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Intentional Communities: Beginners Guide to Life in Cooperative Culture

Published December 16, 2022
Written by Cynthia Tina

Welcome to the world of intentional communities! This is a beginners guide to exploring the movement of people choosing to co-create and live in residential communities based on shared values and cooperative culture. 

People of all walks of life are starting and joining communities as a more attractive living option than what the normal housing market offers. Communitarians often report greater connectedness, support, safety, health, and enjoyment of life. While joining or starting an intentional community isn’t possible or desirable for everyone, the existence of such places shows us how we can move towards a more just, sustainable, and cooperative world — together. 

Intentional communities can be found all around the globe. They are rural and urban, small and large, progressive and conservative, secular and religious, alternative and (almost) mainstream. They go by many names, including: ecovillage, cohousing, housing cooperative, co-living, tiny house village, agrihood, and more. 

What are intentional communities?

Cloughjordan Ecovillage, Ireland - an example of intentional communities
Cloughjordan Ecovillage, Ireland

A short history of intentional communal living

Communal living with a shared intention is nothing new. 

The first intentional community in recorded history was Homakoeion, a vegetarian commune, in 525 BCE. Early Christians lived communally, as did a variety of religious and political minorities throughout time. 

Utopian idealism spawned the creation of hundreds of communities during the 19th century, and later waves of young people in the 60s and 70s decided to quit society to create alternative communities. Some of these “hippie era” communities are still around today. 

See this timeline of intentional community development

When thinking of the phrase “intentional community,” a stereotype may come to mind of a hippie commune or a fringe cult off in the woods. The reality is that few communities fit this stereotype. The are rarely led by manipulative “gurus.” The lifestyle is far more accessible than many realize.

The surge of interest in intentional communities over recent years is due to the development of more mainstream communal living models (such as cohousing and co-living), growing dissatisfaction with the isolation of modern life, as well as a search for more affordable and sustainable ways of living. 

“We estimate there are between 10,000-30,000 intentional communities worldwide. Many are quite informal or are based in a traditional village setting. Communities often fail to get started, others stay small and choose not to list on ic.org, others can grow to a significant size.” – Foundation for Intentional Community (FIC)

Definitions for intentional community:

“An intentional community is a group of people who live together or share common facilities and who regularly associate with each other on the basis of explicit common values.” – Foundation for Intentional Community (FIC)

The FIC defines a forming community as having fewer than 4 members and having been in existence for fewer than 2 years, while an established community has more than 4 members and more than 2 years of existence.

“Intentional communities are formed when people choose to live with or near enough to each other to carry out a shared lifestyle, within a shared culture, and with a common purpose.” – Bill Metcalf, communities researcher 

Metcalf also lists specific criteria for an established community:

  • at least five members, drawn from more than one family
  • members must consciously adopt a lifestyle outside of the mainstream to try to address social problems

How intentional communities are formed

Intentional community founders are brought together by shared values and a common purpose or vision for how they want to live. Members who join after a community is established agree to the same or similar intention. Sometimes that intention is simply to foster social connection, sometimes it’s centered on ecological values (such as Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage) or spiritual practices (such as Lama Foundation). 

Unlike a typical retirement community, the residents of intentional communities have a high degree of collective autonomy. Residents make group decisions about how they live — deciding who becomes a member, how often to share meals, who does the dishes, etc. — often using consensus or sociocratic processes (both participatory, or non centralized, forms of decision-making). 

It can take years to get an established community off the ground and failure rates are high, similar to the failure rates of business start-ups. Learn more about the reasons that intentional communities fail.

Key elements of intentional communities:

  • Residential or place-based 
  • Shared values or purpose 
  • Common agreements and social processes 
  • Opportunities for a shared lifestyle 
  • Commitment to building cooperative culture 

A shift to cooperative culture

Community living is not without its challenges, of course! Making decisions together and working with conflict are common sticky points in community life. But the opportunity in community is to work through these dynamics, and hopefully to learn more about yourself and others through the experience. 

“Community — the longest, most expensive, personal growth workshop you will ever take!” – Zev Paiss, cohousing activist

Unlike the competitive patterns that are embraced in general society, intentional communities are focused on the creation of a cooperative culture. 

“Cooperative culture is a radically different approach, where you trust the wisdom of the collective as superior to that of the individual. Instead of a battle, you want to have minimal barriers to soliciting relevant input and to welcome divergent views. Rather than responding to differences with combat (We were doing fine until you spoke), in cooperative culture you try to respond with curiosity (Why does that person see this differently — maybe I’m missing something).” – Laird Schaub, co-founder of the FIC 

“Cooperation is the secret ingredient to sustainability.” – Danielle Williams, Dancing Rabbit 

“Bottom line is that we can’t solve the climate crisis without simultaneously looking deeply at racism, sexism and economic injustice… The intentional communities movement has a role in all of this. Essentially, we are offering a platform in which deep issues (like race, class and gender) can be both dialogued about in a mature, deliberative way, and can be worked on through creating a new system with different power relationships between groups and individuals than our current ones.” – Yana Ludwig, author of Together Resilient 

Reasons to live in intentional community

There is a growing loneliness epidemic, especially in the US and other parts of the world that have witnessed the breakdown of community life over recent generations.  A report from the end of 2020 found that over 60% of American adults feel lonely. Loneliness is a serious health risk, associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, as well as with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide, according to the CDC.

