…And How Can We Make Intentional Communities Work?

researchgardenOver the past two days I’ve been rambling on about the Gift Economy and how to make it work. I’m beginning to believe the success of the Gift Economy and the success of Intentional Communities are connected. The former is the means, I believe, to change our economic system, while the latter is the means to change our social and political system.

Intentional Communities are not, as some believe, isolated communes or anti-technology cults. They aspire to self-sufficiency but not disconnection from the rest of society. Ideally the Gift Economy could work both within and between Intentional Communities.

What are the challenges that Intentional Communities face?

  • Finding the people you want to create an Intentional Community with (some of whom may not even know what ICs are)
  • The shortage of great models of Intentional Communities to follow
  • The regulatory problems and shortage of land for ICs

To see how we might address these problems, let’s create a story about a fictitious person, K, looking to create, join and make an Intentional Community work:

K is separated, progressive-minded, vegetarian, and disenchanted with the singles scene and with urban life in general. But while she’s not averse to spending some time gardening, she has neither the skills nor inclination to make a living farming. Ideally she’d like to continue her existing business, which entails web-site design and freelance writing, from her new home. She’s read Creating a Life Together so she knows generally what to expect, and she also knows what she’s looking for — a place with people with like minds, not too far from a city and an airport.

She starts by looking at the FIC and FEC and EcoVillage Network sites to see what communities exist already, what they say about finding community, and suggested additional readings. She visits a local IC but finds it too crunchy and too pretentiously spiritual for her tastes. She taps into all her networks but the only existing IC that seems compatible with her objectives is one in Italy, and she’s not sure she’s ready for that. She has contacted some other people who have tried to establish their own IC, and studied an exhaustive list of others in the process.

She’s already discouraged. LinkedIn and Ryze offered nothing in the way of social networks on the subject, and while MeetUp did have some IC groups, they didn’t seem to be very well organized, which she thought was an inauspicious sign. K is also convinced that trying to find like minds online through social networking applications is awkward. She thinks you need to know people well to assess whether you want to create a life together with them. Instead, she decides to create a list of friends, acquaintances, bloggers and other people she thinks she knows well, and invites each of them (1) to attend an in-person meeting at her house (she’ll feed everyone and let them crash at her house overnight) just to discuss the idea, (2) to suggest other people whom she might want to invite, and (3) to comment on the ’10 founding principles’ list she has put together to suggest who the IC might work best for, and how it might operate.

The response is disappointing. A lot of the people she invited are horrified at the idea, and find it threatening or preposterous. The people who are interested strike her as less self-disciplined and responsible than what an undertaking of this magnitude would require. She wants the IC to be large enough to offer substantial diversity and cross-pollination of skills, knowledge, ideas and interests, and the fact that existing ICs average fewer than a dozen residents — less than the average family size of six generations ago — is making her wonder if the whole idea was a mistake.

One of the people who accepted her invitation, and showed up for the discussion meeting, convinces her to keep going, and to start small and let it grow, and not expect too much too fast. Two of the eight people accepting the invitation are retirees, and independently wealthy, and with some conditions (if the IC fails the property reverts to them) are willing to finance the purchase of the property and put it in trust for the group. Two more people drop out when they find that two of the accepting invitees are a gay couple, but another couple with two small children joins in, so the project seems ready to go, with a motley group of ten, on a forested property twenty miles from a city, with several established gardens and a biological research centre on it large enough to house the whole group (the site was being sold due to EPA budget cutbacks).

But the rezoning proves to be problematic. The neighbours try to block the establishment of the community, fearing “a bunch of crazy pot-smoking hippie types” will be a bad influence on their families, and insist that only one ‘family’ be allowed to reside in the building, and that no further buildings be allowed. The wrangling goes on for nearly two years, and four more of the IC’s planned members give up before it is resolved. Finally the zoning is approved, and just as they are about to move in they receive an unexpected boost — eight students from the university in the nearby city ask if they can join, for a one year period, and use the establishment of the community, now named GaiaWyld, as their masters’ thesis subject. K’s group meets with the students and, after a day-long session, agree to accept the students, on provision they agree to be full members rather than just observers, and consider staying on after they graduate. An improbable community in born.

