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Gated communities and the legacy of the kollektivhus | Remote Swap

I grew up as the kind of person who scoffed at country clubs and gated communities. Scoffing is actually a generously polite description of my feelings on the matter. I viewed the type of people who are members of country clubs as part of the problem. 

When I thought of people who chose to live in the suburbs I assumed they were misinformed at best. When I happened to end up in the suburbs I made frequent remarks about how I didn’t understand how they could stand living a life where they were completely reliant on a car. Most of the time I spent in the suburbs was with my family and without a car, which encouraged my relatives to treat me as if I was still 15. This certainly didn’t help things.

And then I accidentally spent three weeks in Gallagher’s Canyon, a golf course community in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.

When I arranged to house sit in Kelowna, my host told me the street name, which put me a about twenty-minutes from downtown on foot. As someone who walks a lot, this seemed like a good fit — if I’m right downtown it can be a challenge to focus on work; if I’m too far from town it sets a high bar for what seems worth doing.

A day or two before I arrived, my host offered to pick me up at the airport and said she’d leave me her car. During the incredibly beautiful drive from the airport, it quickly became clear that I had been mistaken about the location. 

sunset walk in gallagher's canyonWhen we arrived, I realized I was staying in a gated community. On a golf course. Which appeared to be a retirement community. There are two streets in Kelowna with the same name and, of course, the private road was not the default search result.

I wasn’t going to back out of the sit, especially not when we pulled up to a lovely home in the mountains. Whatever skepticism I had vanished with the view. She showed me the trail behind the house where I could hike with the dog off-leash and chatted about her work with the local trail conservancy. We had a nice dinner together at the clubhouse, falling into easy conversation. In the morning we returned to the airport so she could catch her flight. I had a good laugh as I pulled her Lincoln SUV, which she had described as “nothing fancy,” into the gates of the golf course development. My temporary home.

My work focuses on understanding how people navigate caregiving, so while being stuck in a retirement community hadn’t been my goal, I was happy with the opportunity I’d stumbled into.

Towards the end of my stay I was re-reading Going Solo and Klinenberg’s description of Färdknäppen struck me. Färdknäppen is an apartment building in Stockholm designed to meet the needs of “empty nesters” — single adults, from around the age of 40 and up. The apartments are private, but there is a communal dining room and activities. Participation in  certain aspects of building life is obligatory. The people who choose to live in Färdknäppen and the seven buildings that have since copied its system have opted into semi-communal living, though, so this isn’t much of an issue.

I had expected the people at Gallagher’s Canyon to be snooty. First off, it’s a development arranged around a golf course and golf is a sport I associate with white men who dine on corporate accounts. Secondly, everything is impeccably maintained. It’s not a brand new development, but the only hint is that the street trees have reached a respectable size. 

Membership for the golf club is $2,500 a year, although there are lower rates for players under 30 and a discounted rate for couples. Residents aren’t required to be members of the golf club. The club and restaurant are open to the public if non-members are interested in playing or enjoying a meal. The golf club is owned separately and predates the development.

Strata fees for residents are not set at an exclusive level, “around $160.00 – $180.00 for single family homes – townhomes are more expensive because their insurance and landscaping is included” and those include use of community amenities.

It turns out that it’s not officially a retirement community. Realtors claim that there are plenty of young families. I didn’t go door to door, but I didn’t see anyone who looked like they might be under 50. I suspect that I, at 35, attracted extra notice from the neighbors on this account.

They didn’t interrogate me, like I’ve experienced in plenty of other neighborhoods that don’t often get visitors (or who are on the hunt for illegal AirBnB guests). I was approached with a friendly curiosity. Many of the people I chatted with knew the dog I was watching by name and asked after my host, understanding that I must be her house sitter.

Most of the neighbors were stylish and impeccably dressed, as if they were in the middle of a stock photo shoot for active retirees. But others, in Canadian fashion, could have fit in equally well shotgunning beers in front of a trailer in the wilderness. No one seemed to care. 

Gallaghers Canyon Community golf courseAs soon as you enter the development, you’ll notice how varied the homes were. This is no cookie-cutter development with the same four models, each is a custom build and they vary dramatically in size. The 2.5 bedroom I was staying in was on the more modest size, as some homes were huge and had sweeping canyon views. When I pulled up the real estate listings, I was surprised to discover that there was an even bigger variety — there are also condos, townhomes, and duplexes. The price range is correspondingly wide and homes inside the development aren’t noticeably more expensive than comparable homes nearby. The first homes were built in 1993, but some are only a few years old.

As a golf course development, everything is designed to be navigable by golf cart. The smaller streets don’t have sidewalks, but they’re quiet residential streets where cars are going slowly, with an eye out for pedestrians and golf carts. None of the homes have front steps and plenty of them are on a single level. This makes it easy for those with mobility issues. There are no steps and no steep inclines — a real feat in Kelowna. People who struggle walking distances can ride their golf cart around without getting a second glance and anyone using a wheelchair can enjoy smooth, safe pathways.