Sophia Community, Chicago - an example of intentional communities
Sophia Community, Chicago

“Because we treat human landscapes more as commodities than as human places, we design our own problem.” – Mark Lakeman, founder of the City Repair Project 

Many of us are part of communities with varying degrees of intentionality. You may be connected with a school or religious community, or engage in online communities through social media. Yet the depth of connection and belonging in these groups isn’t always enough. 

The Covid pandemic has made us more aware of how much we need human connection for health and wellness. We are a species that has evolved within close social groups and in relation to our home environment. Unfortunately, access to community has shrunk over generations in a society that places greater value on consumption, competition, and individualism. 

Intentional communities are a key solution, if only as a source of inspiration for people who have only known limited options for how we can live. Intentional communities are also critical experimentation centers for human-scale living systems, including: renewable energy, local food production, alternative governance models, ecological building, etc. 

Top reasons to live in intentional communities:

  • Shared resources 
  • Living lightly 
  • Resiliency 
  • Community support 
  • Feeling safer 
  • Growing as a person 
  • Saving money 
  • Co-creation 
  • Experimentation 
  • Fun! 

Community living allows for resource-sharing and lighter-living, while meeting our deep needs for connection and belonging. 

“An ecovillage is a human-scale, full-featured settlement, in which human activities can be 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.” – Robert Gilman, the author of the first definition of the term “ecovillage”  

Common types of intentional communities

Below is a short list of some of the most common types of intentional communities. Here is a full list of the types of communities with examples and resources for each type. Keep in mind that each community decides for itself how it wants to be called and not all use the terms in the same way. Still, the below list will give you a launch pad for your exploration. 

Earthsong Cohousing, New Zealand - an example of intentional communities
Earthsong Cohousing, New Zealand

Cohousing 

the fastest growing type of intentional community, model originally from Denmark where residents have their own housing units with many shared services and facilities 

Ecovillage 

focus on sustainability across social, cultural, economic and ecological dimensions of life 

Housing Cooperative (co-op) 

members live in housing they own and govern themselves, often student groups Shared Housing unrelated people sharing housing for their mutual benefit, also called “coliving” 

Spiritual/Religious 

communities organized around shared spiritual or religious beliefs 

Tiny House Village 

intentional communities comprised of majority tiny houses or small homes 

Senior Community 

intentional communities with 55+ or other age restrictions for membership 

Commune 

income-sharing communities with work required of members, about 10% of all intentional communities 

Traditional/Indigenous 

communities with long histories of intentional and communal ways of living 

Transition Town 

grassroot community projects within existing municipalities that aim to increase self sufficiency and sustainability 

And more… 

activist collectives, kibbutzim, artist communities, Camphill communities, agrihoods, retreat centers, ashrams, community land trusts, permaculture farms! See the full list here.

Intentional Communities Type Quiz

Interesting facts about intentional communities around the world

Ecovillage at Ithaca

The EcoVillage at Ithaca is the largest ecovillage in the US, with over 500 residents. 

Damanhur

Damanhur’s magnificent Temples of Humankind were dug in secret from the Italian government for 16 years. 

Heartwood Cohousing

The largest cohousing community by land area is Heartwood Cohousing in Colorado, US, with almost 400 acres. 

O.U.R. Ecovillage

Thanks to the work of O.U.R. Ecovillage and Yarrow Ecovillage, Canada has an official “ecovillage zoning” permitting category. 

Auroville

Arguably, the largest intentional community in the world is Auroville in India with 3,000+ residents and visitors. 

Camphill Intentional Communities

Camphill Communities create a unique home for people with disabilities and number over 100 worldwide! 

Bay Area Intentional Communities

A new generation of communes are popping up with a loose network of over 300 communities in the Bay Area, California. US

“The common denominator of the thousands of people I know who live in cohousing… is that these folks believe that it’s more readily possible to live lighter on the planet if they cooperate with their neighbors, and their lives are easier, more economical, more interesting, and more fun.” – Charles Durrett, The Cohousing Company 

How to visit and join intentional communities 

Searching for an intentional community to join is quite different than searching for a new job, school, or a normal housing option. You are embarking on forming a deep relationship with people and place. Here is a full guide for how to go from where you are now to finding a home in community.

