Wissahickon Village Cohousing hopes to build a community where neighbors share more than just a cup of coffee or borrow some sugar. The plan is on the drawing board now, but local residents hope to make it a reality.
In the 1970s, people in Denmark started cohousing because they noticed that their neighbors were no longer connecting and sharing resources in the ways they had done in the past. Wissahickon Village Cohousing is planning to build an intentional and sustainable neighborhood in Mt. Airy that is structured to bring people together.
The group would like to reverse America’s weathering community values. In a recent Pew survey, only 19 percent of Americans said they knew all of their neighbors and 28 percent said they knew none of their neighbors. These results are a far cry from the days when communities functioned cohesively and children feared misbehaving in public because news traveled fast between families.
While the cohousing neighborhood has not been constructed, the group is planning out the details of the structure and also building a strong foundation for interpersonal relationships. They have committees that include teams for processes, marketing and outreach, finance and development and design.
The group works together to compromise and accommodate aspects of members’ pragmatic needs and dreamy desires. All of the members have a basic interest in building a strong community, however, each member sees specific perks in cohousing.
For example, Janet Boys said she wants to age in a multigenerational setting where she can get around without a car. She said she is happy to lend a hand with administrative duties, house chores and even woodworking if it means never having to shovel another pile of snow.
Boys has lived in Mount Airy for 20 years. Her community gets together every now and then but not as often as she’d like. Boys and other members mentioned that even though Mount Airy has a sense of community and they see their neighbors sometimes, they do not feel like they spend frequent time with their neighbors or know them intimately.
While Boys waits for her new neighborhood she still makes an effort to reach out her current community. She and her husband pass out free snowballs throughout the summer to draw in a crowd and get people talking.
Abby Weinberg, a mother of two young children, is drawn to the development because it will have green space for her children to enjoy which is often a rare commodity in urban landscapes.
Her 5-year-old daughter Hadassah is interested in cohousing for her own reasons as well. She’s looking forward to living close to other children that belong to the cohousing group and sharing with the other families.
Weinberg was first exposed to cohousing when she lived in Ann Arbor, Mich. She took a class in the neighborhood’s common house and was amazed by the pathways in between houses and beautiful gardens. She also smelled the aroma of delicious food being prepared in the common kitchen, along with the sight of neighbors cooking and eating together.
Cohousing neighborhoods have distinguishing features that are different than typical housing developments. While most suburban and single homes have individual driveways for cars, cohousing neighborhoods have parking that is separate from houses. Pedestrian walkways connect homes and common space, which literally allows neighbors to cross paths as they move about their daily life.
Weinberg said: “Cohousing is about refiguring the space between privacy and community. Do we really need one or two acres of space around each nuclear family? I find that to be isolating and lonely. Cohousing is a different vision. It’s really not a new thing. It’s going back to when you lived on a block and you literally knew everyone on that block.”
Before cohousing, Weinberg was not keen on owning a house. She earned a master’s degree from Temple University with a thesis that questioned the necessity of home ownership. Weinberg said she has a lot to learn about financing a home, but she said she doesn’t feel that overwhelmed because other members are going through the process with her.
Lynne Iser, the Wissahickon Village Cohousing community coordinator, said she hopes cohousing will bring people together but also connect their neighborhood to other communities in Mount Airy and Philadelphia.
Iser would like cohousing to be incubator for social change or at least a way for people to process information and live in a less isolated manner.
Another member, Libby Harman, is interested in living in a sustainable community that is accessible to people with disabilities. Harman has lived in a few communes and emphasizes that cohousing and communes are different.
“A lot of times people have mistaken cohousing as communal living, that it connotes everybody living together and putting our money together and that’s not it,” Harman said,
“I don’t want to live in a commune and share expenses or income. I’m not looking for a particular ideology. But I am looking forward to using less.”
The group wants to build its neighborhood at 7048 Germantown Ave., where the Garrett-Dunn House was before it was hit by lightening in 2009.
The Germantown Avenue property appeals to many cohousing members because it’s located in Mount Airy and within walking distance of public transportation and other attractions from Lovett library to local eateries.
The group’s cohousing construction requires more devoted members and buyers. Members hold frequent information sessions in Northwest Philadelphia.