The golf course has several washrooms, which makes going out for a walk much easier for people with MS, IBS, and other conditions that keep people wary to stray far from a bathroom. The pools, gym, and sauna are helpful amenities for residents recovering from injury or striving to stay fit. 

The restaurant is open for all three meals during the golf season. It’s closed in November and then open for dinner the rest of the year. It was quiet when we went for dinner, just the remains of an earlier party and a few regulars. I might have been the only one there who didn’t know the name of the staff working that night. It was too chilly for the patio, but the dining room still had a clear view of the sun setting over Kelowna, with Lake Okanagan and the mountains beyond.

The golf club hosts a steady stream of events, including things like a women in business networking event and a golf cart drive-in movie night, and has regular classes. The community amenities are extensive: indoor pool, spa and fitness centre, woodshop, pottery studio, art room, game room, meeting rooms, library with books and DVDs, lounge, and tennis courts. Each time I walked the dog past the clubhouse complex there was a bustle inside. I’d opted not to sign up for free guest access, since usually having access to a gym just means I feel a vague guilt for not going.

When I realized that I had been wrong about where I was staying, I was relieved to know I would have a car. In a car the drive to downtown Kelowna took only 15 minutes, most of it on roads winding gently through vineyards and orchards. Even though the location felt very remote to me — a gated community bisected by a road that soon turned to gravel, surrounded on all by protected forest — there was bus service that would get you downtown in 45 minutes.

I hardly left the canyon, though. My host had mentioned how there was a trail that led all the way to the lake and other trails throughout the canyons. She gave me a few navigation tips, since I had no phone reception, and I spent most of my free time there exploring the canyons.

Very quickly I came to know the neighbors with dogs and to recognize the joggers and hikers. When I hiked out to the trails marked clearly on the park maps — the trestle trail, most notably — I heard the same foreign languages you hear at any national park. But the trails that weren’t mapped were locals-only and I ran into the same people more often than not.

Not everyone lived in the gated community, but hiking dissolved whatever divide there might be between then. People said they’d left the Vancouver area to escape the discomfort of increasing diversity in major Canadian cities (“diversity’s great on paper, but less great when you find you have nothing in common with your neighbors”), but the pull factor was greater. They were drawn to the Okanagan Valley because they wanted to be close to nature, to keep horses, to have easy access to skiing, and have a quieter life.

I didn’t meet anyone who was actually from Kelowna, which makes sense for a city that’s still small even after it’s doubled in size since the 70s. But most of the people I spoke with had been there for around a dozen years, if not longer. They had grown up within a few hours drive and set out to escape the city or chase a dream of a different lifestyle. The Gallagher’s Canyon development wasn’t their first home in the area. Something had happened and they realized it was either time to downsize or would be soon — a lot of people had kept horses or had sizabe properties in their first home in the area — and the development let them stay in their existing community. They could still ride, but they didn’t have to muck out the stable every morning.

It was funny to realize it, but the residents of the canyon were attracted to the idea of a walkable community:

“My wife and I have been living here in Gallagher’s since 1998. We moved here when we were in our late 40’s so we have ‘matured’ along with the development. I couldn’t think of a better place to live. We use most of the facilities and ammenities on a regular basis. I challenge anybody to show me a better gym or pool that we can simply walk down the street to. We are not golfers but we do enjoy the idea of walking down the street to enjoy Tuesday pasta night at the golf clubhouse.”

Plenty of people seemed to be commuting to work each morning, but once they were home there was no need to drive anywhere. They could walk to the clubhouse or take the golf cart. They didn’t want to live downtown or share walls with anyone, but the development provided all the perks of downtown life with the best part of living in the woods.

Gallaghers Canyon Community homes along a water feature with layer cake hill in the distanceWhile Kelowna had seen tremendous growth in recent years and there were mid-rise developments changing the skyline, no one referenced this directly. Instead, they mentioned that they were glad to see more young people choosing Kelowna and more career-track jobs coming to the area. Their adult children, who’d spent their high school years in Kelowna, had recently moved back or were on the hunt for a job that would let them make the move home.

Kelowna has seen a greater percentage population growth than Vancouver, but Kelowna’s growth is coming from within Canada, while Vancouver is pulling people from around the world. Vancouver’s visible minority population is above 50% and the suburb of Surrey is nearly 58%. In Kelowna, over 82% of the residents are white.

Setting aside the big picture issues, it’s easy to feel at home when surrounded by people who look like you, grew up in the same area, and share the same interests. People in the development were actively opting in to a specific lifestyle. Back in the cities where they’d grown up, the norms were changing around them and didn’t feel like they fit.

