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Baby boomers driving new interest in communal living

By Pamela Manson
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Baby boomers driving new interest in communal living
The Takoma Village co-housing development is in Washington, D.C., encouraging "ecologically responsible living."  Photo by Matt Roth

SALT LAKE CITY, July 11 (UPI) -- The 1970s phenomenon of communal living is making a comeback in the United States, popular among retiring baby boomers looking to reduce their environmental footprint and stay connected socially.

Timothy Miller, a University of Kansas professor who has spent years studying "intentional communities," said interest is on the rise again, especially for "co-housing" and "ecovillages."

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"They never dropped back to zero," Miller, author of the new book Communes in America, 1975-2000, said of communes.

As a member of the Communal Studies Association, Miller has documented about 3,000 communes in America since the 1600s. Historically, many of them were established by religious groups, including Christians, Jews, Buddhists and other mainstream faiths.

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The Hutterites, who are Christians living in numerous colonies in Canada and the United States, remain the largest communal group in North America, he said.

There also have been secular communes in the mix and a whole string of them dedicated to social equality.

Today, concerns about the environment have been drawing people to ecovillages, where they can reduce their carbon footprint, Miller said. Typically featuring communal housing, these communities use as few natural resources as possible.

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"Communal housing is low impact by nature," Miller said, adding that communal living also is more economical.

Co-housing communities, which he describes as less intense than other forms of communal living, consist of groups of private homes clustered around shared space. They usually include a common house with a kitchen, dining room and living room.

The developments have an overall corporate structure and the residents govern themselves, Miller said. There is an informal understanding that community members will help each other, making co-housing especially attractive to baby boomers, the generation born between 1946 and 1964.

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"A lot of people see themselves getting older and wonder, 'What next?'" Miller said.

He added that the appeal of co-housing goes beyond receiving services. People who feel disconnected from society can find fulfilling relationships in the communities, he said.

Karen Gimnig, associate director of the Cohousing Association of the United States, said baby boomers are the biggest segment of the market. The nonprofit organization's website lists about 165 established communities and 145 in some stage of formation from the search for land to near completion.

Being part of an intentional community boosts a person's well-being, Gimnig said, adding that studies consistently show that people who are socially connected are healthier and live longer.

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Those connections are made in daily living, Gimnig said. Because homes are smaller, residents will go to the common house to watch the big TV or to cook, she said. As they walk to their cars, they see their neighbors and stop to talk.

Gimnig said co-housing hits a sweet spot for some -- living independently in their own home and having privacy while also being part of a community.

"People don't want to have to rely on their kids," she said. "They want to be in a place where everyone takes care of each other. Then their kids can visit for fun."

Miller, who retired from teaching this spring but continues working to preserve the history of communes -- his latest book is the last of a trilogy, following The Quest for Utopia in Twentieth-Century America, Volume I, 1900-1960 and The 60s Communes: Hippies and Beyond -- has personal experience with communal living.

In 1973, he was part of a group that bought 80 acres in Big Springs, Kan., and named the property Squash Bug Farm. The buyers moved into the farmhouse and set up a commune.

"We were part of the enormous back-to-the-land surge," Miller said. "I was caught up in that."

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During the life of the commune, which operated very informally, about a half-dozen people lived there at a time. The residents gardened, raised chickens and fished on a pond on the farm. Most also worked outside the commune.

A few moved away in the first year and Miller -- who went to graduate school part-time at KU, taught at the university and worked as a freelance journalist while he was living at the farm - left after about five years. Eventually, they all left and rented out the farmhouse.

The group has kept the property and Miller still goes there every weekend.

Buying with a group allowed him to have a farm, something he never could have afforded by himself, Miller said.

"It's like owning the whole thing because you have access to the whole thing."

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