By Terri Smith –
To some, the idea of a group of people all sharing land and living together harmoniously in a community sounds absurd or downright awful. To others, it sounds fabulous and like it might be the only way our world can continue to survive. Intentional communities are by no means a new thing, though it seems each generation that tries it feels like they have invented it. Some people love the idea, some people feel threatened by it, and some have never given it any thought at all.
So, just what is an intentional community? There are myriad examples of living arrangements that could go by this name. They range from a group of college kids renting a house together to large groups of people designing and building a village. The reasons and ways in which people come together to share resources seem almost endless. What all of these types of communities do have in common, however, is that they are formed by a group of at least three people who are not related and who choose to share living space in some way, whether in the same house or on the same property. There is always a common purpose to the group. Sometimes this purpose is as simple as affordable housing while attending college. Other times a group has shared religious beliefs and/or purposes, or is a co-housing arrangement to assist people living with disabilities or other unique circumstances. In the case of Eco-villages the purpose is stewardship of the land. The latter is the type of intentional community I am interested in and have spent many years investigating.
Eco-villages, as defined by Robert Gilman, the researcher and writer who first defined them and helped shape the Global Eco-Village Network, “are human-scale, full-featured settlements in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human development and can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.”
And just what does that mean exactly? In his article from 1991, Gilman breaks down his definition into its parts:
- Human-scale: all people within the community know the rest of the community. This usually means under 500 people and some define it as less than 100.
- Full-featured: most/all basic human functions can happen in the village, i.e.: food production, recreation, commerce, manufacturing, residence, etc. Obviously, the village is not going to have its own hospital or airport, but you get the idea.
- Harmlessly integrated: this is the eco part of Eco-village. The idea that humans are a part of nature (the ecosystem) rather than above it, and that we can find our place within the natural, cyclical rhythms of the world. This is in contrast to consumer-driven, linear thinking where the idea is, says Gilman, “dig it up, use it once, throw it away forever.”
- Healthy human development: for the village to function, its members must be physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually healthy.
Successfully continued into the indefinite future: this sustainability principle is the long-term view, the big picture that our
shortsighted, consumer-based, industrial model is trying very hard to ignore. Our current model cannot continue indefinitely into the future as it is structured now. We will eventually simply run out: of resources, of food, of water, of air, of an inhabitable planet.
To many people who are waking up to the realities of the long-term effects of our industrial, consumer society, the idea of sustainable communities and eco-villages seems to be one of our best options if we want to continue to survive, let alone thrive, on our planet.
I both love the idea of communal living and eco-villages in particular and am often sceptical about it. In a way, since I began farming almost eight years ago I have lived in constantly changing communities of people and overall I have loved it. I have visited and talked with many people from diverse communities, some even right here in the Cariboo, and I have seen firsthand that some work and some don’t.
I have often noticed there will be a bit of a smirk or a grimace when people talk about groups of people sharing living space. Often it is the fringe people who band together to form a community and one often hears the words, “cult,” or “hippy commune” when people speak of communities and there will often be a note of derision in their tone.
One of the biggest obstacles people seem to cite as a reason against this type of habitation is land ownership. If a group of people are all living on the same piece of land, who owns it? Our current system is not structured for this sort of land ownership. To some, the paradigm shift required to get from the idea of “mine” to “ours” is just too big of a leap. It can be a logistical leap as well, but thanks to the communities that already exist there are now ways around this hurdle.
O.U.R (One United Resource) Ecovillage in Shawnigan Lake, BC is an incredible resource for those who want more information about how to go about this sort of living. When I toured this community in 2008, one of the founding members laughed as she related the struggles they had to go through to be able to legally operate their community. She said, “after approaching so many levels of government who all said we couldn’t do what we wanted to do, we started realizing a ‘no’ is just an uneducated ‘yes’.” Eventually they managed to turn all those nos into yeses.