Ecovillage at Ithaca, New York
Ecovillage at Ithaca, New York

After browsing directories of communities and visiting the websites or social media pages of communities that appeal to you, it’s time to plan a visit. Most intentional communities are open to visitors, but nearly all visits need to be pre-arranged with the community. Never just show up! And remember, communities are the homes of people, so be a courteous guest. Here’s a full guide for how to visit communities. 

Visiting a community can be a life-changing experience, especially for those who have never experienced cooperative culture before. It’s also an important step in the process towards membership in a community. The actual process of joining can take several weeks to years. 

Top resources for joining intentional communities:

How to start intentional communities

Get ready for the journey of a lifetime! Most folks underestimate the amount of time, energy, and skill required to assemble a founding group, pen the necessary agreements, search for property, and then set up residency or build infrastructure… all while maintaining a healthy community culture. 

Earthaven Ecovillage, North Carolina
Earthaven Ecovillage, North Carolina

The failure rate of new communities is high, but this doesn’t have to be the story of your group. 

First, check your ego at the door and examine your intentions for wanting to start a community. Many already exist. Have you visited lots of them? Is what you want to create already out there? If you are committed to starting something new, make sure you and your group are well versed in the organizational structures, fundraising, and zoning or permitting options in your location. 

Consider hiring outside consultants. Better yet, first take an online course to know what you are getting into! 

Top resources for starting intentional communities 

How to learn from communities 

Not quite up for joining or starting an intentional community? You can still benefit from the decades of experience and knowledge accumulated in these places about how to build cooperative culture. Social technologies, group processes, self governance, alternative economic systems, conflict mediation, personal development tools — intentional communities have much to teach about how to overcome the challenges of living and working together. 

Woodward Land Cohousing, Washington
Woodward Land Cohousing, Washington

This wisdom is of benefit to any individual, group, or organization. 

Glean the wisdom of these places so you can create more community in your life and embody what it means to be a communitarian (even if you don’t live in a formal intentional community). Check out the fantastic resources on the right so you can start your community journey without leaving home! 

“Lama is unusual among spiritual communities in that no one teacher resides here permanently. The practice of living in community is the real teacher.” – Scott Thomas, Lama Foundation 

Top resources for learning from intentional communities: 

  • The Cooperative Culture Handbook is a practical toolkit for social change based on the wisdom of communities. 
  • Here are excellent resources about consensus and sociocracy, two decision-making processes common in communities. 
  • Sign-up for a Community Matchmaking session for recommendations of communities to visit and learn from that are specific to your needs.
  • Learn how to thrive in cooperative culture and build your self-literacy with the online course Becoming a Communitarian

Your next steps 

At whatever stage in your journey — from the skeptically curious to the ardent community founder, from the active community seeker to the long-time resident — know that you are not alone in the longing for community. 

We hope that CommunityFinders can be your home for connecting with fellow community seekers and gaining guidance on your journey to community. 

If you’re brand new, consider taking the community types quiz to get a sense for which type of community would best suit you. Or signing up for a matchmaking session to get specific recommendations of communities to consider visiting or joining that are a fit for your values, interests, and lifestyle. 

Ready to get going on your search? The Community Finders Circle is a membership program designed for those actively in the process of searching for a community. Get a network of support, essential resources, and the mentorship that will see you through on your journey. 

Why we need intentional communities

The world needs intentional communities now more than ever. We are living through a time of increased isolation and polarization. If we have learned anything from the experience of Covid and global pandemic, it is that we need each other. We need intimacy and connection for our well-being, we need to listen to each other to solve complex problems, and we need to first know our neighbor in order to feel comfortable reaching out when times get tough.

Intentional communities show us a way forward that puts the collective good before individual gains and teaches us the humbling art of getting along even when we disagree. Cooperation is key to our survival as a species. A cooperative culture is the legacy of the intentional communities movement. 

So get out there and build some community! 

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4 Comments
  1. Robin Brison

    Hi Cynthia,

    I’d like to be placed on your list for available communities looking for members and open to visitors if that’s possible?
    Let me know if there is a way to do that or if you have suggestions about where to share our community or place ad promotions? I’d love to get the word out 🙂

    Feel free to email, text or call.

    With much gratitude,
    Robin
    360-612-2412

    Reply
    • Kevin

      I’m interested in communities available for me.im a single male age 55. I’m located in Colorado Springs but I can relocate any where in the United States. I’m interested in one that is interested in growing food and hard work. Need housing and can be shared. Even roughing it sounds good. A place where if employment is required I can find employment. Thank you

      Reply

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Cynthia Tina

Hi! I’m Cynthia.

I’ve visited 150+ intentional communities — ecovillages, cohousing, coops, spiritual, permaculture, & more types of community. I created CommunityFinders to help you on your community journey. How is your journey going? How can I help?

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