Designing a community with the best of intentions

Sometimes my essay-brain takes over my story-brain. This is one of those times, so forgive me while I release my inner adult.

This need has happened because lately I’ve been in communication with quite a number of people who are thinking and talking with others about starting an “intentional community”. They ask questions like: How did you decide to set up the Shedders community in the way that you have?

So please let the left-brained me explain, with the benefit of hindsight and Wikipedia.


When the Shedders first started envisioning a future where we might retire, leave the city and live together, we said to ourselves, there must be a template for this. Surely there were plenty of model communities from which we could steal ideas.

That was over a dozen years ago, and, what with Google not being as clever as it is now, I found it challenging to find information. Eventually I stumbled across the phrase, “intentional communities”, which strongly appealed to me. A community built around an intention: THAT’s what we were after. (Our intention was really three-fold: to provide mutual support, as we’d done often in the past; to keep sharing our common interests; to save money.)

This morning Google offers 3,080,000 hits on the phrase “intentional communities”. Clearly, interest is skyrocketing. We humans are hungry for connection, so we are drawn to the concept of intentional communities.

I like Wiki’s definition, in its usual punchy yet comprehensive style:

An intentional community is a planned residential community designed from the start to have a high degree of social cohesion and teamwork. The members of an intentional community typically hold a common social, political, religious, or spiritual vision…They share responsibilities and resources…includes collective households, cohousing communities, ecovillages, communes…

This means that if you want to live with “a high degree of social cohesion and teamwork”, you still have choices to make. You want social cohesion and teamwork, but how much of this dynamic life fertiliser is right for you??

My essay-brain sees a long spectrum, the ends of which I’m calling intimate to private.

And I’m placing three key intentional-community players on that spectrum:
1. Pocket neighbourhoods
2. Cohousing
3. Collective households

Here’s my artistic capture of this spectrum:



Pocket neighbourhoods

At the higher-privacy end of the spectrum I’ve placed a wonderful little concept called “pocket neighbourhoods”. Again from Wiki:

A pocket neighborhood is a grouping of smaller residences, often around a courtyard or common garden, designed to promote a close knit sense of community and neighborliness with an increased level of contact…using shared communal areas that promote social activities, and homes with smaller square footage built in close proximity to one another.

My mum and dad spent five months every year for the first 20 years of their retirement in something similar to a pocket neighborhood. They would travel from Canada to Arizona (“Snowbirds”, these winter-evaders are called) and live in a mobile home village. There were plenty of communal areas, giving them a rich social life. Mum, a drummer, belonged to several bands and finally got to play competitive tennis to her heart’s content. Dad made lifelong friends in the horseshoe pitch and built beautiful things in the carpentry shop. They would return to their quiet home in Canada each spring, ready for their gardens and some privacy but full of pizzazz and younger than ever. I reckon those lively, social months added years to their lives.

The “pocket neighbourhood” approach gave them a small home of their own but brought them close to other people and activities. They renewed themselves with shared interests and new things to think about. They experienced a high level of engagement, to use today’s best buzzword.

No doubt their very positive experience influenced my choice to get involved in an intentional community.


Back to the private-to-intimate spectrum. Mid-way I’ve placed cohousing, about which friend Wiki says:

Cohousing is a type of intentional community composed of private homes supplemented by shared facilities. The community is planned, owned and managed by the residents – who also share activities which may include cooking, dining, child care, gardening, and governance of the community. Common facilities may include a kitchen, dining room, laundry, child care facilities, offices, internet access, guest rooms, and recreational features…Group meals and activities are optional, and members maintain separate residences…Residents of cohousing make major decisions collectively.

It’s not so very different from the pocket neighbourhood approach, except for those two critical phrases: “planned, owned and managed by the residents” and “making major decisions collectively”. That’s where the fun begins. In a pocket neighbourhood, you pretty much walk in and follow the rules. In a cohousing development, you’re in boots and all, having to negotiate decisions, speak your mind, listen to other’s opinions. You are sharing on a whole new level, with a new and challenging social dynamic.

I’m thinking about a cohousing development I know of called Belterra. A woman named Rose came up to speak to me after a presentation I gave last year in Vancouver, about the Shedders’ experience. She described how she was in the process of buying into a community on an island off the coast near Vancouver. Rose, an architect and a number of allies were designing every inch of their village. She described the process of thinking through a little covered smoking area for the community’s one smoker, where she might sit meditatively and watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean. Rose had decided on a small one-bedroom unit; others were opting for different configurations.  Check it out. The community is still in development and it’s called Belterra.

Collective households

Our Shedders community comes in toward the intimate end of the spectrum. We’re under one roof, and our home looks and feels like one house, although we have ample private space of our own. At this moment I’m at my computer in our sitting room-office, which hosts Rick’s and my desks plus a couple of easy chairs for reading or doing the crossword puzzle. We also have a big bedroom, ensuite, generous deck and garage. But the rest of the house is shared: kitchen, dining room, lounge, media room, bookshelves, yoga space, guest rooms, workshop, garden shed, gardens.

When we started on this project, I’d pictured a construction that allowed me more privacy: perhaps a series of little cottages connected to a central shared core. But you might remember that we all decided to test out our idea by renting together for two years. In that experiment, we ended up in a big house and I found I liked that. It made us a family and completely supported our intention (as I said earlier: mutual support, shared interests, cost-savings).

It also means our decisions are made through consensus and you’ll know from previous blogs the kind of work and thinking we have to do, and the kind of benefits we get.

We’re very much in each other’s lives and it IS a bit like living with family.

It’s not for everyone but it works for us.


Where this all leaves us is with lots of choice. For those of us who have lived the rather isolated suburban household dream and are now interested in sharing our lives and accommodation, it’s a social feast.

But for healthy eating, we need to sit down to the table clear about how much privacy we require.


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