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The Cohousing Research Network: A Community Approach to Communities Research

The Fall 2018 edition of Communities, focused on “Networking Communities,” is now available by donation for digital download.

Research on cohousing has been increasing, attracting researchers from a variety of academic disciplines, and building evidence of the benefits of living in community. The Cohousing Research Network (CRN) catalogues, supports, disseminates this research, and promotes collaborations. This article introduces the reader to CRN and shares some of the organization’s strengths and challenges. We overview our mission, history, structure, and activities. We then reflect on our experiences as a highly interdisciplinary and geographically dispersed network of researchers that interfaces with other organizations, cohousing communities, and the media.

History and Mission

In 2010, several members of the Cohousing Association of the United States (Coho/US) Board of Directors, including Diane Margolis, David Entin, and Laura Fitch, recognized that good data is critical to advancing the mission of Coho/US to support communities and the growth of the cohousing movement. They began work on a multi-phase survey of cohousing communities. Diane Margolis and Coho/US Board Member Richart Keller organized a two-day workshop at the 2011 Cohousing Conference in Washington, DC, to discuss the survey effort and find potential collaborators. Researchers and writers from all over the world gathered and formed CRN. CRN continues to host workshops and present research at national and some regional cohousing conferences.

CRN’s mission is to increase the rigor and reach of cohousing research. We aim to encourage the highest quality of research and increase reliable knowledge of cohousing by bringing together and supporting researchers and writers whose work focuses on cohousing. Our responsibilities include, first, to conduct and communicate research with scientific integrity. As the research arm of Coho/US, our own research initiatives focus on the US. We also aspire to be a global resource center for intentional community research. We act as an information clearinghouse for the media and a collaborative hub and resource center for researchers.

For cohousing communities, CRN seeks to ease the burden on residents who are frequetly asked to participate in research. We aim to ensure that the time and effort they volunteer as research participants is efficient and results in valuable insights for the cohousing movement, and that research results are communicated back to them. CRN encourages cohousing communities to refer any research requests they receive to us, so we can work with the researcher to ensure that their research leverages existing knowledge and available data, and that demands on communities are reasonable and worthwhile. In some cases, we are able to provide researchers with raw data to analyze for their particular research questions, eliminating the need for any new data collection efforts.

Structure and Activities

At the core of CRN is a steering committee of seven people, including a Director, Assistant Director, and Communications Director. Several members were formerly on the Coho/US Board, and since 2015 we have had a member concurrently serving on the Coho/US Board of Directors, acting as liaison between the two organizations. We have also had a similar relationship with Partnerships for Affordable Cohousing (PFAC). Through these partnerships, we seek to understand the research needs and priorities of these groups that support communities and community professionals. The steering committee meets monthly via video chat, and regularly includes other researchers in these meetings to support their research and form and foster collaborations.

CRN has been funded primarily by donations. Our steering committee members regularly apply for research grants, but to-date awarded grants have typically supported only the lead researcher, with an occasional stipend to CRN for resources and services rendered. CRN receives support from Coho/US in terms of recruiting research participants and collaborating on research proposals for grants. Donations to Coho/US can be (and often are) earmarked for CRN.

CRN maintains a website (cohousingresearchnetwork.org), which features a comprehensive bibliography of academic, peer-reviewed cohousing research. Scholars in a variety of fields are interested in cohousing, and research output is growing. The goal is to inventory this research into one place, thus facilitating an understanding of what has been done and sparking ideas for future research. CRN Assistant Director Heidi Berggren receives alerts from her university’s library database every time a new article on cohousing is published, then provides citations and abstracts to the bibliography page manager, CRN Communications Director Neil Planchon—who is also currently developing our bibliography into a searchable database. At this time, the bibliography includes only peer-reviewed research specifically focused on cohousing, but plans are in the works to expand the database to include research on all types of intentional community. We also plan to include theses, dissertations, and books in the future.

In August 2015, CRN created Research-l, an online community discussion board for the global intentional community and cohousing research communities to come together. As of May 2018, 107 subscribers from all over the world regularly engage in collaborative and vibrant conversations. Topics range from sharing research and news, to announcing calls for papers and conferences, seeking and forming strategic partnerships, identifying data sources and resources, and connecting folks in remote locations.

The research effort that began in 2010 and spurred the formation of CRN set a precedent for our future research. In particular, we have now conducted two rounds of national cohousing surveys, and plan to continue this recurring effort every five years. Each survey effort includes a household level survey (a sort of US Cohousing Census) and a survey at the community level, describing physical characteristics of communities (e.g., size, location, building measures, etc.), as well as general social practices (e.g., governance and work enforcement structures, etc.). The household level surveys are much broader and flexible in terms of content; for example, our last round included a focus on aging in cohousing. These survey data serve as the most comprehensive inventory of the physical and social characteristics of US cohousing communities and the demographics and experiences of their residents.

A Community Approach to Research

CRN approaches research as a collaborative, interdisciplinary endeavor. This approach is not unique. In fact, interdisciplinary and translational research are growing trends and there is a new field dedicated to understanding these approaches called team science. However, we realized this could also be considered a community approach to research. A community approach to research brings immense benefits, and challenges, that we find analogous to benefits and challenges of living in intentional community.

