Series: Consciously reinventing cooperative and harmonious ways of living and working together. Read about this series below.
Hildur recalls the beginning of the Co-housing
Movement in Denmark. She acknowledges how the power of living in community serves children. And how community made it possible for her as a mother to be active in, amongst others, the setting up of the Global Ecovillage Network.
In 1969 I was sitting in my new house in Copenhagen with my two bouncing baby boys of six months and 18 months. I had just finished my law degree and was speculating over how my life might unfold. Should I seek a career as a lawyer or civil servant, and leave the children in daycare with strangers for many hours every day? Or should I give up my career and stay at home to take care of my children myself? There was no apparent third option. When I was 14, I had vowed to remain single and independent. All the women I saw around me were dissatisfied with following either of these choices. I was now with a man in whom I had confidence, and I wanted to avoid falling into the same trap as my mother and other women of her generation.
Were there really no other choices than a full time career — thus penalising my children — or staying home and cutting off a part of my energy that wants to flow into the world?
In 1968 I decided to continue my studies, now in cultural sociology, to find out more about human nature, and in particular to learn if there were societies in other parts of the world, or throughout history, which had found better solutions to this dilemma. I joined the feminist movement, which was just starting at that time. With one baby on my lap and my husband looking after the other, I attended meetings in which women shared their concerns.
One day I read a newspaper article in Politiken (a major Danish newspaper), ‘Children Need 100 Parents’. A lightning bolt struck me. Of course! Many women had the same problem. Together we could create something new.
So I took the initiative to establish a living situation in which several families combined private homes with common open space, had no fences, and shared some facilities — a concept which later came to be known in English as co-housing. I founded a group with friends and we started looking for property. Within three years we had created a small co-housing community of six families and converted an old farmhouse near Copenhagen into common space. Basically, the initiative was a social experiment, and a very successful one. It was called Hoejtofte — after the farm we bought.
We learned later that two other similar initiatives had come into existence as a result of that same newspaper article. hey are still both well-functioning
co-housing groups along with more than 200 others. This was the beginning of the co-housing movement which has spread over the world and also inspired us to be part of birthing the broader ecovillage movement.
Co-housing started as a way of creating a better childhood for children, a fact which is sometimes overlooked. Did they achieve that and what is the situation today?
Inventing Co-housing as We Went
We developed the idea of co-housing as we went along. Living with six other families and their children was fun and quite different from living an ordinary suburban life — even though our project was situated in the middle of an ordinary suburb near Copenhagen. We chose to have no borders between our gardens. We had two giant lawns for games and a common house and stables. We raised chicken, tended a large common vegetable garden, and had fruit trees and berry bushes. Quite often all the men, and occasionally a woman or two, would play football with the kids — and all the other neighbourhood kids too.
We also had three Icelandic horses, which were a lot of fun. Our neighbours’ girls helped to look after the horses and often looked after our youngest son, too. Every Sunday we went horseback riding in the forest. The children had many friends, as Hoejtofte was a natural centre of activity in the larger neighbourhood. We could meet and have celebrations in our common house. Over time we became quite good at celebrating using music and theatre. It is much nicer to be celebrated than having to put on your own party! On summer afternoons we would often run or bike to a nearby lake in the forest and go swimming.
As the old farmhouse was in constant need of repair, we held monthly work weekends. These helped to strengthen the glue of community between us. These are some of the dearest childhood memories of our sons.
Our life was fun and rich. When my husband Ross travelled on business, which was quite often, I never felt isolated. Twelve years after the first two, I had a third son and experienced the joy of being the mother of ‘our first co-housing baby’ with 12 parents to look after it. I could always get help. Having a child in such a setting was a constant blessing.
The local school often commented that children from our community were good at sharing and solving problems. They learned direct democracy at Hoejtofte as they were part of the decision-making processes. Also, they benefited greatly from having many adult role models. My boys learnt from the neighbours what they could not learn from me or my husband. And they easily accepted that house rules were different in different houses. We shared responsibilities and the joys and sorrows of life. The adults supported each other in various ways. For example when one man had a mental breakdown, three of us stayed with him for several nights and days (and stayed home from their jobs), thus avoiding his needing to be hospitalised.
I believe women are naturally good communicators, and do well in community settings. In communities like ours, women weren’t suppressed in any way. For me this was an important step forward in the process of achieving equal opportunities between men and women. It allowed me to find a middle way between having a job and staying at home. I studied, did activist work, wrote. In 1981 I joined the Nordic Alternative Campaign – 100 Nordic grass roots movements working with the scientific community trying to create a vision of how to solve the global, social and ecological problems with a single vision and finding ways to realise this vision. For 10 years I co-ordinated this project on a voluntary basis. We held exhibitions, competitions of ideas, set up preliminary projects, meetings, and seminars in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Without the co-housing community as a stable base and without a husband willing to pay the phone bills and buy the stamps this could not have happened. And it was the prerequisite of later initiatives of a Danish and then a global network of ecovillages.
