Covid-19 left many Americans isolated and anxious for their health, but Alexander, 63, could count on his community – Durham Central Park Cohousing, a development in North Carolina that houses 36 people in 24 condominiums. Co-habitat is a type of “intentional community,” where residents live in private homes but choose to share public spaces and activities, such as dining.
“As you get older you realize more and more how much you need community,” says Alexander, who co-founded Development in 2014. “We’re not meant to be isolated beings. We are supposed to be in social groups. Covid has stressed that we cannot survive alone. “
When the pandemic struck, the Durham Central Park healthcare team, usually responsible for caring for older residents after surgery, asked doctors and the nurse already living in the community to set safety protocols. for wearing a mask and washing hands. If anyone got sick with Covid-19, others would check them out until they recovered. And, after a short break, residents resumed a socially distant version of their daily happy hour on the rooftop terrace.
The isolation imposed by the coronavirus pandemic has sparked another, more insidious pandemic – one of loneliness, mental illness and eroded well-being. Between August 2020 and February 2021, the number of Americans who report having experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression in the previous week rose from 36% to 42%, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. .
While many people have coped with relying heavily on family over the past year, some – by choice or circumstance – have turned in other directions, finding solace in relationships outside of bonds. blood and marriage. The alternative community, at large, supported them: from roommates, co-housing and people living in cooperatives to religious congregations and singles who have formed Covid bubbles.
Community life has a long history in the United States. In 1663, Mennonites fleeing religious persecution in Europe founded what was probably the country’s first non-Native intentional community in Delaware. In the 19th century, reformers seeking to counter the social ills of industrialization started utopian communities. The hippies of the 1960s and 1970s established townships in part in reaction to the atomization represented by single-family homes in remote suburbs.
The end of the Vietnam War and the economic shocks of the 1970s, among others, led to the decline of many municipalities, but not all. (Twin Oaks in Virginia celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017.) Community living again became a topic of discussion in the late 1980s, when architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett wrote a book popularizing the concept of co-habitation after seeing it modeled in Denmark.
Today intentional communities take many forms. There is co-habitat, like Durham’s development, and co-operatives and townships, which typically have higher degrees of shared work, space, and resources than co-habitat. A 2010 survey found that cohabiting residents in the United States were generally over the age of 40, more likely to be female, and whiter, wealthier and better educated than the average population. Coliving, on the other hand, refers to companies that operate dormitory-style buildings marketed to young professionals in trendy neighborhoods, while ecovillages are typically located in rural areas and emphasize sustainability.
The statistics on community life in the United States are patchy. But Heidi Berggren, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth who is affiliated with the Cohousing Research Network, says there were around 3,000 designated cohabitation communities across the country in 2018.
Research shows that social isolation and loneliness are devastating to physical and mental health, says Elizabeth Markle, professor of community mental health at the California Institute of Integral Studies. In addition, the pressures of contemporary life, including the high costs of housing and childcare, make it difficult for many nuclear families to meet social, financial and logistical needs. “We are such social creatures,” she said. “Literally, our neurobiology is regulated by attachment relationships. . . The community, done right, has the power to create a part of the village or tribal experience which I think most effectively potentiates human well-being.
Grace Kim, an architect whose 2017 TED talk advocating cohabitation as an antidote to loneliness had more than 2.5 million views, says the American mythology of robust individualism has hampered wider adoption by the country of community life. However, she says she has seen increased interest in co-habitat as the pandemic prompted a reassessment of the connection.
“Friends are like, ‘I now fully understand why community matters,” says Kim, who herself lives in Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing, a community she co-founded in Seattle. “It’s easier for them to understand why these choices might make more sense to some people. “
Difficulties tend to emphasize the importance of support structures outside of intimate relationships and the family. Alan O’Hashi, 68, chairman of the board of the United States Cohousing Association, lives at Silver Sage Village Cohousing in Boulder, Colorado. He says he was “drawn” into cohabitation by a partner who found it attractive. He was not converted until an illness hospitalized him for six weeks in 2013. “It was then that I understood what cohabitation really was, which was the neighborhood support, ”he said. “Suddenly I came home from the hospital and people were bringing pots and pans and walking by and knocking on the door. Since then, I have been a great disciple of it.
When the pandemic took hold, Silver Sage abandoned face-to-face meetings and its bi-weekly shared meals, but the community adjusted. They bought patio heaters so they could gather outside to eat foods that the households had individually prepared. While many people have seen their relationships with someone other than family and close friends disappear over the past 15 months, O’Hashi said, “Here they were different, but they never failed. “
In addition to designed communities, collective housing can be informal – groups of people choosing to live together to share emotional, financial or logistical burdens. Vince Brackett, 35, and his wife Keziah are raising their three children in a house shared with two roommates. Brackett is the pastor of Brown Line Church, a non-denominational Christian church in Chicago with progressive values.
The family has been living with roommates for almost a decade now, and Brackett says having two more adults during the pandemic “has been one of the things we’ve been most personally grateful for. . . The idea of more than one person saying, “How was your day? at the end of the day was really wonderful.
The benefits were ineffable but real. The group played cards or watched television together at night. It was a relief to have others around to deal with the waves of emotion generated by the crisis, says Angela Rak, 33, an actress and teaching artist who has lived with the family for six years. It was good too, she says, living with children – ignoring the state of the world and sometimes just playing Pokémon. This lifestyle was essential for his mental and emotional health, says Rak. “I have seen a lot more emotional exhaustion from my friends who live alone in studios. “
Claire Bushey is the FT’s Chicago correspondent
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