By Peter Lazar
Cohousing neighborhoods in the U.S. feature consensus for making decisions. You might think:
Example cohouser projects achieved by consensus include big things like deluxe game rooms, exercise rooms, workshops, and greenhouses. My neighbors successfully approving a pool is a great example:
The biggest problem with building a pool in an existing neighborhood is the cost. People happily bought their houses without a community pool. Some of them have no interest in a pool. Asking them to spend thousands of dollars for something they will never use seems hopeless.
I doubt that a regular 33 home neighborhood would attempt building a community pool. There probably wouldn’t be the social cohesion to embark on such a costly project for so few homes. But let's consider if such a neighborhood does try, and holds a regular majority-rules vote. Say it passes by majority but not unanimous approval. Without buy-in by all, this could lead to a disaster. There would be at least a few extremely unhappy homeowners angry at the other neighbors for being forced to pay a large assessment. That neighborhood might fracture and lose these people from community life.
But cohousers are a special breed. They are willing to take on big projects and invest the effort to make sure everyone is happy. Consensus helps get things done.
At Shadowlake, the people who wanted a pool started by hosting a series of “salons” on the topic. These are meetings, open to all, where neighbors discuss their ideas and thoughts on a topic. The point of a salon is for each person to be heard. For this reason, each person can freely speak their mind without rebuttal or argument. No one speaks twice until everyone has spoken. Salons are not a time for decision making - they're a time for hearing each others' perspectives. The pool proponents also sent out surveys.
Via surveys and salons, the Shadowlake pool proponents learned the details of why some opposed the pool. The anti-pool neighbors learned why others thought having a pool was so exciting and important.
The consensus process involves foundational upfront work absent from regular democratic processes. Counterintuitively, the desired or even typical outcome is not compromise. Rather, the upfront sharing of opinions and ideas helps people craft a better “third way”.
The “third way” for the Shadowlake proposal is a solution where everyone can use the pool, but not everyone has to pay for construction. Impressively, voluntary pledges covered the pool costs. But management of the pool would be via the regular governance structure.
Deeper understandings gained from the consensus process also build connections. We better understand our adversaries. Consequently, we are more willing to incorporate their viewpoints into a solution that satisfies everyone. In Shadowlake's pool example, the pool proponents and detractors all came out happier than where they started.
Now, do you still wonder how consensus doesn't continually end in stalemate? In the 11 years I have lived in Shadowlake Village, I have heard of only two cases where someone blocked a proposal and the community resorted to majority vote fallback. The upfront work prevented such situations. People don't usually go forward voting for items that would damage relations with their neighbors. Usually, they find ways to morph a proposal into something more acceptable and better.
How do you compare the results of Shadowlake's governance by consensus with the results of the US Congress? If we could all be forced to better understand each other, perhaps we could find better ways to get things done for the greater good.
By Peter Lazar
"Free-range Parenting" is a recent term for a style of parenting that was long the norm. In his 1946 bestseller, Dr. Benjamin Spock advocated allowing children levels of independence in accordance of their age of development. Parents still know that kids are happier and develop better when they are given freedom to explore and learn from their own mistakes. But sometime after the 1980s, fearfulness and helicopter parenting became normal in the US. We know that letting kids have the run of the neighborhood is good for them, but there's still this parental fear. Why's this?
Crime rates in this country have actually declined by 50% or more since 1993. Many of us with children live in safer neighborhoods with better neighbors than even we did as children. Truly the Internet is part of the problem as we hear dreadful news from around the world. But we saw such news in the 1970s and 80s on TV as well.
The problem is more immediate to our surroundings: many of us don't know our neighbors! We logically know that the folks five doors down are fine upstanding people. But because we both work and they both work and we enter our homes via our garages, we've really not had a chance to get to know each other. But viscerally, we worry about letting kids loose. Why's that?
I think an intuitive worry is justified in a disconnected neighborhood with upstanding citizens who don't know each other. We think the problem is child abduction but it is more complex and realistic.
Molly and I experienced a small example in our cohousing neighborhood last week: An adult neighbor mentioned to Molly that he saw one of our daughters jumping over the nets that block out the traffic (kind of like a tennis court net). This could be slightly dangerous behavior to the kid. I feel that if the neighbor didn't know us well, then he wouldn't have mentioned anything because this is not serious and doesn't harm anyone. But he was comfortable with us and easily expressed his concerned about her welfare. We appreciative he spoke out. This is just one of many unplanned and unexpected interactions that help promote safety. We know each other and look out for one another above and beyond the call of duty. Being pedestrian oriented, there are also a lot more people, including adults, about at any given time.
For those of us who grew up as free range children, perhaps in the 1970s and 80s, I think our parents justifiably didn't have the fear parents do today. Perhaps due to single family incomes, there were enough people knowing each other about to provide an extra safety net.
Living in cohousing, one thing I don't worry about is what my kids are up to in the neighborhood for hours at a time without me. They have been running in packs together since the age of four or five. My wonderful well-known neighbors are like a protective blanket providing comfort with their collective watchful eyes and participation.