Iowans and Cohousing: A Look into the Growing U.S. Interest in Cohousing and How Iowans are Responding


Neveda City, CA

A cohousing community in Nevada City, California.

“Traditional forms of housing no longer address the needs of many people.  Dramatic demographic and economic changes are taking place in our society and most of us feel the effects of these trends in our own lives. Things that people once took for granted – family, community, a sense of belonging – must now be actively sought out. Many people are mis-housed, ill-housed or unhoused because of the lack of appropriate options.” – Author Charles Durrett from his book Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves.

What, Exactly, Is Cohousing?

A good place to start a discussion about cohousing (or cooperative housing) is with a clear definition of the term “cohousing.” According to The Cohousing Association of the United States (, “Cohousing is a type of collaborative housing in which residents actively participate in the design and operation of their own neighborhoods. Cohousing residents are consciously committed to living as a community. The physical design encourages both social contact and individual space. Private homes contain all the features of conventional homes, but residents also have access to extensive common facilities such as open space, courtyards, a playground and a common house.”

Many cohousing developments also include other shared spaces such as gardens and greenhouses. The physical layout of cohousing communities varies, but almost always has private residences closely situated around a center green area with a sidewalk. Vehicles are kept in a specified parking area, typically located on the backside of the development.

In many ways, the social aspect of cohousing is similar to the way Americans lived 100 years ago. Neighbors and extended families lived, worked and played as close-knit community. There were interdependencies among the adults, including shared responsibilities and concerns. Children learned and played in a safe environment, guided and protected by the adults.

This seems to be one of the cornerstones of WHY cohousing exists: to create a real community of friends that once naturally occurred in our society.

Cohousing History and U.S. Adaptation

Denmark Cohousing Community

A cohousing community in Denmark.

All sources agree that the type of cohousing espoused by Durrett traces its roots back to Denmark in the late 1960s when a group of dual income professional families were searching for better childcare and a way to share evening meal preparation. The trend made its way not long after to the U.S.  A tract in Boulder, Colorado was among one of the first to open in 1987, according to the Cohousing Association. California and Washington State followed in tandem, with earliest housing established between 1991 and 1994.

The Cohousing Association currently lists 243 cohousing communities (built or in some phase of development) across 37 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. Today, California boosts by far the most cohousing communities at 51.


Cohousing and Sustainability

“The movement back to community is the key to sustainability in Western culture,” states Chris ScottHanson, author of The Cohousing Handbook. Because cohousing typically includes shared spaces and resources, it is a model that directly affects many elements of rebuilding sustainability in the world around us. “This is acting locally,” adds ScottHanson.

Today’s cohousing communities typically have one or both added elements of social responsibility and environmental sustainability.  Sometimes referred to as “ecovillages,” these housing settlements strive for environmental sustainability in the community’s design and cooperation among its residents.

Abundance EcoVillage in Fairfield, Iowa provides a good example of an ecovillage’s purpose with their Vision Statement below (

Abundance EcoVillage is a place where village design, energy, shelter, water, gardening, farming, waste recycling, and landscaping are done in a way that is in tune with natural law. In tune with natural law means, at a minimum, that the systems we use to obtain the services listed above do not destroy or damage the larger systems of the earth that maintain a hospitable environment for life on our planet. Wherever possible, these services are provided in a way that not only sustains but enhances the ability of the earth to clean our air and water, maintain the balance of gasses in the atmosphere, and in general provide a beautiful and safe place to live.

“Accredited” ecovillages are those that have met criteria set by Gaia Trust Education in Denmark, a charitable entity supporting sustainability projects, especially the ecovillage movement. The major categories Gaia uses in assessment for accreditation are Habitat, Economy, Natural Resources, and Culture and Society.

