Living Among Friends

By Judee Fong

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Originating in Denmark, the concept of cohousing is no longer unique on the Canadian housing scene. The appeal of strata-titled, self-contained units, set in a supportive self-made community is catching the attention of families that want their children to grow up in a friendly and safe neighbourhood, plus active seniors who like the idea of “aging-in-place” among friends.

In British Columbia, several successful cohousing developments have already been established such as Langley’s Windsong, the first and oldest built in 1996; Cranberry Commons in Burnaby; Yarrow Ecovillage near Chilliwack; Creekside Commons in Courtenay; and Pacific Gardens in Nanaimo. Since proposals for Victoria’s Fernwood Urban Village and Sooke Harbourside Senior Village were reported in Senior Living (February 2013), several more sites have been planned for Fort Langley, Parksville, Mill Bay, Qualicum and Invermere, and a new addition to Yarrow Ecovillage, called Elderberry Commons, is already under construction.

Cohousing requires a group of like-minded and determined people who share a vision and have similar interests. Do they want an urban setting that encourages walking or biking to shops, medical services, library, restaurants and activity centres? Do they prefer a rural setting, giving them space to grow a portion or all of their food? Do they want active seniors only or do they want to be multigenerational? Getting a cohousing project to the ground-breaking ceremony is not a quick process. There are numerous decisions to be made before the shovel meets dirt.

Gary Morrison, an experienced cohousing consultant and CEO of LiveWell Cohousing Development, says, “It’s not only lengthy, but sometimes painful and difficult for the people involved. Statistics in the United States have come up with 80 per cent of project failure at this stage because people can’t get over the site selection hurdle and this is the whole premise of cohousing.” A good example is Smithers. “There is lots of interest in cohousing [in Smithers], particular among seniors, but locating a suitable site has proved to be trickier than expected,” says Gary. “We are still looking for a site within easy walking distance to the centre of town.”

In many of the current British Columbia cohousing proposals, the feasibility studies, information meetings, workshops, administrative paperwork and bureaucratic red tape can be facilitated by experienced cohousing consultants, like Gary or Ronaye Matthew of Cohousing Development Consulting (CDC). They can streamline and reduce the development process time by half. Owners can also do it on their own by hiring a project manager or advisor when needed, but the process may take longer as it would be a “learn-as-you-go” process for many.

Some bureaucrats think cohousing smacks of the ’60s commune, but the concept of cohousing appeals to many boomers and seniors. The idea of an affordable, sustainable and socially supportive community suits them. Participants decide if this is the lifestyle they want by attending a series of information meetings and workshops. A core of serious owners would begin joining together – socially meeting for updates, potlucks, barbecues or coffee.

Retired professional gardener Peter Malach took part in an “Aging in Place” workshop with several other seniors. He liked the idea of cohousing and found the right fit at Yarrow Ecovillage. Currently renting there while waiting for his unit to be completed at the new seniors cohousing project, Elderberry Commons, Peter says, “I enjoy the community living. The 20 acres of organic farmland really attracted me. I have leased half an acre and have planted 800 blueberry plants. When I was a teenager, I liked working on Ontario farms in the summers. This feels like going back to my roots. Not bad for a 66 year old!”

There is another side to cohousing. Being their own developer and under construction is not always easy for people planning to live at Yarrow Ecovillage’s newest addition, Elderberry Commons. Numerous decisions must be made and decided on by consensus. “The saying that cohousing is not for sissies is very true,” adds Peter. Nonetheless, the prospect of living in a farming community far outweighs any difficulties encountered in the construction process.

Mel Coulson, spokeperson for the Bulkley Valley Senior Cohousing project, says their group had been working to secure a landsite in Smithers. Part of their group is now looking at Telkwa Village, a few miles away. With Smithers’ lack of affordable housing, the timing for senior cohousing is perfect. “How much better for seniors to take control of their own lives, come together in community, design and build their own place and live in retirement on their own terms rather than on the terms of others,” says Mel.

The increased interest in cohousing remains active. In Fort Langley, boomers and seniors who want to downsize, yet stay in the same community, are excited about the project. The Town Planning Department in Qualicum Beach is supportive of the concept of cohousing. There is already an enthusiastic group wanting to build an eco-cohousing community adjacent to the Agricultural Land Reserve.

Salt Spring Island and Invermere are eagerly considering the idea of cohousing while another Lower Mainland group, Veganville, want to build a community around their vegan lifestyle and diet.

