Reinventing community

A collection of first hand
experiences from inside
cohousing’s unique neighborhoods,
offering a glimpse at the personalities
and dynamics that make them work.
The first “report from the field”
about how cohousing is working,
written and photographed by
people who live there.


“The folks David Wann profiles in Reinventing Community are the vanguard for the future — they’re learning today, often by painful and sometimes humorous trial and error, what it takes to go beyond the solitary and alienated survival tactics of modern urban life to the full flowering of the human spirit of tomorrow, in community.” ~ Eric Utne, founder of Utne magazine and editor of Cosmo Doogood’s Urban Almanac.

“Reinventing Community is an accessible and inspiring book, a rich tapestry of voices and insights from modern pioneers who are creating human scale villages, friendly to people and the sustainability of life on this planet.” ~ Duane Elgin, author of Voluntary Simplicity

What you’ll find in this anthology:

Stories that mainstream Americans, as well as culture shifters, can relate to:

Whether it’s photovoltaics on the common house roof in Davis, CA, community activism to shut down a pesticide-happy strawberry farmer on adjacent Oceano, CA land, the offer of a kidney in a Boston-area community; a wacky way of celebrating rather than competing at a Golden, CO garage sale; the annual retreat at a New York cohousing community; an all-African American neighborhood in downtown Chicago; an existing neighborhood-turned-cohousing, also in Davis, CA (by UC students;) an operating farm in Vermont – an off-the-pipe village that designed 26 computer-controlled compost toilets into its village infrastructure – and they’re working; the celebration of marriages, deaths, graduations, births, promotions, new books; and the creation of neighborhood cultures, complete with community traditions — cohousing is establishing itself as a proven component of new urbanism.

Common meals created by teams of chefs; community gardens, pedestrian walkways, labyrinths; carsharing; bicycling and skiing outings; kids who are especially articulate in school, and whose teachers visit cohousing to find out why; cohousing residents who become politically active (city council, etc.) because they’ve learned how to interact with a group;

An interview with Chuck Durrett and Kathryn McCamant, who “imported” the idea from Denmark in the 1980s, and a vicarious design workshop led by a cohousing architect in which a group decides what their neighborhood will look like–


I believe the mini-movement of cohousing is partly a response to a perceived loss of trust and individual control that’s becoming pervasive in our world. People gravitate toward do-it-ourselves communities because they sense they can be better heard and understood in a place that strives for cooperation and support. They can be neighbors with others who want to help put the pieces back together. When I first joined the group that would become Harmony Village, my old Subaru sported the familiar bumper sticker “Cohousing: Changing the World, One Neighborhood at a Time,” and I’m still convinced that the reinvention of community can bring individual empowerment as well as cooperative action. The world is sorely in need of focused, nonpartisan cooperation right now. Why not deliberately create neighborhoods that are safer, friendlier, and healthier? Is there a downside to this?

The reason cohousing fuels my own burning soul is that many of its experiments are extremely valuable to a society so distracted by materialism and so shell-shocked by the frantic American lifestyle. What kind of experiments am I talking about? Consensus decision-making; participatory design; alternative sources of energy; alternative sources of information; shared resources and designs that reduce each person’s ecological footprint; aging gracefully and vigorously; neighborhood activism in surrounding towns and communities; and collaborative management of neighborhood resources, to name just a few. In general, residents of cohousing are living actively rather than passively.

The underlying intent of cohousing might be seen as the deliberate substitution of real experiences for canned ones. Cohousing at its best provides a structure for learning to trust other people and for learning to be unselfish, at least in theory.

But you know what? Cohousing isn’t Utopia, as you’ll see in some of the stories included here. For example, the process of codesigning a neighborhood involves many, many meetings, some of them very emotional. Children begin to role-play going to meetings as a way of life, and outside friends of cohousing participants begin to suspect insanity. But the dividends begin to accrue as future members start to know and rely on each other, learning how to create and maintain a mutually beneficial neighborhood. By the time houses begin to rise up from construction sites, cohousers are ripe and ready for life in cohousing.

