People, Land and Community


Copyright © 2007, 2010 by Arthur Hildreth, Jr.

 This was originally written as a project for the Master Planner Program offered by the Lancaster County Planning Commission in the Fall of 2007.  Lancaster County Pennsylvania has an outstanding master plan worthy of imitation. Information and opinion given in this paper is not intended to take the place of professional or expert advice.

What is Community?
People speak of community within many contexts. “We are building community. We want to live in community. This is our community. A tight-knit community. A bedroom community or religious community.” So, just what is meant by community? The American Heritage Dictionary defines “community” with six related meanings some of which are: 1. a. A group of people living in the same locality and under the same government. 2. A group or class having common interests. 6. Common possession or participation.

Over the last thirty years my experience of community has come to mean when people share their lives, work, and dreams. This can happen in different ways, but mostly it is community in the romantic sense of a village. A village where people see each other daily and relationships are built up over time. I lived in the Town of Great Barrington, MA for two years. This was a semi-rural town with farms and other open space on its perimeter. It had an active main street with retail, art galleries, offices, restaurants, single family homes, and apartments. We lived in town and could walk to food or clothing stores, theatre or hospital. People lived, worked, and made their purchases in town. One day due to a faulty chimney, the fishing supply store caught fire and burned. The owner lived in town and was active in the community. The town’s people raised money to cover what the insurance would not. The electrician and carpenter donated their time and skill to help rebuild the store. This is what I think of as community. A place where people live and work together. Together meaning to have an interest in one another with a mutual appreciation and support.

The developed world of our western civilization has evolved over the centuries from the tribe or group consciousness to the individual. In America, we had the cultural revolution of the sixties that covered many taboos bringing freedoms to light previously given in words but not practiced in our towns and cities or even families. Culturally with technology as an aid the individual can live and work alone totally free from the constraints of a group be it family ethnic or religious. Children grow up and then start their adult lives often far from home. This comes with an unexpected cost. With both adults in a family working, children are growing up alone with technology as their pacifier. The American people feel it and are crying out in defense of what they know as the family unit and its values. It seems more and more that societies all over the world are reaching a point of chaos. People are searching for that sense of place and family; a connection to a commonality amongst all Peoples. They are searching for a new form of community. One in which they retain most of their freedoms and those they give up for community they do so consciously and in freedom. Richard Critchfield in his ground breaking book “Villages” quotes his own writing from the journal, Foreign Affairs, during the Fall of 1982,

“The villagers are not moving from their (A) to our (B). Rather we are all moving toward (C), a wholly new kind of society based upon biotechnology, electronic, new energy drawn from water and sun, and all the other new scientific advances.”

Advances in technology and the sciences are due to an ever-increasing intellect and specialization. These advances have benefited humanity. However, the advances and benefits have begun to overshadow humanity itself. As individuals we need to cultivate an interest in one another and use technologies to our benefit; we need to have more face to face contact with our fellow human beings. We need to experience beauty in each other and the natural world. We need to incorporate beauty into our surroundings. Our homes, streets, businesses, even the technological devices we use should be designed to be both practical and artistic.

What to Do?
In Denmark during the early 1970’s came a new form of housing and community. In their book “Cohousing – A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves” authors Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett describe these communities as:

“An Old Idea – A Contemporary Approach.”

A co-housing community is conceived, designed, and built by the community members. The members develop the co-housing community through many meetings usually spanning more than a year and sometimes several years. The members may hire planners, architects, contractors and/or a developer to help bring the physical aspects of the co-housing community into being. In an effort to make it more affordable, members will contribute sweat-equity (labor and expertise) to the project.

The ideal community may include six to thirty residences. The individual residences are clustered with a common house being central. A green is often in the center with a pedestrian street. It is not unusual for a community site to have two or three separate pods each as its own community.

The housing is as diverse in style and type as any neighborhood or town (ranch, contemporary, two-story, semi-attached, attached, over and under…). The residences are designed so that the work areas such as the kitchen are in the front of the house facing the pedestrian street and green. This semi-private space creates a gesture of openness to the common area of the community. The rear of the residences are private.

Some co-housing developments locate their parking areas near the public road with the common house between the parking area and the residences. This increases the opportunity for community members to interact. Members may pass through the common house, collect their mail, check the activities board, and speak with others on their way home.

Common houses serve the needs of the community. They will have a large kitchen and dining area capable of holding the entire community for meals and meetings. In many communities families will cook meals side by side in the kitchen or even a couple of people will cook for a large group several times a week. The common house may contain office space, areas for the teenagers, a music room, childcare room, and workshops. Some will even have root cellars, pantries, and walk-in refrigerators & freezers that are used to store food bought in bulk for the community. One community allows its members to access the community stores such as bulk flour on the honor system. The common house provides space to be used by many which makes its design more resource efficient. The design of private residences can now be smaller in square footage spreading the cost of entertainment and work space over the entire community.

Building design and site development incorporate many aspects of sustainability from energy and water conservation to green construction. Buildings are placed on the land with consideration for maximizing the benefits of solar, wind, and light.

