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What are Intentional Communities?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 16, 2024
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Intentional communities are neighborhoods or communities populated by people who share common beliefs or goals. The broad term encompasses a wide variety of community structures based on faith, environmentalism, art, health, politics or a particular type of housing. Members of intentional communities take pains to distinguish themselves from communes, popular counterculture living areas made famous in the 1960s. While many communes are intentional communities, not all intentional communities are communes.

Intentional communities have existed for hundreds of years, although the term itself was coined in 1953. One of the earliest intentional communities in America was the Oneida religious commune, created in upstate New York in the mid-1800s. During the 1960s, many members of the counterculture in America and elsewhere formed communities with others who shared their religious, political or lifestyle beliefs. Drop City, established in rural Colorado in 1965, was one of the most prominent of these intentional communities; others were Virginia’s Twin Oaks and Denmark’s Freetown Christiania. Drop City dissolved in the 1970s; Twin Oaks and Christiania were still going strong as of 2010.

Many intentional communities were formed with the intent of creating alternatives to the urban and suburban developments of mainstream culture. Whitehawk, near Denton, Texas, and the “Earthship” communities of New Mexico built eco-friendly earth-sheltered houses that needed little support from municipal utility companies. Other “co-op” communities with more conventional housing also focus on alternative energy sources such as solar or wind power. These communities are often in the western United States, where rural land is widely available and neighboring communities are sometimes more tolerant of alternate lifestyles.

Spirituality is another uniting factor for intentional communities, although their connection with fringe or “cult” religions is often exaggerated. In fact, Christian, Buddhist, and other kinds of monasteries are intentional communities that have existed for centuries. The Fellowship for Intentional Community, which surveys member communities and publishes an annual directory, estimates only 35 percent of intentional communities are based around religious beliefs.

Many intentional communities require prospective newcomers to meet community approval before they are allowed to join. Some new arrivals must be “sponsored” by one or more existing community members; others must complete a probationary period before being fully accepted. In this way and many others, intentional communities are unlike traditional neighborhoods, where people share a location but otherwise may have little interaction with others in the area. Some intentional communities encourage fellowship in the form of monthly meetings, communal meals or shared recreation areas. This can create a true community, a concept often absent from traditional neighborhoods.

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