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Are intentional communities a viable investment?

Or is that a contradiction in terms?

By Jennifer Stern

, |

Are intentional communities a viable investment?

Or is that a contradiction in terms?

By Jennifer Stern

, |

6 min read

We know that – as a country, and as property developers – we have failed to effectively and equitably utilise South Africa’s resources. Land use is illogical – based on narrow perceptions, and still subject to the legacy of colonial and apartheid spatial planning – and decidedly inequitable. We know that we have to change the relationship of people to land, but we are almost paralysed by the enormity of the challenge.

So, perhaps it’s time to rethink our relationship with the earth, with each other, and within and between communities. It’s a tough call, and – for most of us – something new and unexplored. So let’s take a look at some ways that people have tried to creatively combine land use, land ownership and land development to build sustainable, equitable communities – the intentional community movement.

What is an intentional community?

There have been many intentional communities throughout history – some successful, some not – but the concept of ‘intentional community’ is a slippery one. Intentional community – two simple words with well-understood meanings. But there are two aspects to intentional communities. The first is that it’s a community that was intentionally created, and the second is that it was created for a specific intention. So, while there may be communities that have been intentionally created – most residential estates fit this definition – they were not necessarily created for a shared intention. And, of course, there are many naturally occurring communities in which the members have a shared belief, value system and intention, but they are not intentional communities. They are serendipitous successes.

A more formal definition is that proposed by Bill Metcalf, the author of From Utopian Dreaming to Communal Reality: Cooperative Lifestyles in Australia, who says that an intentional community must ‘have at least five members, drawn from more than one family, and members must consciously adopt a lifestyle outside of the mainstream to try to address social problems.’

That phrase ‘outside of the mainstream’ may have you exasperatedly reaching for the little x at the top of the page, but think about it. It’s obvious that the way we’ve been doing things for the past 20 years since universal suffrage, and the decades (and even centuries) before that, have not worked. So, why do we cling to mainstream thinking, when it clearly isn’t working? Is there, perhaps, something we can learn from the world’s wide-eyed idealists, and – equally importantly – something they can learn from us?

Why intentional communities fail

According to Alexa Clay, the co-author of The Misfit Economy, about 90% of intentional communities fail, which is, she says, is about the same failure rate as for start-ups – and even about 90% of established companies fold after a few decades.

Intentional communities are both reactive and proactive. They are reactive in that they are established in response to a perceived shortcoming in society, but they are proactive in that the members actually get stuck in and do something about these shortcomings.

Part of the problem, though, is with the nature of dissatisfaction. Unlike Tolstoy’s families, all unhappy societies are alike, but all happy societies are happy in their own way. It’s easy to complain about the way a community is run, and it’s easy to choose to step out of it, but it’s not that easy to create a viable alternative. So, rather than asking why they fail, we should, perhaps, ask why some succeed.

Why intentional communities succeed

Most of us know what we don’t want, but that doesn’t mean we really know what we do want. Even if we say we do. We want equality, freedom, environmental integrity, respect and a whole lot more lovely words. But words are only as good as the meanings attributed to them. So one person’s environmental integrity may well clash with another person’s freedom. Which is probably why most of the successful intentional communities have one strong common thread – and it is usually (not always) religion. The Huttite colonies, Amish communities and Israeli kibbutzim all work. Failing religion, the most successful unifying factor is sustainability (although some may argue that sustainability qualifies as a religion).

Two of the more successful modern intentional communities are Auroville in India, and Findhorn in Scotland. While these look different, and seem to reflect classic Asian and British aesthetics, the basic premise underlying them is almost identical. Findhorn is about inner listening: ‘When we become still and go within, either through meditation or activities such as being in nature, we can find a deep inner knowing that reaches far beyond the sense of a small and separate self.’ And Auroville is based on the ideal of ‘a harmony and balance in which all the great achievements and aspirations of diverse cultural traditions would find their destined place within the whole.’ Both communities are committed to sustainable living, and broadening consciousness through courses and residences that are open to people from all over the world.

It’s probably fair to say that another thing Findhorn and Auroville have in common is good governance, and – for many of us – it’s hard to reconcile that with the concept of ‘inner knowing’, universal love and all that ‘hippy-dippy stuff’.

Aah – but how do you measure success? Or failure?

And all that ‘hippy-dippy stuff’ might just be the crux. Possibly the best lesson in why intentional communities either succeed or fail is to look at one that has done both. The Farm Collective was founded in the 1970s in southern Tennessee, USA, by charismatic, ex-Marine Corps war veteran, spiritual leader and guru Stephen Gaskin. It was a 700-hectare self-sustaining vegan collective that welcomed almost anyone, saw the world through rose-tinted ‘smoked’ lenses, and genuinely tried to make the world a better, less violent, less exploitative place. But it didn’t work, and the reasons, according to Melvyn Stiriss in an article on ecovillage.org, were:

  • the cult effect
  • terrible money management
  • hierarchy and denial of hierarchy
  • ego
  • lack of intergenerational continuity
  • marijuana
  • the living-in-a-bubble effect.

The cult effect is an interesting one. It takes a strong personality and a defined vision to get an intentional community off the ground, but such charismatic people can sometimes fall prey to their own myths. Stephen did. He spent more time (and money) on extensive outreach trips to get more people to join The Farm, and share in the vision, than he did actually working the land. There was virtually no income for the approximately 1,400 people on the farm, as only a few were prepared to ‘leave the bubble’ to work outside for a wage.

So The Farm Collective basically went bankrupt in 1983. But the vision was strong, and a remnant repurposed it into a more practical version. Douglas Stevenson, principal volunteer media interface and spokesperson at The Farm, explains:

‘An overview of The Farm’s finances and all its operations was performed, followed by a democratic vote to determine the operating budget for running the community. Each adult member was able to vote for the services they deemed essential and the allocated cost. This included operation of our water system, hiring bookkeepers and accountants, maintenance of roads and public buildings, plus the cost of community services such as our clinic, and lifeguards for our swimming area. The total amount was then divided among all of the adult members, establishing the amount each adult was required to pay every month. Altogether, it added up to about $100 per person, plus an additional $35 a month per person to go towards paying down our debt. Within four years, the community was debt-free!’

Today, The Farm is a successful multi-generational eco village of 200 permanent residents on about 1,300 hectares. Until the COVID-19 outbreak, you could visit, and camp or stay in The Side Door, a hippie heritage hotel. They ran (and probably will run again some time) a series of workshops on topics like permaculture, natural midwifery and sustainable building.

Intentional communities – opportunity or pipe dream?

Most intentional communities have been built by idealists, who had to figure out how to transform their fabulous vision into a real live community on the ground. There have been some successes – and the common factor in these seems to be patience, and a willingness to learn on the job and to allow the community to develop organically – with the ‘developers’ offering guidance rather than a compelling business plan and rigid timetable.

Another common factor seems to be a sensible business plan and savvy management that is both conservative and bold – thinking way outside the box, while staying way inside the budget. Most developers have the hard skills, so perhaps now is the time to creatively use them to build something audaciously progressive.

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