In search of true community
Heartwood Cohousing reaches for the good life

Afternoon clouds roll past the entrance to Heartwood Ranch recently. The Bayfield co-housing subdivision is based on a Danish concept that focuses on retaining open space and creating a small-scale neighborhood where the placement and style of houses foster interaction and cooperation among residents./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

At Heartwood Cohousing, a private subdivision in Bayfield, residents have turned the clock back 50 years to a time when neighbors shared much more than property lines and speedy glances.

It used to be that subdivisions were actually designed with neighbors in mind. Houses had front porches where residents gathered, garages were built behind and unattached to houses, residents actually saw each other come and go.

However, in the past 20 years, subdivisions have taken a turn toward privacy. Garages face streets, protruding in front of houses. Six-foot fences block any kind of interaction. And sometimes the nearest neighbor is several acres away. Suddenly, people are living in a disjointed community.

But residents of Heartwood Cohousing eschew such living arrangements, which is why they have built a housing project that drastically transforms the definition of community. Heartwood requires that all houses have front porches. Homeowners don’t have fences cordoning themselves off from their neighbors. There are no garages either. And cars – not the central theme in this community – are relegated to the periphery of the cluster of houses, obligating everyone to walk along the common pathway to get home.

Here, residents are creating a kind of micro-society that relishes steady interaction, cooperation and collective living. To some, iat appears to be a radical style of existence yet it only seems radical in the context of recognizing how subdivisions are built today, residents say. Actually, this style of living is about as traditional as you can get.

“This isn’t some new wave of a living style,” says Johann Robbins, a Heartwood resident of 2 BD years. “This is closer to how we are wired to live versus having a garage in front and using cars all the time.”

Danish movement

The cohousing idea began in the early 1970s in Denmark, when dual-income professionals wanted better day care and safer neighborhoods. Twenty-seven families in Copenhagen turned to cluster housing and a pedestrian-friendly development style that fostered relationships with neighbors.

In the late 1980s, the cohousing concept gained recognition in the United States, and the first cohousing project in the country was built in 1991. But only in recent years has it begun to gain popularity.

According to the Cohousing Association of the United States, there are 66 completed cohousing projects in this country – a 12 percent average annual growth rate during the past five years. The group reports that there are 19 neighborhoods under construction and an estimated 150 cohousing groups in various stages of the development process.

Colorado ranks third among the states with completed neighborhoods (nine) and has three other active projects. When Heartwood Co-housing completed its development in the winter of 2000, it became the first cohousing project in the Four Corners. The nearest cohousing project is in Santa Fe, N.M.

Typically, cohousing projects are designed and built by residents, who work on a grassroots basis from beginning to end. The core group secures financing – either public or private – to purchase land and start construction. Residents decide on all aspects of the development, including design, business structure, policies and procedures. However, as cohousing has gained recognition, some developers have created companies that do all of the cohousing design and development.

Interaction and cooperation

Because Heartwood is the first cohousing project developed in La Plata County, residents met some initial resistance from the county government. Robbins says county leaders were reluctant to allow a cluster of houses on a small tract of vast acreage.

Heartwood owns 350 acres, but the development, which consists of 22 completed homes (all single family except for one duplex) and two in progress, is confined to only 7 acres. It’s not an affordable housing development, and home prices and values at Heartwood range from between $220,000 to more than $400,000.

Restricting the amount of land used for housing was necessary to accomplish the goals of cohousing, Robbins says. Those goals are to retain open space and create a small-scale neighborhood where the placement and style of houses foster interaction and cooperation among residents.

The asphalt pathway weaves throughout the cluster, connecting each home to others as well as a playground and outlying buildings. Houses – all uniquely designed with adobe and solar power – are well kept with an organic look and carefully xeriscaped yards. The focal point of the development is the Common House.

Psychic energy

Upon entering Heartwood, the Common House is the first thing residents and visitors encounter. It’s a large 3,700-foot building where residents meet for anything public – meals, meetings, recreation, parties and socializing. Besides an abstract walkway, the Common House is what unifies the more than 40 residents who make Heartwood their home.

On a recent Friday evening, a couple dozen children and adults meet at the Common House for their weekly potluck. Before sitting down to dinner, the adults hold hands while encircling the kitchen island. This week, they are “christening” a newly built wooden island where they can prepare food for the potluck and the twice-weekly community dinners, which residents take turns cooking.

Sunflowers brighten the walkways through the Heartwood Ranch subdivision. Built in 2000, the cohousing neighborhood covers 7 acres and consists of 22 homes, with two more under construction./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Keeping in the spirit of remembering the various ethnicities and practices among the group, the adults don’t engage in any kind of religious offering or blessing. Instead, they praise the woodwork of the residents who built the island. And they dictate the rules for using it – not to be heavy-handed but to respect different cultures by keeping the island kosher.

During dinner, Michael and Beth Walker, who were involved with Heartwood from its inception, explain why they decided to move out of their Durango neighborhood and join this cohousing community.

Michael Walker says that the family yearned for a sense of community and cooperation that was impossible to find in most neighborhoods. They wanted a place where they and their children felt safe, where neighbors cooperated and where they had a social group with whom they shared common characteristics.

Even though they sought this type of association, the Walkers wondered if cohousing would work for them – as well as the others.

“It takes a lot of money and psychic energy to get something like this built,” Michael Walker says. “And it calls for a lot of heart to keep it together.”

Beth Walker says the concept works at Heartwood because residents are loyal to the idea of living in unity.

“When you move into someplace like this, it’s no longer ‘I,’ it’s ‘we,’” says Beth Walker. “This type of community is a different way of thinking.

Fran Hart, who actually lived in a trailer on the land before the project began, agrees.

“I thought to myself, if Native Americans can live with six generations in a Hogan, I can learn how to live next to my neighbors,” she says.

Hart says she chose to live in a cohousing development because “it’s lined up” with the values in her life – notably clustered housing and open space.

Modeling maturity

Besides creating a sense of community within the larger society, residents believe this style of living is a good role model for children. The Walkers say their two children know how to co-exist with others in a more cooperative way, using consensus and communication as tools to ensure peace.

“Our children have blossomed in a thousand ways since moving here,” Beth Walker says. “They are growing up learning that they have to consider other people.”

Since cohousing’s foundation is built on consensus, harmony and volunteerism, living in this type of environment teaches many more lessons than how to run a neighborhood, residents say. Ultimately, each person gains insight and knowledge that run the gamut of life – from carpentry skills to interpersonal communication. For that, they say, there is no equivalent in most neighborhoods.

“I think that this is the longest, most valuable personal growth experience you can have – at least that’s what it’s been for me,” says Michael Walker.







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