When Lynda Angelastro moved from a conventional home into a condo, she didn’t realize what she was missing until it was gone.

"There were no sidewalks. So when you went somewhere, you were getting in the car. Even the children that lived in the area were not meeting one another to play hopscotch or ride big wheels.”

With her own children grown and scattered across Utah, South Carolina and Georgia, Angelastro and her husband were looking for an alternate, less isolated form of community — and they weren’t alone.

That’s when they discovered Wasatch Commons, in Salt Lake City — a cohousing community that’s purpose-built to facilitate connections between neighbors. Angelastro has been a resident for 12 years now and she knows every member of her community, in each of the 26 households that make up Wasatch.

"We don't have garages here, we have parking on either end. So our children are very involved, playing on the common path. Adults are walking back and forth, to their cars, meeting one another. The design helps make this a community."

The new sharing economy

Cohousing communities are intentionally planned neighborhoods, built from the ground up and managed by residents. A community will typically consist of 15 to 34 households, each with its own private home, but designed to help neighbors connect through shared walkways, common areas and communal activities, like weekly dinners.

It's a concept with a 43-year legacy of success in Denmark (where it originated), receiving renewed attention abroad as costs of living increase and the sharing economy takes hold. According to Coho/US, the U.S. cohousing association, there are 156 cohousing communities in the U.S. and over a hundred more in the process of forming.

"Cohousing is an intentional community of people who are committed to sharing their lives together,” explains Alice Alexander, Executive Director of Coho/US. While community members have private spaces and independent incomes — differentiating cohousing from other forms of communal living — they can, and often do, share resources.

But buying into a new cohousing community isn't exactly the cheapest option. After land acquisition, the necessary soil and traffic studies, consultant and architect fees and material and construction costs, a cohousing unit — with a smaller footprint than a typical single-family residence — will run you about the same as market value housing stock. It's high-amenity housing, with none of the economies of scale you see in mega condo developments.

The savings come elsewhere, assures architect Charles Durrett of McCamant and Durrett Architects, whose California-based firm specializes in this form of housing. "Increasingly, I think people are finding that the best way to survive is by sharing with others," Durrett says. "There's no reason for each of us to have one of everything. I live in a cohousing community of 34 households and we have one lawnmower — and that's more than enough."

Time-sharing your lawnmower may seem like common sense, but it signals a bigger shift away from a "single-use, disposable and idle" model of ownership towards one of conscious consumption, says Lawrence Alvarez, president of the Institute for a Resource-Based Economy and co-founder of the Toronto Tool Library.

But sharing’s not as easy or natural as it once was, warns Alvarez. We rely on social technologies for maximizing our communal resources and connecting individuals. "The chances of that connection happening organically are way more difficult the way our society is oriented right now. You require a third-party to manage that relationship.”

That third-party could be an institution like the public library system, an app like Uber, or an intentional community design that encourages sharing resources, knowledge and skills amongst residents. Alvarez prefers the physical connection to the digital. "We're made to connect beyond our smartphones and hashtags," he says.


It’s that physical connection that might be the most profound benefit of cohousing. In a study produced by the Washington D.C.-based Cohousing Research Network, 96 percent of cohousing residents surveyed reported an improved quality of life, 75 percent felt their physical health was better than others their age and 96 percent voted in the last presidential election.

Similar benefits are reported for members of religious congregations, according to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index and the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC).

Being a part of a community (religious or secular) can make you happier, healthier and more socially and politically active. It can also help your longevity.

Dan Buettner's research into "blue zones," areas where people routinely live to be 100 years old, reveals that well-being is linked to the health of our social relations.

In his New York Times best-selling book, "The Blue Zones," Buettner offers lessons for living longer. Several refer to consumption and activity levels, but an equal number of lessons are devoted to bolstering the strength of our connections to family, friends and a supportive network of like-minded individuals.

In an email response, Buettner confirmed that many centenarians live proximate to their families, but "…it is important to know that it does not always need to be family to create these connections. An extremely important aspect of a centenarian's life is to connect with friends and neighbors."

But connecting becomes increasingly difficult, as our traditional institutions for fostering community experience steady declines.

Clubs and community associations have seen a significant drop-off in membership, according to the NCoC. A 2015 Gallup poll reveals that weekly church attendance has decreased by 7 percent over the past 10 years, after decades of steady decline. And data collected through the 2015 General Social Survey shows that a third of the population report no interaction whatsoever with people who live nearby. Cohousing might be able to address some of these issues, especially for seniors like Lynda Angelastro, who can be prone to social isolation.

Finding meaning later in life

Cohousing for the elderly is a particular area of interest for architect Durrett. His 2009 book, "The Senior Cohousing Handbook," focuses specifically on this group, which he says spend on average 6 hours a day watching television. "Loneliness is the biggest pathology for seniors. How do we get them in a more knowing, caring and supportive environment?"

Cindy Turnquist has made it her personal mission to answer this question, by helping seniors achieve what she calls "conscious eldering" through cohousing. Seeing her father-in-law die in a hospital bed was the tipping point. So Turnquist gave up a career in event management, went back to school and formed a consulting practice, SageHill Cohousing. She now educates and assists seniors in forming communities where they can live out the last third of their lives with purpose. SageHill is co-producing a conference with Coho/US, called Aging Better Together, which will take place in Salt Lake City in May.

For Angelastro, the challenges have been worthwhile. "It's been a wonderful experience getting to know people, growing compassion, service and a lot of the values that most of us hold dear."

Kristina Ljubanovic is an architectural designer and journalism fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. She can be reached at kljubanovic@gmail.com