The 6 Defining Characteristics of Cohousing

There are many, many types of cohousing communities: rural, urban, new developments, retrofitted neighbors and homes, ecovillages and non-ecovillages. However, nearly all cohousing communities ascribe to the Cohousing Association’s “6 Defining Characteristics of Cohousing”. These characteristics provide an excellent overview of, and add clarification to, the multi-dimensional concept and practice of cohousing.  They are:

1. Participatory process. Future residents participate in the design of the community so that it meets their needs. Although some cohousing communities are initiated or driven by a housing developer, a well-designed, pedestrian-oriented community without resident participation in the planning may be “cohousing-inspired,” but it is not a cohousing community.

2. Neighborhood design. The physical layout and orientation of the buildings (the site plan) support a sense of community. The private residences are typically clustered on the site, leaving more shared open space; the dwellings almost always face each other across one or more pedestrian “streets” or courtyards, and cars are parked on the periphery. The intent is for the design to be one important factor in creating a strong sense of community.

3. Common facilities. In cohousing, common facilities are designed for daily use, are an integral part of the community, and are always supplemental to the private residences. The common house typically includes a common kitchen, dining area, sitting area, children’s playroom, and laundry. It perhaps also has a workshop, a library, an exercise room, a teen room, a crafts room, or guest rooms. Except in the case of very compact urban sites, cohousing communities usually have playground equipment, lawns, and flower and vegetable gardens, and occasionally they have a few acres of open space.

4. Resident management. Cohousing communities are managed by their residents, with regular-usually monthly-meetings, where the whole group, supported by a number of committees, develops policy and solves problems. Residents also do most of the work required to maintain the property, each community creating a work-share arrangement unique to itself. More and more cohousing communities are learning what works and what doesn’t from others who have been down the road before.

5. Non-hierarchical structure and decision making. Many groups start with one or two “burning souls” but as new people join the group each person takes on one or more roles consistent with his or her skills, abilities, and interests, and leadership broadens. Most cohousing groups make all of their decisions by consensus, although many groups have a policy for voting if consensus cannot be reached after a number of attempts. It is very rarely, if ever, necessary to resort to voting.

6. No shared community economy. As a group, the community does not engage in any income-generating activity. Occasionally, a cohousing community will employ one of its own members to do a specific (usually time-limited) task, but more typically the task will simply be considered to be that member’s contribution to the shared responsibilities.

It stands to reason that the key to the success of a cohousing community is the commitment of its members to make it work by fully engaging in the lifestyle of the community.  To set the appropriate expectations, Higher Ground Cohousing in Bend, Oregon includes both a page entitled “Are We a Match?” and a Vision Statement that reads, in part:

AT HIGHER GROUND, we intend to learn how to live lightly on our land through day to day choices of resource use, recycling, and sharing of vehicles, appliances, tools, food and space;


We encourage friendships between neighbors and integrate work and play by building and maintaining common facilities for preparing food, sharing meals, gardening, spiritual renewal and relaxing in the natural beauty of our neighborhood;


We intend to build and sustain a vibrant community by organizing social, educational, and physical activities that meet the varying needs of the community’s residents…


Read the entire Vision Statement and more about Higher Ground Cohousing in Bend, Oregon here:

So what does all this mean for Iowans?

There is currently a movement lead by a number of interested Iowans to develop a cohousing community in Central Iowa and in the Iowa City area. In general, Iowans are an independent lot. Our cities have maintained the small town feel associated with farming communities. However, today we are much more urban, individualistic and isolated…just like the rest of the country. The need for more of a community-based living combined with a real desire for affecting sustainability has fueled interest in the concept of cohousing in Iowa.

On July 14 there is a prime opportunity to learn more about the future of cohousing in Iowa. Charles Durrett, an award-winning architect and leader in the North American cohousing movement, will be leading this discussion with his wife Kathryn McCamant, who together introduced the concept of cohousing to the U.S. in 1988 with their book Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves.

Read the press release here for all the details of Charles’ presentation “Cohousing, Community and the Value of Custom Neighborhoods“, on July 14 in Des Moines.


Next month, read the discussion concerning Turtle Farm in Granger, Iowa.


– Ann Wilde is a Des Moines marketing strategist and writer who also has a special interest in preserving and creating sustainable communities. She likes sitting in the backyard shade after summer yard work.


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