Monday, November 14, 2011

Dwelling in Possibility: Hold Fast to Dreams

A prefab house built by one of the companies we're considering

As I move full-speed ahead on my two, big goals (to start a national network of high-performing, authentic, public Montessori charter schools in diverse communities and to start a pocket neighborhood in Austin), I'm beginning to realize that it's necessary to maintain a delicate balance between holding fast to my original visions while simultaneously compromising enough so that I can actually move forward.

For example, my original vision for the pocket neighborhood was to purchase three acres of land and develop it with five or so other families. Executing that vision is definitely easier said than done. Another cohousing group in Austin (called Kaleidoscope Village) spent many, many years trying to bring a similar vision to fruition (although their cohousing community was much larger).

They were very far along in the process (already had the city install sewer and water, had an architect fully design the community, purchased the land, etc.). And then they found out that they couldn't get conventional financing and the whole thing collapsed from under their feet.


And the thing about my vision is that I don't actually want to spend years working on it. I know that sounds arrogant and impatient to say, but I'm just being honest with myself. It's going to take me years to get the school up and running; I don't also want to spend years getting a community going. I want my core--my center--to be stable and comfortable.

So I've been trying to figure out how to help make the community a reality as quickly as possible. My newest idea is this:

We find adjacent lots within an existing neighborhood. That way, everyone could purchase their own land and build their own house without fussing with joint financing. Our houses could all face the street like normal houses, but we could connect our backyards for shared, communal space.

There's actually a model for this kind of cohousing. It's called N Street Cohousing in California. It started when two houses decided to tear down the fence between their yards. Now they have 19 houses all together. You can view a video tour, if you're interested.

The problem is that it's difficult to find adjacent lots in pre-existing neighborhoods (while also meeting our desire to be near nature). And would this model be comprising our vision too much? What if we could only build four adjacent houses? Would that be too small to have the true benefit of community?

Of course we could also seek to grow our community over time by inviting more and more adjacent houses to share space with us. We could also encourage cohousing-friendly people to purchase homes in the rest of the neighborhood when they become available.

But there are no guarantees that we could be able to cultivate the kind of community we crave. I worry that this alternate vision would be too much of a compromise.

On the other hand, it's actually a very manageable vision that could come to fruition very, very fast.

It's hard figuring out when to hold your cards and when to fold them in the most strategic way possible!

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Kristy said...

I love that you are willing to budge slightly in order to make your goals more achievable in the short term! Wondering if you might be able to find a new development with the amenities you desire (e.g. proximity to nature, eco-friendly houses, pedestrian-oriented) and partner with the developer. You might be able to get the developer to tailor a bit more to your needs if you can say.. guarantee the sale of x number of adjoining lots in one area. It might also be worth discussing your idea with the city planners in Austin for suggestions on how to bring this plan to fruition. They might even know of development projects on the horizon that you might be able to hone in on early! Just a suggestion :)

cicile said...

Do you really really NEED a community area ? hum... I mean, can't you have the same community feeling without a special space for it ?

For example, to be able to share tools etc. You don't need a special space for that. You only need some organisation : like a facebook group or some sort of email list to be able to know what is available (and when, where etc...)

When I was a kid, we never had fences between houses gardens. All kids played everywhere :D That was fun ! For us ! Not for the parents... They never made that on purpose. There was no fence. And it stayed that way ^^

Kathryn said...

Hi Sara,

A compromise for sure -- but one that in many ways sounds more appealing to me, at least. I think there's something to be said for carving out community and cultivating intentional community within existing neighborhoods. It's more scalable, for one, and more sustainable, too. You may not have as much land as you wanted, but you could have better access to public transit, and you'd be using existing housing rather than building your own.

More importantly from my perspective, rather than separating yourself from the rest of Austin, you'd be embedding yourself within it and making it stronger with a new(ish) example of what community means. I think there's something even more audacious about forging community and connection within our existing neighborhoods than uprooting and beginning anew, somewhere apart from our existing neighborhoods and neighbors. The fact that you don't have to withdraw to foster a common purpose is a very powerful statement--and, I think, maybe the heart of your mission?

I dunno...I'm not the boss of your dream, but goodness, I find your compromise a very, very good thing. I'd love to join your community, at least!

Anthropolochic said...

I actually really like this idea - and I think that it might even work within a development that is still underway. I'm not a huge fan of developments - but it seems like a simple way to get to point B. I am a little unfamiliar with pocket communities, however, and I'm not sure if development rules etc might interfere with your plans. I've followed your posts on your idea here, and I think I get the big picture, but I might be missing some of the physical pieces (-would there be closed community play places, and shared chickens etc?).

All of that said, I think a simple way to do get four or more like-minded families together in the same physical space might be looking for a cul de sac that is either under development or (I hate to say this) bank owned. Actually, the latter could really help people that already live in the area.

Ms. Persnickety said...

Hi Sara. I live relatively close to the N Street community. I think the retrofitting is great. But it also makes existing homeowners feel like they are being pushed out if they don't want to be involved. There have been issues between neighbors, complaints to the city, etc. I think it would be difficult to accomplish without "pushing out"current neighbors, which isn't very neighborly!

Anonymous said...

Have you seen Big Love? That's what they did on the show: Had three houses for the different families, but all shared the same backyard and pool and stuff.

Rachel said...

If I lived near you, I would really, really want to move into your pocket neighbour hood! But I live in Australia (right now -- usually China) not going to happen any time soon!
I'm really excited that you dream big and publicly document the process. I love following!


Kelly said...

It sounds like you're beginning to figure out your priorities, with minimizing time spent possibly being a bigger priority than perfect community. I think this is wise, especially as you're working so hard on raising Henry and starting a school right now. Cohousing takes a lot of time and work to get everyone on the same page. There's so much to consider when you own the land together - can people sell to anyone they want? Are they allowed to rent it out? If you own your own lots you can focus on the fun part of community without getting bogged down in all the legal stuff, which I think is more what you're interested in. Even without shared space, you can still hold weekly potlucks, set up a tool share, etc.
Focus on what it is you want from a community - how do you want it to support you - and make your decision from there.
Also, have you read Superbia by Dan Chiras and Dave Wann? It's about encouraging community in existing neighborhoods, and might be interesting for you right now.

Amo said...

"maintain a delicate balance between holding fast to my original visions while simultaneously compromising enough so that I can actually move forward."

Just have to point out how this is so applicable to a WEDDING! (Just got's still on the brain.)

There are so many situations in life when we have to focus on our vision, but also maybe let go of a few details. I find myself learning this lesson almost daily.

Environmental Soul said...

There is a cohouseing community in Colorado that is very succesful. You might think about getting in contact wiht them to see how they got funding.

I think your original vision is very cool. I have seen neighborhoods that don't have fences between their yards and it seems to be a good thing, but does not have the community that a cohousing community does.

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