Home But Not Alone

Imagine moving to a house, apartment or farm that comes complete with a built-in network of caring friends and neighbors. Whether you’re craving Mayberry-style kinship or just an antidote to empty-nest syndrome, one of these “intentional communities” may be right for you

by Sharon Lerner
Twin Oakers working in the field image
Twin Oakers working in the field
Photograph: Justine Kurland

When Kristen Walsh planned the home birth of her second son, she invited five women who live just a few minutes’ walk away to attend. It’s not unusual for a family member to support a woman through labor. But for Walsh, 44, it was important that her neighbors be involved. “They’re my community,” she explains. She printed out the lyrics of several songs for them to sing, including “Air I Am” and “Opening in Sweet Surrender,” hoping that the simple, repetitive melodies might help ease her body through the birth process. When her contractions began, the women headed over to her place, song sheets in hand, and for the next hour or so, their voices filled her bedroom.

A former radio-station program director, Walsh might have found it hard to pull off a production like this if she hadn’t been part of the Puget Ridge cohousing community in Seattle. Here, 23 families live in their own town houses while sharing a 2.4-acre plot of land, a common house, some meals and a deep sense of responsibility for one another.

LikeWalsh, I’m drawn to the idea of living within a community’s supportive embrace. My husband, Lucas, spent a considerable chunk of his childhood on a commune, the old-fashioned hippie kind, with lots of bearded guys and very little indoor plumbing. But now we live with our two young sons in a single-family home in Brooklyn, New York. Good friends reside in the vicinity, but we’re all so time strapped that it’s hard to see one another. If our homes were closer together, I’d have a cushion of companionship and cooperation—or so I imagine. We’d share shopping, kid chauffeuring, a snowblower and compost bins.

Coincidentally, in my conversations with women, those living solo as well as those with families, a similar longing keeps surfacing.

This kind of interest in group life is growing. The Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC), which tracks and fosters living collectives, says traffic on its website (ic.org) has climbed 10 to 15 percent each year since 2005. FIC’s first directory, published in 1990, listed about 325 American groups. Today’s online version names more than 1,900 established “intentional communities” (to use the term preferred by collectivists to refer to cooperative living arrangements based on explicit common values). About 350 identify themselves as eco-villages and grow at least some of their own food. Old-style income-sharing communes number about 240. Cohousing developments like Puget Ridge account for at least 120. Women seem to find intentional communities appealing, particularly as they get older, says Laird Schaub, FIC’s executive secretary and a longtime communal resident in Missouri who has visited more than 100 of them.

Should I seriously consider a move to one of these outposts? I decide to find out by visiting three, starting with Puget Ridge (pugetridge.net). Trudi Fajans, a family friend, was 43 when she became a founding member of Puget Ridge, drawn by the vision of living among a tight-knit circle of friends. She invites me to dine alfresco at a patio table next to her town house. Soon what I thought would be a quiet meal morphs into a lively social hour as neighbors stop by to chat.

Share Your Thoughts!


Paxus Calta04.12.2013

i have lived at Twin Oaks for 15 years and i have never heard anyone refer to a car as an object of envy. We have a fleet of 17 vehicles which we share and as a group tend not to care much about status symbols like cars. There is occasionally envy around things like fancy computers.
Overall Sharron has done her research well for this article and one can get something of a feel for what it is like to be at Twin Oaks.
If you are interested in a longer and somewhat more exotic view of Twin Oaks you can read this:

Matt 07.12.2012

I've lived in two different intentional communities over the last ten years. I've never been to any of the communities you visited, but we have folks from Twin Oaks visiting all the time. Personally, I could never live at any of the places you mention either, but your statement "By the time I return to Brooklyn, I realize I could never make a home for my family in an intentional community" puzzles me.
You know they're all different, right? For example, my 80 person community on Staten Island is *nothing* like the communities you mention. Making a statement like that is kind of like going to three restaurants you didn't love and deciding you don't like to eat out. You spent a very limited amount of time at three communities out of hundreds. Don't make such sweeping judgments. Most people I've lived with over the last ten years wouldn't want to live in the places you mentioned either--and that's not a criticism of any of the communities. It's an acknowledgement that you visited three relatively similar rural communities and applied that experience to all of us.

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