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Come together

Highly organized and efficient—and far from being marginal, they're tackling some of today's most puzzling social problems. Cheri Hanson tours a few of the best examples.


BY Cheri Hanson

Photo of a man with a shovel

What do intentional communities look like? Maybe your mind has already hit image overdrive: hippie crash pads littered with bongs; tie-dye decor; Jimi Hendrix wafting through the marijuana haze; blenders clogged with organic sludge; dogs, goats and chickens ranging around a ramshackle farmyard; dysentery.

Clichés? Absolutely. And in today’s intentional communities, these scenarios are not just stereotypical—they’re completely inaccurate. Across North America, and around the world, thousands of people are living collectively. Rather than dropping out of mainstream society, many of these groups are committed to revolution from within. Some even work closely—take a deep breath here—with their local governments, rather than rallying against them. Clearly, the times they are a-changing.

“All through history, [intentional] communities have been like society’s research and development centres,” says Geoph Kozeny, a U.S. community consultant, filmmaker and self-proclaimed zealot for the co-operative living cause. Despite often being “seen as weird,” says Kozeny, alternative community-builders are pioneers searching for new ways to address ongoing human concerns. Economics, environmental sustainability, urban alienation—these are hardly fringe issues.

Every group has its own vision, but rather than surrendering their lives to social accident, intentional communities are all tackling human challenges with practical idealism—tie-dye and daisy wreathes optional.

COMMONS SENSE

From the outside, the Cranberry Commons development in Burnaby, B.C., looks like any other family-oriented condo project. The neutral, peak-roofed buildings hug an inner courtyard littered with toys and colourful chalk scribbles. But aesthetics are where the similarities end.

In the early 1990s, a tiny core group began dreaming of a socially and environmentally conscious home base. They tapped their tangled personal networks to find like-minded dreamers, and set the planning wheels in motion. In October 2001, 22 households moved into the multi-family residential building and began to taste the rewards of a nearly decade-long development process.

June McFadyen, a retired teaching assistant, offers the official tour through the 320 square-metre common house, which features a large kitchen, dining area, children’s play room and a pull-down screen for watching movies. We move on to the guest accommodations, community office and her own bright, two-bedroom apartment. Warm and energetic, McFadyen looks years short of her upcoming 80th birthday. A former neighbour introduced her to cohousing, and McFadyen says the experience has overhauled her sense of social confidence.

“I was a loner before,” says McFadyen. “It has totally changed me. I would hardly say a word before, and now I can even lead a meeting.” McFadyen’s blue eyes sparkle as she sips her tea. “My family can’t even believe I like it so much. But it’s great. I’m staying.”

Among the seven established Canadian cohousing projects (as well as the six underway), intense social interaction is the norm. Cohousing developments make all decisions—from hiring an architect, to deciding on the building site, to the ongoing business of managing their communities—by consensus, using a system of red, yellow and green cards.

The cohousing model was first developed in Denmark over 25 years ago. Unlike co-op housing projects, which require residents to purchase shares in the co-op and rent their suites, most cohousing projects use “strata-titled” ownership. It’s a similar structure to condo ownership: members own their individual units and a percentage of the common areas.

Ronaye Matthew, a Cranberry Commons resident and an independent cohousing development consultant, says that unlike mainstream society’s adversarial systems, cohousing is “based on a collaborative process for the common good. It’s not about power.”

This sense of collective direction infuses everything from gardening and maintenance to weekly dinners in the common house. But, she adds, “We need to be able to look mainstream as much as possible in order to do what we want to do.” Strata-titled ownership, she explains, is easy for banks and governments to understand, yet it still allows the residents to pursue their social and political projects.

Environmental sustainability is also a primary goal. Cranberry Commons was built with a host of “green” materials and construction practices. The community also aims to share resources and reduce redundancy in their travel and purchases. Why should 22 households have a full toolbox when there are more than enough wrenches to share? And after nine years of planning and consensual decision-making, you can probably trust your neighbour to return that cookie sheet unscathed.

Despite her commitment to cohousing, Matthew says she had some initial concerns about privacy. She works from home, so imagining a constant stream of visitors at the door was more than a little disconcerting. In reality, Matthew says the daily balance between social and private life has actually helped her to set personal boundaries.

“You don’t have to give up your life to take part in cohousing,” says Matthew. “The more of us who learn how to think this way and work this way, the better we’ll be able to help steward the planet.”

COMMUNING WITH NATURE

On a 25-acre parcel of land in Vancouver Island’s Shawnigan Lake region, the residents of One United Resource (our) Ecovillage are not only working to minimize their environmental footprint, but they are also teaching others how to tread more lightly on the earth. Like other ecovillages, our aims to integrate human activities with the natural environment in a way that can be sustained indefinitely. In 213 worldwide settlements listed with the Global Ecovillage Network, people are striving for a lifestyle that nurtures healthy social and ecological relationships, far beyond simply adding a solar panel or two to their roofs.

The village has been working closely with government and local officials to move their development away from the margins and ensure its legitimacy in the eyes of the surrounding community, says Brandy MacPherson, one of the group’s founding directors. our Ecovillage applied for a previously non-existent zoning classification: a rural/residential/comprehensive development zone. Last fall, it passed through all the bureaucratic and government channels.

“This is incredible,” says MacPherson, “because it’s really setting a precedent in Canada.” The zoning ensures that the ecovillage can be at once a residential settlement, an educational centre and a working farm, while retaining the environmental protection covenants that cover the property.

The community has played by the rules in order to bend them, and now, they help other fledgling ecovillages do the same, by offering our’s legal documents as models and sharing their expertise. It’s crucial to ensure all the legal bases are covered, says MacPherson. “Otherwise, that jeopardizes the planning and development work that people do.”

