Fifteen Berkeley High students gather around Raines Cohen, who is describing life in a cohousing community. For these 11th graders, today’s visit to the Sacramento Street Cohousing is part of a field trip called Shared Solutions set up by Bay Area Green Tours. The students are enrolled in Berkeley High’s Green Academy, which prepares them for college and for green lifestyles and careers.
The group stands on the grassy area shared by cohousing residents, and Cohen tells them that members of the community, made up of 14 households, range in age from 2 to 84. Each family or individual owner has a private living space resembling a town house. And, although each unit includes a kitchen, the group also shares a large community kitchen and dining area, where they come together for three weekly meals. (Cooking, shopping and cleanup chores for the meals are rotated among cohousing members.) Residents also share in the responsibilities of developing and managing the entire property.
“It’s relational; we help take care of each others’ needs,” says Cohen. A student asks what makes the setup sustainable. The answer is many things: the group shares household items like a washer/dryer, bike shed and lawnmower, as well as a vegetable garden. People live comfortably in relatively small spaces because there are common areas that everyone can use, including a guest bedroom. Cohousing neighbors help one another with childcare and transportation, and friendships form.
Cohousing is new to most of the students, who look around with interest and curiosity. Earlier in the day, they visited the American Steel Studios, a creative and affordable work space for artists and innovators. The day’s itinerary—based on the theme of sharing—was planned by Bay Area Green Tours, which creates field trips for adults and kids that focus on solutions related to energy, transportation, water, green building, waste and agriculture. “We organize these experiential tours to show people the innovative work that Bay Area organizations are doing to be responsible stewards of our planet,” says Green Tours Executive Director Marissa LaMagna.
After the cohousing tour, the students head to Susan Silber’s Berkeley home to learn about less formal ways of sharing with neighbors. Silber is an environmental educator who co-founded the group Transition Berkeley, part of an international movement that encourages people to become more self sufficient and less reliant on fossil fuels.
The students picnic in Silber’s backyard and she shows them her abundant vegetable garden and the chickens she shares with two of her neighbors. (They divide up the chores and the eggs.) Silber says that sharing childcare has meant she’s never had to hire a babysitter. The students sample the fava bean dip she’s prepared for them and enthusiastically make lemonade using lemons from her tree and mint from her neighbor’s garden. Silber tells the students about North Berkeley Harvest, a group that will pick the extra fruit on a homeowner’s trees and donate it to local food programs. This idea resonates with 11th grader Natalie Vazquez, who says that the fruit growing in her yard goes to waste. “It would be awesome to share it with the whole community,” she says.
The students aren’t quite ready to dive into cohousing, expressing concerns about a lack of privacy and whether they’d be required to attend group events. Vazquez notes that it would be a nice place to raise a child, and her classmate Destyn Hernandez-Bravo suggests that people can form a community with the neighbors they already have. “You can start doing that right now,” she says.
LaMagna loves the chance to educate young people about greener ways of living and possible career paths. “Our goal for these educational tours,” she says, “is to plant a seed for their future by connecting kids to real-life experiences that allow them to taste, touch and see models for a sustainable future.”
The students leave Silber’s home, but have more to see. Next, they’ll tour the Berkeley Student Food Collective and the Cheeseboard Pizzeria for lessons in running a cooperative and perhaps, a slice or two of pizza.