Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Honest Conversation

I love naming elephants in living rooms. We did that at Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community last night when we discussed our generational focus. By that I mean the age group(s) that we want to attract.

All along we have said that we wanted to be a multi-generational community. We wanted a mix of young, middle aged and old people, and we wanted a variety of family constellations.

So far, however, we have attracted people in their forties, fifties, sixties and seventies. Our two youngest members are 39. Our community has no young children so far. Some of us owners have grown children who are living independently and others of us are childless.

The reason we had this discussion was that one of our owners, Yonas Jongkind, pointed out the discrepancy between our marketing message and the reality he has experienced when he has visited our community.

Yonas and his young family live at WindSong, a cohousing community in one of the outer suburbs of Vancouver. His mother, Mia Jongkind, is one of our residents, and he has invested some money in her apartment. As the co-owner of one of our units, he has voting rights in our community.

For most of his tenure as a shareholder in our real estate development company, Yonas has been what we have referred to as a "distant owner," and has taken a mostly hands-off approach. Now that we are completing the final touches of construction and marketing our remaining units, he has become more actively involved with us. His MBA, his four years in a viable cohousing community, and his action-oriented personality are very useful to us.

At last night's meeting, Yonas shared with us what it was like to live at WindSong. He said there were heaps of kids under six, and it was a noisy place. Right next door to the dining hall, there was an equally large play room for children. That led to a fenced, outdoor playground. About a third of the community's annual budget for upgrades was spent on play equipment for children. Because parents placed a high priority on their young children's safety and also because they were just so busy being parents, WindSong had fewer of the adult-oriented activities that are common in some other cohousing communities.

We then went around the circle and shared our hopes and dreams about children. Most of us had assumed all along that Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community would include children. Indeed, the multi-generational focus was one of the features we liked. None of us wanted to live in a senior citizens' residence. Most of us longed for the life and energy that children bring with them.

On the other hand, when we considered the reality of our property, we realized that some elements of it were not all that user-friendly for children. The room that we had designated as a children's playroom was much smaller than the one at WindSong, and it was not adjacent to our dining hall. Our three-bedroom-and-den units have two storeys. The bedrooms are laid out in such a way that parents would have to sleep on one floor while children slept on another. Alternatively, parents could share one floor with one child, but another child would need to sleep on a different floor. One of the bedrooms on the lower level of each three-bedroom-and-den unit has french doors that open out to our parking lot. This would be great for a resident who ran a home-based business and who might have clients visiting him or her, but it would be less comforting to the parent of a young child. Our unfenced pond represents a drowning hazard for young children. We also do not have an outdoor playground.

Yonas said that, if we really wanted to attract families with young children, there were some proactive steps that we could take right now. We could be assertive in finding families with young children to rent a couple of our three-bedroom-and-den units. This would serve as a draw for young parents, as they would see that there already were children living here. There were three rooms near our dining hall whose walls could be dismantled to create one large play room. Finally, we could build an outdoor playground just outside of our dining hall.

When push came to shove, we discovered that we were not so committed to young children that we were willing to go out of our way to attract them. We realized that our warm, fuzzy visions of children really centred on older children, say six and up. We liked the idea of doing crafts with children, having them cook and garden alongside us, and so on.

We decided that, at this time, we would do nothing to adapt our property to young children. We would welcome them if they came to us, but we wouldn't bend ourselves out of shape to draw them to us. There were a couple of families with children in the eight- to ten-year-old bracket who seemed very interested in our community, and we would be delighted if they bought in.

If a crop of young children arises at Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community in future, it will be feasible to retrofit the building for them at that time. That will be a decision for the owners of the day.

I am very, very glad that we faced the discontinuity between our marketing message and the reality on the ground. For me one of the benefits of an intentional community is that its members are conscious and authentic. I am so grateful that Yonas named the phenomenon he had observed.

Even if you have no desire to live in a cohousing community, you might want to consider how you could raise the bar and make your family more of an intentional community. Would you benefit from opening some closet doors and acknowledging skeletons that are lurking there?

By the way, near the end of our meeting, Yonas's five-year-old son, Julian, walked into the dining hall and said, "Daddy, Ouma says it's eight thirty, and we all have to go to bed." We chuckled, because it illustrated the very point Yonas had been making about life with young kids.

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