By Elizabeth Holman
Issue 111, March - April 2002
Being a parent today can be overwhelming and isolating. We live in a society where rugged individualism, competition, and the quest for the American dream have left many parents feeling alienated and disconnected. Extended families are rare. Fences run high. Neighbors zoom into garages and disappear into houses, exhausted by the frantic pace of life. Economic status is often the only common thread linking us to our neighbors. Dissatisfied with traditional neighborhoods, a growing number of parents believe that intentional communities provide a better place to raise their children. "Intentional communities" is a broad category that includes eco-villages, urban housing cooperatives, cohousing, communes, and other settings where residents value building consensus, cooperation, and friendships with their neighbors. In such communities, families find a sense of belonging and mutual support, and people of all ages reap the benefits of living in a place where neighbors care for one another. The villages of the past are being recreated in today's intentional communities.
The US and Canada have seen dramatic growth in the numbers of new communities being formed. Today there are approximately 3,000 intentional communities in North America , according to Laird Schaub, secretary of the Fellowship for Intentional Community. The fellowship's directory lists approximately 600 communities, twice the number of a decade ago. Schaub, who has raised two children at the Sandhill Farm community in Missouri , says that children there learn to live cooperatively with their neighbors. Interacting with a variety of adults, they develop confidence and strong verbal skills.
There is tremendous diversity within the community movement. Some communities share income, while others share business ventures and community service activities. Many share core values regarding environmental issues and use of resources. Some communities strive to be self-sustaining. Rural or urban, secular or religious, what they all have in common is a commitment to live together and build meaningful relationships with their neighbors.
The cost to join an intentional community is as varied as the communities themselves. In some, new members are welcomed at no charge. At the other end of the spectrum, a home in a cohousing community can cost more than the regional housing market value.
Much of the recent growth in the community movement can be attributed to the increasing popularity of cohousing. Cohousing is a concept that started in Denmark in the 1960s, when a group of families came together to create a great neighborhood for raising children. The first American cohousing communities were built in the early 1990s; today there are approximately 100 such communities in North America .
Cohousing is usually designed and managed by the residents. Each family owns a private living space, with homes often oriented around a common open space. Parking areas are grouped together and separated from living areas. There are common areas for meals, social gatherings, and children's play. Many communities share laundry facilities, garden tools, and a vegetable garden.
Residents believe that intentional communities are safer than mainstream neighborhoods. "A Columbine kid couldn't come out of cohousing," said Joshua Simon, a father who lives in Doyle Street Cohousing in Emeryville , California . "The children at Doyle Street are surrounded by adults whom they trust. They are exposed to positive values and lifestyles that give them a broad view of family life." Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, architects and cohousing pioneers, are raising their daughter at Doyle Street . McCamant fondly recalls the time when her daughter lost a tooth and proudly went knocking on every door of the community to share the news.
Pam Silva and her children lived in traditional neighborhoods before moving to Southside Park Cohousing in Sacramento , California . Despite the conflicts and struggles that are part of community life, she says she wouldn't want to be anywhere else. Southside Park 's 25 mixed-income families live in brightly painted homes in urban Sacramento . Residents range in age from one to 75. Home prices range from $88,000, for a one-bedroom flat, to $150,000, for a four-bedroom townhouse.
Neighbors drop in on one another at Southside Park . Parents have an informal network of support, readily helping each other with child care. Children of all ages play together. Neighbors gather several times a week to share a meal in the common dining room. Close friendships develop within cook teams as they prepare meals for the community. If someone gets locked out of her house, falls sick, or needs to borrow a truck, the community is there to help.
Cohousing is not for everyone. As in most intentional communities, decisions at Southside Park are made by consensus. Frequent meetings, discussions, and conflict resolution is work that not everyone is willing to do. Conflicts can arise out of differing parenting styles, and some of the older children feel oppressed with so many adults watching over them. Twelve-year-old Zoe Jones enjoys the security and friendships at Southside Park but misses having her own private backyard. Bernie Kelly appreciated the support of cohousing when she was a single parent with two young children. Now that her girls are 11 and 12 she plans to leave Southside Park and move to a more rural setting. About once a year a family leaves this community, and most have had no trouble selling their homes. The ease of resale generally reflects the overall housing market in the area. For many parents, the benefits of raising children in a community far outweigh any drawbacks. Rob Sandelin, of the Northwest Intentional Communities Association, is raising his two daughters in the Sharingwood Community in Snohomish , Washington , and describes his community as much like an extended family. "All the kids know where the cookie jars in the neighborhood are. When cookies are being made, there is often a small herd that 'just happens' to drop by for a visit," said Sandelin.
