According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, a sense of belonging fits somewhere between safety and self-esteem in the hierarchy of human needs. The drive to be part of a social group, to be a valued contributing participant, is an intrinsic element of human nature.
At Cranberry Commons, a 22unit housing complex in Burnaby's Heights neighbourhood, this sense of belonging seems to be flourishing. The 50 or so residents have the privacy of their own homes, but they are situated around a common space with shared amenities.
The idea is to create a close community, where people share things and help one another. At Cranberry Commons, they make decisions by consensus and publicly appreciate one another for their contributions.
Sound like an anarchist utopia? Not really, it's a concept called "cohousing" that originated in Denmark in the 1960s.
Cranberry Commons is the only co-housing project in Burnaby, and besides a start-up co-housing project in East Vancouver that's not off the ground yet, it's the only community of its kind in the Lower Mainland. It's been around since the late '90s, and roughly half of the original group that created it still lives there.
Stepping off of Albert Street into Cranberry Commons, one gets a sense of how co-housing is a bit different. The split-level town homes all face a well-shaded, lush interior courtyard. There's a children's play area, tricycles parked on the concrete walkway, chalk scrawling on the ground, tables, chairs and an orange cat lazing about in the shade.
One of the complex's distinguishing features is the "common house," a spacious building with a kitchen area, a grand piano and a community garden out back. It's all designed to create a sense of community and connection.
"We have potlucks here once a month," says Barbara Grant, a retired librarian whose daughter, son-in law and teenage grandchildren also live in the complex.
Grant and a handful of residents have agreed to show off their collective home and explain how cohousing works on a hot, sunny afternoon.
Anyone can use the common house for cooking, canning, yoga, meetings, drum circles or watching movies.
Anne Easton, an employment counsellor, lives in the complex with her son.
"Most of us didn't know each other before we started the process," she says. "That's the point of it. The buildings are designed to facilitate spontaneous interaction."
That connection between neighbours is something the Vancouver Foundation focused on in a recent survey of Metro Vancouver residents. One of the most surprising findings, according to the foundation, was how few people actually know their neighbours: only one-quarter of the respondents had been to their neighbours' home in the past year.
The foundation, which donates money to various community programs and projects, asserts that there are benefits to knowing your neighbours. Safer streets, healthier and happier people, less bullying and discrimination are just a few examples.
Some of these elements are clearly a part of life at Cranberry Commons.
"The fact that we know each other makes our community more secure," says Grant.
For instance, there was the time when a couple of nefarious characters were milling about in the parkade, and a resident politely asked who they were there to see. When they replied that they were friends of "Jackie," the resident told them there was no one there named Jackie, and to get the hell out. The police were incredulous that she could possibly know everyone in her complex, something the residents all laugh at when they tell the story.
There's also a shared sense of security about the children within the complex; parents may not know where their kids are, but they know they are safe.
Marlene Leggatt, a widow and resident of six years, likes the sense of connection with her neighbours at Cranberry Commons.
"Here, you are not isolated," says the retired nurse. "They're certainly willing to help. It's just a marvelous feeling."
Grant says there is a lot of sharing of resources: child care, books, lawnmowers, cars, you name it. People also share their skills. If someone is electrically inclined or good at fixing cars, he or she will help other residents or do repairs in the shared areas for the benefit of the group.
People pitch in and help each other, says Alex, Easton's young son. If there's an emergency, someone will help, Easton adds.
"When someone has a baby in this community, my God, there's food coming to the door every day for a month," Grant says.
Allan Davison, a rather recent resident who moved in a year-and-a-half ago, also enjoys the sense of connection.
"One of the things I like most is the fact people's eyes light up when they see each other," he says. "That's a really precious thing for me."
While co-housing may help with that uneasy sense of isolation from one's community, it's not a panacea for the Lower Mainland's affordable housing crisis.
"If you wanted to take on a project like this, you would need to be able to afford a home. It doesn't solve the problem of affordable housing," says
Tim Bartoo, an electrical engineer who has been at Cranberry Commons since inception. "Any group of people who could afford a mortgage, they could form their own project."
With Cranberry Commons, the original group hired a consultant, formed a corporation, did a lot of the developer's work themselves, bought some property on Albert Street and hired an architect.
Many families took out second mortgages on their homes to finance the project. The complex functions like a strata; everyone owns their own unit, but they keep the fees low by doing a lot of the work themselves.
The selling price in Cranberry Commons is a bit higher than going market rates, but that's because of the common spaces, the residents say.
"There aren't very many spaces in co-housing. We have a fairly long list of people who want to live here," says Bartoo.
That said, there is a home up for sale at Cranberry Commons; a three-level, three-bedroom townhouse for $530,000. To check it out, visit www.cranberry commons.ca.