Community Considerations – or – Nine Reasons “40 Acres and My Friends” Is a Bad Idea

February 10, 2010 | 11 comments
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300px-Fultondesign7This isn’t to discourage anyone from trying the “forty acres and my friends” approach. However, the beautiful vision of “let’s get all my friends together, buy some land, and live happily together forever” has a tendency to gloss over some of the very real issues that communities have to deal with. Here are a few:

1. A Compelling Vision — A social historian once observed that many well-formed utopian communities have failed due to boredom. Once you’ve got everyone together, what distinct lifestyle advantages does your community offer over their previous living arrangements?

2. Proximity to Town — Is your community accessible to public resources like schools, colleges, employment, shopping, a library, a hospital, and a church? Or can your community provide those resources?

3. Financing — (disclaimer: I’m not a financial expert, so I can’t guarantee the accuracy of this section.) There are essentially two ways to purchase the real estate needed for your community: co-operatively or entrepreneurially. So you’ve found the ideal location and it costs $3 million. In the co-operative approach, you and, say, 14 of your friends purchase the land together. That means it comes out to about $200,000 per person. The biggest problem here is that if one person becomes unable to make payments, the rest of you have to pick up the difference, otherwise the bank can foreclose on the whole group. In the entrepreneurial approach, one person will get financing for the entire $3 million spot, and everyone else will purchase their lots from that person. This approach isn’t very communitarian, but probably a lot more reliable.

4. Kids — Does your community take into account the needs of babies, children, and teenagers? Are there playgrounds and parks for the younger kids? Is there entertainment for the older kids? Bored teenagers is not a recipe for community harmony.

5. Affordability — Have you designed the community in a way that the people you want to have there can afford to live there?

6. Social Norms — If your community has common areas, how will acceptable behavior be defined and managed? Things like appropriate movies, alcohol usage, noise and music selections, etc. will result in varying viewpoints.

7. Conflict Resolution — Blogs can ban trolls, but communities can’t exile undesirables. What mechanisms will you put in place to facilitate harmony when people refuse to get along?

8. “Tragedy of the Commons” — People don’t take care of community property as carefully as they take care of their own. How will you keep things in a state of good repair? If your community has assigned responsibilities (grounds maintenance, meal preparation, cleaning, etc.) what will you do to ensure that those jobs are carried out?

9. Governance — Who is going to be in charge of what? How will that be determined, what authority will people have, and how will their authority be enforced?

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11 Responses to Community Considerations – or – Nine Reasons “40 Acres and My Friends” Is a Bad Idea

  1. Dave on February 10, 2010 at 10:46 am

    Ongoing proximity can undermine friendship. I’m guessing a real-world implementation of this concept would quickly become “40 acres and a collection of very unreasonable people who used to be my friends.”

  2. Tim on February 10, 2010 at 11:14 am

    “Ongoing proximity can undermine friendship.” Perhaps. But I was roommates with a handful of good friends for years, and our friendship only grew.
    The only major worry I have about this type of community is that by forming this community, you are largely closing yourself off from the rest of the world. You surround yourself with like-minded people, and so don’t have the opportunity to grow and learn and influence others like you would out in the real world.
    Wow. Sounds like my experience growing up in a suburb of Salt Lake…

  3. Stephanie on February 10, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    My mom’s whole family planned buying their own land and moving there for several years when I was a child. They were planning to live some kind of “United Order” idea. My dad (the in-law) was the main instigator. At the time, they were also all running a family business together. The plans all fell apart after my dad divorced my mom, which was probably a good thing. I imagine it could have been a nightmare. Sometimes you need a little distance and autonomy between family members.

  4. ESO on February 10, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    There are two extended families in a former ward who lived (indeed, live) with a version of this: one geographically, and the other a United Order type money version (all the money in one pot, take what you need).

    From the outside looking in, I tend to feel very sorry for those who married in to these families. The family that lives on a common chunk of land will, I think break up–a few of the second-generation have sold parts of their land, so they now have “outsiders” living among them. I don’t know about the money family–in the 6 years I have observed, they have expanded their communal vision, but I suspect some of the in-laws may bolt in the next few years.

  5. Dane Laverty on February 10, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    Wow, I didn’t realize that there were still United Order movements among the church membership. As Stephanie’s and ESO’s examples show, my list of nine considerations above is by no means exhaustive. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

  6. Jacki on February 10, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    In our last ward there was a housing development under the title of “cohousing”- everyone bought private property in a neighborhood designed around a large common area, with all the car traffic on the outside of the neighborhood. They had common buildings and facilities for everyone’s use, with rules dictated by vote, and with activities every week. They also have community gardens and playgrounds. Like a subdivision, but one step up where you can choose to see your neighbors all the time.

    When we discussed the United Order in Gospel Doctrine, one of my friends who live in the subdivision said it was hard sometimes to know your neighbors so well, and open yourself up to working cooperatively in everything- even how you garden. But she liked it overall. Not quite as drastic as shutting yourself off from the world iwth only 40 of your best friends.

    Here’s the website if anyone’s in interested in how it all works there:
    http://www.shadowlakevillage.org/SLVweb/Welcome.html

  7. Jonathan Green on February 10, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    Dane, I’ve really enjoyed this series. It’s expressed a lot of things that were on my mind in this post, but much better and much more extensively than I did there.

    An additional pitfall that occurs to me is redundancy: Many places already have living communities with provisions for governance, community responsibilities, conflict resolution, child care, etc., and they’re called ‘cities.’ Unfortunately, many aspects of how our cities are built and our society functions seem determined to thwart the kind of community you have in mind and that many people would find attractive. What I liked about my former neighborhood was how it allowed community to happen while also allowing residents to choose which aspects of the community they wanted to participate in. There are advantages and disadvantages, but it was much easier to feel a part of a community when there were two nearby kindergartens that everyone used, one local elementary school, shops within walking distance, and many nearby playgrounds and recreational facilities (rather than constant circulation of students between distant schools of many forms, large shopping centers as the only retail option, and just a few large parks for all city residents so that other park users are largely anonymous strangers). We could opt out of some community aspects (by attending one of the local churches only for school functions and not for Sunday services), but still feel connected to our neighbors.

    So, in short, my question is, do we need to design communities, or rather build neighborhoods where community can thrive?

  8. Dane Laverty on February 10, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    Re: “So, in short, my question is, do we need to design communities, or rather build neighborhoods where community can thrive?”

    – Is there a difference?

  9. Jay on February 11, 2010 at 8:06 am

    Given our fondness for suburban sprawl and our oft-stated hatred of housing associations, I don’t see this going anywhere. We say we want community, but the evidence suggests we also want big houses, big yards, big suburban shopping centers, and miles and miles of highways.

  10. queuno on February 12, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    Sometimes you need a little distance and autonomy between family members.

    Let me tell you – my wife and I get along much better with our respective parents at a distance of 1200 miles than we might have from a distance of 10.

  11. Seldom on February 12, 2010 at 6:59 pm

    I’m a civil engineer and we were recently approached by by individuals with plans to start their own rural community. Unfortunately the hopeful community builders were in complete ignorance of the pratical aspects of such a venture. Their community site was selected based upon availability of cheap land and aesthic appeal. The site, which was located in the western Utah desert,lacked adquate water supplies. Extending paved roadways and electrical power the the remote location was far beyond the financial ability of the group. They were also surprised to find out that County approval of all their building plans was required before they could begin construction. Needless to say, the dream died quickly.

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