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A New Vision for Neighborhoods That Could Fight Loneliness

These cohousing communities are fighting an epidemic of loneliness with radical neighborliness.

This video was created with Retro Report and support from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. You can view more Retro Report documentaries here.

The U.S is in the middle of an epidemic of loneliness, according to Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy. Experts caution that this loneliness may be as harmful to health as smoking. In a new video with Retro Report, we explore one possible solution: cohousing communities. Cohousing typically involves communities of privately owned single-family houses built around shared spaces. Explore this radical way to be a neighbor in the video above or read the transcript below.


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Kathryn McCamant (co-designer, first U.S. cohousing community): When we're living alone, and now more and more people are working remotely alone, we're not even brushing up against people anymore.

NBC News Reporter: The growing epidemic sweeping the nation that some doctors say is as bad for you as smoking.

Kathryn McCamant: Why is loneliness and social isolation such a problem today? We've really designed community right out of our lives.

NBC News Reporter: More and more people are missing that connection.

Kathryn McCamant: Relationships is what gives life meaning.

NBC News Reporter: So you’re saying loneliness is comparable in terms of a detriment to your health?

Vivek Murthy: Yes.

Text on screen: Nevada City Cohousing, Nevada City, California

Kathryn McCamant: Yeah, check that out. Huh. You can learn so much from children.

Andrew Fitanides: Now, one for Mama. I tried.

Helen Fitanides: We have been here – it'll be coming up on three years. Before moving here, I mean, we had a pretty typical setup at home. We didn't really know our neighbors. Our community was through work or through activities, but not a lot of neighborhood connections going on. Almost none.

Andrew Fitanides: We shared dinner at each other's houses a couple of times, but it didn't go anywhere because we all had the expectation that our lives were separate.

Helen Fitanides: Yeah, I think it's hard to make community happen when you have the single-family home setup, like the expectations of that kind of neighborhood.

Kathryn McCamant: I got interested in cohousing originally because I saw it as a solution to my life. I was an architecture student in Denmark looking at – how do you have a family and a kid and a profession? And I just – the old models weren't working. So as part of our class's study of housing types, we visited a number of cohousing communities, and I was like, wow, this seems, like, so reasonable. The physical design is really something that you could duplicate pretty easily. The cars are at the periphery, and then you walk in. And the spaces between the houses are people-oriented: they’re gardens, kids are playing, you're talking to neighbors.

The turning point for me was realizing that the Danish model was something that could be adapted to the United States because, for better or worse, it's a home ownership model. We didn't have to change American policy. We didn't have to create a new federal housing program. It was people coming together, building villages. It's like, well, we could do that.

Kathryn McCamant’s neighbor (in the cohousing garden): Taking out the trash.

Kathryn McCamant (speaking to the neighbor’s child): Yeah, hey you found a –

Kathryn McCamant: So, we really manage the community, right? We don't have a property manager. We're doing it. We're actually creating that space in between, where people run into each other. And it really is true that community happens on the pathways. All sorts of magical things happen out there.

Andrew Fitanides: It’s like community living, but very palatable to like my American upbringing, where we each have our own kitchens and our own houses and there's no cars on the inside and everybody lives right next to each other, but not too close. It’s just a perfect fit for me.

Andrew Fitanides (speaking to his daughter in the garden): Ah, oh, so high. It looks like it’s above the clouds. You’re not going to eat that one?

Andrew Fitanides: It's been really lovely. It's transformative to me. That's not what I had growing up. When things are harder, that's when you need the contact most. That's when I need the contact most, is when I'm feeling low and if I have, you know, friends I have here will notice when I'm not feeling well, and so it's like an instant safety net. I hadn't thought about that before, that some of my isolation as a kid has translated into this choice now.

Helen Fitanides: I don't know that I thought a lot about community and the importance of community until I tried to picture having a family and what that was going to look like.

Andrew Fitanides (speaking to his daughter in the garden): I think that’s called a wire.

Helen Fitanides: One of the many things I love about thinking about June growing up here is that she won't just have us as role models. She will have many adults in her life. And when we screw up, she will have aunties and uncles and other grandparents to, like, help her through hard times that maybe we're not as well equipped to help her through.