In the last fifty years developers have been able to build subdivisions without consideration for the sustainable use of the land. The only limit being the planning codes and zoning ordinances for the township or city. In many parts of the country these codes and ordinances were limited to the placement of wells and septic tanks on the property being developed. There was no consideration of the location or direction of the housing on the land as there once had been prior to electric lights and central cooling. This was possible because of inexpensive energy and technological fixes such as cooling. For the average person, the rising cost of energy and the shortage of certain other resources will soon make this type of housing unaffordable. In the past wetlands have been filled and then built-on instead of being used as a natural resource. Today in a co-housing community this land would be used to manage storm water with the added benefit of providing wildlife habitat. Some communities donate or sell the wetland’s development rights to a Conservation Trust. In fact, many communities have a farmland preservation or conservation easement on their land.

An easement creates a right for another party to use the land for a specific purpose. The easement is held by a trustee who administers the land for a beneficiary. In the case of a Farmland or Conservation Trust the development rights are conveyed to the trust for the benefit of the conveyor and future generations.

In Lancaster County, PA some developers are using these ideas to create more desirable subdivisions. They partner with the township to gain transferable development rights and then can have a higher density or clustered development with more open space than previously permitted under the zoning ordinance.

More to Do
The people who are seeking co-housing communities are concerned with both social and environmental issues. These communities of people are embracing a further development in sustainable communities, the Eco-village. This concept also had its start in Denmark some twenty years later in the 1990’s.

In 1991 Robert Gilman, President of Context Institute, wrote an article “The Eco-village Challenge” which gave the definition for an Eco-village that is now the standard:

• Human-scale

• Full-featured settlement

• In which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world

• In a way that is supportive of healthy human development and can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.

Gilman writes that Eco-villages must be, walkable, a place where “people are able to know and be known by others in the community.” A size in which the individual can have an influence on the future of the community. He goes on to say that the village should be a place of commerce and a place to live. There should be enough employment for the population of the village although not everyone will be employed there. The products and services one would need daily should be available. A balance should be reached.

The Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code Article VII-A Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) provides an opportunity for the development of eco-villages. TNDs are similar in scope to that of an eco-village. TNDs provide for a walkable village or neighborhood that has mixed uses and a town center. The obvious differences being eco-villages are intentional developments with strong ecological/sustainable components, and TNDs may not be either. The code once adopted by the municipality allows planning that encourages a traditional neighborhood design. It is then up to the broader community to invest and develop this neighborhood.

Examples of What to Do and More to Do

An award-winning example of a TND type community privately built is the Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Maryland. This community began almost thirty years ago and is continuing to evolve its design. Although this community of 352 acres is nearly twice the size permitted in the PA Planning Code it is still a fine example of the TND’s design principles. This community’s vision was developer and profit driven.

The Kentlands have become very successful and it draws many visitors from outside the community. An allowance for parking is provided in the development’s design; garages and on-street parking for the residences, on-street parking for the shops and other businesses but more parking is still needed. In the evening and on weekends people from the surrounding communities come to enjoy the atmosphere, shops, and restaurants. Parking is scarce. A lesson learned but not solved is that communities need to offer more mass transit opportunities for both its residents and visitors. Some communities including co-housing and eco-villages will have car pooling and car sharing programs.

The International Camphill Movement is another type of intentional community that follows many of the principles of eco-villages. The first Camphill Community was started by Dr. Karl Konig in 1940. They are intentional therapeutic communities that come together to support people with special needs by living, learning, and working together. Some are schools such as Beaver Run and Soltane in Chester County, PA. Others are for the support of adults with special needs.

The Camphill Village Kimberton Hills, also in Chester County, serves adults with special needs. The village engages these adults in the work of the households, organic dairy & CSA, café, bakery, weavery, fiber & wood workshops, and land & building maintenance work. There are plays and musical performances to watch and take part in. The villagers reach out to the surrounding community and the community joins in the work of the village. The buildings are designed in an artistic and practical manner.

Fields Neighborhood in southeastern Wisconsin is a sustainable housing development that complements other sustainable organizations and businesses in and around the village of East Troy. Fields consists of 74 units of clustered condominiums on 17 acres. Winning awards in 2004, its design and construction is considered one of the country’s best examples of green construction. The units are Wisconsin Energy Star Certified. Water conservation plays a key role in the site development with Honey Creek bordering the property. The site design includes water gardens and wetlands management that allow the site to not have storm sewers and is considered a “zero-runoff” community. People who buy homes in Fields are ecologically minded and have similar interests but did not set out to intentionally build this community. This community’s vision was developer and profit driven.

Hundredfold Farm in Gettysburg, PA is a small rural planned co-housing community of 14 households with six home sites still available. The community is on 80 acres with a large garden and Christmas tree farm. Hundredfold Farm is a multi-generational co-housing community that values sustainability and conservation.

Hundredfold Farm, Gettysburg PA

Altair Cohousing is a group in Chester County, PA that has worked together for six years to form their community and find a suitable site. They have worked hard to educate themselves through visiting other communities and having guest speakers. Chester County’s land costs are high. Land costs are always an obstacle in more built up areas such as suburban Philadelphia. Raw land is at a premium.

