Cohousing: Sharing Values vs. a Sharing a set of Beliefs

This is one of a series of essays related to collaborative housing, also known as cohousing. For more information, see the introduction here.

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

When cohousing is described, there is often a list of characteristics, which includes one negation — no shared income. This negation is there primary in order to differentiate cohousing from other historical examples of intentional or Utopian communities, such as the Oneida Community, or more recent examples such as the Twin Oaks Community, where labour and income are shared. As you might imagine, just as how financial matters can be contentious in a familial context, sharing income or expenses can increase the complexity of an intentional community as well. Consequently, this is not a part of most cohousing communities.

There is another important negation, less explicit, that sets cohousing apart from some other types of intentional communities: a lack of universally shared beliefs. People in these neighborhoods often co-develop and share a set of values, maybe a mission statement and/or a list of guiding principles, but there is rarely one explicitly stated way of understanding the world. This might seem like semantics or an academic sort of differentiation, but it’s not. This is tightly tied up in the notion that these communities are democratic (self-governing) and are without formal leaders. There is no one person that is the keeper of truths, as you might find in historic utopian communities — such John Humphrey Noyes the “perfectionist” leader of the Oneida Community, the self-declared prophet Johann Georg Rapp of the Harmony Society, or even celebrated singular vision of utopian designers like Le Corbusier.

Beliefs are more rigid than values. Beliefs create “shoulds” in our mind. Your beliefs are formed over time and come to reflect the conditions of your life —that is, if you are rich or poor, born in one culture or another, educated in one domain or another. And in this way, beliefs come with unstated assumptions that under some conditions may be challenged. For example, when I ask my business students whether growth is good or bad, they almost inevitably say it’s good. We should, therefore, aim to grow profits, the economy etc. I ask them to consider how a student in the sciences might answer that same question. They are then forced to consider “the growth of what, exactly?” Is it a baby that is growing? A cancerous tumor? They mostly figure it would be an “it depends” kind of answer when it comes to the idea of growth in the sciences. That seems reasonable. This generally leads to an interesting discussion about why these differences between domains may exist and what they might learn from adopting the “it depends” stance when they think of company profits or the economy.

In contrast with beliefs, values are abstract. This abstraction creates room for flexibility, growth, and different approaches to action in response to new ideas. It creates room for constructive conflict. The holder of a particular value looks to interpret potential actions in relation to their values when faced with a decision, rather than referring to a belief about what they should do. For example, if you value the notion of equity you might be drawn to democratic principles… but how you act on this might be different from how I act on this. For example, anarchists and liberal democrats tend view the practice of democracy very differently. That said, both value equity but each have different beliefs about what a democracy should look like.

In many ways, communities that form around a shared set of beliefs, such as religious communities, are deliberately formed in a way to limit challenges to these shared beliefs. Creating a community removed from the wider world in order to practice shared beliefs in isolation acts to minimize challenges brought forth against these beliefs. Over time these ideas can become rigid and unbending. Leaders can, and often do, force challengers out and vs. There is little room for difference in such communities, and conflicts can be destructive. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that over time these communities tend to fold, because all around them time marches forward.

The oak and the Reed by Achille Michallon

Not unlike the fable of the oak and reed, while there is a strength of connection that can come from being around people that share your beliefs, the ability to bend and flex in response to the inevitable changes that comes with the passage of time has it’s own resiliency. It doesn’t mean that things are always in a state of flux in these communities, but rather it suggests that members should have the skills and interest in exploring new perspectives together in order to adapt.

Consider how two different neighborhoods dealt with a common point of contention in communities, pets:

So what I like to try and do is to get outside of that [existing beliefs] and turn it upside down and see what happens. So the first pet thing was all about keeping pets in check and pets as a problem. So I asked, what if we start with pets as a benefit on the community, not a draw on the community? So we started off working with that. That meant that things got a little bit more sensible, in my view.

The processes around collaborative policy development in this community created space to invert an existing belief, allowing the community to revisit their ideas around pets. Sounds easy enough, but it actually took a lot of time and deliberation. Another approach is to cast the net way back, and to try to understand where existing beliefs come from:

I’ll give you an example of our dog policy. And there were some issues, some worrisome situations. So, a common public response would be ‘ok dogs have to be leashed when you are taking them out on the property, or fenced.’ Well, we of course go way back to ‘what is wildness? Where do dogs belong in community? Where do children belong in community? Like, we went right back.

First world’s attitudes… domestication… incredible…

It was fascinating. In the end [our dog policy] is the same as everywhere else. But we had to go through that whole exploration, and we did talk about having a place where dogs could run and play that feels safe for everyone and there was talk about how everyone has to go meet each others’ dogs and then so we felt comfortable.

While this community’s pet policy may be similar to other communities in the end, the shared understanding developed via this kind of process can allow people to accept such policies in ways that an unchallenged decree may not be.

Such processes emerge from a value of equity and respect for the view points of others. These processes are similar, but different, from one community to the other depending on the experiences of their members. Some people struggle with the length of some of these conversations, the inefficiency of listening and sharing. The members that stay and thrive in such contexts are the ones that ultimately value the outcomes of these kinds of dialogue: change — in understanding and/or action.


Interviews conducted by me, Cheryl Gladu

McCamant, K., & Durrett, C. (2011). Creating cohousing: Building sustainable communities. New Society Publishers.

PhD, MBA. An engaged design and management scholar focused on tools that empower people to live simpler richer lives.

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