We asked. You answered.
Our first feature story of the year explored the concept of “urban villages,” which are on the rise around the world, from the United Kingdom to South Korea. Unlike other urban developments that are focused primarily on “marketplace exchanges,” these communities are centered around shared, collaborative living. An urban village is a “relatively small, place-based urban community where people cooperate to meet one another’s many needs, be they residential, economic, governmental, or social,” the story’s author Amanda Abrams noted.
This piece made us wonder what YOU, our readers, thought about communal living in general. We were curious to learn how the experience of shared living spaces and communities impacted your life. We were thrilled to hear from so many of you. Below are some excerpts from the narratives we received from readers, published with permission. Thank you to everyone for participating in this project.
Question: What did you enjoy most about the experience of communal living? What projects (some examples could include communal meals, cultural events, shared workspaces) did your community work on, and what would you have liked to see more of?
“Creating public art with children, growing and making food, building trust based relationships; I have a cooperative real estate practice in order to help groups create communal living experiences. I have lived in intentional community for 12 years, and also serve on the board of the Fellowship for Intentional Community.”
—Cassandra Ferrera, Sebastopol, California
“Knowing that there was always someone that could support me, always people to go dance with, and many fun collective events abound. Also cheaper utility bills and sharing lots of food!”
—Chloe Buzzotta, Austin, Texas
“I have lived for about 30 years in three different small intentional communities in Tennessee and Kentucky. All three eventually disbanded and I’m sure every member would tell a different story about their experience. Most of them would be largely negative. I am now 70 and likely won’t try another communal living situation, but I would like to share a few thoughts on the subject:
In all three community attempts we underestimated the depth of the challenge and overestimated the importance of sincere idealistic vision. Reinventing successful communal living models will take a much longer time, many more participants and more rigorous experimentation than we imagined. Maybe with 1% of the population living communally for 100 years we could learn the basics.
Despite many failures (some of them hilariously naive), the idea of small intentional communities (both urban and rural) still has merit. As many people have pointed out, the extended family is shrinking and scattered and having a small number of children is an ecological necessity. People need to be part of small coherent groups to avoid social isolation and alienation.
We are too mobile for homesteading dreams. The average American moves 11 times in their lives and half of all marriages end long before “death do them part.” Many small communities tried to soothe fears and reduce risk through outdated but familiar ownership models. Access is already beginning to challenge ownership in several economic areas. Verbs are challenging nouns as things like “learning and working” begin to make more sense than “getting an education and having a job.” Communities seem well-positioned to make this shift.
As mechanization and software assume much of the traditional role of labor, people will likely need alternatives to paid work as a means of supporting themselves. Advanced economies are already exploring guaranteed minimum incomes. This idea could mesh very well with intentional communities. Ten people with a small but stable income, say $10,000 a year, could pool their modest resources and achieve a higher standard of living together than they could alone.
While there are many obvious advantages to urban communal living, there are also some reasons to consider rural or suburban options. Renewable energy and water supplies tend to be distributed rather than centralized. Shipping huge amounts of food and other materials into overgrown urban zones and then shipping the wastes back out every day, creates some environmental problems. In order to protect the natural world people will need to love it, and to love it they will need to know it. It is difficult knowing the natural world living in entirely human made environments.
Thanks for the opportunity to express my view and thanks for the great work you are doing.”
—David Kennedy, Tennessee and Kentucky
“We ran second hand stores together, helping to reuse stuff. We had group dinners most nights. I liked living with my friends. There were also many other various activities.”
—Elke, Staten Island, New York
“I have not enjoyed my present experience, but it has served to clarify what I envision for myself in the future. I believe a communal household should have shared meals when people’s schedules allow it and a collective desire for supportive companionship. My current situation turned out to be more of a “business only” arrangement; my housemate spends the bulk of his time in his room.
He does not share meals, offer companionship, or participate in the household in any way other than financial. This is not what my husband and I intended when we bought our home. It illustrates the importance of really knowing someone (although we had known our housemate for over 10 years when we decided to do this). My husband passed away last year and we are now in the process of dismantling this arrangement. My future includes house partners whom I consider family and despite differing work schedules and diverse interests, will help create a supportive, cooperative home where everyone feels valued.”