Develop or Redevelop?

Can a co-housing or eco-village be developed in an urban area? In Denmark some of the first co-housing communities were existing houses in a neighborhood that were purchased and adapted. This may be more difficult in the US with ordinances for property setbacks and will need much planning. I know of one group in Spring Valley, NY that attempted to buy houses on the same block in a neighborhood to form their community. Houses did not come up for sale quickly enough and the group eventually broke up.

I know of another co-housing group here in Pennsylvania that is working on a redevelopment project in a suburb of Philadelphia. They have found an old factory with land and are in the early stages of a purchase. They wish to redevelop the site to include co-housing, green building, and mixed uses. They have goals of being LEED-Platinum Certified, have net-zero annual energy, zero VOC, minimal water use, and reuse of existing/salvaged materials.

A group, Lancaster Downtowners, here in Lancaster have their eye on downtown and are searching for a redevelopment project. They have also considered purchasing single homes if the block was affordable and could otherwise meet their needs.

Redevelopment requires the local officials and members of the surrounding community to be open-minded. If the town burdens the development and not partners with them they may go elsewhere. Raw land can be expensive to buy and has its restrictions, but it is usually less expensive to build on and faster than going through a difficult and long redevelopment process.

How to Be Affordable

There are many ways a community can make itself affordable. The more members with skills that can be applied to the design and development process the less professional fees the community will need to pay out. Private and public funds are often available for people in specific economic ranges to buy a house. Land can be gifted to a Land Trust with the community as a beneficiary. Members who have the means could also donate monies to the Land Trust to buy land for the community’s benefit.

Community Land Trusts as defined by the Institute for Community Economics:

“A Community Land Trust (CLT) is a democratically controlled non-profit organization that owns the real estate in order to provide benefits to its local community – and in particular to make land and housing available to residents who cannot otherwise afford them.”

A CLT can own raw or vacant land and develop it or own land with existing structures. The land is held indefinitely and the buildings sold. The purchaser of a building receives a long-term renewable lease for the land. The CLT will have the right of first refusal on the resale of the building or it may be sold to another lower-income household. The resale value is based on a formula which allows an increase in value based on a reason such as the consumer price index. This provides a modest return for the seller while allowing the house to remain affordable.

This same concept could be used for businesses and housing. Other types of ownership may be able to use a resale formula in the form of a deed restriction. This would be worth investigating and then contacting a professional for legal, tax, and accounting advice.

What Now?

Intentional communities have a mixed history here in America. Will a co-housing or eco-village community be any different? Should the next generation of communities be developer driven and for profit? People have documented their experiences in both the older form of intentional community and in the new intentional co-housing/eco-villages. We have many resources to aid our journey. One thing is sure and that is society is moving towards something new. Are you ready?

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Paper Sources:
Bang, Jan Martin. “Ecovillages.” Edinburgh, UK: Floris Books, 2005.

Bang, Jan Martin. “Growing Eco-Communities.” Edinburgh, UK: Floris Books, 2007.

Christian, Diana Leafe. “Creating a Life Together.” Gabriola, BC: New Society Publishers, 2003.

Critchfield, Richard. “Villages.” Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1983.

Gilman, Robert. “The Eco-village Challenge.” Article for “In Context Magazine,” Context Institute, Summer 1991.

Hanson, Chris. “The Cohousing Handbook.” Point Roberts, WA: Hartley & Marks, 1996.

Harmon, Tasha. “Integrating Social Equity and Smart Growth.” Springfield, MA: A paper available thru The Institute for Community Economics, 2004.

McCamant, Kathryn M. and Durrett, Charles R. “Cohousing – A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves.” Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 1988.

Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. “Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code.” Harrisburg, PA: Eighteenth Edition, February 2005.

Porterfield, Gerald A. and Hall,Jr., Kenneth B. “A Concise Guide to Community Planning.” US: McGraw-Hill, Inc, 1995.

Walbert, David J. “Garden Spot – Lancaster County, the Old Order Amish, and the Selling of Rural America.” New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Walker, Liz. “Ecovillage at Ithaca.” Gabriola, BC: New Society Publishers, 2005.

Web Sources:

Altair Cohousing.
Fields Neighborhood. .
Hundredfold Farm.
Institute for Community Economics.

Resources: Cohousing Handbook resources site. Conscious and Sustainable Green design. Resources for resource efficient homes. State College Community Land Trust site (PA). E.F. Schumacher Society –Linking people, land, and community by building local economies. Communities Network. Land Institute. Community Land Trust Network

State College Community Land Trust – “This small community land trust of 23 homes provides affordable housing for residents of the Borough of State College, while at the same time rehabilitating deteriorating residential neighborhoods.”

Bright Side Development and Land Trust
Rev. Louis Butcher
P.O. Box 2083
Lancaster, PA 17603
Saxifrage Community Land Trust
Richard Taylor
4821 Baltimore Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19143


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