It is said that humans are tribal in nature. Intentional communities are a way to bring out this innate attribute. Ranging from hippie communes to college cooperative houses to manicured cohousing communities, “an intentional community is a group of people who have chosen to live together with a common purpose, working cooperatively to create a lifestyle that reflects their shared core values.”
I have lived in three intentional communities: a 25-bedroom coop for students in Oregon, a family-friendly 7-bedroom coop in Wisconsin, and a 36-unit cohousing community in Maine. Although each one is very different, they all included common spaces and some shared meals. Each allowed me to have a higher standard of living, with a lower environmental and financial impact through the sharing of resources.
The coop house experience typically involves sharing a kitchen, dining room, living room, bathrooms and yard with others. In addition, sharing camping gear, child care, or exercise equipment are also common. Certainly some discourse can arise, if someone leaves the kitchen messy, leaves doors unlocked overnight, or a playful child wakes up a housemate. Most coops use group decision making, often based on consensus.
Cohousing “is a type of intentional, collaborative housing in which residents actively participate in the design and operation of their neighborhoods.” Roughly 120 exist in the United States, with many more in the planning phase. Cohousing communities typically contain attached or single-family homes around a courtyard (or connected with a pedestrian path).
Many also have a common house, with a shared kitchen, living room, dining room, guest bedrooms, and children’s playroom, which helps reduce the size of individual homes.
“I think of our common house as a 4,000 foot extension of my living room,” says Sanna McKim, Cofounder of Belfast Ecovillage, the community where I currently reside.
Belfast Ecovillage contains 42 acres, with 36 acres dedicated to agriculture, recreation, and wildlife habitat. The community layout, including restricted access to automobiles with parking on the periphery, clustered homes, porches facing the pedestrian path, and a worker share farm encourage spontaneous interactions, sharing, and voluntary simplicity.
The typical cohousing layout contrasts most new neighborhoods in the United States that are largely automobile-centered, thus significantly reducing contact with neighbors. “I know a lot of people who live in houses with attached garages and they have never even seen their neighbors,” says Dan Capwell, a member of Belfast Ecovillage. “All they see is a car enter the garage in the evening and a car leave in the morning.”
Community gardens and cohousing in general can also reduce resource consumption. “We are farmers and gardeners,” says Nessa Dertnig, a member of Belfast Ecovillage. “Not everyone has to own their own rototiller, hoe, or snow plow. We also have just one car and we’ve thought of car sharing. If there are a few people interested in sharing a car, there can be fewer cars on site. There are all kinds of ways we can share resources and time and it is all so convenient.”
Although sharing space has its benefits, it sometimes creates difficult situations. “I’ve been thinking about how my children have to share a yard,” says Forrest Espinoza, a member of Troy Gardens, a cohousing community in Madison, Wisconsin. “If you were in a typical community, you would invite other children to come into your yard. If your children weren’t getting along, you wouldn’t invite those kids to come over and play. In a cohousing community, they have to work things out. It was frustrating in the beginning, but our whole family has experienced incredible growth.”
Feature image courtesy of seier+seier