Intentional Communities: The Modern Day Commune
by Karon Warren
The pandemic has tested how we live today in many ways. With people staying home more than ever and struggling with isolation, we are seeing a resurgence in intentional communities or the modern-day commune. These close-knit neighborhoods are often bound together by a common ideal and offer a way for people to connect and support each other within their community.
What Is An Intentional Community?
In the past, if you said the words “commune” or “cohousing,” most people envisioned a 1970s collective of long-haired young people rejecting the constraints of established society and raging against the government. Some would call those people “hippies.” However, while today’s modern communes may share some characteristics with those initial communities developed some 50 years ago, they are also more sophisticated. In addition to coming together and bonding over shared ideals, many residents are looking for a way to reduce economic inequality and fight climate change through sustainable, ecological design and practices. That certainly is the case with Lake Claire Cohousing.
Lake Claire Housing
Established in 1992, Lake Claire Cohousing was Georgia’s first cohousing community. With 12 townhouses and a common house on one acre in the Lake Claire neighborhood of Atlanta, it is an intimate group of 35 neighbors who embrace sustainability and who are queer-affirming and anti-racist. They have common dinners twice a week for community members and their guests.
For Kiva Mahoney Sullivan, it’s the perfect place to call home. “We moved here from Northern California and feel very lucky to have found this place,” she says. “When we moved in, we had an instant community, which otherwise can take years to develop. It has been a great place for us to be, and our kids have flourished here.”
When purchasing or renting property at Lake Claire Cohousing, residents agree to perform community work: seven hours for owners and four hours for renters. “We work together to take care of our space and property,” Sullivan says.
Lake Claire Cohousing residences also share resources, from a lawnmower to a shared common house with a big kitchen, dining room, kids playroom, laundry room and yoga room. “We have common meals a couple of times a week, so it lightens the dinner load,” Sullivan says.
East Lake Commons
Creating a foundation for sharing and friendships certainly plays a role at East Lake Commons, an intentional community built in 1999 in Decatur. Sitting on 20 acres, East Lake Commons includes 67 fee-simple townhouse residences, a large community center and a 3-acre organic garden, orchard, greenhouse and pond.
Currently, approximately 180 people. between the ages of 5 and 91 call East Lake Commons home. Residents share six core values: community, affordability, consensus, diversity, sustainability and visitability (accessibility).“Communities are a group of people that come together around one or more intents,” says Terry Minvielle, a 21-year resident and treasurer for East Lake Commons. “It’s most rewarding for people who need other people at an emotional level.”
Another example of an intentional community that many often overlook as just another high-end development is Serenbe. Located southwest of Atlanta, Serenbe was first developed in 2004 with the goal of creating a biophilic community. Biophilia is the idea that there is an instinctive bond between humans and other living systems. As such, there is a strong focus on well-being, sustainability and agriculture at Serenbe.
“This biophilic planning method brings nature to the forefront rather than imposing the built environment in a destructive way on our natural resources and ecology,” says Steve Nygren, founder and managing partner of Serenbe.
Property choices include townhomes, cottages, custom homes and more, with condominiums and live/work properties under construction. They are grouped together in three neighborhood “hamlets” with another two hamlets planned for the near future. Today, more than 1,000 residents live at Serenbe.
While Serenbe encompasses 1,200 acres, those hamlets and the community amenities occupy just 30% of the property. The community’s zoning regulations preserve 70% of the land for green space and the formation of the city of Chattahoochee Hills. “The community allows me to live in a neighborhood where fresh food and fresh air make well-being as natural as nature itself,” Nygren says.
“Serenbe boasts over 15 miles of nature trails, creeks and waterfalls, which allows me to be present in the outdoors and absorb nature.” Other features of Serenbe include a 25-acre organic farm; a seasonal Saturday farmers market; a community supported agriculture (CSA) program to purchase local, seasonal food; edible landscaping; boutique shopping; art galleries; a spa; culinary workshops; music events; and much more.
Unlike Lake Claire Cohousing and East Lake Commons, Serenbe welcomes daily and short-term visitors in addition to full-time residents. Although it has a different approach to intentional communities, the shared ideals for well-being, sustainability and agriculture bring residents together in the same way every intentional community does.
“Historically, many intentional communities were based around a religion, political affiliation, or a social ideal or collective values, and you had shared resources and responsibilities,” Nygren says. “We think of intentional communities as hyper-focused on conservation and follow sustainable building practices like the wellness community of Serenbe. Intention is being thoughtful in your choices, and that includes where you live.”
Is an intentional community right for me?
On the surface, living in an intentional community sounds a bit like living in an idyllic neighborhood from a bygone era, with neighbors working together in the community garden, kids playing in the yard, sharing neighborhood meals and everyone getting along. And while that is true at times, it’s not the full picture.
“Urban communities have a lot of challenges, like property tax increases and skyrocketing property valuation,” Minvielle says. “Lots of residents working long hours and commuting in traffic means more downtime needed and results in less community time available. It’s a lot of work, like joining a family, but if you choose well, it’s very rewarding. If you do not, it’s isolating.”
Minvielle also stresses that living in an intentional community requires a willingness to accept and adapt to those you live with. “Since they are a microcosm of the country at large, but in a smaller space, an acute need for interpersonal respect is required and necessary,” he says. “You learn that beyond what differentiates us, we are still the same. Some find restful beauty in that and some do not. Also, privacy is very difficult to keep, also like in a family.”
For those who overcome the stereotypes of intentional communities and can adapt to the environment, these communities could offer the right place to call home for years to come.
“They are not just hippie compounds,” Sullivan says. “At least ours is made up of people from all different kinds of backgrounds, employment and religious beliefs. We do not share our finances and have people with different socioeconomic statuses. [Intentional communities] are awesome for the right kind of person, but not for everyone. If you are looking to get back to a more connected community, it could be a great fit.”
Interested in finding out more about intentional communities or cohousing? Visit the Foundation for Intentional Community at www.ic.org or The Cohousing Association of the United States at www.cohousing.org.