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Rethinking the Commune

"Aging children of the '60s are coming around for another look at intentional communities," says Diana Leafe Christian, author of Creating a Life Together  (New Society Publishers, 2003) and editor of Communities magazine, "although this time, unlike in the '60s, they want equity ownership, shared cooperative decision making, and clear structure."

Intentional communities vary as widely as the people who inhabit them, from rural land-trust properties to renovated hotel buildings. They're often built around some commonality, such as a religious calling, political perspective, or ecological imperative. At Ashland Vineyard, north of Richmond, Virginia, six families live on 40 rural acres with a common commitment to Quaker principles in conducting community business. In Silver Spring, Maryland, an 1880s farmhouse called Brindledorf serves as an intentional community for schoolteachers. An old tin-roofed house, a 100-year-old sharecropper's shack, and an assortment of other homes once destined for demolition make up the ecologically efficient Blue Heron Farm near Pittsboro, North Carolina. And a group of longtime friends who decided to retire together share Cheesecake, an efficient cluster of shared buildings on 19 acres of California's Mendocino County.

There are communities of Christians, artists, lesbians, and gay men. In Columbia, Missouri, the two-house collective called Terra Nova goes one step further in the sharing department: three of its four members pool their outside income into a common account. "For me it really has to do with pulling together, feeling like a team," says 52-year-old Terra Nova cofounder Hoyt DeVane. Whatever they share, almost all of these communities emphasize the benefits of living in close proximity to one's friends. "I can't imagine not living this way, surrounded by supportive people who care about me," says Peggy O'Neill, 57, one of Ashland Vineyard's founders.

Another community model is "cohousing," an idea imported from Denmark in the late 1980s. Families in cohousing communities each have their own private home with a full kitchen. But there's a separate common building where neighbors can share evening meals, hold meetings, or just watch movies together if they want. And the residents make all of their decisions, from marketing to landscaping, collectively. Homes in a cohousing community cost about the same as similar homes in the surrounding neighborhood. In addition, each family helps pay for the common house and shared land. The number of communities using the cohousing model is growing, with more than 80 already in existence across the United States and dozens more in the planning stages. It's this model that the Gilbys and their friends used when they started planning Milagro.

Cheesecake residents talked for years about retiring together until 1993, when their dream was realized.

Cradled by five mountain ranges, with broad views of the Tucson Valley, Milagro has the feel of a desert hideaway, even though downtown is less than 10 miles away. The focus is strongly environmental. The community's homes are built on nine of the 43 acres, designed to make the most of passive solar energy, and connected by wheelchair-friendly sidewalks that meander in gentle S curves. Cars are parked on the periphery. The clustering of buildings allows for most of the land to remain a nature preserve.

Along the pathways, silvery-leafed brittlebushes sprout clusters of yellow blossoms. Hummingbirds flock to the pink and orange penstemons. "We chose these plants specifically to attract birds and butterflies," says Patricia DeWitt, 69, who heads Milagro's landscape committee. In an area that averages just 12 inches of rain per year, Milagro residents use a minimum amount of drinkable water to grow flowers. The houses are constructed of energy-efficient adobe block, topped with sloping metal roofs that, on many of the houses, funnel rainwater into cisterns.

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