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Living together, living green

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Members of Songaia Cohousing (from left to right) Karla Luback, Nancy, and Fred Lanpear, and Dorothy Fulton pose at the entrance of their community located in Bohell, Washington. (Photo courtesy of Craig Ragland)

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Songaia residents, Chuck and Marilyn Hanna-Myrich take out the common house recycling. (Photo courtesy of Craig Ragland)

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Lois Arkin, founder of the non-profit Cooperative Resources and Services Project (CRSP), and the Los Angeles Eco-Village, says she stopped driving her car in 1991. Arkin is pictured here in 2005, on a scooter by one of the main LA Eco-Village buildings. (Photo courtesy of Lois Arkin)

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Somerset Waters and his wife Aurisha Smolarski Waters -- married last summer -- are active members of the LA Eco-Village community and, like most residents, commute on bicycle. (Photo courtesy of Lois Arkin)

It’s about a quarter past 6 on a recent evening in Bothell, a suburb just northeast of Seattle, Wash., and the aroma of a buffet-style dinner filled the Songaia Common House. Three members of the cohousing community added finishing touches to the meal as some 30 neighbors filled the dining room preparing to eat together.

“I helped clean up after Saturday’s breakfast,” said Craig Ragland, 60, explaining why he did not have to help get dinner ready.

At cohousing communities like Songaia neighbors share meals several times a week. The neighborhoods, which mix private housing and shared community resources, facilitate close ties, as well as a greener way of life.

Grassroots promotion to Americans drawn to cohousing’s energy-efficient, low-carbon lifestyle is a major reason the national market for such developments is suddenly growing nearly 20 years after the U.S.’s first cohousing community, Muir Commons, was established in Davis, Calif. The attraction of leaving a smaller carbon footprint may lead to even more cohousing neighborhoods in the U.S., according to a study published in this month’s edition of Journal of the Futures, an international publication devoted to society planning and futures studies.

“The lifestyle is very versatile--it can be done anywhere--hence the variety seen in the U.S.,” said Dr. Jo Williams, professor at the Bartlett School of Planning in the University College of London and the author of the study “Predicting an American future for Cohousing.”

From Songaia, whose five main duplexes are nestled in 11 acres of hillside and meadow, to the apartment complexes of the two-block Eco-Village in Los Angeles, these communities adapt to their surroundings. They also appeal to people in varying socioeconomic classe, -from the affluent to low-income families.

“About 50 percent of cohousing projects in the U.S. have focused on affordable housing and been successful at establishing it,” said Charles Durrett, who with his wife, Kathryn McCamant introduced the lifestyle to the United States in 1986 with their book “Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves.”

Inspired by the communities founded 40 years ago in Denmark, “we wanted to accomplish a neighborhood that felt like a small town,” said Durrett.

Today at least 100 communities, housing roughly 6,000 people, are in operation, up from just 60 communities two years ago. The majority of completed communities are in California, home to 19 neighborhoods. Washington State with 13, and Colorado with 11, have the next major clusters. Some 300 more cohousing communities are under development, or initiated, said Ragland, executive director of the Cohousing Association of the United States. Figures on the COHA Web site show those communities spread across 37 states.

These homes are mainly owned as condominiums, although rentals are available in some communities. The collective housing has four main characteristics: a “social contact design” which creates a physical space conducive to strong sense of community; common facilities such as gyms and kitchens; resident involvement in recruitment, establishment and management of the community; and a collaborative culture fostering interdependence, support networks, friendship and security.

Residents work together, first in the design and then in the operation of their own neighborhoods. Cooking and clean-up teams are on a rotating schedule, and maintenance tasks such as groundskeeping, gardening and recycling are taken up by the community.

“In a cohousing community there are expectations about sharing common resources and for people who do not want to share, that’s not a good fit,” said Ragland, who then added, “People looking for cohousing tend to be focused on their values rather than their wants.”

Lois Arkin, executive director of the nonprofit CRSP Institute for Urban Ecovillages, has lived in the Wilshire Center/Korea town area of Los Angeles for 28 years. With the CRSP resource center as the foundation, she spearheaded the creation of the 162-unit Eco-Village as it exists today.

“It was a very blighted neighborhood after the uprising of 1992,” she recalled. CRSP had to retrofit the buildings, adding features such as environmentally friendly paint and flooring. “I also had to retrofit the neighborhood, which was ethnically divided,” said Arkin. “People were scared of one another.”

Now, “It’s a friendly environment in the middle of the crazy town of Los Angeles,” said Somerset Waters, 30, who moved to the Eco-Village in 2004. He and his wife Aurisha Smolarski Waters, 35, hope to start a family and find the community environment the perfect setting.

It is not a utopia, though. “Residents can have disagreement about household nuisances like laundry found outside of the dryer or the occasional messy common area, but overall, life is peaceful,” said Waters. “We are dedicated to conflict resolution.”

While those new to cohousing may be wary of it, believing the setup sacrifices independence and privacy, proponents say cohousing offers both a welcoming, close-knit community and the privacy of your own home, when you want it. “We hope that in a cohousing environment we make more friends, see them more often--and share parental tasks,” said Marshall, 48, a co-founder of the Brooklyn Cohousing Group, an under-development sustainable community in Brooklyn, N.Y. Marshall lives with his partner, Kristi Barlow, 35, and their child Max, 3. The family would be one of 17 households in the future community.

“The secret ingredient to sustainability is community,” said Durrett, and “the byproduct of knowing and caring for your neighbor is that the lifestyle can help the planet.”

E-mail: cl2612@columbia.edu