Perhaps because of the ponderous nature of the term “Intentional Community”, many such communities are called cohousing neighbourhoods. Other terms like ecovillages, communes and housing cooperatives are also used. Since even wikipedia mis-defines some of them, it may be worthwhile defining what we mean by all these terms.
The original meaning of “community” is a place shared equally. The term has been debased to mean just about any agglomeration of people with something “in common”, but for purposes of defining Intentional Community the original definition is useful. “Shared equally” doesn’t mean all under one roof, or identical accommodation for everyone, or even equal investment. It does mean that the “place” is jointly owned by its members, not “privately” owned. You may pay a lump sum for the use of a unit for your private enjoyment, but you do not “own” it — the payment is really a prepayment of rent to the community members collectively, and it is the collective, not you personally, who can transfer that right of private enjoyment to someone else when you leave, charging them a prepayment of rent and reimbursing yours at some pre-agreed “price”.
This might seem to be a big deal to a society that is obsessed and paranoid about “private property”, and accustomed to considering their “home” as their most important asset and investment. But the reality is that most people really rent their property from the mortgage company, and hope to reap a speculative gain on the change in value when they cease doing so and rent someplace else.
The big difference is that, just like a renter, in an Intentional Community you can’t do whatever you want with “your” unit because it isn’t “yours”. In a regular neighbourhood of isolated strangers, you can do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t reduce the resale value below the mortgage, or defy local neighbourhood ordinances mainly designed to ensure you don’t reduce others’ resale value. As long as you can get your head around the fact that your “asset” in an IC is a prepaid expense and a share in a collective place, rather than a piece of property, an IC may be for you. Alas, most financial institutions can’t get their head around this difference. They effectively own the property that you secure your mortgage with, and they can repossess it and do what they want with it whenever they are so inclined. When they’re asked to finance a prepaid expense and a share in a not-for-profit entity, they tend to get skittish.
There are some places that call themselves ICs (especially in struggling nations) that are not. Buying your own private property in a condominium development that throws in a “share” of an adjacent golf course or other “common” facility (and may even throw in maid and chef services) does not constitute being a member of a community — a “place shared equally” — let alone an IC. Real estate developers are a sleazy bunch, though, and they like to pass off timeshares and resorts as “communities”. A “place shared equally” means a place where decisions are made collectively by members, and not outsourced to or initiated by political or economic agents (agents, what’s more, who are generally acting in their own interests).
An Intentional Community is one that has an intention — literally a “stretching toward”. That means something they are striving together to do or to be together. That can be a set of beliefs, or shared goals, or a way of living. In an ecovillage that may be something to do with environmental sustainability, food self-sufficiency, organic and/or vegetarian diet, and living lightly on the land. For a commune it might be shared spiritual practices.
An Intentional Community could inhabit urban, village, rural or even virtual space. It could be designed by the future members collectively, or retrofitted by self-selecting members already living there or in close proximity.
What about co-housing and housing cooperatives? While the term “co-housing”, like “community”, could be taken to include commercial condominium, strata title and resort developments, true co-housing communities grew out of the Danish model and are real housing cooperatives (a cooperative is identical to an IC, as defined by the three criteria above, except what they share equally is an enterprise, not a place, and instead of sharing a way of living they share a way of making a living). Although true co-housing is a form of Intentional Community, the shared set of beliefs, goals and/or way of living are often more limited and pragmatic than they are in “deeper” ICs.
Take for example the 29-unit Nubanusit Cohousing Community in Peterborough, New Hampshire (pictured above). It calls itself a condominium, and you buy your unit outright, and have, presumably, the right to resell it to anyone you want. But in many respects it does look like true cohousing:
The private ownership of units can help placate both members and mortgagors worried about exactly what they own (and fussy local zoning authorities wedded to the anti-communitarian definition of “single family dwelling”), but in this respect Nubanusit is not true cohousing and not really an IC.
The issue is, How much difference does this really make? Is insisting on collective ownership of all the land and buildings of the community a form of ideological purism, that could be holding us back from creating and retrofitting thousands of such developments as a model of a better, more environmentally sustainable and socially responsible way to live, a stepping stone to help our whole society rediscover the value of self-sufficient community and take back decision-making from remote and powerful political and economic interests?
Or will communities like Nabanusit, as they’re resold again and again over time to strangers who had no part in their design and rationale and are indifferent to their Core Values, end up looking like every other exurban community on the planet? It really all comes down to the ownership of private property and decisions on who can and cannot become a member of the community. Without collective ownership and collective decisions on membership, what may start as a true community with shared intention could easily end up as just another neighbourhood of convenience, with residents dictated solely by proximity to their places of work.
And while this particular community claims to pursue ideals of sustainability, responsibility and diversity, might the next community, perhaps right next door, bring together a racist criminal gang whose shared goal is to launder money through its community, or a wingnut cult, or an elitist group of rich executive profligates whose shared goal is to fence themselves off from everyone else, entertain politicians extravagantly and lobby for the deregulation and privatization of everything? Could gang headquarters and militia camps and gated neighbourhoods meet the above criteria of an IC?
You can see how tricky this can all get. Mashing us all together in lonely, socially indifferent, ecologically destructive subdivisions sprawling indistinguishably out from all our cities does have the advantage of keeping us from self-organizing in antisocial ways, not just social ones. Just take a look at some of the popular websites that attract “communities” that advocate the murder of those who disagree with their ideology, or revel in videos that depict torture and humiliation, or hate-monger, or enable sex slavery or wage slavery or the abuse of women and children, and you can see that the power of community cuts both ways.
Nevertheless, we need some working models. So if you’ve ever thought about creating or joining an Intentional Community, here are some questions I’d like your thoughts on. Imagine you’ve found a great bunch of people and a great site for such a community:
Category: Intentional Community
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