Although her plan was to continue to do website design and freelance writing work, K finds that it is a full-time job managing the community and liaising with other ICs to learn from them. Five of the students stay after their thesis year, one gives birth to a baby, and the publicity that GaiaWyld attracts among the university community results in ten more students asking to join. K worries that the diversity, knowledge, experience and earning capability of the group will slide. She doesn’t want GaiaWyld relying on the financing of students’ parents, and doesn’t want the older members becoming surrogate parents riding herd on the students to accept their share of the responsibilities for the community’s self-sustaining activities. Again, a surprise development resolves the crisis: The new student group receives a grant to construct a solar and wind farm at GaiaWyld, one which would employ the students even after graduation, and provide significant revenue to the community from sale of excess power to the nearby city. With this new success comes some new challenges: GaiaWyld needs to construct accommodations for the growing number of visitors (engineers, government representatives, the media, and members of other ICs, as well as parents of some of the students). And eight more adults, with three children between them, have asked to join GaiaWyld. K would like to say yes, because it would restore some of the diversity to the community (and because she really likes the new applicants), but now there is a capacity problem, and if that entails building another building, she shudders to think what the zoning approval meeting will be like.


The above story is meant to illustrate how quickly the ‘best laid plans’ can get out of control, as a new community begins to take on a life of its own. What could we do to make it easier?

I think what is most needed is education, starting at the high-school level, perhaps as part of the civics curriculum. Students need to learn how to find and create community, how to make a life with other people, and how to make a living with other people. These are essential life skills for everyone, and their absence and our resultant helplessness has created many of the social problems we face today. Such a curriculum could also be provided, alongside cooking and weaving and gardening and other life-skills courses, in community and adult education centres. Such centres could be a natural meeting-place for those seeking Intentional Community with others, and attendees could be linked up with those taking such courses in other communities, and ‘meetups’ between them could be part of the curriculum.

I believe the other problems are relatively easy to solve — if the movement becomes sufficiently popular, and successful, opposition to ICs from neighbours will fall away, zoning laws will be modernized to accommodate them, and the inevitable disputes that arise will be mitigated more quickly as the principles of self-organization and conflict resolution become part of all of our core competencies.

What else do we need? Am I overstating the importance of physical meeting, the trading of atoms and not just bits between prospective community members, before they can hope to assess whether they want to create a life together? If it’s this easy, why are there still so few ICs and why are they, on average, so small? How can we get ICs to network better with each other and with the rest of us, so we can find models and learn from them?

And, most important, what would it take for you, dear reader, to consider or accept an invitation to join an IC with people you really love, or even to establish your own?

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10 Responses to …And How Can We Make Intentional Communities Work?

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I’ve been fascinated by cohousing for at least 10 years, and have attended meetings of several groups, but there are two main obstacles:1) I like living in cities, and the cities that I want to live in are expensive. It’s hard to find space that’s affordable.2) Time. I have a full-time job, and a family. Groups in development are incredibly time-consuming, with no significant payback until years down the road.

  2. Bruce says:

    Hi. I too am fascinated by co-housing. After living in a number of small intentional communities that fell apart, I was delighted to read (in The Co-Housing Book) that co-housing was really about creating an intentional neighborhood. If community emerged, great; if it didn’t, you still lived in a great little neighborhood and probably had some new friends.It may be that “intentional communities” carry too heavy a social, political, and emotional load for most people. Also, the co-housing groups who have done the best in terms of survival and low turnover are fairly large, 25 to 40 units, 50 to 150 people. This way, the co-housers I know say, no one gets saddled with too much of the community “work”. There are enough people to spread it around so it becomes a pleasant task rather than a weekly (or daily) duty.I’m looking into moving to be able to join a co-housing group that is forming. New group discussion and voting methods (modified consensus rather than full, strict consensus) have shortened the time it takes to get co-housing projects from concept to completion. If you haven’t read The CoHousing Book, I recommend it.Cheers!Bruce

  3. jonathan says:

    I’ve lived in retreat center/communities for a bit and have been a student of personal and organizational development for even longer, and have a couple of observations. One is that community formation and community living require much better communication and conflict resolution skills than regular job+home life. Due to unresolved life trauma (see Vincent Felitti’s work on the quantity of trauma and it’s ongoing effects in the US), socialization into the the cult of individualism in the West, and lack of education in community skills, many people don’t have the interest nor capability to do this. One bit of my education in conflict resolution is that there has to be “juice” – some sort of energy of connection, whether it be intimacy, shared interests, etc. – for the parties in the conflict, otherwise there won’t be enough energy to resolve the situation. Using marriage as an example of a case where initially there’s usually lots of intimacy and shared interests, nearly 50% of marriages in this country end in divorce, and many of the rest are unsatisfying. When our culture can’t even support marriage, how much harder is it to support ongoing, deep, decision-making relationships with ones’ community members? Besides the higher standard for communication, the barrier to departure is really low as well – it’s easier in the US to pick up the stakes and move somewhere else than most anywhere else in the world.I also think the “self-made (wo)man” aspect of the American Dream has a lot to do with why there aren’t many communities. There’s a social stigma against sharing resources, whether it be having more than just parents+children in a household, sharing lawnmowers, etc. For people to successfully form a community, they have to be enough themselves to stand against this trend of our society and at the same time be enough “in” society to be able to negotiate with abutting property owners, with town planners, etc. This is a not a common combination of traits. Actually, that last sentence pretty much points to the crux of the issues, now that I think about it. Developing a community requires excellent communication skills, group decision-making skills, financial skills, regulatory negotiation skills, and project management skills applied at _different times_ over a _long term_, never mind other needed skills like construction, marketing, farming, etc. that might come up. I’m not sure many groups are able to handle the changes necessary from one phase of the project to the next.jonathanPS: there’s a a workshop on starting an urban ecovillage or IC in LA on Friday Aug 19, 20 and 21. For more information visit http://www.ic.org/laev/