And then other challenges — lots of them — pop up like jack-in-the-box puppets. What happens if the community won’t let your free-range cat roam the neighborhood? What if one of the neighbors is “difficult,” a carrier of stress? What if nobody wants to do the work required for the maintenance of commonly held property?



  affluenza, n. – a painful, contagious,
socially transmitted condition
of overload, debt, anxiety, and
waste resulting from the
dogged pursuit of more


Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic has easily passed the test of time and become an American classic, the book that raised our crisis of consumption to national awareness. ~ Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature

The authors have packed their book with stunning facts, searing insights – and they point out a path forward. ~ Fast Company Magazine


In 1951, Americans sat together with their neighbors, laughing at Red Skelton. In 1985, we still watched Family Ties as a family. But by 1995, each member of a family often watched his or her own TV, as isolation and passivity became a way of life. What began as a quest for the good life in the suburbs degenerated into private consumption splurges that separated one neighbor from another, and one family member from another. We began to feel lost in our own neighborhoods—it wasn’t just the Desperate Housewives who were ill at ease. Huge retailers took advantage of the confusion, expanding to meet our demand for cheap underwear, hardware, and software.

The more we chased bargains and the paychecks that bought them, the more vitality slipped away from our towns. Now, if we want to experience Main Street—the way it was in the good old days—we travel to Disney World, to a faux community where smiling shopkeepers, the slow pace, and the quaintness remind us that our real communities were once close-knit and friendly.

How will Disney portray the good old days of the suburbs, in future exhibits? Will it orchestrate background ambience—highway traffic, leaf blowers, and beeping garbage trucks—to make it more realistic? Will it recreate gridlock as bumper-to-bumper cars, complete with cell phones to tell our families we’ll be late for the next ride? Will our tour of the “gated community” require more tickets than rides through the “inner city” do? Will Disney hire extras to play the roles of other suburbanites who can’t drive—elderly, disabled, and low-income residents, peeking out from behind living-room curtains?



Simple Prosperity

Simple Prosperity explores
17 non-monetary forms 
wealth, mapping a lifestyle
that can provide twice
the satisfaction for
half the resources we now use.


“David Wann has woven together all the right stuff to make a compelling and appealing case for the abundance of enough and the poverty of more.” ~ Vicki Robin, coauthor Your Money or Your Life, co-founder of Conversation Cafés

“If ever there was a right book at the right time, Simple Prosperity is it. ~ Lester R. Brown, President, Earth Policy Institute, author of Plan B 3.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble

“This book is full of wisdom for real living, and it will help you find a kind of wealth that’s woven right within the fabric of everyday life.” ~ Sarah Susanka, author of The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters and the Not So Big House

“Dave Wann’s recipes from his own experience in Simple Prosperity are a breath of fresh air, and just what we need for a saner future. They include ideas, sound research and down-to-earth advice we can all use. This book is also much more: a friendly, personal guidebook for living a more enjoyable, healthy, loving life.” ~ Hazel Henderson, author of Ethical Markets: Growing The Green Economy

“Simple Prosperity reads like a well-loved novel, engaging and educational. David Wann offers creative solutions to the challenges of over-consumption and makes it a thoroughly enjoyable read.” ~ Jill Cloutier, Producer, Sustainable World Radio, KCSB




Last Rites For a Used-Up American Dream

As we listen to reports about climate change or the rising prices of food, oil, and water, my friends and I often ask each other, “When will we make the fundamental changes that will make our lives less destructive and less fearful?” Some suggest that our addiction is so strong that we won’t change until we absolutely have to, when global catastrophe strikes and resource prices spiral out of most peoples’ reach. My own comments usually go in two directions: first, if we perceive that life can be better without the detours and dysfunction, we may decide to change our priorities in this decade, and become historical superheroes! (This is the good news). Second, (the bad news) we are in fact already experiencing catastrophe, most easily perceived regionally.  For example, some eastern cities ran out of landfill space years ago and are now begging neighboring states to take their waste. (New York City alone ships 600 tractor-trailers out of state every single day.) Cities from Sacramento, California to Sydney, Australia are running out of potable water supplies and a new industry is emerging: the tug-boating of huge plastic bags containing up to 5 million gallons of “bottled” water from water-rich countries like Turkey to arid ones like Cyprus. Already, insurance companies refuse to provide coverage to residents of coastal, hurricane-prone areas; meanwhile, many inland areas are experiencing record-setting, regional catastrophes like flashfloods, forest fires, drought, and plummeting water tables – all related to our lifestyle and its side effects.

In the U.S., Venezuela, the U.K., Norway and about eight other major oil-producing countries, oil production has already reached maximum output and begun to decline, forever. Even in nations where production is still on the upswing, major fields are declining. Back in the 1940s, the United States was the Saudi Arabia of the world, producing about two-thirds of the world’s oil; brashly, we built our economy around the idea of limitless supplies. Today, U.S. output contributes less than one-tenth of global production from roughly 3 percent of the world’s reserves. Our fields are played out.