Like most intentional communities, CRN strives to be inclusive and diverse. Bringing together members with a range of perspectives and skill sets contributes to outcomes that transcend what each individual could do alone. Communities are richer and stronger when some members like to garden, others like to cook, others are handy for construction and maintenance issues, etc. (just one of many dimensions of diversity). Likewise, CRN’s diverse membership is the foundation for a capable and resilient community of researchers, and better research projects than any one researcher might achieve alone.

Several steering committee members live in cohousing—in fact, two are founding members of their communities. These members keep us in touch with the research needs and priorities of US cohousing communities, provide important community connections for research efforts, imbue our research with realistic expectations and interpretations, and lend us credibility when we are talking to cohousing residents (they see we are not just a bunch of academics). Several other steering committee members work at universities, where they publish prolifically, pursue grants for cohousing research, and disseminate that research within their respective fields (from political science, to urban planning, sociology, and psychology). Our Communications Director, Neil Planchon, adeptly manages the technology and outreach programs that are critical to our organization.

A brief overview of the current CRN steering committee’s research illustrates how our diverse backgrounds and interests contribute to a richer understanding of cohousing. CRN Director Emerita, Diane Margolis (Professor Emerita of Sociology at University of Connecticut), recently completed a new book focused on her community, Cambridge Cohousing, and the challenges of simultaneously building private homes and a commons. Current CRN Director and Coho/US Board Member Angela Sanguinetti (Research Environmental Psychologist at University of California, Davis) has studied how participation in specific types of activities in cohousing enhances residents’ connection to community and to nature, and potential models for increasing diversity in cohousing. The work of CRN Assistant Director Heidi Berggren (Associate Professor of Political Science and Women’s and Gender Studies at University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth) suggests that living in cohousing increases residents’ participation in political activities like voting, petitioning elected officials, and attending political rallies. Chuck MacLane (retired Personnel Psychologist) is interested in how communities and prospective residents can better predict the person-community fit. Robert Boyer (Assistant Professor of Geography and Earth Sciences at University of North Carolina, Charlotte) has studied the cohousing development process, and in a recent study of the US general population found that interest in cohousing extends far beyond the current resident demographics—suggesting there is room to grow!

Approaching research as a group of individuals with different perspectives and skill sets encourages each of us to grow in terms of our ability to communicate our own ideas and learn from each other, outcomes similar to those developed in community. Like a community, we practice acceptance and celebrate each other’s successes. For those of us working in competitive academic environments and not living in community, these benefits are perhaps particularly valuable.

The community of CRN includes all cohousing researchers and writers; therefore an initial and ongoing challenge we face is getting these community members to participate in our collaborative network. We view this as similar to the challenge an intentional community faces in recruiting new members or (re-)engaging current members who are “doing their own thing.” Our steering committee, comprised mostly of CRN founders, has an established collaborative culture, but we are still striving to understand best practices for engaging others. Our website, bibliography, and email forum are critical strategies, but we lack the resources to engage in as much outreach as we would like.

CRN does not turn researchers away if they are open to collaboration. We take every opportunity to support others’ endeavors in order to increase the research quality and ensure findings are accessible. Sometimes we collaborate with a researcher who is not experienced and this means we take on a lot of work reviewing, providing feedback, and editing. This is resource-intensive and can lead to burnout among steering committee members. In our research, we have seen how some cohousing residents have a similar experience when they feel other community members are not carrying their own weight. This seems to be less of a problem when there are clear requirements and at least some level of accountability or enforcement for work-share. We are therefore working toward developing criteria and limits for research support, e.g., offering existing data or the opportunity to contribute up to five questions in one of our national surveys.

In conclusion, the Cohousing Research Network (CRN) is a virtual intentional community of researchers who recognize the benefits of community and are in fact enacting community in their pursuit of rigorous, compelling cohousing research. The collaborative research process is not free from challenges. However, as seems to be the case for most communitarians, we believe the personal and collective outcomes of collaboration are worth the trouble.

Contact CRN at hello [AT] cohousingresearchnetwork.org.

Angela Sanguinetti, Director of CRN, is a Research Ecological Behaviorist at University of California, Davis, Institute of Transportation Studies and Energy and Efficiency Institute.

Heidi Berggren, Assistant Director of CRN, is Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.

Neil Planchon is a co-developer and founding resident of Swan’s Market Cohousing, life coach, and nonprofit technology and business development consultant (neilplanchon.com).

Diane Margolis, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at University of Connecticut, is a founder of Cambridge Cohousing and CRN; her latest book is Cohousing and the Commons.

Robert Boyer is an assistant professor of urban planning in the department of Geography and Earth Sciences, University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Chuck MacLane retired from the US Office of Personnel Management in 2008 after 34 years as a Personnel Research Psychologist, and now consults for public and private organizations.

Excerpted from the Fall 2018 edition of Communities, “Networking Communities”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.


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