The New Wave of Communal Living in America: Notes from a Sabbatical

David Rothstein, OSB

About a year ago I was stunned to learn that this country has more than six hundred intentional communities, with new ones forming each year.  Most are secular communities made up of ordinary-looking Americans who are extraordinary in their intention to live communally with others, interacting socially and sharing resources and income.  Learning of this exciting social development came as a great relief to me. 


Several years ago in a first-year symposium class, my students and I had read Bettina Drew's Crossing The Expendable Landscape.  Her book exposed an alarming trend in the way corporations are developing land and building gated communities, appealing to security and profit motives.  Middle- to upper-income whites are usually the ones who move into them, often with racially biased motives such as feeling safer among their own kind and avoiding "inner-city problems" or having concerns about preserving property values.  Cosmetic conformity is a high value in these communities, resulting in control of physical design and human behaviors.  Perhaps most alarming is that an increasing number of these "communities" are being built on land controlled by private companies, a trait which warns that more and more of the democratically-controlled residential land in this country is now being held and governed by private corporations.  Were there, I wondered, any countertrends in community development today, any communities that are more socially and environmentally responsible, more democratic or even spiritual in their social design?




[Are there] any countertrends in community development . . . that are more socially and environmentally responsible?

I decided to make this question the focus of my sabbatical in fall 2002.  My semester's journey took me to four types of intentional communities: cohousing communities, ecovillages, egalitarian, and spiritual communities.  By visiting examples of all four, I learned the answer to my question: yes, such communities do indeed exist.

Of the four kinds of intentional communities I visited, cohousing communities and ecovillages impressed me the most.  More than a hundred cohousing communities can be found in our country's urban or suburban areas.  Originating in Denmark, this type of community began to spread across the United States in the 1980s.  Cohousing communities feature closely clustered houses (an average of about thirty units for families, couples, and singles) with a common pedestrian area in the middle, a common house where residents share several meals each week, and many other common features, such a single laundry, tools, machinery, and sometimes community cars.


In their governance, cohousing communities make decisions by consensus, as do most intentional communities.  There is no hierarchical structure; rather, consensus meetings, committees, and service work hours encourage a maximum of democratic participation.  Individuals can occupy leadership positions in committees, such as the planning committee for consensus meetings, the kitchen maintenance committee, the pets committee, the organic garden committee, even a conflict management committee.  As part of their membership agreement, residents are usually expected to pitch in with several hours of community service each week, doing work such as preparing community meals (mostly vegetarian ones), making compost piles, gardening, and giving tours.  Members usually have outside jobs as well, and they must pay a regular fee for community food and maintenance.


Ecovillages, which began to spread in the 1990s, have many of the features in housing and social design that characterize cohousing groups.  Ecovillages are rural or semi-rural communities, usually built on a large parcel of land.  The mission and goals of an ecovillage are aimed at harmonious, sustainable living within a local ecosystem.  As a result of having closely clustered houses, an ecovillage is able to use most of its land for prairie or forest restoration and organic gardening.  Houses are designed to incorporate as many green features as possible: passive and active solar heating, structurally insulated panels for walls, cellulose insulation, high-efficiency windows, recycled vinyl-sawdust shingles, fiber-cement siding, and more.  Some ecovillages strive to preserve and restore biodiversity and natural resources on their land, whereas others, like the Ecovillage at Ithaca, NY, have also become environmental education centers where students can come for hands-on learning in communal and environmental living.  Because of their educational and communal focus, intentional communities often receive some level of tax exemption through legal recognition as a 501 (d) or 501 (c) (3) organization.


Many of the ecovillages and cohousing communities I visited incorporate a variety of rituals and activities to maintain bonds of unity among members.  Conflict management agreements or accountability procedures are common.  Often communities require members to choose a pre-designed method of conflict resolution when problems arise, which range from simply meeting with a person face to face to meeting with a mediator or group of mediators.  Both spiritual and secular communities had versions of group attunements that I found used daily at Sirius Community, a spiritual ecovillage near Amherst, MA.  Attunements are silent meditations held before and sometimes during and after an event, like a meal or work period.  People stand or sit in a circle, usually holding hands, and focus on being together, releasing negative thoughts, emotions, fears, and calling love, light, and peace into the group.  This attunement ritual worked wonderfully one day when I was helping a crew build a straw bale house at Sirius.  Nothing was going right that morning-measurements were off, people were grumbly, and we were dangerously misfiring the nail gun.  Then we stopped and gathered for an attunement.  One could actually feel a new spirit flow through the group.  The rest of the morning went smoothly, with no more misfires.


Aside from common meals, which could vary from twice a day to every day in different communities, another favorite bonding ritual centered on the community swimming hole, often made by humans.  Several members claimed that more spontaneous community happened at the swimming hole than anywhere else, probably because everyone from kids to elderly members flocked there on summer days.  

Members of cohousing communities and ecovillages initially join with an understanding that their lifestyle will not be fully communal-no income sharing, no religious ideology.  Yet I was amazed to discover that in some communities which had existed at least ten years, members were beginning to think more communally, raising questions about buying community cars, engaging in a common social activism, articulating common spiritual beliefs, formulating common values that could give them a higher sense of purpose.


A growing number of  us see intentional, ecological, and communal living as . . . essential to our planetary survival.

When I returned from my sabbatical, I had new zest: not all Americans are hopelessly individualistic and materialistic; a growing number of us see intentional, ecological, and communal living as not only better than life in suburbia or in a gated community but also essential to our planetary survival.  Because a young generation is especially interested in this mode of living, I concluded that through college courses students can be taught and fired up about living more communally.  Finally intentional communities may have something prophetic to offer older communities today.  Just the sheer number of established intentional communities as well as the number of new ones forming each year might well prompt awareness and investigation on the part of monasteries and Christian parishes.  Can the example of these new communities help to sprout new life in our older, more traditional communities? 


By the end of my sabbatical, I had concluded that these new intentional communities can teach us practical ways to implement ecological stewardship in the ideological and physical design of our older communities.  They can teach us how to integrate consensus decision-making through skilled facilitators to produce an effective, unifying form of democratic governance.  Perhaps most of all, they bear witness to a growing hunger in this country for both communal living and an integrated spirituality that combines earth care, social justice, contemplation, and growth through community.  It may be that this new wave of communal living in America is a moment of grace for both monasteries and the wider Church.