O.U.R. Ecovillage officially began in 1999 and operates on a 25-acre property on Vancouver Island. While many groups find loopholes in the rules around land ownership, O.U.R. Ecovillage worked on changing the rules. They have done work on rezoning and creating a type of zoning that was unheard of before they began: the Rural Residential Comprehensive Development Zone. They even got Van City bank to develop a new type of mortgage/financing package. They are involved in a research project that will help other groups overcome the obstacles of starting land-share projects with multiple stakeholders involved with multiple activities.
But what about not owning your own land? If it’s not yours you can’t take out a mortgage on it. This is true. But it isn’t everyone’s highest priority. The baby boomer generation made a living wage. Buying a home, a car or two, having your 2.5 children… all these things were doable and they were expected. My generation and those coming after me are facing new realities. A minimum wage that is impossible to live on, astronomical housing costs, rising food prices, not to mention climate change, and an increasingly alarming number of natural and human-made disasters worldwide are the scary new realities. I do want to be smart about my future, I do want a good quality of life, and I want to leave behind a legacy that I can be proud of rather than a wasteland for my friends’ children (because I’m too afraid for their future to have any of my own) will have to deal with.
Contrary to popular opinion, communal living is the opposite of a new thing. In fact, the idea of people living just in small family groups isolated from others is actually the new thing. Since people first appeared on this planet we have banded together for safety, for survival, and because we are social animals and we like to have other humans around us. Living in larger groups can allow for a better quality of life and ease financial burden as well. At this time in history we have a crisis of what to do with all our elderly relatives as the baby boomers reach an age where living alone is just not a great option anymore. Meanwhile, childcare costs are astronomical and parents often feel bad about how much time their children have to spend at daycare. In the past, particularly in agrarian settings, grandparents or other elderly folks would often care for the young, passing on their wisdom and stories, providing childcare, and allowing another option for the elderly to still have a useful role in society.
As the world changes, we must also change. For many of my generation, over-educated and underpaid, our options have narrowed. And if you want to live rurally the options have really narrowed. Sure we could always go work in the oil fields for a time until we made enough money to buy that house or property, but if you are someone who is concerned with our current model of resource management, then you may not be able to stomach it. As developers buy up good farmland, as the price of land rises, and as farming becomes less and less viable as a way to make a living, land-sharing becomes a much more attractive option.
O.U.R. Ecovillage is permaculture-based and contains untouched natural areas, a working farm with food production, orchards, and livestock. There is a teaching space, a woodworking shop, a B&B, temporary and permanent housing, an art studio, and a few businesses including natural building design and consulting, and a shiatsu therapist. As someone who has farmed for many years in an isolated setting, the idea of being able to share work, share resources, and see other people without driving for hours is incredibly appealing. It would also be nice to have others around to take care of the animals or water the garden when one wants to get away for a little while.
All that said, I have still found many intentional communities have such long and detailed rules or policies that I would not want to actually join one. It is good to have guidelines in place for dealing with conflict. Most eco-villages are democratic in nature. It is part of our Western sense of individualism that makes us balk at the idea of sharing land. But still, my own redneck-hippy nature definitely balks at the idea of sitting around in a circle trying to wait until everyone’s feelings have been addressed and we can all reach a consensus. I like the idea of groups of people sharing land and resources. But I like to make my own decisions as well. And as much as I am incredibly social, I can also be incredibly introverted and private. I like to share, but I like my own things and my own space, too.
What I have found in seven years of hosting WWOOFers, Workawayers, and other strangers from around the world as well as from living communally since college is that everyone needs a space of one’s own and everyone needs to know what is expected of them from the start. If each person has this everyone feels happier and more content.
There is still a long way to go before we figure out how to live well as a species and not destroy our planet at the same time. People often ask why, if intentional communities are such a good idea, we aren’t already all living in them. I’ll leave you with another quote from Robert Gilman: “The answer, then… is fairly simple: these needs and opportunities are so new we have not had time as a society to adjust to them. We are at the very beginning of a new era, and we can expect much of the development of technique and awareness that will characterize this era to be still ahead of us.”
Terri Smith is a non-certified organic vegetable farmer in the Cariboo. She is passionate about writing, art, goats, and feeding good food to good people. She believes in following your heart, living your dreams, and taking care of the planet.