One resident posted on a message board to confirm that, yes, the development was home to families and had been since the beginning:

“My husband, son and I moved to Gallagher’s in 1999. Our son was 9 and my husband was in his 30’s. – so not older people.

At that time the neighborhood was growing and there were at least 8 -10 families with children, mostly attending SE Kelowna elementary school – one of the best schools in Kelowna, and then they moved on to the KLO Middle school and then the new KSS high school. These schools are fine educational facilities that served our children well.

As our community continued to grow over the past 13 years, there are numerous families with children ranging from new borns to College age and boomerang kids (returning home to live with their parents after finishing college or attending UBCO or Okanagan College which are only a short bus ride from us – the bus stops at our gate).”

It seems reasonable that in a community that keeps its residents, families with young children who originally moved in are now empty nesters. However, it’s notable that there are no amenities specifically for children, like on-site daycare or even a playground.

The complaints I heard seemed to capture the shock of moving from a home in the country to an HOA/Strata community: laundry lines are a no-no, as is storing your boat in the driveway or turning on anything with an engine past a certain hour. People who don’t use the amenities bristle at paying for them and it’s forgotten that the streets are private, thus sewer pipes, water pipes, and snow clearance is all part of the fee and not paid for by taxes.

I arrived in the canyon just as golf season was ending and the restaurant was about to close for November. Much of Kelowna is seasonal. My host bought her home from a couple who used it as a vacation home. You could easily treat a home in Gallagher’s Canyon as you would any other home, never getting to know your neighbors. But the people who stay share the bond of people who live year-round in seasonal towns. When the seasonal attractions close, residents turn to the community center for something to do.

In The Lonely American, the Olds bemoan how shoveling driveways used to be an act of neighborly camaraderie and now it’s morphed into paid labor. While there is plenty of neighborly chit-chat, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone in the development shoveling their own drive. I did see a few people putting up their own Christmas lights and doing some end-of-season gardening, so perhaps it does happen. The vast majority of homes are visited by landscapers and house cleaners.

Anyone who has ever hired a handyman, landscaper, or house cleaner can tell you how much of a challenge it can be. While accessing these services requires the ability to pay for them, living in a community like Gallagher’s provides you with neighbors to make personal recommendations and introductions. Service providers benefit from clients whose homes are close to each other and who are beholden to the same bylaws. Neighbors and paid service providers together form a net of people to provide support and notice when things are amiss.

If someone needs support to stay in their home, be it during a brief recovery or as part of a slow decline, neighbors are there to visit, help with small tasks, and recommendations for trusted service providers. Even the most modest homes have space for live-in support, with layouts ensuring maximum privacy.

By the time I landed in Kelowna, I had spent 22 months seeking out cohousing communities. It became a formal project when the recurring themes of my life — care work, the sharing economy, family and community structures — fit together during a stay with the Jesus People (JPUSA) in Chicago. In my mind the links between the communal living of JPUSA and Färdknäppen were clear, even if Färdknäppen was secular.

Further, in my mind JPUSA shared a great deal with my father’s community in Ocean Grove, NJ. Ocean Grove began as a religious revival and has long been known as a naturally occurring retirement community (NORC).

I could see the commonalities between these communities, even though JPUSA required all members to give up all of their privately held assets in order to become a member, while Ocean Grove consisted of homes that easily go into the millions of dollars. I understood how care work and community function in a religious community.

I had spent so much time pointing out how capitalism was opening new markets by monetizing our family and community ties that I had been rendered unable to see that a gated community aspired to the same purpose as any other intentional community.

And how well it worked.

As I read more about Färdknäppen, I was surprised to learn that Sweden’s first kollektivhus, built in 1935, employed staff to eliminate the need for any household labor on the part of residents. It featured a communal kitchen with dumbwaiters to deliver prepared meals to individual apartments. Staff was there to clean apartments, wash laundry, and watch over children when parents were busy. If you are assuming that this service staff was mostly female, you are correct.

That first kollektivhus on John Ericssonsgatan 6 was built when Sweden was just developing the idea of Folkhemmet, now at the core of its national identity. In 1935 it was a country struggling with poverty and class divides. Criticism of the project didn’t see this as radical; instead they warned that residents would be reduced to cogs in the machine. Their vision of collective living, of freedom for women to pursue careers, began as an enclave of intellectuals hiring working-class women to labor in place of their wives. The ‘collective’ was not laboring together as a community, it was pooling their resources to make outsourcing this labor more economical and practical. 

When I think of collective living, I think of religious communes and radical experiments. I imagine communities that are outliers in a sea of American isolation and independence.

How funny to discover that the gated communities of North America — so easily held up as an example of conformity, environmental waste, xenophobia, and privilege — are perfect examples of collective living.