Lee Anderson stands on a small mulch path, garden hose in hand, watering plants in a garden partially funded by grants from the city of Durham. One of his seven housemates, Tony Simpson, stands right behind him, admiring the size of the growing watermelons and cantaloupes.
Simpson is ecstatic. "Those are some weird-looking tomatoes. They look like cucumbers," he says.
"Yeah, those are some weird-looking tomatoes," Anderson replies.
Anderson and Simpson live in the corner house of the North Street Neighborhood, an intentional community—a planned residential complex designed to have a high degree of social interaction. The neighborhood comprises ninety-nine people, with and without disabilities, who live in sixteen owner-occupied buildings and an apartment. It's filled with families, young and old single people, and Duke Divinity School students. In the house where Anderson and Simpson live, there's a chapel for prayer, a room for nonpermanent residents that has housed refugees, and a long dining room table where different residents serve dinner for the others five nights a week.
During college, Anderson lived with several other male students in a house in Chapel Hill.
"I had always kind of had this craving for community, and that was the first place where I really got to live that out and experience community life and sharing life with people and all the different flavors people bring, and just had a lot of fun," he says. "That's a lot of what I love about this neighborhood; it's just, like, a lot of fun-loving people, too."
Before the North Street Neighborhood was formed in 2012, Anderson had volunteered with Reality Ministries in Durham, a Christian organization focused on giving opportunities to teens and adults with developmental disabilities. There, he says, he was "around people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and you realize they have so much to offer and so much to teach."
That's where many of the ninety-nine neighbors met—helping with weekly programming at Reality. But then they started thinking, What if? That was the subject line of an email sent by future North Street resident Traci Hoover in 2009, which went out to twenty-nine people who were considering forming a neighborhood together. Instead of living in houses with random neighbors, they could live in proximity to their friends.
It arose out of a need for good housing options, and the North Street Neighborhood was more than a solution to that problem—it aligned with values they shared. That's what intentional community is all about, Anderson says. And that's why it looks different everywhere it exists.
North Street offers communal living (though residents stress that it's not a commune). But until recently, the people who live here didn't know that what they had created was part of a national movement: cohousing. The basis of cohousing is that each household maintains its own personal property while sharing a common house and extensive common spaces, like gardens, walking paths, or music rooms. They also share things like washers and dryers and lawnmowers—whatever the community decides.
Residents often gather weekly or monthly to share meals and spend time together through organized or spontaneous events based on common interests.
The thing that qualifies North Street as cohousing is the shared monthly meals, says resident Margot Starbuck, as well as shared space in at least one house and the option to join in other community events, such as daily prayer at North Street or, in the case of Durham Central Park Cohousing, a weekly movie night.
But North Street isn't part of the American Cohousing Association—and until 2015, its residents didn't know they qualified. "A cohousing conference was happening in Durham, and they had just maybe three or four folks who came over to look at the neighborhood," says Starbuck. "I think that's when most of us learned the word, when they said, 'Oh yeah, you're that.'"
With no knowledge of the larger movement, the members of the North Street Neighborhood arrived at the exact same solution as the rest of the national cohousing group to what they view as a key societal problem: it's hard to find a group of people who have your back.
While the majority of Triangle residents may not have heard of cohousing—only a tenth of 1 percent of people in the Triangle live in an official cohousing community—the Triangle has the second-most cohousing residents per capita in major metropolitan areas, beating out greater Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle, and trailing only Portland.
There are 165 cohousing communities operating and another 140 forming in the United States, as counted by the Cohousing Association of the United States. Most are in areas that are growing economically, highly educated, and liberal leaning—like the Triangle. Of those 165 communities, five are here, and three more are on the way.
The upside of cohousing? Shared resources, a social community, and help when you need it. The downside? Less privacy, independence, and silence. For some, it's all about finding and re-creating what they grew up with.
For a cofounder of cohousing in the U.S.—and half of McCamant & Durrett Architects—the real issue is the way society has changed.
"I grew up in a neighborhood where kids were running in and out of the houses and kids were just running through the doors," says Kathryn McCamant. "I think that's very, very hard for you to find these days."
The first cohousing development opened in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1972.
Sixteen years later, McCamant and Charles Durrett, who met at the elite architecture school at the University of Copenhagen, published what amounts to the movement's English-language Bible: Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves. McCamant and Durrett coined the term "cohousing" from the Danish word bofoellesskaber, which translates to "living communities."
Unlike the communes that became popular during the 1970s, cohousing allows participants to maintain their private property while incorporating community into their lives. (The financial setup is just like a condominium.) Residents don't put their money in a pot, and they don't shower together. But they do share a lot of living space, which is what caught Durrett's eye.
One day in 1980, Durrett says, he was on his way to class when he noticed a different kind of housing development.
"There are two apartments, and a lot between that, and then there's this one neighborhood where people are stopping to interact with each other, people are sitting at picnic tables, people are coming and going from this building where apparently nobody lives, but everybody lives, and I stop and ask somebody, 'What's going on here?'" he recalls.
A woman told him that she and her husband had grown up in good neighborhoods, and "they wanted their kids to live in a functional neighborhood," he continues. So they designed and joined a cohousing community based on the neighborhoods they knew.
Durrett and McCamant, now married, had the same goals for their children. They started by building their own cohousing development in San Francisco. Later, in conjunction with an already forming cohousing group, they built the Triangle's first cohousing community in 1997: Arcadia Cohousing, which straddles the border between Carrboro and Chapel Hill. Since then, five other cohousing developments have opened. By 2020, three more will join them, bringing the number of area people living in cohousing to more than three hundred.
Cohousing is growing, McCamant says, because modern society forgoes a close-knit style of living communities. People want that connectivity.