities including a common house and recreation areas.” There are more than 150 established cohousing neighborhoods in the U.S., with nearly as many in the formation stage.

Carina thinks of “cohousing” as akin to joining a townhouse or condominium association but with an important difference. With cohousing, the residents are involved in the development and management of the property so that the community reflects their priorities. She’s grateful that Blue Ridge Architects, who will design the homes, really supports that concept. The people in the firm have gone out of their way to help launch the new project.

With cohousing, the residents are involved in the development and management of the property so that the community reflects their priorities.

Carina and Nancy are particularly eager to help design the common house, which will provide amenities the members most need, such as guest rooms for visitors. Nancy has recently taken up exercising and running for fitness, so she’s eager to help equip a room for games and exercise equipment. Other members are eager to add a space for woodworking and art projects.

The new homes will be built along “pedways,” pedestrian walkways which connect the private houses to each other and the common house. Pedways provide a place for children to play without danger of traffic, since cars will be parked on the periphery.

The members of the community care about sustainability for the environment, so they hope to leave a light footprint on the earth. The neighborhood will feature sizable green spaces for vegetable and gardens. They intend to grow some of their own food and recycle goods where possible. Some plan to build solar-powered homes which generate all the electricity they need.

Ever since they learned about the cohousing movement, Nancy and Carina have looked forward to enjoying its many benefits. They dream of having an impromptu cup of tea with neighbors to share about the latest news from their family. They envision stopping by the common house to mingle with neighbors over a delicious homemade meal prepared by a team of neighbors. They anticipate spending time playing with the children in the new neighborhood playground. And they picture themselves answering the door to find a neighbor dropping off a pot of soup after hearing they’re down with a cold. One can expect these kinds of things in a cohousing neighborhood.

Nancy and Carina both look forward to sharing in the neighborhood’s intergenerational activities. They know both young and old can benefit from such interaction. It’s an open secret that children reared in cohousing communities often grow up to be more confident as adults than those who spend most of their time with peers. A young mother from the Shadowlake cohousing community in Blacksburg recently told Carina about the advantages of “free-range parenting,” where children can safely roam the neighborhood under the watchful eye of neighboring adults. Her neighbor, a lively eighty-year-old gentleman, boasted: “These children know 60 adults on a first-name basis.” He loves to watch them romp at the play center in easy view of his front window.

Nancy has worked with seniors, so she knows how much they need and enjoy meaningful activities. She’s grateful cohousing creates an environment where adults feel supported and respected at each stage of their life’s journey. Carina and her husband look forward to sharing the challenges of parenting with caring neighbors as their family life unfolds. They know each new neighbor will bring unique experiences and skills with them, alongside special talents to enrich the community.

Ervin Stutzman is a well-known author who recently retired from a career in church leadership. He and his wife Bonnie recently joined the cohousing neighborhood.

There’s still room for members to join the new neighborhood. To learn more about the venture, sign up for the newsletter or register your interest by emailing harrisonburgcohousing@gmail.com. To speak to someone in person, feel free to call Nancy at (540) 435-2259. She’ll be glad to answer any questions.

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