Unintentional Community

In the sort of circles we travel in, there is often talk of “intentional community” and it is always considered a good thing. Sometimes “intentional community” is discussed in the context of “co-housing,” where folks own individual homes, but pool resources for common space and intentionally share things like meals, babysitting, and activities more than in your average neighborhood. Sometimes it’s considered the context of a religious community, or something like the Cambridge Time Trade Circle. In addition to all the great stuff, as far as I can tell, “intentional community” inevitably also involves a lot of work and a lot of meetings.

I was staying with some friends a couple weeks ago in a lovely co-housing community while I was at a conference. We talked some about how their community works, and my friends confirmed that it is a great place to live, but that it does indeed involve a lot of meetings. After staying with them (and briefly fantasizing about some of the nice co-housing in our neighborhood), I realized how much I appreciate the “UN-intentional community” in our lives.

I love being able to send the kids out to play when we hear neighborhood kids in the alleyway. It’s wonderful to see the same families at the park over and over, and to count them as friends (sometimes close friends). I love meeting up at the end of the alley on Halloween to hand out candy with our neighbors. When we arrived home after R was born, it seemed a sea of neighbors spilled out of their houses to see the new baby. We’ve been grateful recipients of hand-me-downs, leftovers, and emergency baking ingredients, and givers of the same. This year, when the first real storm comes, we’ll all be outside playing and shoveling. It’s not nearly so exciting by the end of the winter, but somehow that first storm always feels like a party.

To some extent this is “intentional.” We could come and go without talking to people if we tried, and we have to be out and about in the neighborhood enough to participate and enjoy these perks. But none of this happens on purpose. We didn’t have to go to a meeting to organize any of it. And since I’m not sure I could fit another meeting into my life, I’m really glad about that.

What makes this “unintentional community” tick? In our case, there is some infrastructure at work. Most people in our neighborhood live in relatively small spaces by US standards (middle class standards anyway), and especially in our very local area, many of us don’t have yards. This forces us out of our own private spaces and into public ones, either the small shared space of our  alley/driveway, or the shared space of the local park. Many people in our neighborhood walk, bike and take transit frequently (and our neighborhood has plentiful sidewalks), so we’re out and about where we can run into each other on accident and catch up a bit. I find I rely a lot on these interactions, for information, for friends, for a sense of connectedness and place. I really miss my neighbors when we all head inside for winter. Every year I think I’ll do a better job of keeping up with people on purpose, and every year I don’t quite pull it off and am thrilled when it’s spring and we can see so many of our friends without even trying. I wonder how our little neighborhood (and our experience of it) will change as our kids grow, as good neighbors move away (even if it isn’t very far) and new neighbors join us. But for now, I’m just thrilled we get all of this without ever having to go to a meeting, and am grateful to the neighbors who came before us, and built such a welcoming and friendly place.

About Nathan

Nathan is a postdoctoral research fellow in neuroscience. He thinks parenting is way more fun when you don't have to worry about car seats.
This entry was posted in Benefits of being carfree, Cambridge and Boston area, Living locally. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Unintentional Community

  1. I think that this “unintentional community” is what people used to have a lot more of, but nowadays, we often need to join something with lots of meeting to have it. It’s so great that you have been able to find such community for yourselves! And great that you can appreciate it — many people would hide inside their homes and never get to know the neighbors at all.

  2. Kimberly says:

    I totally agree with you that smaller, yard-less homes, and people walking/biking tend to create an “unintentional community”. When my oldest were younger and we lived in Chicago, we lived in such a situation. There was always someone at the park I knew, always someone out on the street that I knew, you ran into your neighbors all the time… Living in suburbia now, it seems kind of lonely sometimes– very few people out on the streets and neighbors that you often just wave “hi” to from a distance.

  3. Zane Selvans says:

    I think a lot of the “Intentional Community” movement is really trying to re-capture this kind of naturally functional community, that’s existed in small towns and *good* urban spaces for, well, basically forever, but that’s been lost in the US, largely do to automobile-centric development patterns in the last 60 years or so. If you’ve never read it, Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” is an excellent exploration of how dense, urban spaces work (or fail to work) in a social context.

  4. Stephanie Hirsch says:

    Love this post. That’s exactly how I feel about my neighborhood as well. The coffee shops are the common living rooms, the parks are the common back yards. Sometimes I feel like our block is a dorm hallway, and that we can go in and out of the rooms, and it’s a good feeling. That’s the upside of density and I hope neighborhoods like ours are a model for the future, even though they were built 100 years ago.

  5. Bionic baby mama says:

    Yes. This is what I love about where we live, even while I wish we had more space and maybe could afford a car…. I do like it that if I’m in a hurry, I have to take a different street, because otherwise I will run into too many people to talk to. I fear moving somewhere less crowded, even though I miss having a yard.

  6. Jen (yup, another one) says:

    Infrastructure and design are a big part of official co-housing, too. :) But it’s nice to have it organically and without meetings!

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