Home The Growing Appeal of Intentional Community

The Growing Appeal of Intentional Community

user profile picture charleshughsmith Aug 13, 2013
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Tired of being shunned and marginalized by your conventional friends and family? It’s a common situation for those who have “woken up” in a world dead set on remaining asleep as the default solution to systemic unsustainability.

One time-honored way to avoid isolation is to band together with others of like mind in communities.  The current terminology for this is intentional communities: living arrangements organized around shared values and conscious decisions rather than government or market forces.

The following discussion is based on my personal experience and interest; it is not an academic overview, and I make no claims that it is comprehensive or objective. Consider it a report based on experience rather than academic research.

Ancient Models of Community

As the Roman Empire decayed, many people abandoned conventional lifestyles and joined monasteries.  Historian Michael Grant described this movement in his book The Fall of the Roman Empire in secular terms:

But the monks and nuns of the ancient times are in some ways less comparable to modern monks and nuns than to modern drop-outs, supporters of gurus, or others—not necessarily with any religious motivation—who abandon the conventional world and sometimes leave their houses for the streets or the mountains or the desert. For the numerous monastic recluses of the Roman Empire, too, often shook the dust of the social, financial, and political system off their feet as completely as if they had never belonged at all.

In other words, the decision to leave the conventional world may not have had an entirely religious motivation, but it found expression in joining faith-based living arrangements.  Why this is so is worth exploring.

One reason is that religious orders have a ready-made organizational structure and rules of membership.  There is a hierarchy of command and control, strict rules for membership that must be obeyed to retain membership, and a financial arrangement that supports the membership: the collection of alms, the tending of gardens, etc.

Another is the shared belief system that breathes life into the organization.  Conflicts are minimized by this shared belief system and by the hierarchy accepted by everyone joining the community.

In the modern world, Amish communities are often held up as models of largely self-sustaining religious communities.  It is self-evident that modern faith-based communities share these two key traits: a hierarchy of command and control, and strict rules of membership.

Of all of the public intellectuals in America, academic or independent, John Michael Greer (the Archdruid) has best articulated the critical importance of membership as an organizing principle. Membership is meaningless unless violating the rules leads to ejection from the group.

If we examine the many intentional communities that have failed, we find that membership was either poorly defined or not rigorously enforced. We also find the belief system that brought the members together was also either poorly defined or too general to support a durable low-conflict environment.

The Family as Community

The French word hameau (from Old French hamel, “hamlet,” diminutive of Old French ham, “small village”) describes an accretion of dwellings around a family farm.  (Once again, I am not an academic expert; this is based on my experience in France as a foreigner.)  Though one finds enclaves of dwellings in Paris that are called hameau, the term describes a rural arrangement in which additional homes were added as a family group expanded.  This process of adding dwellings for offspring and their spouses and children transforms a farm into a hamlet, and the resulting vernacular architecture is often wonderfully evocative of the design principles outlined in Christopher Alexander’s classic architecture text, A Pattern Language.

In today’s highly mobile world, the idea of the family farm as the kernel of a community seems outdated and perhaps nostalgic. But ironically, perhaps, the emergent economy of digital work and relocalization lends itself to just such an extended-family-based model.

The hameau model is based on the old principle that blood is thicker than water; i.e., family membership endures despite conflict, disagreement, etc. Over time, inter-marriage increases the pool of related people. Unsurprisingly, variations of this model can be found around the world, from Europe to Asia.


The idea behind cohousing is simple: Each family has a private residence, but all families share dining facilities and yard maintenance duties. The cohousing movement started in Denmark in the late 1960s and can be understood as an outgrowth of the global countercultural exploration of new social arrangements. My experience with cohousing goes back to the early 1990s, when I met and interviewed Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, architects and authors of the first major study of cohousing published in the U.S., Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves

The origins of cohousing can be discerned in the title of architect Jan Gudmand Høyer’s 1968 paper, The Missing Link between Utopia and the Dated Single Family House.

As a result of my long interest in cohousing, I have seen several variants on the basic organizational structure of private spaces and shared facilities and responsibilities. Some communities have been built from scratch, while others purchased adjoining single-family homes and removed the fences separating the properties. In these cases, communal dining facilities were added or existing outbuildings refashioned into communal spaces.

Cohousing is founded on the same organizational structures of shared values, an accepted hierarchy of participatory command and control and rules of membership.  Residents are obligated to share in the upkeep of the commons and in preparing the shared meals.

The benefits and costs of cohousing are transparent.  Though one agrees to contribute to shared maintenance and meals, one is not obligated to join the community for every meal; everyone has a private dwelling. On the other hand, on those days when one is helping prepare the shared meal, one has a “free” dinner.

Participation is the key social trait of cohousing.  Those who buy into cohousing are trading the atomized, isolated lifestyle of conventional urban America for one in which some participation in the community is mandatory.

In many traditional communities, some variation of cohousing is the norm. In a legalistic society, everything that is implicit in traditional cultures must be explicitly codified: ownership, the organizational structure of the community, how noncompliance and conflicts are dealt with, and so on. The legal system in the U.S. recognizes condominium and cooperative ownership of a shared property, but the legal structures are complex and costly to set up.  Cohousing offers a flexible model that is adapted to modern legal systems.

Variants of Cooperative Living

Cooperative buildings have a long history in the U.S., and there are many possible variations on the model of private ownership in a building controlled by the owners. At a minimum, potential buyers of cooperative units must gain the approval of the co-op board to become residents.  Additional levels of responsibility and participation can be added to the legal structure, creating a spectrum of cooperative living arrangements between conventional condominium living and cohousing.

In Part II: Key Considerations for Starting an Intentional Community, we look at the major issues involved in starting an intentional community. There are financial, physical, and human challenges that need to be addressed clearly and early on to make success viable. Being aware of these from the start is essential.

We also detail the six key guiding principles for community management, which are critical for long-term harmony and social cohesion.

Click here to access Part II of this report (free executive summary; enrollment required for full access).