Parents not only help each other with the logistics of caring for children but also share perspectives and ideas as they support one another. The community marks milestones together. When a child learns to ride a two-wheeler, goes off for the first day of school, or does well on the SAT exam, the whole community celebrates, making such events very special. The children learn dispute resolution. "Over time, this develops skills of communication, cooperation, and compromise, values that are the core of almost any kind of intentional community anywhere in the world," said Sandelin.
Although intentional communities often are diverse in age, spiritual paths, sexual orientation, and political views, there is relatively little racial diversity. The movement is primarily a white, middle-class one. Some believe this is because supportive social networks are particularly lacking among the white middle class.
New communities usually start when one person, or a group of friends, comes up with the idea of forming a community. They might post notices at the local market or coffee shop looking for others with the same interest. The Internet has become an effective way to connect people; existing communities post vacancy notices, and new groups invite prospective members on the Web.
The Fellowship for Intentional Community (www.ic.org) acts as a resource and networking center for the movement. Once a group forms, regular meetings are held to move forward. Sometimes it takes years to see the plan through to fruition.
Many groups never make it. According to Laird Schaub, the majority of newly formed communities do not see their second birthday. Communities fail, he says, because collective decision-making is a leap that not everyone can make. Most people have not learned the fundamental social skills, such as listening, that are necessary to function as a group. Other groups fall apart because they are incompatible. In cohousing, financial risk and inexperience in housing development turn others away.
But for groups that do survive, life in intentional communities can be an exciting and rewarding experience, and some residents are convinced that these new neighborhoods can be part of the solution to society's woes. "Cohousers tend to be people who take responsibility for the world they live in and the world their children will inherit," according to Valerie McIntyre of the Canadian Cohousing Network, a member of the WindSong Cohousing Community in Langley, British Columbia. She describes cohousers as interested in the wider community around them; they are people who "think globally and act locally." Through intentional communities, adults and children alike are learning important lessons about living cooperatively and supporting one another in their day-to-day lives.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Books and Magazines
Cohousing: The Journal of the Cohousing Network. By subscription only. See www.cohousing.org .
Communities Directory. Fellowship for Intentional Community, 2000. Call 800-995-8342 or order on-line at www.ic.org.
Communities: The Journal of Cooperative Living. Found on magazine racks or call 800-462-8240; 540-894-5798; fic.ic.org/cmag.
Hanson, Chris. The Cohousing Handbook: Building a Place for Community. Hartley & Marks, 1996.
McCamant, Kathryn, and Charles Durrett. Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves. Ten Speed Press, 1994.
Norwood , Ken, and Kathleen Smith. Rebuilding Community in America : Housing for Ecological Living, Personal Empowerment and the New Extended Family. Shared Living Resource Center , 1994.
Shaffer, Carolyn, and Kristin Anundsen. Creating Community Anywhere: Finding Support in a Fragmented World. Putnam Publishing Group, 1993.
The Fellowship for Intentional Community, www.ic.org
Northwest Intentional Communities Association, www.ic.org/nica/resource.htm
The Beacon Hill House Intentional Community www.nonprofitpages.com/nica/Bhh1.htm
Canadian Cohousing Network, www.cohousing.ca
The Cohousing Network, www.cohousing.org
The Cohousing Company, www.cohousingco.com
Global Ecovillage Network, www.gaia.org
Whole Village, www.wholevillage.org
Elizabeth Holman lives with her husband and two teenage children in Petaluma, California. She is a freelance writer, ceramic artist, and hospital case manager. She is still adjusting to standing eye-to-eye with her children, who seemed to have shot up overnight.
Photo by Elizabeth Holman.