Our living patterns have altered dramatically from the multi-generational family to the nuclear family to the sometimes wonderful, sometimes desperate fragmented hodge-podge pattern of lives and relationships apparent everywhere today.
Our present urban patterns do little to provide the support, help, and meaning for lives that are often often struggling alone with the web of time, role, financial and emotional entangle ments that overfill our days.
One of the first attempts to generate new alternatives in living patterns has been the Scandinavian co-housing movement. In co-housing, individual living units are downsized and shared facilities built. A "Commons" containing shared dining facilities, lounge, library, laundry, childcare, workshops, gardens, or other facilities allow access to such re sources with less cost to individuals.
Frequently residents take a part of their meals in the commons, and rotate the chores of cooking and cleanup. The community reward (and cost) is that the time shared with neighbors in such shared activities as well as the administration of the cooperative brings new friendships as well as a release of time in which to develop and enjoy them.
For many people, however, this may not be an appropriate living pattern. We may wish for an alternative to the food being offered at certain meals, but not feel like cooking. We may not want constant intimacy with some of the neighbors. We may be too solitary or to gregarious for those around us. We may wish a wider community or not want the time-consuming work of large-group decisionmaking.
What co-housing has most importantly achieved is to acknowledge the absence of neighborhood in our communities, and to intentionally seek to recreate its benefits within an area under control of its residents. The successes of co-housing projects should alert us to the needs and opportunities for a richer and less prescriptive sense of neighborhood wherever we live.
A neighborhood can provide a variety of simple and inexpensive "eating-out" options as well as more elegant ones. It can provide a richer variety of housing options and community services than can a co-housing project. Most importantly, in the pattern it provides for public and community services, it can generate greater and more varied opportunities for fellowship, service, making friends, obtaining help, and celebrating the richness of our lives.
The spirit of our community facilities, and the patterns of how we interconnect them, can in itself give much to the creation of community, to the generation of good health, friendships, and a healthy human dimension to our lives.
The post office in our neighboring village was for many years in a small storefront. Next to it and almost sharing an entrance, was a small cafe. The town had no door to door mail delivery. As the mail was posted just about coffee-break time every morning, an interesting community dynamic developed. During the long rainy winter, people would come to the cafe for a good morning warm-up and hello with their neighbors. They'd go next door, pick up their mail, and return to their coffee cup to peruse it. News was shared, problems discussed, advice given - often more than needed!
In addition to a counter and small tables, the cafe had one very large round table in the middle, seating from six to a dozen or more depending on who dropped in and pulled up another chair. The "Round Table" became a heart of the community. Any stranger who sat down and joined it immediately became subject and part of conversation, and left no longer apart from the community.
This kind of subtle but important linkage can play a vital role. If the elements of our everyday needs are served in a way that nudges us into opportunities to connect comfortably with other people, they can do more than just their primary and obvious functions.
Food shopping, getting a newspaper or magazine, picking up a book, or a video, doing laundry, getting a haircut....there are many everyday acts that can be linked with a comfortable place to sit and catch our breath and relax. When there is a tradition or configuration which encourages sharing tables, conversations spring up, acquaintances and friends are made, community is born.
Bars, pubs, and tearooms once filled part of this community function. But they often have an atmosphere, behavior, committment to stop, or purposefulness which does not attract and evoke the kinds of opportunities and connections we want.
"Eating out" can be an important element of community. Like the co-housing shared meals, it can be a savings of time, energy, and committment to meak preparation. It can be, with the proper eatery design, a wonderful meeting place for people of all ages, of similar interests and values, or of diverse and foreign ways of life. It can be a place of convenience and speed, or of lingering to savor food, place, community, friendship, advice, and just people.
A community has to acknowledge that there are mental and spiritual dimensions to our health and well-being as well as physical ones, and that most of our worst diseases today - from crime to child abuse to drugs - are diseases of the spirit, not of the body. Because they arise out of lack of self-esteem, mutual respect, and of being of value to our families and communities, their healing involves both activities and environments which nurture and restore those vital dimensions of health. Our neighborhoods need to nurture community health as well as individual, spiritual health as well as physical.
We need within our neighborhoods access to nature, solitude, and physical exercise within convenient walking distances of our homes. We need similar access to spiritual touch stones for nurture of our inner balance and serenity, as well as access to community itself. We need to rediscover what our lives can give to others and the value of that to the giver, the receiver, and the community.
We need places to shop where we are greeted with a smile of recognition and connection with the lives of our community. We need living places for the old and infirm close to shopping and where people can easily drop by for a chat or to help out for a few minutes.
Co-housing has demonstrated what is missing in our neighborhoods, and the will of people to regain it. It's time to put together what is needed for real neighborhoods, where we can become and enjoy the value of community.
38755 Reed Rd.
Nehalem OR 97131 USA
© November 1993