Shelly Parks Wants You to Get to Know Cohousing

Shelly Parks will tell you right away that “people aren’t attracted to cohousing unless it speaks to them.” So when I asked her about the hiking trails in her neighborhood, she insisted on giving me her own dog-eared trail map. She could tell that trails were something that spoke to me, and she wanted me to fully appreciate everything her new home—the Skagit Commons cohousing community in Anacortes, Washington—had to offer. The day I visited Skagit Commons was cold but sunny, and when I looked at that map, I could instantly imagine bundling up and walking two blocks to the nearest trailhead to see how spring was progressing in the forest, or walking a bit further to take in the views of the San Juan Islands from the top of Mt. Erie. But hiking would have to wait. I had come to learn about cohousing, and touring Skagit Commons with Shelly Parks was a great introduction.

Parks feels no obligation to persuade everyone she meets that cohousing is their own perfect lifestyle model. But she does, fervently, wish to connect with anyone who might love cohousing, if only they understood better what it was.

Cohousing communities are not communes. Parks defines cohousing as “a neighborhood design that combines the autonomy of private dwellings with the advantages of living in a supportive community.” People own their own homes, which range from single-family houses to townhomes to one or two-story condominiums. But they also “own” access to outdoor and indoor common spaces. In an urban community, the common outdoor spaces might be a roof garden and an inner courtyard. In an exurban or rural community, there might be a lawn or meadow, patios, and other gathering spots, a few acres of forest, and/or a large garden, with or without chickens. The indoor common space in most cohousing communities is a building that houses a large kitchen and dining area—where communal meals happen as frequently as several times a week or as seldom as once a month—and often, in addition, a living room, a game room, a children’s playroom, spare bedrooms for visiting guests, storage, shared laundry, and a shared tool library. “People say it’s the perfect balance between privacy and community,” Parks says.

Skagit Commons in Anacortes is one of the very newest cohousing communities in the Pacific Northwest. The community includes 15 flats in one light-filled, 3-story building, and 15 townhomes along a pedestrian pathway, with a common building in-between. Directly to the north is a protected wetland meadow. To the east and south is a residential Anacortes neighborhood. To the west, and also south, are those trail-filled parcels of the Anacortes Community Forest Lands.

As of January 2023, Skagit Commons is Shelly Parks’ home. She and her husband Charles downsized from a single-family house in Edmonds to a 600-square-foot, third-floor flat with a view of Mt. Baker from the front door.

For Parks—as for everyone who chooses cohousing—this was no overnight decision. She had a career she loved, in sales and marketing for retirement communities. But something was stirring in her. One night, about seven or eight years ago, as she tells it, “I was doing a Google search and I just stumbled on cohousing, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is how we’re supposed to live. We’re supposed to live in community. Interdependent with each other.’”

“It just spoke to me,” she continues. “A lot of people will say, ‘It’s what I had in my head, and then I heard there was a name for it.’” A few months later, Parks attended a national conference on senior cohousing in Salt Lake City. Her career shift had begun.

“Communitas” is the word architect Grace Kim, who designed Skagit Commons, used in a 2017 TED talk that has been viewed by 2.5 million people called “Communitas: The Spirit of Community.” Kim, who also designed and is a founding resident of Capitol Hill Cohousing in Seattle, went on to speak—and this was three years before the COVID-19 pandemic began—about the “public health epidemic of isolation” and how “cohousing is an antidote. Cohousing can save your life.”

Kim may not be overstating things. In The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness, authors (and also directors of the study) Robert Waldinger and Mark Schulz said this about the key to a long and health life: “One thing continuously demonstrates its broad and enduring importance—good relationships.”

This all makes tons of sense to Parks. Though she has worked in sales all her life, she describes herself as an introvert. “More introverts are attracted to cohousing than extraverts,” she says. “People are always surprised by that. But it’s true. Left to my own devices, I would isolate myself. I know that about myself. Being in community allows me relationships that are easier. It allows me to be more vulnerable. More who I am. There is something about a group of people coming together to say, ‘We’re committed to each other,’ that allows you to. I don’t feel as judged, if that makes sense.”

To her surprise and delight, she also sees her recently retired husband—who is also an introvert, or so Parks had always thought— “thriving in a way I’d never imagined. Every day since we have lived here, he’s off helping somebody with some project. We’re the only people with a pickup truck.”

Kristine Forbes, who recently moved from a Seattle cohousing community to one in Olympia, understands this sense of thriving. Though cohousing requires commitment—intention, as Grace Kim would say—it is also, in Forbes’ words, “uncomplicated and stable.” And, always, “a growth experience.”

“Something happens when you know your neighbor,” writes architect Charles Durrett in A Solution to Homelessness in Your Town, a profile of an affordable cohousing community in Napa County, California, created for formerly homeless seniors, especially veterans. Durrett, who with his ex-wife Kathryn McCamant is viewed as a pioneer of co-housing in the United States, has authored 15 books about on the subject, including The Senior Cohousing Handbook. He and McCamant designed Quimper Village, a 55+ cohousing community in Port Townsend, Washington, viewed as a model for senior cohousing projects.

For people in their third act, cohousing offers the kind of neighborly help we’re all likely to need from time to time: after a hip replacement, for example. Residents whose needs increase over time may not be able to stay forever. But the health and wellness benefits of cohousing may help older residents live longer on their own.

“I’ve never seen anybody pick themselves up by their own bootstraps, ever,” Durrett told me. “But I’ve seen a lot of people that have been virtually picked up by the bootstraps by a community. Metaphorically and really.”

“If you are going to look ahead at your life and say, ‘how am I going to age well?’ you’ve got to have in there that you’re going to be in community in some way,” says Parks. For some people, that might mean their faith community or a tight circle of nearby neighbors, friends, or family. But cohousing offers a different model. An intentional model. And the more you learn about it, the more you may find yourself, as Shelly Parks did, saying “This makes sense.”

Ann Hedreen is an author (Her Beautiful Brain), teacher of memoir writing, and filmmaker. Hedreen and her husband, Rustin Thompson, own White Noise Productions and have made more than 150 short films and several feature documentaries together, including Quick Brown Fox: An Alzheimer’s Story. She is currently at work on a book of essays. 

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