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    Ken Thomson, 66; cofounder of cohousing community

    Dr. Ken Thomson directed the Center for Strong Democracy in Cambridge.
    Dr. Ken Thomson directed the Center for Strong Democracy in Cambridge.

    When Cornerstone Village Cohousing in North Cambridge was in its early planning stages, Ken Thomson told others involved in the project that “he had done a lot of consulting and studying about democratic living, but he had personally never tried to live it before,” said cofounder Elizabeth Locke, who lives in the community. “He thought cohousing would allow him to do it.”

    Without Dr. Thomson, she said, the project probably would not have overcome bureaucratic roadblocks and opened in 2001.

    “He was absolutely essential, taking an amazing leadership role, negotiating with neighbors, going to all the meetings,” Locke said. “He always had a plan.”


    Dr. Thomson, who directed the consulting firm Center for Strong Democracy in Cambridge and formerly was a researcher at Tufts University, died of prostate cancer May 24 in Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He was 66 and lived in the cohousing community he helped create.

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    Residents at Cornerstone Village Cohousing, a community of private housing and shared resources, said he was a respected, relied-upon, and well-loved leader.

    At Tufts, Dr. Thomson studied the role of citizens in government before leaving academia in the mid-1990s to practice what he had learned in his day-to-day life.

    While directing citizen participation programs at the Lincoln Filene Center for Community Partnerships at Tufts from 1988 to 1993, he wrote or cowrote books and papers, organized national conferences, and published the Citizen Participation Newsmagazine.

    In 1993, he and his colleagues Jeffrey Berry and Kent Portney published the book “The Rebirth of Urban Democracy,” which examined five American cities where participatory democracy worked.


    After its publication, “Ken wanted to turn the book into action,” said Berry, adding that of the book’s three authors, Dr. Thomson spent the most time in the field interviewing people.

    Dr. Thomson became a consultant to initiatives in several cities, including Los Angeles, where people used the book as a blueprint to increase the role of citizens in government.

    “Ken believed that a lot of our problems could be solved if we all just sat down and talked,” Berry said.

    Dr. Thomson was “relentlessly decent, very ethical, and upright,” Berry said, adding that his colleague was “the ultimate professional, extraordinarily conscientious,” and “passionate about citizen participation in government.”

    Dr. Thomson graduated from Tufts with a multidisciplinary doctorate in citizen participation and public policy. On his resume, he referred to it as a “one of a kind degree involving departments of political science, sociology, and urban and environmental policy.”


    But “at heart he was an activist,” not an academic, Berry said. “He wanted to work with people and help reform government. His view was that people in neighborhoods could make intelligent decisions about the issues that affected their quality of life.”

    In 2000, Dr. Thomson told the Globe he sought to create community with the Cornerstone Village project.

    “The model of cohousing is very good because you have both privacy in each unit but also have that connection with people who intend to build a community,” he said. “The idea of cohousing is to make best use of the land, so each person doesn’t need an acre.”

    Built on a vacant lot on Harvey Street, the community now has 32 units including one-bedroom apartments and four-bedroom townhouses. Residents of varied ages and incomes in the semi-communal project share child care, repair jobs, and more.

    “It’s called Cornerstone Village because the idea of taking ‘a village to raise a child’ is part of what we’re doing,” Dr. Thomson told the Globe.

    The youngest of three children, Kenneth Donald Thomson was born in Portland, Ore., where he graduated from Grant High School.

    He received a bachelor’s degree from Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., in 1968, and a master’s in philosophy from Yale University in 1970.

    Skilled in survey designing, as well as computer programming and systems analysis, Dr. Thomson volunteered with 20/20 Action, a nonprofit based in Amherst whose goals include the elimination of nuclear weapons. He managed the group’s database and participated in its activities for 23 years, said director Lois Barber.

    “Ken was particularly skillful at seeing how small issues could fit into the larger picture of creating a world without nuclear weapons, and creating a world where problems are solved without violence,” she said. “He was just a fabulous person, brilliant, and he really lived his values.”

    Making decisions through consensus, Locke said, was one of many talents Dr. Thomson brought to Cornerstone Village.

    “Once in a while there would be a difference of opinion, and sometimes people would get their back up,” she said. “Then there would appear an e-mail from Ken, saying something that was peacemaking and supportive, proposing a solution that everyone could live with. He really did believe in the democracy he wrote about.”

    She said he was known as “the mayor” at Cornerstone, and that his contributions went beyond leadership.

    “He was always ready to come and fix things,” Locke said. “He just loved to help.”

    Residents who were too young or too ill to drive often relied on him to drive them to appointments.

    “He was a quiet man; he didn’t advertise his largesse,” Locke said, adding that “it’s going to take a lot of people” to perform all the tasks Dr. Thomson did for the community. “It’s going to be difficult to bridge the gap. We really miss him.”

    Dr. Thomson leaves a sister, Joanne Bowlin of Boring, Ore., and a brother, Gary Thomson of San Diego.

    His family said a memorial service is being planned for next month in Portland, Ore. A memorial service at Cornerstone is also being planned and a date will be announced.

    “When you lose somebody like this, it’s hard,” Locke said. “But we’ve all decided that it’s an opportunity to be a little more like Ken in order to keep the place running. We all should just be a little more like Ken.”

    A plaque will be placed in a community room in Cornerstone, renaming the space “Ken’s Den” in Dr. Thomson’s memory.

    “His unflagging belief in participatory democracy and shared community has inspired us all over the years and will continue to inspire us,” the plaque says. “From banging pots at midnight on New Year’s Eve, to the firmly-held belief that grass would grow in the shade, to faith in the consensus process, Ken’s contributions thoroughly permeate everything that is Cornerstone and will inform the ongoing evolution of our community.”

    Kathleen McKenna can be reached at