—Emily, Beaverton, Oregon
“Collaborative learning: coding, cooking, creative writing…”
—Francisco, London, England
“Communal meals are a very important part of my living situation. It has been not only a socially benefiting part of living in a community, but has been cost effective and time saving. Living alone, I would not be able to afford (both in money and time) healthy meals almost daily. By buying groceries and cooking together in a vegetarian only space, I’ve been the healthiest I’ve ever been in terms of diet. My community has also been helpful in times of need. When someone is going through a time of stress or grief, there is a support system in place to take care of cleaning and cooking – not unlike one would receive when living with supportive immediate family.”
—Gabrielle Tillenburg, Washington DC
“At Earthaven Ecovillage (which is not urban, by the way) I’ve most enjoyed sharing cooking duties, collaboratively responding to crisis, giving and attending parties designed for actual connection (as opposed to eardrum damage), offering workshops in a supportive setting, and producing a hyperlocal comedy show. Earthaveners work together on everything from building and maintaining common infrastructure to holding eco-spiritual rituals to maintaining a highly finicky water system. I would like to see more collaboration in the realm of food procurement and cash-producing enterprise. I live most of the time in Beacon, NY and some of the time at Earthaven.
In Cambridge, I enjoyed cooking for the group, getting to hang out with other students who also felt like they didn’t belong at Harvard, being the compost steward, getting help from fellow co-opers when I found myself in the artistic fix of needing to blow up almost 5,000 balloons in about a day for my senior thesis. We worked together on cooking, cleaning, taking care of our food waste, ordering food, having occasional parties. I would have liked to see more food-growing on site, maybe, and/or more procurement of food from local farmers — though this is pure hindsight, since I was barely aware of this sort of thing at the time.
—Helen Zuman, Black Mountain, North Carolina, and Cambridge, Massachusetts
“Having lots of people involved in the work (agriculture) around here.”
—Jan Steinman, Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada
“Cultural events, community meals, relationship building”
—Joanna, Arlington, Virginia
“Lots of food sharing. I could always be around people when I wanted to and I could always get away from people when I wanted to. I’m from a big family so communal life is familiar and comfortable to me.”
—Laura Banks, Arcosanti, Arizona
“What I prefer in communities is when they manage to find a balance between social, ecology, culture and economy in a sustainable way. When the group is as important as the individual.”
—Marc Domingos, Europe
“My heart has been warming up when organising and facilitating workshops for groups on community living, holistic sustainability and peace, whole living.
In Korogonas Ark community, in South Lakonia, Peloponnese, Greece people come as guests & short-term visitors, workshops’, retreats’ participants, volunteers, friends & members of the community. In our community we also welcome school groups and teachers educators in the context of educational programmes on whole living, peace interactions and resilience. I am fascinated by the interaction with individuals and groups embraced by the pure natural environment, the resilient and gentle to the Earth material and social structures of the community as well as its bright spiritual vibration. Shared peace food meals, unity singing, circles of compassion and gratitude, dance therapy, sun gazing under the sacred ‘princess’ wild olive tree, art therapy at the ‘balcony’ of carob and olive trees, alternative healing sessions in various spots of this land of peace are only few of the highlights.”
—Maria A. Angeli, Korogonas Ark community, South Lakonia, Peloponnese, Greece
“Community meals, a feeling of safety, relying on each other for support shoveling snow for each other, taking out the garbage small support projects lending a hand, chicken soup when one is sick.”
—Marianne Kilkenny, Asheville, North Carolina
“We started this project 18 months ago after talking about it for 25 years. Our group of 8 adults (age range 49 – 63) has bought a house on 7 acres with the aim of living and ageing there together.
Our projects to date have included the installation of a 400 kg 22,000 litre water tank, which involved rolling it into place across the paddock (while trying to ensure that it didn’t run away from us!) constructing raised vegetable beds from old fences that we didn’t need, planting many trees, composting on a significant scale and preparing the site for a small vineyard.
We have enjoyed working with each other and with various friends who we have lured up to help us with the work. Hard work is always followed by communal meals, washed down with wine made in the barn.