We already see what regional catastrophe looks like in places like New Orleans, with its one million environmental refugees; in famine-stricken Africa, where millions have died from civil war and lack of clean water; and the great plains of China, where chronic dust storms turn day into night and farmland into desert. But it’s also true that we can prevent the holocaust of planetary catastrophe if we read the persistent warning signs, stay calm, and take strategic steps to create a more efficient, less consumptive world. Consider this book to be last rites for an era dying of affluenza, as well as a birth announcement for a brilliant new economy that historians may refer to as a just-in-time Renaissance. Long live our emerging, moderate lifestyle, rich in green technologies, relevant information, human relationships, great health, and magnificent art!

In her work on the process of dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance as the five stages that precede death.  Regarding the passing of our excessive way of life, I’d guess that we Americans are collectively in the bargaining phase, though of course some individuals are still in denial and others are quite angry – about the price of gasoline, for example. Many others are moving through depression about the scope of the problem. Fortunately, many have come to accept that changes are not only necessary but can be quite positive. Why carry the heavy baggage of over-consumption? These front-runners have already rolled up their sleeves and are ready to do whatever it takes to change the world for the better. Indeed, our future may rest on their good energies and sense of hope.


It’s not that money itself is a bad thing. A person’s skills, talents, and good energies often result in monetary as well as other types of rewards. That’s great. But the real value lies beneaththe money – in those things we crave instinctually. What money is worth ultimately depends on how it is earned, and how it is spent. When it becomes the central focus in a person’s life, the resulting imbalance may well create poverty in other areas, reducing our odds of being truly happy. For example, a person may be poor in available time, or else have lots of time but not know what to do with it. He may lack meaningful connections with people, be culturally clueless, or lack vitality and playfulness. Natural systems may be less abundant as a result of that individual’s business decisions and excessive purchases; or the community he lives in may lose the benefit of his creative, civic energy – all because the individual is off-balance – like most of us.

One executive who owns a global company with 300,000 employees confided that people “at the top” are often extremely lonely because they are suspicious of others.  They think anyone who approaches them in friendship does so because of their power and only wants to take advantage of them. (4) Another businessman reported that right after closing a big deal, it felt like his life might improve, forever. But, alas, the next deal hovered over his desk, and he calculated that he had “about seven minutes” of elation.

On the other hand, intrinsic goals like personal growth/self-acceptance, community involvement, and a sense of vitality deliver continuing satisfaction.  Psychologists like Kasser, Ryan and Deci aren’t suggesting that we live like monks. Kasser, for example, lives on a small, lush farm in central Illinois and has a great quality of life (without a TV!) He told me that what makes him happy are things like teaching his son how to swim, and spending quality time with his wife after the kids are in bed. Tim Kasser reminds us that it’s not stuff, stocks and bonds, or the horsepower of one’s vehicle that provides true satisfaction, but how well we meet our psychological and physical needs.

One day back in my college years, I noticed I’d been working for a few hours on a poem and thought it was only a few minutes. As opposed to the schoolwork I was required to do, the writing was something I did because I loved it. It was a fascinating puzzle, and the more I focused, the faster the time flew by. I suspected back then that writing could be something I might do for a “living.”  I think my instincts were guiding me towards something that might be of use. (I’ll leave that up to you.)

I’ve had many similar experiences before and since then, and a few years ago, I found an explanation for what I often experience in writing, gardening, playing music, or hiking. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (try saying that name three times backwards) calls it “flow.” He describes this phenomenon as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Csikszentmihalyi’s research indicates that the process of an activity can be more important than the end product. When we are fully in the process, fully focused on a task, we feel alive. The activity becomes its own reward. After a flow experience, we are not only refreshed, but we’ve increased our skills, sensitivity, and self-confidence. We are more “complex,” to use Csikszentmihalyi’s term. (It seems we are hard-wired to improve ourselves!)  He’s been researching “optimal experience” at the University of Chicago since the 1970s, and has compiled a large data set involving people from all walks of life. Basically his technique, the “experience sampling method,” (ESM) catches people in the middle of their daily activities and asks them to record what they are doing and how much they enjoy it.  When they are signaled at random a certain number of times during the day, participants record in a workbook if they are in a condition of flow, or something far less.

To be genuinely happy, observes Csikszentmihalyi, we need to actively create our experiences and our lives, rather than passively letting media and marketers create it for us. The pathway to greatest happiness goes beyond mindless consuming to the heightened, enlightened realm of mindful challenge, where we are engaged, connected, and alive. Csikszentmihalyi’s distinction between pleasure and enjoyment suggests that many of us are settling for Grade B happiness – a package of mind dulling pleasures – rather than reaching for more intrinsic flow experiences. His ESM research indicates that when we challenge ourselves to experience or produce something new; to see things in a different light; and in general, to become actively engaged in what we’re doing, true enjoyment transforms moments of our lives from the routine to the extraordinary.  The great news is that anyone can do it, with activities that are self-determined.

