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What is the "intention" in intentional communities?
The other day, the New York Times ran a story about the financial collapse of a planned intentional community. Now, it sounded like this was a situation that was pretty ripe for, if not an outright scam, then a cascade of incompetence, leading to people losing their money.
The story is overall sympathetic to the investors, who had hoped to make this new community their home. Perhaps they were naïve, the project seemed to hit a lot of snags that a professional developer might have known to avoid. A developer also wouldn’t have to deal with a group of stakeholders committed to group consensual governance (which sounds like endless meetings with no resolution, and someone in the NYT comments described as an '‘HOA on steroids”).
But I’m fascinated by what draws people to these plans. The community was to have individual homes, but a large community centre including kitchen and dining space, and a hall. (Whether this meant all meals were to be communal was unclear from the article). One interviewee, in describing what attracted her to the plan, said that she wanted to essentially know people without having to make any effort.
a structure where I didn’t have to be outgoing and could still get the benefit of getting to know people
Now, this is something that most of our ancestors had without trying: it was called living in a village.
Those communities were not “intentional”, but they were the practical form that much of human life took. Yes, you knew your neighbors, for better or for worse. And yes, you had shared spaces. The notion of the common: shared space that was for grazing, recreation; and other structures such as village or church halls that could be used by members of the town. These are hardly new concepts.
But people’s desire to reinvent the wheel never ends. Today’s “intentional community” is a newer iteration of the desire that has driven utopian settlements, hippie communes, and other similar arrangements. Some would draw a distinction between the intentional community aspirants and commune-dwellers, in terms of property ownership and ethos. But the core promise, that somehow, together, we can live better than we do in our current towns/cities, is the same.
The nineteenth century saw a blossoming of religious communities in the New World, with varying goals. Socialists of different stripes would try to create their ideal space, so would niche religions, as would New Age groups. Most failed. That is human nature. Everything from the Oneida community to hippie communes in the 70s, tended not to succeed as long term propositions. Lack of finance, lack of interest, younger people walking away from the core religion. (There are exceptions, such as this commune still going after 40 years).
The fact is that (unintentional) towns developed organically: because of a need, because there was a resource availability. There was a reason that a village worked. And intentional communities are divorced, typically, from that need other than the emotional need of their own inhabitants.
And this raises a lot of questions too, about what we mean when we talk of intentionality in the intentional community. You could say that, for instance, many gated communities are intentional communities. They often have shared facilities like a swimming pool or tennis courts that are only for residents. But gated communities are simply seen as a snobbish vein of real estate.
Whereas intentional communities, manage to claim a distinction from this. (would the NYT have reported so sympathetically the collapse of a planned gated community development?). But intentional, like mindful, or conscious, manages to sound somehow virtuous but in a vague enough way to be meaningless.
In one sense the NYT intentional community folk sounded like any other exurban NIMBYs: they wanted to own the land around their tract, to make sure it wouldn’t be developed.
A desire not to be blindsided by new development is part of what attracts people to places like Celebration, Florida. Originally developed by the Disney corporation, much of its housing represents vernacular architecture of a century ago. It’s pretty. It’s clean.
It wouldn’t pass muster by the lights of most intentional community advocates, but the intention of residents (to live somewhere that suits them aesthetically, and offers community spaces to share) seems to be pretty similar when you think about it.
But just as a man cannot be a prophet in his own land, utopianists never think it can be where they are. They always need to go, to settle, to build. This is why people never think of the intentional community already present right in many cities: the co-op building. The management committees of the intentional community sound quite a lot like a co-op board. And in apartment buildings of a century ago, a shared restaurant (rather than everyone having a full kitchen), was also a common design.
The intentional community could be closer than you think.