After 12 years of dreaming and building, MacPherson should know a thing or two about planning. Before the private group purchased the land, hundreds of people helped develop our’s vision of land stewardship and its cluster-housing design. Even after they came on the site, MacPherson says the 14 team members “sat with the land” for a full year before they established the permaculture systems and land management practices. The group lived together in the main house and did little more than cleaning and fixing fences. The idea was to change as little as possible until they understood what was already there.

About two years ago, our began conducting on-site educational workshops and environmental programs. While the group’s vision is still evolving, MacPherson says the goal is for about 30 people to live on the land and develop a fully sustainable permaculture system. The ownership model will likely be a modified co-op structure, with members sharing costs, but not income. They also hope to step up their educational work with programs such as this summer’s four-month plan-b natural building school, which has drawn instructors in cob, straw bale and other natural construction techniques.

“We see this as a learning community,” says MacPherson. “It’s really about co-creating our learning and awareness.”

EQUAL OPPORTUNITY

With full income- and cost-sharing, and a commitment to eliminate the “isms” of age, gender, class, race, sexuality and beyond, egalitarian communities are a social U-turn from the mainstream. Harkening back to the communes of the 1960s, most egalitarian communities have the same spirit of groundbreaking idealism—but less of the sex, drugs and rock-n-roll.

In the heart of Seattle’s Central district, two separate urban communes are re-creating a typically rural model of egalitarian community life. The Beacon Hill House and the Jolly Ranchers live in privately owned homes, and each share their income, costs and resources.

Seven founding members established the community, and while their numbers have gone up and down throughout the commune’s seven-year history, they are now down to three. Rancher Shawn Young and her partner Jon Dumont, along with longtime friend Marc Cote, were part of the core group that established the two-home property in March 1995.

While the Ranchers are happy in their small community, they are looking for more long-term members who share both their ideals and their vision of social, ecological and economic harmony. “At three, we don’t have quite enough people to get us over the edge to real financial freedom,” says Young. “That’s a little frustrating. We don’t feel very vital.”

Egalitarian communities require a high social and personal commitment, so they’re not an easy sell. Most of the seven members of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities are rural developments with income from cottage industries. Twin Oaks, which was founded in Louisa, Virginia, in 1967, supports itself by making hammocks, tofu and soy foods, and running a book-indexing business. On 465 acres of farm and forest land, this rural community is probably the most famous of the surviving 1960s communes.

Now that urban life is the reality for most people, it’s even more challenging to attract people to the egalitarian lifestyle. “In the country communes, people do the same work,” Young observes. “But in the city, you’re all out in competitive wage jobs.” When members bring in varying amounts of money, this can lead to conflict.

One thing that helps the Ranchers avoid arguments over finances, is that all three members do the same kind of paid work: They’re employed by a group home for developmentally disabled adults. The members deposit their monthly paycheques in a common account, which they use to pay bills and cover household expenses. Each Rancher also receives a $200 monthly spending allowance. The group’s commitment to total equality means that sharing income is more than just pragmatic—it’s a conscious political choice. “All time should be valued the same,” says Young. “The only currency we have on the planet is our life and our time.”

Income sharing means greater freedom from capitalist systems, says Young, and more opportunities to pursue charity work or political activism. The Ranchers host out-of-town protesters for events such as the 1999 wto meetings and contribute their time and energy to a host of activist organizations—from Food Not Bombs to Earth First!

Communal living also offers the chance to explore your inner worlds, says Young, which requires careful listening and conscious communication skills. That means building on your strengths, working on your weaknesses, and understanding your own psychological motivations. It can be emotional, intimate work, but, says Young, “I think that’s the greatest gift of community.”

SHARING RESOURCES

Looking to start your own intentional community? Diana Leafe Christian is the editor of Communities magazine, and the author of Creating a Life Together (New Society Publishers), which offers practical, how-to information based on the experiences of founders of successful communities. She recommends the following resources.

ORGANIZATIONS
Canadian Cohousing Network is a non-profit organization that promotes the creation of cohousing communities across Canada. www.cohousing.ca
Ecovillage Network of Canada is the Canadian affiliate of Ecovillage Network of the Americas (ENA) and the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN), which supports and encourages sustainable settlements worldwide. enc.ecovillage.org.
The Cohousing Network promotes and encourages cohousing communities in North America. Publishes Cohousing magazine and an email newsletter.www.cohousing.org.
Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC) is a membership organization serving intentional communities and community-seekers in North America. Publishes Communities magazine, Visions of Utopia video, Communities Directory, Community Library Reprint Series and audiotapes on various aspects of community living; offers mail-order books and resources about intentional community living through its Community Bookshelf; hosts regional communities gatherings. The FIC website lists intentional communities and offers links to individual community websites. www.ic.org

BOOKS
Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves by Kathryn McCamant, Charles Durrett, and Ellen Hertzman (Ten Speed Press). The book that introduced cohousing to North America. $29.95. www.tenspeedpress.com
The Cohousing Handbook: Building a Place for Community by Chris Hanson (Hartley & Marks). Practical advice and step-by-step processes for forming a core group, and developing and building cohousing communities. www.cohousingresources.com
Ecovillage Living: Restoring the Earth and Her People by Hildur Jackson and Karen Svensson, Editors (Gaia Trust/ Green Books). Overview of the ecovillage movement worldwide, with articles, interviews, and photo essays about ecological, social and spiritual-cultural aspects of ecovillages on six continents. ena.ecovillage.org/English. Click on Ecovillage Store.

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