Dane Laverty over at Times and Seasons has been writing a very interesting series of posts on a potential co-operative community called Green Hill:
The Dream of the Green Hill
About fifteen years ago, I had a dream. In my dream I saw a green hill with several people silhouetted against a cloudy sky. These figures were engaged together in various activities, some speaking, some playing or dancing, and some resting. The clouds in the sky moved quickly by, like in a fast-motion movie, which I understood to signify the passage of time. Then I woke up.
Although the dream was brief, its images — the people, the hill, and the sky — have stayed with me. The attitude shared by the figures on the hill was one of deep peace and joy. Finding no greater happiness than in the company of my family and friends, I have been working to make the community of the green hill a literal gathering in my life.
I am apparently not alone in my desire to live in a rewarding, purposeful community. Eco-friendly groups and religious fundamentalists have achieved a dramatic increase in intentional communities over the past two decades. A quick look at the Northwest Intentional Communities Association directory shows over 200 communities just here in my beloved Pacific northwest. However, I am struck by the absence of an LDS presence in the intentional community movement — this really seems like the sort of thing Mormons would do very well. What influences have acted to discourage the saints from building their own communities?
First, we are looking forward to the future Zion of the New Jerusalem. The expectation of a New Jerusalem saps the zion-building impulse in two ways: it implies that the work will be done for us, and it instills a vague fear that building a zion is the responsibility of church leadership and would be an inappropriate pursuit for the membership.
Second, intentional communities carry a lot of cultural baggage. They conjure images of hippie communes, nudist colonies, and fundamentalist compounds, among others. Mainstream members eschew these strange lifestyles and situate themselves comfortably and firmly in middle-class suburbia.
Third, and related to number two, the principles of individualism and private ownership are highly prized among church members. I recall a talk given in my ward a while back where the speaker listed “ten principles the saints should strive to follow”. The first nine principles were fine and predicatable — honesty, scripture reading, temple attendance, etc. — but the tenth principle was, I kid you not, “home ownership”. More surprising than the sentiment expressed, however, was that it was accepted without comment. By idealizing [suburban] home ownership, we create a culture of isolation and self-sufficiency that is at odds with the community gathering impulse.
Fourth, diversity. Communities are made of people, and people come in a wide variety. Can we accept the fact that building a community eventually means that we will be associating with people who look/think/act differently from ourselves?
Fifth, community building is a skill that we’ve lost. Once you’ve gathered the people together, what do you do with them? How do you unite and direct them? How do you create a community infrastructure that is flexible enough to meet the needs of a diverse humanity while being effective enough to respond to and resolve problems? What kinds of core activities and events work well in bringing people together, transforming a “neighborhood” into a “community”?
These are some of the questions I hope to explore in more detail during my time as a guest of Times and Seasons. I take Joseph Smith at his word when he says, “that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us [in the next life]“. Do we engage in fulfilling community relationships which make that a desirable proposition? If salvation is, at some level, a community transformation, then perhaps it is our responsibility to build the communities and friendships in which we could happily be engaged for eternity.
About-ness and Communities That Last
(Note: My previous post introduced the image of the green hill. Because the word “Zion” means so many things to so many people, this post and my future posts will use the phrase “green hill” as shorthand for individual people’s efforts to build zion-like communities.)
My initial interest in building a green hill was just to live near my friends and family — something as simple as purchasing land, building houses, and inviting my loved ones to come on over. But, while that would be wonderful, I realized that my dream was about more than just building a “friends of Dane club”. I don’t want to be the linchpin that holds everyone together.
The sad truth is that human beings don’t naturally, spontaneously gather together in harmony. Any intentional community will result from the influence of:
- a charismatic leader,
- a shared group interest,
- or a uniting purpose or identity.
A community gathered around a specific person or interest is fragile, and unlikely to last beyond a single generation. I want my green hill to be about something, about something that’s bigger than any of its members.
I observed that “about-ness” or purpose in communities comes from three related areas (or maybe I’m just in the mood for lists of three today):
“Lifestyle” is about the cultural norms and expectations of community members. Do members share meals together? Do they swap babysitting? Are community chores managed by members, or is maintenance hired out? Does the community encourage social activities? Athletic activities? Education? Performance? Discourse?
“Space” refers to the physical layout of the community — how big are the dwellings? Are they spaced close together or far apart? How are they oriented? Does the community provide community facilities, like a clubhouse, dining hall, rec center, swimming pool, or playground? Is the community designed with walking paths or driving roads? Are lots divided by fences or do they share yard space?
“Program” identifies the overarching mission of the community. In an eco community, the mission is to live sustainably with the environment, and the program is the set of managed activities that guide members toward that goal. In a Christian enclave community, the mission is to live in accordance with a particular vision of Christianity, and the program is the structure of authority that guides members toward that goal.
The lines between lifestyle, space, and program are not clearly defined, and each has an influence on the others. A community’s lifestyle will be heavily influenced by its physical layout. Every community has space and lifestyle, but not every community has a program. In my next several posts, I will look at each of these three community attributes in more detail, and I hope to provide some tools on each of them for any aspiring community builders out there.
Yesterday, I identified the three central attributes of building a green hill as being:
Let’s look at lifestyle. Lifestyle is about the flow of daily living. It is not about the grand mission and purpose of the community (that’s the program), but rather, it is the community’s values, norms, and expectations. A good demonstration of lifestyle (as opposed to program) can be seen in the cohousing movement.
The modern cohousing movement originated with a group of people who felt that conventional housing creates isolated and disengaged societies. They desired to enjoy close, lasting relationships with their neighbors. To that end, these people founded a community based on a few basic principles, designed to promote community interaction while maintaining individual privacy:
- Shared dinners
- Shared community responsibilities (grounds maintenance, administration, meal preparation, etc.)
- Private homeownership
- Central common facilities (dining hall, cultural center, etc.)
Since then, several other cohousing communities were built on those same four lifestyle principles.
These principles help highlight the difference between lifestyle and program. Some cohousing communities have strong ideological programs — religious, ecological, back-to-the-land, etc. Others have no program at all. However, they all share (to varying extents) a lifestyle of community interaction combined with private residence. The lifestyle guides day-to-day interactions, while the program governs ideological thinking.
Mormon settlements during the Utah period depict a similar separation of lifestyle and program. As I understand it, church activity rates were remarkably low (25%-ish?) in many Mormon Utah settlements during the late 1800’s (I am not a church historian — somebody please correct me if I’m wrong). Nevertheless, members of these communities likely self-identified as Mormon. In other words, these were settlements where the Mormon lifestyle was strong, but the Mormon program was weak. When I get to program in a later post, we’ll see that a sustainable community has to maintain a level of separation between the lifestyle and the program — we cannot expect 100% of any group of people to participate in a program.
What would the lifestyle of a green hill community look like? Of course, the answer depends on the vision and desires of its residents. In my green hill, however, the lifestyle principles I hope to encourage are:
- Spending time with friends and family
- Learning through observation and experience
- Exposure to great works of media (i.e. art, dance, literature, cinema, etc.)
- Active engagement in creative projects
These basic lifestyle principles — friendship, wonder, appreciation, and constructive works — would act as signals to potential community members, helping them determine whether it’s the sort of place they would want to live and raise their children. More dramatically, a community’s lifestyle principles guide the physical construction of the community. We’ll look at that in more detail (and lots of fun pictures) in the next post, on “space”.
Note: I thought these thoughts ought to be preserved – as more are added they will be uploaded.