Community living – dream or nightmare?

After a one-year community-living experience in my early twenties, it took me over a decade to return to the idea. This time the plot included my husband and three young kids, plus 180 individuals trying to build sustainable homes on a 64 hectares property an hour north of Sydney.

One of the weekends we drove to the Central Coast to explore the space, we met several other village families. Soon almost twenty kids aged eight years and under happily roamed and explored the relatively safe wilderness of the flood-planes and forests. Parents eagerly debated conveniences of diverse sustainable building materials, ranging from hempcrete, over strawbale to mudbricks and clay. This intertwined with the occasional pondering on a future fruit forest, communal owning of lawnmowers, waffle-irons and the like and thoughts on the sociocratic model which was to govern the still young project.

The dream of a completely off-grid village, mindful community and slower pace of life lured us into the $30,000 membership fee, closely followed by purchasing our own 550 square metres lot within the co-op. Meanwhile, most of our friends and family cautioned us about putting such large sums into a communal venture.

The two sides of the coin

Two years after joining, we were many experiences richer. On the one hand, the kids loved the freedom and constant access to little friends. Many mums had come together to support each other through monthly circles and the occasional community dinners were great fun. It also proved very convenient for my entrepreneurial self to have joint office spaces and printing facilities, as well as rooms for larger gatherings and workshops.

On the other hand, however, our local pre-fab builder bailed out of the contract and left us with 40,000$ less, instead of a house to move into. Struggling with their own building dramas and mortgages, most people seemed too busy to remember the initial dream of helping each other build our homes. Spontaneous village gatherings beyond the numerous, bureaucratic meetings, started to diminish.

Moreover, new members constantly needed to be attracted – without disclosing the full picture of village life – to conciliate the ever-increasing financial pressure. Nevertheless, monthly fees kept on rising due, amongst others, to mismanagement of the dwindling smart grid. The auspicious water treatment plant and dreams of drinking fresh water from the damn also had to give way. The turning point, however, came when another village father hit and kicked our eight-year-old son within the setting of a friendly soccer game one calm Monday afternoon.

Whilst this incident completely shook and shocked us, what was almost more disturbing was the subsequent lack of support from the village; the guy never being held accountable; and generally little capacity to address the fundamental issue of keeping our children safe within such a big group.

What works, what doesn’t?

We decided to leave. Living in community required everyone to engage in serious self-development and internal work to view each challenge as an opportunity to grow, rather than a space to let out one’s frustrations and aggressions. In this increasingly high-density living place, it seemed the Soul was missing.

Trying to learn from our experiences without dodging the whole community-living idea, I have come to compare it to being married not to one, but to all village members. There are the joys of good company, joint experiences, dreams, and at times support. But there is also the constant compromise that, the larger the group of people, the likelier leaves everyone half-hearted and no-one ever fully satisfied. Similarly, once we had started the tedious exit process, we were excluded from most communications and activities and made feel very unwelcome – comparable to hurt and pain of many divorce settlements.

What had caused the ‘divorce’? A lack of like-mindedness? Too little personal space? Too big of a project? No personal involvement from the paid project manager? Little foresight and incompetence in administrative and financial planning? No integrity for acceptable behaviours and conflict resolution? Not link between inner growth, social interactions, respect for other creatures and Mother Earth?

An answer is hard to pinpoint and involves a great deal of individual preferences and needs. What I am seeing work is all the benefits emerging in spontaneous community settings all around me: A friend’s children playing freely with all the cul-de-sac kids between the front-yards; a group of like-minded people in the same neighbor-hood full-heartedly committed to helping each other out, from babysitting swaps, over bulk-purchases to simply checking in with each other regularly; my yogi friends getting together for regular full moon circles and supporting each other with ideas, marketing and spaces for running mindfulness workshops. Examples are plentiful. In this effortless way, support grows from a space of abundance, rather than feeling forced and exhausting.

Maybe successful community does not need signing a contract and monthly payments. To bloom and flourish, it might just need to evolve grass-roots style, attracting a smaller group of people with innate cohesion. This in turn, will allow for rules to develop more organically and thus allow conflict to be dealt with not bureaucratically, but from the heart –  without the need for marriage, nor divorce papers.

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