7 things I learned from living in 20 intentional communities
7 things I learned from living in 20 intentional communities

7 things I learned from living in 20 intentional communities

Through years of learning how to build better buildings and learning about system change, I became fascinated by ecovillages as regenerative housing models and a means of creating better ways of living.

In 2016 after visiting Findhorn in Scotland, one of the oldest ecovillages in Europe, I was filled with curiosity about the sheer amount of creativity there and wondered what other communities were like.

I decided to take a journey to learn about life in these communities and ended up spending two years living in them, in Europe and South America.

I worked in the communities in exchange for room and board and funded the project through the sale of my art, a crowdfunding campaign, and a blog that I wrote along the way. My project was called ‘Let’s create better ways of living’. And this article is a description of some of the key things I learned from those two years.

But first I would like to clarify what an ecovillage is. The Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) describes an ecovillage as: “…an intentional, traditional or urban community that is consciously designed through locally owned participatory processes in all four dimensions of sustainability (social, environmental, economic and cultural) to regenerate social and natural environments.”

Each community is unique and dependent on “the vision, context, culture and interests” of its people (GEN). There are two distinct types of eco-village: Traditional communities that are existing rural communities coming together to design their future (e.g. the Guambiano in Colombia) and there are Intentional communities where people come together with a shared purpose and vision to create a new community.

Predominantly I refer to intentional communities here. It is the collective intention to create something new that is fascinating for me. I believe these are important examples of the kinds of systems changes that our society needs to engage in, to deal with our current challenges.

So, some of the things I learned include:

1 Dispelling myths

I learned very quickly that eco-villages are not full of sandal-wearing hippies. Although there are often some to be found.

They are not about getting away from everything, living off-grid with fields of solar panels and compost toilets. Although most of them do have these elements.

They are not all food and energy sufficient. None of the communities I visited were fully self-sufficient. The highest level of self-sufficiency I saw was in Los Portales Ecovillage in Spain, which produces about 40% of its food and meets 100% of its energy needs via solar panels.

They might be on the edge of society but ecovillages are the realm of very ordinary people, doing extraordinary things together.

2 Decision making

All of the communities I spent time in made their decisions together using some form of consensus or consent processes, not majority rule voting.

One might think that the first step in creating a community is to sort money, buy land, talk about ecological building design and energy, food, and water supply. But one of the earliest agreements to be made in a group is to choose a group participatory decision-making process.

This might seem like a simple thing. But when we’re used to majority rule decision making there is a, sometimes huge, learning and unlearning curve in getting used to making decisions by e.g. consent: a decision is made where no one objects. This changes how the decision-making process flows and means decisions can often be made with a review date factored in.

3 Communication and conflict resolution

In general in society, our work has certain written and unwritten rules about how we communicate e.g. the professional language we use, respect for the structure, and the hierarchy of organisations.

Within an intentional community a structure needs to be formed (with or without hierarchies), decisions are made together and agreements around communication need to be defined.

When asked what was the most important factor in keeping the community together, every community told me that it was the need for developing really good communication skills and a comprehensive agreed format for dealing with conflict when problems occur, which they invariably do.

Although this seems like an easy thing it is the most challenging aspect of starting and maintaining a community.

4 Personal development

Something I noticed and experienced myself is that living in community requires a lot of personal development. It requires growing your self-awareness, dealing with your issues, and finding your place and value in community.

Ecovillages are not places to escape to. Any issues you have will follow you like faithful pets. One member of Cloughjordan Ecovillage in Tipperary describes ecovillage living as the longest self-development course in the world.

Transitioning into community life can be a challenging experience for adults. There can be a lot of unlearning to undertake to adapt to this different way of living.

For children though it can be very different. The way children thrive in community is something that gave me the most joy on my journey. Being closer to a larger group of children and adults means that children can develop bonds with different age groups. They can have role models and friends of all ages. I got to know teens and young adults who had been born into community and they had a profoundly grounded and mature sense of personal awareness mixed with courage and access to their creativity in a way that is rare in the rest of society.

5 Relationship

“Forming a new community is like simultaneously trying to start a new business and begin a marriage” Diane Leafe Christian from “Creating a life together”

Living in ecovillages is an antidote to our modern-day disconnection, disintegration, and the individualised thinking that exists in our consumer society.

In community, you learn to move from ‘me to we’, and learn how to be interdependent with others. You learn to be in relationship with your neighbours in a different way than you may have been accustomed and this comes with all the challenges and rewards of any good relationship.

You learn to rely on others and to be relied upon, bringing about the apparent contradiction of greater freedom within this commitment. I’ve witnessed this being particularly beneficial for the elderly, where they maintain independence and a valued role in a living community.

6 Commitment

An element of community life that impressed me was the level of commitment that people had. Their collective capacity to roll through the waves of change was incredibly inspiring. I was repeatedly astounded at the level of grounded steady showing up that was maintained.

It doesn’t mean that everyone is 100% gung-ho and committed all the time but because of the social glue that held communities together, they maintained momentum.

I learned that this commitment was seated in:

  • A willingness and openness to reframe and learn things in new ways
  • Developing the capacity to think about the group rather than just oneself.
  • Learning to reframe the failures that will inevitably arise, and
  • Developing great trust in the group. Building trust is like building a strong ship that will weather storms.

7 The best of humanity

In my experience ecovillages bring together the best of humanity.

The best of the modern world in best practices in communication, participatory decision making, conflict resolution, and technology for renewable energy solutions.

Brought together with the best of the ancient world of our ancestors in the wisdom of sitting in circle around the fire, the wisdom of taking time, of storytelling and listening.

From conversations, I notice that people are terrified of slowing down the exponential growth trajectory that we are on of making things bigger and faster and buying more. It’s as if people are afraid that if we stop we will roll back into the dark ages.

Eco-villages are examples of taking a different route forward. Of creating better ways of living now that are regenerative and will provide better ways of living for generations to come.

My journey taught me an immeasurable amount about the breath of the human spirit. It taught me about our immense capacity for co-creativity in forming new models and new ways of living and BE-ing together.

There is no ‘perfect’ place. Eco-villages are not an escape from our current reality but they are powerful models for creating positive new ways of living.

Over to you

Ecovillages are outside the mainstream but it doesn’t mean they aren’t something we can learn from and apply in our work and our lives. For me, ecovillages are beacons of hope, they are communities that are filled with ordinary people doing things in extraordinary ways. I hope that this newsletter shows you that another way of being and living in this world is possible.

Not all of us can or want to start, or move into an eco-village, so I wonder:

  • What do you take from this list that could be applied to the work that you are doing in your life, your changemaking role or in your organisation?
  • Are there lessons here that you could bring back in to how you organise yourself/yourselves in your work?
  • What does this mean for how you engage in your family, with friends or in your community?

I’d love to hear from you.

Wishing you a beautiful week.