Life as a Cohouser: Prairie Sky Resident John Michell Shares his Story

‘That sense of mutual support, that’s what’s important to me’

By: Michelle Strutzenberger
Every once in a while John (“Mich”) Michell and his wife, Duff Bond, think about what their lives might have been like if they hadn’t joined Prairie Sky Cohousing.
“We probably would have sold our house,” Mich reflects in a telephone interview with New Scoop. “We probably would be living in a condo somewhere. We might or might not know our neighbours. Our lives would be very much circumscribed.”
But the Calgary couple were intrigued by a different possibility when they learned of a cohousing initiative in 2001.
Realizing that they would soon become empty nesters — their only daughter was 14 — they were starting to think realistically about the next phase of their lives.
With their extended family living in Ontario and the U.S., and an old house that was taking time and money to maintain, they began picturing a different kind of future for themselves.
“We weren’t comfortable being in a single-family house in a trendy neighbourhood,” Mich says. “We wanted something that was easier to maintain and had a smaller ecological footprint, and we wanted some community around us for ourselves and our daughter.”
When Duff saw the notice at their church about a proposed cohousing development, they decided to attend an information session. In July, 2001, land for Calgary’s first cohousing project had been purchased and Mich and Duff joined as equity members. They were among the 29 adults and 24 children moving in when the place opened in May, 2003.
In the ensuing 12 years, Mich and Duff have experienced a number of “neighbours-helping-neighbours” scenarios that demonstrate for them how great it is to be living at Prairie Sky.
Just last year, as one example, Mich had recently undergone an operation, when the kitchen sink faucet needed replacing. He was definitely in no shape to do the work. Then a neighbour came and spent the evening installing a new faucet. During that same time, different neighbours — Mich calls them friends — were very helpful to both him and Duff in other ways. “They helped me get moving around; I wasn’t very mobile at the time,” he says.
Then there are the social events that happen at Prairie Sky — weddings and house concerts, birthday parties and movie nights — the sort of thing “that builds community and lets you enjoy your neighbours,” Mich says.
“I really feel part of a community,” he adds.

What About Cohousing Creates Community?

The intentional proximity of the units, the large common space complete with a full-service kitchen for about-weekly community meals and other indoor gatherings, the lounge and the ping-pong room. These are some of the cohousing’s physical features that are conducive to folks crossing paths, enjoying one another’s company and getting to know one another — to building community.
There’s also the intentionality of those who’ve joined the community; they’ve come looking for close community and are therefore more likely to be open to arranging and joining social events, helping their neighbours, and working through the inevitable challenges that arise in this kind of shared living scenario.
Prairie-Sky-with-snow-and-lights-500Mich also describes another lesser-known aspect of cohousing that contributes to community building — the business dealings related to running the community.
Typically, at least 14 of the 18 households attend these monthly meetings.
And while the business is the reason for the meeting, community engagement is at least as important as the business, so each meeting starts with members sharing the events of their past month.
The way business such as creating parking policies or determining how the budget should be spent over the coming year is addressed also has a quality about it that contributes to community building. Prairie Sky operates on a consensus method, which lends itself well to getting to know one another even better while providing an opportunity to demonstrate mutual respect for one another’s opinions.
“When you have consensus as a method of making your decisions, no one feels steamrollered, no one feels that, ‘Oh they didn’t listen to me’,” Mich says.

Who Might be Most Interested in Cohousing?

People who have something of a community spirit are most likely to thrive in cohousing.
“You need to want that environment and you need to be willing to throw yourself into that kind of situation,” Mich says.
“You also need to be able to give up a little bit of that ‘my home is my castle’ feeling.”
In other words, neighbourhood children just might run across your front porch, and speaking of that front porch, you could be sitting there reading a magazine on a lovely Sunday afternoon and a neighbour could call hello from the cohousing walkway only 15 feet off.
That isn’t to say there’s no private space — almost everyone has a back deck that’s a little more separate.
But largely “people who want their home to be separate from their neighbours and live in a little cocoon aren’t going to be that happy here,” Mich says.
The common wisdom about cohousing is that difficulties, if they arise, are likely to be about children and pets. Some people want quiet and others love the noise of kids bounding around in the courtyard. Sometimes somebody lets their cat out and that makes the dog one house over bark. So there are frictions that come up.
“For the most part we’ve been able to handle (the friction) by talking among ourselves, coming up with policies that people can commit to,” Mich says.
A group called Community Care exists to remain aware of areas of friction in the community and help people work through them, either as mediators or by bringing the issue to a general discussion at one of the business meetings.
“That Community Care group is very important to us,” Mich says.
And all that said, cohousing entails a lot of “learning to live in community.”
“It’s not easy, it’s not simple; it’s a lot easier in concept than in practice,” Mich says.
Even so, after 11 and a half years, Prairie Sky has had a total of only eight sales and none was due to residents who left dissatisfied with cohousing living.
In fact, Prairie Sky’s success in terms of its appeal has the potential to create what could be considered a challenge — depending on how one looks at it. Those 24 children of a dozen years ago are down to seven. And the number of adults is about the same at 31, but they’re all doing what we all do — aging.
Soon enough, this could become an adults-only community. New young families interested in Prairie Sky could be dissuaded by the lack of other children to befriend their own.
There’s also the fact that Prairie Sky wasn’t created as a seniors’ housing place, so there may be some challenges ahead for some residents with increasing mobility issues, for example.
But Mich doesn’t seem too concerned about those physical infrastructure issues either.
It’s that he’s able to age in a place where a sense of mutual support is strong — that’s what’s important to him.
“My daughter now lives in Regina. I do have a church community that’s important to me, but Prairie Sky is a major part of my life,” he says.
“It’s just really good to work on things together and create a nice living environment, not to mention that our costs are lower than they would have been in a condo.”
Cohousing is seeing increasing interest in North America, especially among seniors eager to create an owned-community scenario for themselves. A recent Globe and Mail article asked this question, “Can Seniors Make Cohousing Go Mainstream?”
Mich points out that setting up cohousing is not an easy or smooth option. Since 2003, Prairie Sky is still the only cohousing in Alberta. Another one that was attempted last year — with 33 of the 36 projected units already sold – fell through after it was discovered it would cost much more than originally planned to build on the hilly land that had been bought for the project.
That said, there are folks still interested to learn more about cohousing and possibly investing to make it a way to realize their dreams of aging in community.
Just this week, people wanting to take next steps in exploring aging in community options can join an introduction to cohousing and also learn about an upcoming series of aging in community study groups.
To learn more and register for the first session on Jan. 31, click here.
Otherwise, check out this great website on seniors’ cohousing.
And here’s the article mentioned earlier, Can Boomers Make Co Housing Mainstream.
New Scoop is a new Calgary news co-op, using generative journalism to explore and share stories of our thriving city. The pilot phase has received support from Cities for People.
This article was originally written for the New Scoop Calgary news co-op on 27 January 2015. We received permission to re-post.

Michelle Strutzenberger has more than 10 years of experience in Generative Journalism with Axiom News. Her areas of interest include deep community, social-mission business, education that strengthens a sense of hope and possibility, and journalism that helps society create its preferred future.

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