Jasper Travers: You know, college, your social life is huge. You move off campus, it's still huge. You're around a bunch of people your age, and then you move into a house somewhere. It's a lot harder to make friends, especially not right next to you. And then you hear about cohousing or something like that and you know, you'll know everybody within, you know, like your radius right there, 100 yards and you're guaranteed to know them.

Kathryn McCamant: We've been convinced that we should buy as big a house as we can afford because it's a better investment, or that's the American dream. But I think people are surprised when they get the American dream, they can afford the American dream, how unsatisfying it can be. We're not facing the reality of who America is today. You know, it's hard to find a new single-family house that's less than 2,000 square feet. But the fastest growing American household is a single person living alone at all ages, at every generation. And the whole world is going this direction. So, the demographic issues that Americans are facing are actually worldwide. We've really designed, sort of, social connection out of our lives.

Oren Di On: I've definitely experienced, like, isolation, especially during Covid. Most of my friends live out in the woods or there's no one for miles. They don't even see another person until they go to school or work or come into town. I mean, a lot of kids just don't have any close interactions, even in their home or feel like most of their interactions are fake or just online and don't really – don’t really go below the surface.

Marc Schulz (co-director, Harvard Study of Adult Development, the world’s longest scientific study of happiness): I've been involved in the Harvard Study of Adult Development now for 20 years and there's a really simple conclusion that we've drawn from all that research. Relationships keep us happier and healthier throughout the lifespan. Cohousing is one kind of extreme example of trying to get people together in an intentional way to build a community. But I think what that makes clear is that we're at a point where people are beginning to recognize the importance of social connection in their life and they're searching for it. Loneliness – that perception that I'm alone – is tied to physical health problems. The actual risk associated with loneliness is on the same order as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being obese. So this is a major public health problem. But there's a lot of attention being put into thinking about solutions. And there are clever ideas happening all around the world.

Dragana Curovic (project manager, SällBo Cohousing, Helsingborg, Sweden): SällBo is actually a combination of two words in Swedish, which is sällskap, and boende, which means common living. SällBo, sällskap boende. That's the uniqueness of SällBo: that we are not trying to find homogenic demography in the house. We are, on the contrary, trying to find so different people as possible. We wanted to show that even though you would never dream to share or to live nearby people that are so different from you, it can go well and you can have a even more interesting life than that otherwise.

Dragana Curovic (in a SällBo Cohousing common area): This is the silversmith I was talking about.

Pelle Jönsson: I’m a captain, sea captain, yeah. But now I'm a silversmith.

Johanna Adsersen: I lived in a student dorm before, then I moved to, like, my own apartment. It was so lonely and so boring. And so I found this place and it’s super, super fun. Always have, like, people around, and so on. Super fun.

Johanna Adsersen (working on a puzzle with a friend): I’ve been sitting with this for, like, three weeks.

Friend: Wow. Has anyone helped you out:

Johanna Adsersen: It's me and Allona. Allona, she is very good at doing puzzles.

Hanna Holmqvist: We met here at SällBo and we were neighbors, and then we started hanging out more. I don't think we would have met if we had not moved to SällBo.

Kathryn McCamant: The oldest communities are now over 30 years old, and we've seen that they do sustain themselves, that they do attract new people coming in at all different ages. There's about 180 cohousing communities across the United States today. There's growing numbers of cohousing communities in Canada, in England, in the Netherlands and Denmark. They continue to grow.

The number one thing I was after was proving there were people who wanted this. And I feel like that's what we have really proven over these last 30 years. So now the discussion is, how can we make it more diverse, more diverse economically, more diverse racially and culturally? What's possible out there?

It's not for everybody, but people do live longer when they're not isolated. We need to be very deliberate about the relationships we build and invest time in those.

It's not going to happen without deliberate efforts. That's what we have found out, right? It used to happen naturally. But it doesn't happen naturally in most places today. If you don't know who your neighbors are, you don't have any place to start.

Kit R. Roane is a producer at Retro Report. He has worked as a journalist and documentary photographer for more than 20 years, covering local, national and foreign assignments for a variety of publications, including The New York Times and U.S. News & World Report.

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