Margaret Critchlow reports on the progress of Sooke Harbourside: “We have decided on Campbell Construction as our contractor. If all continues on schedule, we’ll begin construction in summer 2014 and move in a year later.” Bill McKechnie of Victoria’s Fernwood Urban Village says, “We are waiting for approval of our detailed building plans and the issuance of our building permit. We are looking forward to a ground-breaking ceremony this summer.”

Cohousing is not for everyone. However, those who enjoy living in a community of similar philosophies; believe in sustainable living; like knowing that neighbours care about them and vice-versa; where housing is affordable; community expenses and chores are shared and matters relating to the common areas are decided by consensus, then cohousing is an ideal lifestyle.

Cohousers still own their own home and enjoy the privacy of their own space. As an extension of their home, they have access to a separate common area for entertaining, group activities, meetings and community meals. “I think it’s time to rewrite the book on retirement,” says Gary Morrison. “The next generations don’t want to do what their parents did. I’ve been involved in a lot of building and I see the next stage is cohousing.”

For more information:
Yarrow’s Elderberry Cohousing:
Yarrow Ecovillage:
Telkwa Cohousing, contact Mel Coulson:
LiveWell Cohousing Development, contact: Gary Morrison:
Sooke Harbourside Senior Cohousing:
Fernwood Urban Village, contact Bill McKechnie:
Fort Langley:




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Showing 1 to 3 of 3 comments.

Thank you Bill for your informative comments on the current progress of Fernwood Urban Village. It’s wonderful to see the Community spirit and strong bonds of friendship developing before any actual construction begins. The best of luck on ground-breaking this Summer!

Posted by Judee Fong | February 14, 2014 Report Violation

Great article, Judee and thanks for doing it. I agree with Bill above. There is a reluctance on the part of municipal officials to consider new ideas and we have work to do to get get cohousing into the mainstream. In our case we had great support from the mayor and town staff, but it was the town council we could not convince. As a result we were denied the opportunity to purchase and build on what would have been a perfect Town owned site. Almost two years of further searching proved fruitless. It is not easy in a small town to find 11/2 acres within walking distance of downtown. We have now given up on Smithers and set our sights on the Village of Telkwa (about 10 miles to the east). There, we have tremendous support from elected officials and village staff. We have also been able to find a wonderful, 51/2 acre site which, incidentally, is $200,000 cheaper than what a 11/2 acre site would have cost in Smithers. This really helps us in our affordability goals. Our challenge now is to rebuild the group. That long hiatus in Smithers caused some of our group to become discouraged and drop out and, seeing no end in sight, our older members had to start making alternative arrangements for their retirement. Sadly, for some, this included having to leave town. It is rather ironic because a recent Smithers Housing Task Force Report flagged as a “community development priority” the need to .... "ensure that adequate, high quality housing is available to meet the needs of older adults", and ... "Encourage diversified housing types to both retain residents and attract retirees". This is precisely what we were trying to do! I agree with Gary that cohousing is the way of the future. However, is not such an easy sell here as in Europe because of that “pioneer”, independent spirit that still exists. In Europe people have been used to living in close proximity for centuries so cohousing is not such a departure from the norm. Next week we will launch our new web site So, anyone who is interested can check our progress. Mel Coulson, Founding member, BV Cohousing Society.

Posted by Mel Coulson | February 9, 2014 Report Violation

Thank you Judee for your increasingly broad perspective of what cohousing is all about. It is good to see how other Cities and communities support our goals and make the development process less onerous than we have experienced here in Victoria where the planning department is very skeptical of anything 'new', or based on concepts outside their comfort zone. Finally, after a lengthy process in which we had to justify our bylaw variance issues, as well as our community 'cohousing' concept, the Victoria city staff has placed us on the short list for our development permit which means we can start going forward this spring and see some physical progress of our 'Urban Village' The length of our rezoning process has a positive side.... the membership has had time to form and get to know each other. Our constitutional structure, meetings, committee work and socialization were developed over a longer period and have matured us as an intentional community. I have observed the formation of communities where all of a sudden the group is dealing with building and construction issues and the project proceeds without the clarity of a solid foundation for working consensus and dispute resolution. This is unfortunate for those communities because it makes it all the harder to deal with thorny issues after the fact. Please note our alternate contact email ( and keep up the good work! Bill McKechnie, Fernwood Urban Village (founding member)

Posted by Bill McKechnie | February 4, 2014 Report Violation

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