From the Chapter “Cultural Prosperity”

The heart and soul of a culture are its values, and how it meets them. Core values — expressed in words like diversity, moderation, responsibility, respect, durability, equality, quality, trust, prevention, care, and regeneration — translate directly into tangible goals like “clean energy,” “great neighborhoods” and “wellness.” In turn, these goals can drive specific policies and actions like “expand the use of public transit,” or “reduce the consumption of cigarettes, gasoline, and saturated fats.”

When we ask ourselves if we’re meeting our real needs with a given product, we start to understand that it’s not the stuff we want, but the values the stuff is trying to satisfy. We buy a sporty car to attract a partner so we won’t feel lonely. We eat a quart of ice cream in one sitting, but the real hunger is for something worthwhile to be doing.

The secret of success at the national and global scale is not really a secret; it’s in plain sight, and it’s called moderation. We’ll get more value from less stuff and better stuff, by tapping into riches like quality products; brilliant design and redesign of cities and towns; cultural and aesthetic greatness; curiosity and fascination about how nature really works; cooperation with co-workers and neighbors; and generosity, just because it feels right. We’ve always loved the idea of rising to the occasion, of being heroes in the last minutes of a game. We’ve practiced heroism for many thousand years in our myths and scriptures. We’re ready, in these most critical times, to continue the transition — individually and culturally — from the “love of consumption” to the “love of life.”

17 Powerful Assets Based on Real Wealth

  • Taking Stock: How Foresight Can Cut Our Losses
  • Evolutionary Income: An Instinct for Happiness
  • Personal Growth: Creating a Rich Life Story
  • Mindful Money: More Value from Better Stuff
  • The Bonds of Social Capital: The More We Spend, the More We Have
  • Time Affluence: How to Save It and Savor It
  • Stocks of Wellness: Preventive Pathways to Health
  • The Currency of Nature: A Living Endowment
  • Precious Work and Play: Going With the Flow
  • The Real Wealth of Neighborhoods: Designing for People, Not Cars
  • Higher Returns on Investment: Twice the Satisfaction for Half the Resources
  • Energy Savings: Finessing the Carbon Conundrum
  • The Benefits of Right-Sizing: Better Than Better Homes and Gardens
  • Trimming the Fat: Farewell to Fossil Food
  • Infinite Information: How to Channel its Flow
  • Historical Dividends: New Rules for An Old Game
  • Cultural Prosperity: The Earth as a Sacred Garden

Study and Discussion Guide for Simple Prosperity

  1. What are the most significant environmental effects of over-consumption?
  2. Using tools such as government policies, green design, and changes in cultural direction, how can Americans achieve greater satisfaction but use fewer resources and generate fewer environmental impacts?
  3. As ingenious and economically successful as the free market is and has been, it has inherent, critical weaknesses, some of which have were exposed in the economic recession that began in 2008.  Name three shortcomings of the free market as currently practiced. Why is the Gross Domestic Product a poor measurement of progress and success? Explain what can be done to give the free market a conscience.
  4. What does “story” mainstream America follow?  How can we quickly revise the story to provide a happy ending by directly providing the things we need most: trust, security, social standing/social connections, a sense of meaning, nutritious food, clean water, and a stable climate? Is there another way to define the “success?”
  5. What are some measurable health and environmental benefits of having strong relationships and more discretionary time? Name three tangible benefits of social connections and three benefits of “time affluence.”
  6. Drawing from your own experience and the material in Simple Prosperity, what kind of activities provide the greatest sense of engagement and “flow” for you? Explain how being active rather than passive in your life can reduce your ecological footprint.
  7. What kind of jobs will help steer the economy towards sustainability? What kind of investments?
  8. What makes a great neighborhood, and how can a great neighborhood meet human and environmental needs directly?  List five tangible benefits of living in a sustainable community.
  9. What five changes in the way you eat have the highest potential for reducing greenhouse gases?  How can policy innovations help individuals have a healthier, less expensive diet that also requires less fossil fuel than the average American currently uses?
  10. What are the key characteristics of the “cultural creatives” discussed in the final chapter of Simple Prosperity?  How is life in Western Europe different from life in America? Do you think U.S. policies and cultural trends will become more like those in Europe? If so, how could these changes reduce both consumption and environmental impacts?