  4. Neecee says:

    My husband and I have been looking into the idea of developing and intentional community, we’ve networked with several interested friends, and we have been reading and studying about practices we can adopt into this lifestyle change. Because this dream of ours is in its developmental stages, we still have a lot of questions. We’ve only just found this blog recently and are finding more and more literature about the process of forming an intentional community.Our biggest challenge is a financial one. What sources would give us specific information about funding this project? I know that our goal for this community will cost money, but most of the people we know are in a similar situation: we have minimal funds. We’ve set up a ten to fifteen year plan, but we’d like to speed the process if it’s possible.

  5. Raines Cohen says:

    Liz Walker sounds a lot like a real version of the ‘K’ in your story, creating several cohousing communities as part of Ithaca EcoVillage. She’s giving a bunch of talks in the SF Bay Area this weekend: details. Join us!Raines

  6. Jan Steinman says:

    In process! I’m finding that finance is a problem, but also that conflicting values are never far below the surface. The group may “buy in” to a written vision or values statement, but then you find that they are all interpreting it differently. Yikes! “Creating a Life Together 101”!To try to help address this, a group I’m involved with made CaLT required reading, and supplied a copy to each member of the Land Acquisition Committee. After months, I’ve just polled a number of them, and found only one has even cracked the cover.This suggests that more “carrot & stick” is required than simply giving them the book! A second group I’m involved with is also using this book, but we’re holding topical meetings, with required reading for each. For example, our next meeting is on visioning, and we are all required to read, and be prepared to discuss, CaLT Chapters 4 & 5. I’m hopeful this will work better than the unstructured approach of the other nascent community.I think a community needs not only written vision, mission, and purpose statements; it needs a shared vocabulary from which to create a new language. Consider the word “sharing.” You can have that as an important community value, and state so in a written vision statement. Then ask ten people what “sharing” actually means, and you’ll get ten answers! To some, it means communistic income-sharing, to others it means a shared bathing facility, to others it means little more than sharing a concern for the environment — which they intend to implement as a “green” traditional building, with its own bathing and kitchen, set off from the other dwellings. YIKES!I’ve been trying to assemble a vocabulary of words that are new to most of the group, to avoid letting them play their own tapes. For example, I’m trying to get “endogenous” included in our written statement of core values. (http://www.IslandSeeds.org/wiki/Endogenous) If people don’t have pre-conceived notions of the meaning of a word, it can take on special, shared meaning to the group. Once you have shared semantics, you can begin combining ideas in new and unexpected ways.So many problems come down to finance. One group I know is so desperate to acquire a certain parcel, that whether someone has money or not is the primary criteria for inclusion. At one meeting that was supposed to be “listen only” for non-members, one person wrote a check for half the amount (pledging the other half next payday), and then proceeded to dominate the meeting. That’s a dysfunctional group!

  7. Jan Steinman says:

    Sorry about the run-on entry. I had it nicely chopped up into paragraphs before I discovered you need to do your own formatting.And there’s no feedback that Submit is doing anything, thus the multiple entries from Raines and me!

  8. Frank says:

    I think one important aspect that intentional comunities should attempt to resolve is population density. As a practical means of conserving land and utilizing interaction between its’ members while maintaining an ecologically balanced and aesthetic quality for the community.

  9. Peter Whitlock says:

    All communities tend to fail eventually to balance or stay ecologically sound. Populations grow and new things are build with the complete wrong mindset and the grids begin to be seen and eventual failure is 100% sure thing. – GAYS will make a non Gay community react as they are not to be mixed!- Adult communites are far too corrupt to be anywhere near a child community less all the children be corrupted by adults that do not care what the children hear see or learn in the weakness of themselves

  10. Christian says:

    It’s comforting to know that the same problems our group is running into (including that of social networks) have been around for a while now. We’re trying to start a community using Skinner’s Walden Two as a blueprint, but to say that it’s slow going would be an understatement. I love some of the ideas put forth here and the examples which turn problems into opportunities. Thank you for the inspiration!

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