Community Life in Europe

Before moving to Eugene over four years ago, I lived in Europe for about 30 years, mostly in France, but including five years in Sweden. I first learned about cohousing around 1984 when I visited friends who had moved to a cohousing residence in Stockholm. These same friends later moved back to Lund, in the south of Sweden, where they participated in converting an apartment building into a cohousing residence. Each unit is private and independent, and all residents are responsible for maintaining the inside and outside common areas. They have common meals a few times a week, and those who want to participate take turns shopping, cooking, and cleaning up. They have one guest room, which residents sign up for. They also buy staple items, in bulk: for example, rice, beans, paper products, which are sold to residents at cost.

I visited another cohousing community, in a small village not far from Lund, which was intentionally as environmentally sustainable as possible. They had, for example, solar panels, no windows on the (cold, sunless) north sides of the buildings, and composting toilets. I was so impressed with their success that I contemplated moving there but was discouraged by the long waiting list.

In Grenoble, France, where I lived the longest, I was a member of an association that served as a cohousing network. It was a vibrant and valuable organization. There were folks who represented existing cohousing projects looking for more members; individual households looking for a cohousing group to join; cohousing projects looking for a piece of land to build on or an existing building to convert; people with land looking for a project to start; and of course, there were folks just curious to see what it was all about. In addition, at each meeting the facilitators presented information of general interest to all — for example, legalities and environmental issues.

To me, cohousing seems a normal way to live, both in Sweden and in France, countries with relatively long experience with cooperative society, evidenced in their many social programs (for example, health and education). One thing I really miss in the United States is the feeling of community in the residential neighborhoods that I felt in France. In most cases, people in France know their neighbors, at least by name, and cooperate in various ways and to varying degrees for the common good of the neighborhood. A major contribution to this was, I think, the fact that most neighborhoods provide the basics within walking distance: farmers’ markets, bakeries, grocery stores, pharmacies, post offices, medical offices, and so on. So you meet your neighbors on foot and in the shops. There are often neighborhood associations, which organize events such as flea markets and fairs.

In fact, it seems that many cities of various sizes in the United States had this sort of neighborhood community in the past. But as people moved around more often, and cities grew in size and complexity, we’ve lost that community, and cohousing is a way of recapturing this cooperative way of living. The Oakleigh Meadow Cohousing effort will be a real advantage for the immediate neighborhood, as well as for greater Eugene.