A few things struck me as I stood between the two serpentine rows of townhouse-sized homes that make up Milagro Cohousing in northwest Tucson.
One was the lush vegetation in the small front yards of the houses, especially on the south side where fruit trees nearly blocked my view of the homes. The other was the footpath that wound between the houses instead of the usual two-lane street and driveways leading to garages.
I was visiting friends at Milagro Cohousing: Bob Gilby, a math teacher at Marana High School, and Donna Branch-Gilby, who is retired and active in the Democratic Party (she recently ran for District 3 County Supervisor). They were showing me around the community they and a group of co-founders completed in 2003, after 10 years of planning and building.
Milagro has its own unique look and feel, but it is part of a growing worldwide movement to create small neighborhoods with a sense of shared community while minimizing the impact on the environment – sort of a merging of the idealism of the ‘60s with the comforts of middle class living. Donna called it “building community, one neighborhood at a time.”
The built space sits on seven of the 43 acres Milagro owns. Cars are parked in a paved lot a few steps away from the homes. Zoning forbids any more houses, so the community has a guaranteed expanse of undisturbed Tucson desert as its back yard.
The center of the community is the Common House. It has a meeting room with a kitchen designed to cook large meals, an adjoining library with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a big screen TV, and a children’s playroom. Families cook a communal meal once a week, neighbors post notices for movies they plan to show on the big screen, and any resident can reserve the space for events.
In the back of the Common House is a shared laundry room with two washers and a dryer (clothes lines are right outside) and a workroom complete with woodworking and welding tools.
Even the front porches on the homes are designed to encourage community. When people sit on their porches, they’re welcoming others to drop by. But the separated homes and back yards give people as much privacy as they want.
The mixture of community and privacy must work well for the people living there, since most are the original owners. “Moving out would be a separation experience,” Bob said.
Bob and Donna’s 1,500-square-foot, three-bedroom home is designed for comfort and energy efficiency. The walls are 15-inch thick adobe which protects the house from sudden temperature shifts. They have large windows on the south side to take maximum advantage of the sun during the winter months. (That explains why the trees are planted on the south side of the walkway. They block the direct rays of the hot summer sun from hitting the north-facing homes.) Solar water heaters and heat pumps increase the energy efficiency. The community is looking into the feasibility of installing solar panels on the rooftops.
Water conservation is a major issue, of course. Milagro residents save water by reusing it. Rain flows from the roofs into large cisterns, and the community’s septic tank drains into a constructed wetlands which reclaims the water. The close-packed desert vegetation, small vegetable gardens and fruit trees in the front yards are the product of this eco friendly water management.
“Others try to get rid of their water,” Bob said. “We retain it and use it, at zero expense.”
Places like Milagro Cohousing aren’t for people who prefer the anonymity of most Tucson neighborhoods where you can use your automatic garage door openers to avoid seeing the people next door. But they can be a comfortable, viable alternative for people seeking more interaction with their neighbors and wanting to live a little lighter on the land.
David Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.