It is important to us that the property isn’t a “gated community” and we are committed to engagement with the wider community. All of us have used the space to host events such as Christmas lunch for work colleagues, retreats, planning meetings and parties, and we are hoping to use some of our land to grow produce for a Fare Share/Second Bite type program.
We are hoping to use our experience to demonstrate that communal living is a viable alternative to the 21st western norm of living isolated, privatised lives. For older people it offers a practical solution to the loneliness that afflicts many seniors, as well as making the buying in of care more affordable. For younger people, increasingly priced out of individual home ownership, it offers the chance of owning property with others, and escaping a lifetime of insecure renting.”
—Mark Wilkinson-Hayes, Kyneton, Australia
“Creative projects, shared meals, shared babysitting”
—Melissa Neighbour, Sydney, Australia
“Communal meals, buying food together in bulk, activist environment in the house, working together in cultural fundraising events!“
—Mena Vieira, Edinburgh, Scotland
“We have a plethora of intelligent passionate women on the planet age 50 and above who are so ready for communal “pods” so that our talents and wisdom and plain “fun” can make this a better cultural mix and we need to be center stage and supported as a viable community and not overlooked by some biased and limited idea of who is of value as humanity and who should be supported to create amazing models of community on planet earth!”
“Being part of a highly supportive community in all personal, professional, pleasurable and painful life events. We regularly shared large communal meals, put on community events, built physical projects, managed public buildings & spaces, facilitated community groups, managed a community garden & community workshops together.
I would have liked to see more putting things away in their right place and general organisation… but ah well you can’t have everything ;-)”
—Nick, Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia
“I spent the first 18 years of my life living in a monastery, where my father worked. The families had their own apartments and cooked their own meals. But if a family needed a cooked meal it was supplied by the monastery kitchen. We kids shared the courtyard(s) for playing. We were, in some ways, one big family. Then there were the monks who lived in their own quarters but also participated in our communal lives. I was 14 before I knew what “private property” meant.”
“Communal meals, hosting live music and art parties, shared gardening and food projects, hosting Couchsurfers. I would have wished for a larger common space, as we were using our living room for all sorts of events, and we frequently maxed it out.”
—Quincy, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
“Sharing space and meals and ‘stuff'”
—Ria Baeck, Kortenaken, Belgium
“The sense of sharing a common set of concerns about identity, lifestyle and politics. One was a communal household of people working on a radical newspaper; the second was a gay men’s housing co-op.”
—Richard Hull, Nottingham and Leeds
“I lived in the “Welling Town House” – a Cooperative House owned by Bennington College and run by a group of 15 students who applied to live in this off-campus, cooperative living situation. We shared dinner meals, delegated chores and responsibilities, managed a food budget (re-allocated from our college room and board fees), and cooked dinners for 15 every night. We hosted a few events in our common room like a knitting circle and informal study groups. I enjoyed the half-way step between college dormitory living and complete independence. It set a good precedence in my young mind for the viability of shared housing, co-housing, urban villages and the like. It also introduced me to the pragmatic realities of group process, self-governance, and managing inevitable conflicts.”
—Rivera Sun, Bennington, Vermont
“Meals, making things, learning opportunities”
—Sabra Marcroft, Austin, Texas and Tecumseh, Missouri
“Cooking and eating together. Celebrations. Parenting together. Helping each other. Sharing resources.”
—Sandy Thomson, Bayfield, Colorado
“Enhanced security- someone is always home. shared resources: Vacuum cleaner, lawn mower, chainsaw and garden tools, family support for health (nurse and N.P. on site) Drop in child care – teens caring for toddlers so last minute parent dates work great! Shared labor on garden projects, beekeeping, shared housing expenses, set up for parties. Watched shows together- movies. Very casual all of it, but an easy flow because we’re all in the same zone. Vacations are easy- built in pet and plant care. Everyone need to have access to vacations though- it helps to have people in the same or relatively same income bracket- how to break that barrier? Down side- bad habits spread! Smoking porches become a gathering spot :)”
—Shara Alexander, Portland, Oregon
“I’ve been living in a community of 30-35 residents at the Institute of Cultural Affairs GreenRise building in Uptown Chicago for four and a half years. Our building gets some of its uniqueness from the fact that we currently house two intentional communities. Within 6 blocks there are another two intentional communities and there are at least 30 housing cooperatives/intentional communities in Chicago.
