Designing a Community: CoHousing Comes to Nebraska

I noticed the spotted hen making its way towards me as I took notes during the outdoor meeting discussing a new cohousing community in Papillion. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched it slowly head my direction, unblinking eyes focused on my granola bar, with its beak slightly open. Snatching my snack away, I heard laughter from the group of 15 people as everyone enjoyed the sunny scene. “Just think about it,” said speaker Kate Godfrey, smiling under a floppy sun hat. “These could be your future home surroundings!”

Cohousing refers to a community design that emphasizes socialization, sustainability and shared involvement in the neighborhood. Begun 50 years ago in Denmark, cohousing has since spread across the world, coming to the United States in 1991. There are now more than 220 cohousing communities throughout the nation.

Organizers Godfrey, Jack Round and Tom Lundahl noticed the possibility for a cohousing community over a year ago in an undeveloped area in Papillion. Previously bought by a major company, the floodplain made it difficult to build on, and there it sat, uninspired and concrete free. “Basically we kept good relations with the developers as they continued to look for an exit strategy,” said Godfrey. “By the time we had presented our idea for a cohousing community, they were thrilled with the idea.”

Nestled on a 14-acre location south of 72nd and Cornhusker, the land is indeed ideal for such a community. Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture developed a two-concept plan for a 60-unit community, with 30 family units and 20-30 senior housing units. The existing small farm will be expanded into a 5-acre area, and will act as the main source of food for the community. Some design ideas include a main street area to provide biking and parking space, a Child Development Center, gardens, and a community house for a gathering space.

Small spaces are key in cohousing neighborhoods. Similar to New Urbanism planning design, high-density is key to combine efficiency with proximity. “Instead of everyone having to buy a lawnmower, there only needs to be one that people can share,” said Godfrey. “Everyone can share tools, a car, bicycles. It means less stuff that people need to buy.”

A variety of people attended this public meeting. From retirees to schoolteachers, each resident had a particular reason for wanting to move into a cohousing community. Each person also brought with them their own desires for construction ideas. Architect Michael Alley described the possibilities of cohousing design. “There isn’t a set plan yet because it is up to the people to decide what they want to see in their homes,” he said. Families who decide to move into the community meet with the design crew, and votes are taken for design of public spaces. Square footage options vary from 2,250 foot homes to 1,500, four bedrooms to one, and whether or not a garage is wanted. “It’s a great opportunity for people to downsize,” said Godfrey.

The cohousing project needs a core group of 10-15 families to send letters of intent and a deposit before construction can begin. A series of meetings will take place in which housing units and gathering spaces will be finalized. Construction can begin as soon as residents decide on the size of the home they would like. Homes will range in price from $259,667 to $179,667, with the lots included. “Residents will then agree on a set monthly fee for landscaping, shared materials and meals,” said Godfrey. “It is almost like a Co-op. Everyone participates in making the neighborhood a great place to live.”

We took a walk around the property to brainstorm ideas for construction. Amid the rows of spinach and garlic behind the greenhouse, I asked Round if misguided perceptions of cohousing communities were a concern for an older, conservative public. “We are hoping that our marketing and branding efforts will help people see what a great place these communities are,” he said. “The purpose of these neighborhoods is to bring people together, and they are quite successful.”

Moving away from the stereotype of hippie communes of the 70s, cohousing combines modern and classic neighborhood design to create affordable places for people to get to know their neighbors and enjoy their surroundings. Lundahl, a farmer who has resided on the property for 28 years, enjoys both sustainable farming and his new iPhone, which his daughter had to help him unlock. Bianchi bikes were propped along side garden tools and a homemade chicken coop. As we stood examining the proposed food forest and possible bike paths, one can’t help but feel excited for the possibility of cohousing here in Nebraska.

posted at 10:18 am
on Tuesday, June 05th, 2012

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