A Definition and Discussion of Intentional Community



Pearl St. in Boulder, Colorado
Pearl St., Boulder, CO.  Boulder is one of the most progressive cities in the US, and has also been rated the best place to live.  Coincidence?

Before discussing the significance of intentional community it would be best to begin with a definition. An intentional community, then, may be defined as any consciously created community that has as its purpose the aim of living together cooperatively in order to foster a shared lifestyle that reflects core shared values.

Intentional communities may take many forms, but an increasingly popular form is the cohousing community.  Ecovillages are another important type of intentional community that pioneer ecologically sustainable ways of life.  Still other forms of intentional community are the residential land trust and the housing cooperative.  The least clearly planned form of intentional community is probably the progressive city that attracts like-minded residents simply by virtue of its reputation for fostering an attractive llifestyle.  San Francisco provides perhaps the best-known example in the US, but others would include Boulder, Colorado and Burlington, Vermont.

The intentional community stands in stark contrast to the circumstantial "community", which is simply a haphazard conglomerate of residents who buy into some sort of housing development with no greater aim in view than to obtain an affordable, and hopefully attractive home with good schools.  We place the term "community" in quotation marks here simply because many of the residents of such communities often barely know one another, and still less do anything to live cooperatively to foster shared values. 

Sociologists have attributed the high rates of crime in modern society, a sense of alienation, and a disintegration of the social fabric to urban anonymity; and it is apparent that all of this is, in turn, due to the unhinging of community from shared values.

A celebrated Confucian observation reads as follows:

  If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be
  Beauty in the character. If there is beauty in the character, there will be
  Harmony in the home. If there is harmony in the home, there will be order
  In the nation. If there is order in the nation, there will be peace
  In the world.

What I like about this insight is that it places the individual, and more specifically the good character of that individual, squarely at the center of the most desirable social goals, such as good governance and the ever-elusive goal of world peace. If we invert the proverb we arrive at this: "When the individuals who comprise a society are of bad character, the result can only be disrupted families, disorderly nations, and international conflict."

Indeed. How could it be otherwise? Societies can only be as good as the individuals who comprise them.

Unfortunately, it has become extraordinarily difficult to create an optimal child-rearing environment, in which good character can be nurtured, in the circumstantial communities so common today.  As Confucian social theorists have long noted, the corrupting influences of society upon the individual can make the development of good character almost impossible; and in contemporary America, forces of this nature have run rampant. And not only in America: worldwide, globalization is tearing communities apart, and uprooting community life with a vengeance.

Apart from resignation, two more optimistic responses to an increasingly toxic society are possible: we can attempt to reform society, so as to bring it into closer conformance with good values, or we can attempt to create an island of more ideal community in the greater sea of society at large. These responses are not mutually exclusive, and indeed some intentional communities have specifically adopted as their aim some form of public service.

Our own view is that, in many ways, this represents the optimal orientation for intentional communities. Why? Consider some of the tradeoffs between societal reform and IC.

Because of the magnitude of the effort entailed, the attempt to reform society can be both exhausting and frustrating. On the other hand, this is necessarily the arena in which maximum good effect can be had. Because of the much smaller scale of intentional communities, the benefits of a better social climate can be brought about much more quickly and easily for its members; however, in the short term at least, only those members will enjoy the benefits. Nevertheless, it will always be easier to assemble a small group of individuals who can agree upon a whole range of shared values than it will ever be to reform an entire society, where value-related issues tend to be contentious.

Archimedes famously remarked: "Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand, and I will move the world." If intentional community can serve as the incubator of good character and moral passion, and if the good character and moral passion of a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King is the "lever long enough", then intentional community just might, eventually, move the world. (Surprisingly, perhaps, by establishing a standard of good character and of moral passion, Confucianism had precisely this effect in Chinese society for long stretches of time.)

As society increasingly fails in its social obligations under the influence of corporate corruption, the appeal of intentional community has grown exponentially, both in the US and worldwide. Moreover, a wide range of tools for the creation and development of intentional communities has become available. In particular, Alperovitz, Imbroscio, and Williamson, in their landmark study "Making a Place for Community: Local Democracy in a Global Era," have assembled a virtual armament of community creation tools.

To support this interest, and to promote awareness of how much better communities can be, Progressive Living has helped launch the High Plains Institute for Community Development. We'll explain the basics of intentional community (see the links below), provide an ideal model for intentional communities built from scratch, substantially in accordance with the suggestions in "Making a Place for Community," and facilitate the development of such communities throughout the US and Canada.  A special emphasis of the Institute is the development of community-building economic alternatives.

In addition , this section of Progressive Living provides a link to a variety of resources concerning intentional community, courtesy largely of A. Allen Butcher, who has been a leader and participant in IC for many years. Also provided is a link to a table of the most progressive existing cities in each State of the US and province of Canada. Our suggestion is that more fully progressive intentional communities be built in the immediate vicinity of the existing communities.

Index of resources for the development of intentional community

Index of existing progressive communities in the US and Canada


definition of intentional community