My community has been around for over 50 years in one form or another. I love the community support that I receive and our gatherings. We have lots of ad hoc meals together and various gatherings, as well as a monthly Community Potluck to which we invite friends and relatives. When someone is ill, the community bands together to ensure that they are cared for.”
—Steve Ediger, Uptown, Chicago, Illinois
“In the past five years, I have enjoyed only one special interest group in my 55+ development, where I hoped I could find community as a solo widow. I did not foresee that I would have so little in common with my neighbors. Presently, I’m actively doing research with a couple of others who want to create an affordable intergenerational community where we can age in place.
Recently I’ve been looking into intentional communities and have found that co-housing is not accessible to actual middle-income individuals and families. The industry seems to be geared toward those who are willing and able to pay for homes costing $300,000 and more, or who qualify for a few low-income housing units. Since the term “affordable housing” has come to mean “subsidized,” we, as a society don’t seem to have language to describe the need.
It would be wonderful if Shareable could help provide ways for us to network and innovate around, for example, intergenerational, elder-friendly communities. Where do we find other pioneers who are interested in alternative construction and prefab homes, in land trusts, in buying land we could use for Hipcamp as well as permanent homes, in creating real-life incubators and labs for creative ways to build communities?”
—Suzanne Huffman, Oregon
“Communal meals are always a highlight, especially those that are impromptu when we get snowed in; sharing cars, kitchen equipment, recipes, ingredients, vegetable garden surplus, cat care, tools, books etc. which enables all of us to decrease our footprint; dinner & doc series in our common house each month; game nights (or afternoons!); Friday morning coworking; building & maintaining strong relationships with neighbors and their children. Would like to see more community conversations around some of our community-specific challenges ie: conflict resolution as well as more global topics. There have been a few, but not many.”
—Tanya Jisa, Carrboro, North Carolina
“I love our weekly ‘common meals.'”
—Tom Bulten, Newberry Place Cohousing Community, Grand Rapids, Michigan
“I live in a 12-person cooperative in San Francisco at the epicenter of a burgeoning community movement. It’s a wonderfully meaningful, affordable, and sustainable way to live in the most expensive city in the US. Sharing food and utilities enables us all to live with an abundance beyond our individual means, and I love the feeling that I am actively co-creating my living situation.
We collaborate and share knowledge with a growing coalition of community houses in the Haight-Ashbury and beyond. Over the past few years, the network has grown into a potent community of communities with a Patreon fund (donated by community members for projects like helping ex-convicts create community space), regular meetings, a newsletter, bulk food purchasing collaboration, and a Slack team. My time in community has taught me that the fabric of our society is a web of human agreements, and that civic engagement begins at home.
Feel free to reference or share this article I wrote about what’s happening in San Francisco.”
—Tommy Alexander, San Francisco, California
“I lived in Berkeley CoHousing. I stayed there as a temporary guest for about 4 months. I lived both with people, sleeping on their couch, and then house sat. I loved how we could help each other using our skills. I traded 8 hours of work a week in exchange for my living spaces, so I didn’t have to work at a regular job.
I collaborated on various projects with my neighbors who lived within 50 feet away. It was easy to communicate spontaneously, say good morning, have a quick chat.
I helped make some vegan meals, which everyone loved. I love sharing meals together.
I was also connected to a time bank, and we were trying to get a Mutual Aid network going. We met at a woman’s home in the community–so that was so convenient.
Only a few blocks away, we had a weekly crop exchange where people would bring all sorts of produce and we had a simple and fair way of giving and receiving. i got half of my weekly food supply from this lovely event hosted.
I had a friend who was really into networking and so he would always be inviting me to various things–so I could easily get a ride.
Because of all the networking I did so easily in the co-housing community, this lead to me meeting a person who ended up becoming my friend and funder of the rural community project, Vegan Utopia Ecovillage. Without this rich community experience, I don’t think i would have been able to make the connections I needed in order to have this happen.”
—Trish Mikkelson, Berkeley, California
If you didn’t get a chance to respond to the questionnaire, feel free to leave a comment below detailing your experiences — or send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll continue updating this piece.