And it was great for the kids. Ask the children today and they all want to live in co-housing communities. Some already do, although it is as difficult today as it was then to build one, for still in Denmark there is little local encouragement (but also no active resistance), no support from our politicians, and suitable land is scarce. In spite of this there are more than 200 family co-housing groups, many ecovillages and many co-housing groups for seniors. They sell easily.
The children of Hoejtofte have all moved away, but they have kept contact. Many have their own children. We continue to meet once a year – the last three years at the co-housing community of Bakken, where one of the Hoejtofte children now live with her husband and three children. At the last count there were 45 of us, with 28 children under eight years old. We all learned a lot about conflict resolution, about love and solidarity. Co-housing communities offer an alternative way to solve social problems without involving public institutions — and at much lower cost!
Children in other Co-housing & Ecovillages
Although ours was small, I believe that our experience is fairly representative of what children experience in other co-housing communities and ecovillages as well. I have been visiting projects in many countries and find the same patterns. Bakken, a 25-year-old co-housing community has a small gym which is heaven for children. Several places have nurseries and schools in the community. We decided that our children would be strange enough as it was and they joined the local school, which was very good. Knowing so many other adults and being welcomed in so many homes makes children very open and confident. They can move around alone from an early age which makes for more independence. Opportunities are so abundant, and friends so accessible, that they watch less TV than average. They are free to take their own initiatives and create their own games. Relationships to the animal and plant world allow them to gain the respect and understanding of beings other than themselves. You always find some animals (chicken, rabbits, horses, sheep) in communities as they can be looked after in holidays by others.
What is the Situation for Children now in 2007?
Raising children in Western society has not become any easier than in our younger days. All our children now have their own children, so I watch many children grow up. I love to spend time with them and only wish that they could all live in a co-housing project. The women of my children’s generation are under more pressure than before as they all work full-time with professional, responsible jobs. Children are placed in institutions from early on and spend most of the day surrounded by many other children and a lot of noise. Their inner impulses are heavily regulated by what the institution offers and by the shortage of staff. In their free time children watch a lot of television and play electronic games. They often have TVs in their rooms, gameboys and mobile phones. On TV they see the news of war and conflicts, violent cartoons in a constant flow and commercials that aim at turning them into big consumers. The food they get is often junk and fast even while parents struggle to get them to eat properly. Traffic limits their capacity to roam.
I am deeply worried about these conditions under which children grow up today in our country. Employees in Denmark have six weeks’ holiday a year and this is often the only time during which children experience nature in a more direct way. This way of life is not enough to teach children about nature and life and to develop the kind of democratic, self-confident, loving people we need to change the world. The co-housing movement, and subsequently the ecovillage movement, which I believe are really just two variants of the same basic impulse, represent an idea that offers a solution for children. I still think that if for nothing else we should build them for our children. I would say it takes a village and at least 20 parents to raise a child. Co-housing communities and ecovillages have laid a firm foundation for the future and are ready for broader recognition and support as disillusionment with the negative consequences of so-called ‘free markets’ and consumer society spreads.
People are beginning to realise that we must move forward to a sustainable and just global society, based not on the needs of commercial entities and their allies, power-hungry politicians, but on the needs and desires of real people everywhere.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
Many of us feel that our current social system is no longer sustainable, and that more compassionate and just ways of organising are possible, but what are the alternatives? In trying to Design for Sustainability we seek to consciously reinvent cooperative and harmonious ways of living and working together, honing in on aspects such as group development, leadership, conflict resolution, decision-making, creativity, social justice, and communication.
Gaia Education’s online course in Design for Sustainability offers you an opportunity to learn practical effective ways to create the change we all seek in your community. The Social Design dimension of the course starts on 23rd October 2017 and there are a limited amount of places left for this year, so sign up now.
If you wish to join the full Design for Sustainability course, sign up before 21st August to get your early bird 20% discount!
This series of excerpts from the Social Key, a collection of articles collated in the book ‘Beyond You and Me — Inspiration and Wisdom for Building Community’, offer background material to the curriculum of the Social Design dimension of both Gaia Education’s face-to-face EDE and our online GEDS programmes. This series highlights some classic articles from that compendium. Enjoy!
This article features in Beyond You and Me, the first volume of Gaia Education’s ‘Four Keys to Sustainable Communities’ series (officially endorsed by UNESCO). The book is available for purchase here and on Gaia Education’s online shop:
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