About-ness and Communities That Last

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Duwamish Cohousing Community in West Seattle

Duwamish Cohousing Community in West Seattle

(Note: My previous post introduced the image of the green hill. Because the word “Zion” means so many things to so many people, this post and my future posts will use the phrase “green hill” as shorthand for individual people’s efforts to build zion-like communities.)

My initial interest in building a green hill was just to live near my friends and family — something as simple as purchasing land, building houses, and inviting my loved ones to come on over. But, while that would be wonderful, I realized that my dream was about more than just building a “friends of Dane club”. I don’t want to be the linchpin that holds everyone together.

The sad truth is that human beings don’t naturally, spontaneously gather together in harmony. Any intentional community will result from the influence of:

  1. a charismatic leader,
  2. a shared group interest,
  3. or a uniting purpose or identity.

A community gathered around a specific person or interest is fragile, and unlikely to last beyond a single generation. I want my green hill to be about something, about something that’s bigger than any of its members.

I observed that “about-ness” or purpose in communities comes from three related areas (or maybe I’m just in the mood for lists of three today):

  1. Lifestyle
  2. Space
  3. Program

“Lifestyle” is about the cultural norms and expectations of community members. Do members share meals together? Do they swap babysitting? Are community chores managed by members, or is maintenance hired out? Does the community encourage social activities? Athletic activities? Education? Performance? Discourse?

“Space” refers to the physical layout of the community — how big are the dwellings? Are they spaced close together or far apart? How are they oriented? Does the community provide community facilities, like a clubhouse, dining hall, rec center, swimming pool, or playground? Is the community designed with walking paths or driving roads? Are lots divided by fences or do they share yard space?

“Program” identifies the overarching mission of the community. In an eco community, the mission is to live sustainably with the environment, and the program is the set of managed activities that guide members toward that goal. In a Christian enclave community, the mission is to live in accordance with a particular vision of Christianity, and the program is the structure of authority that guides members toward that goal.

The lines between lifestyle, space, and program are not clearly defined, and each has an influence on the others. A community’s lifestyle will be heavily influenced by its physical layout. Every community has space and lifestyle, but not every community has a program. In my next several posts, I will look at each of these three community attributes in more detail, and I hope to provide some tools on each of them for any aspiring community builders out there.

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10 comments for “About-ness and Communities That Last

  1. You asked in your last post why there weren’t more LDS people interested in intentional communities or spearheading community projects.
    I think you should take a look at this website: http://www.utahvalleycommons.com/

    A community founded by LDS people, but not meant to be LDS exclusive by any means. It is still in the planning stages, and is not yet off the ground–but I just though I should let you know that there definitely is a growing interest in these things.
    Just last year at BYU a special class was offered through the anthropology department all about Intentional Communities.

  2. I didn’t mention in my other comment that I think this is very cool, and I hope it catches on. I didn’t realize there was a whole movement out there associated with this; I thought I was one of few who daydreamed about such things, so thanks for blogging on it.

    I wonder if my interested started when I read the Hobbit as a kid. The vision of the Shire captured my imagination much more than the rest of Middle Earth. A community of hobbit holes, anyone?

  3. This is all fascinating stuff. I think very relevant to your thoughts here and future planning would be to take a look at 19th century Mormon community building in Utah and early 20th century Zionist (Jewish Zionists) community building in Palestine. There are extremely insightful overlaps – both in terms of successes and failures to sustain “intentional communities” – which highlight very provocative differences. It’s a dissertation/book just waiting to happen, and I hope a competent sociologist takes it up some time.

    One of the real kickers is the generational attrition you note above. It will affect not just lifestyle and space, but also program. I think one question to ask is whether we ought to envision multi-generational sustainment. Why do we want the community to last beyond one or two generations? Since each new generation will inevitable take up and reinterpret the lifestyle/ideals/programs of their heritage in a new way, why not simply try and be successful enough to instill the idea of zion-like communities, along with the imperative to build them? I take this to be one of our gospel imperatives – and a heavily beleaguered imperative at that.

    I wish you great success.

  4. Marie, I’m familiar with Utah Valley Commons, and it looks like they’ve got a good thing going. They fit into the category of “cohousing”, which is a specific type of intentional community that I will go into more detail (but not much detail) later. Cohousing has a lot of potential as a happy medium between mainstream and counterculture community.

    sl, for what it’s worth, a community of hobbit hills and hobbit holes is one form I’ve envisioned for the green hill community I hope to build. It would be awesome, but ultimately I don’t think it would be mainstream enough (mainstream-ness may be important, depending on the people you hope to include in your green hill — I’d have a hard time convincing some of my dearest friends to move their families into hobbit holes, and so I’m willing to make concessions for their sakes :) )

    James (who is one of those dearest friends, and whose family might be willing to live in a hobbit hole), you bring up an important question about multi-generational sustainability. A multi-generational program will sustain itself through developing an orthodoxy, and I don’t know that I’m excited about that. The balance, then, is between ephemerality and orthodoxy…let me think about that and I’ll get back to you.

  5. A little on what James said in #3: why have days dreams when Mormons have such a history of the kind of living? My mother (Albion, ID) and my farther (Moroni, UT) grow up in this kind of community. There were hundreds of Mormon Villages. We can’t forget Kirland and Nauvoo. Much has been written by scholars, novelists, and common men about the lives lived in these communities.

  6. Bob, that’s exactly what I mean when I say that community building is the kind of thing that one might expect Mormons to be great at. For the first hundred years of our existence, it was one of our core devotions. The building up of Zion and eternal relationships is why the church exists! As others have commented, there are surely some Mormons involved in the community-building movement, but we’re an incidental force at best. With our history and vision, I’m sure we can (and will) do transcendental things.

  7. #6: Sorry, my parents could not wait to get out of those communities. For my farther, evey girl in town was some kind of cousin!
    #3: Generations only occur in blood groups. In the a general population, they are a myth.

  8. Good point. The fact that the communities no longer exist (at least not in their original distinctive form — I’ve been to Albion and it’s beautiful, but perhaps not too different from other rural communities) signals that they stopped meeting the needs of their residents. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from them in an attempt to build something more engaging, enjoyable, and rewarding than modern conventional neighborhood life.

  9. I like Dean L. May (Mormon) work on this founding and collapse of the Mormon Villages. (“Three frontiers”).

  10. Did anyone else get their National Geographic today? Those guys on the cover have got the “program” thing down- in fact, they have very real elements of all six things on your lists in the OP.

    Maybe it’s the introvert in me, or the independent teachings of my parents, but I’m super wary of giving up privacy and freedom. That makes me sound more politically right-wing than I am by far, but it’s still true. There’s only one thing that might have the power to make me want to live in an “intentional community” and that’s religion. But the thought of that ever happening is pretty incredible.

    And yet the very real sense of community is one of the most appealing things about living in Vermont to me. It’s not contrived at all but totally organic; the “about-ness” is missing, I guess. One of the only things binding a small town together is place and our identity as members of that place. Even in our village of 600, there’s a wide range of politics, religion (or lack thereof), lifestyle, space, etc. And yet it works pretty well- partly because of social capital and the way it is manifested in civic engagement.

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