This article is part of an ongoing series about building personal and household resilience. Read more from the series here.
Last month, I stumbled upon a little town that almost felt like a Strong Towns devotee had invented it.
After just a few quick conversations with residents, it was clear that they aced every single item on the Strong Towns Strength Test. The speed limits on every road were 5 miles per hour or less; you couldn’t #slowthecars more if you tried. Moreover, those streets weren’t designed by engineers; when the citizens of the village took a shortcut often enough to create a desire path, the building committee (which, by the way, was not made up of builders) would take notice and lay down some gravel to pave it. Those streets were narrow and lined with gorgeous, hand-built homes, built incrementally and experimentally over time and deliberately placed close together to maximize the productive use of the land.
All of it—the infrastructure under the ground, the gravel roads under my feet, the hand-built homes I couldn’t stop snapping pictures of—was built by the people here, without community debt. Every single citizen I spoke to knew how their town had been built, roughly how much it cost, and certainly what it was worth.
And everyone seemed truly, deeply joyful to be living this way.
The secret? The place where I was standing—Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Rutledge, Missouri—was an intentional community. It had been built from the ground up over the course of 20 years by residents who had collectively agreed to live and build their lives this way.
NOT AVERAGE CITIZENS
Let’s get this out of the way: I’m not suggesting that the only way to build a strong town is to find a patch of land and start from scratch.
But as someone who spends most her day talking about our dominant development pattern and the bizarre and vast financial predicament American cities have managed to get themselves into, sometimes the idea of starting over is tempting. Some days, it drives me a little crazy that Dancing Rabbit’s way of creating a community (like the Strong Towns approach itself) is treated as a radical, utopian ideal—a distant if not impossible goal for the communities we love.
It shouldn’t be a shocking thing for a community to have a conversation about how to pay for the maintenance of a piece of infrastructure before they put it in the ground. Specious road usage projections, complex financial instruments and hazy math about the job creating potential of razing a downtown block to build a big box—these are the things we should think of as radical and frightening. These are the things that average citizens should have the ability to engage with and refuse. And we would if we hadn’t done such a thorough job of circumscribing our collective imagination.
The residents of Dancing Rabbit, though, are not average citizens.
Furthermore, the Rabbits founded their community, not to withdraw from a society gone mad, but to create a living example of how other places might change the way they build and live. They believe that many cities can change, and that the people can change the way they choose to live, both in their particular corner of rural Northern Missouri and even in the heart of many of our most broken communities. That’s precisely why they built their town in the first place.
Only about 50 adults and 20 children live in Dancing Rabbit. But don’t let the scale fool you: they’re actively trying to grow their small community (they predict that as many as 1000 people might reside there one day), and along the way, they’re inviting as many people around the world to explore their vision as possible. That starts, among other things, with a porousness we don’t associate with the typical intentional community: Dancing Rabbit has, among other things, high-speed internet and an active social media presence powered by standalone solar panels, as well as an on-site nonprofit which manages visitor and seminar programs that are open to anyone who applies. My own visit coincided with their annual open house, where they marched hundreds of look-seers through their bike garages and communal kitchens and even a few of their families’ living rooms.
On my trip to DR, I learned about Dancing Rabbit’s various environmental covenants (e.g. all residents pledge not to own a personal motor vehicle; four biodiesel-powered cars more than meet their community’s needs) as well as the more flexible elements of their lifestyle (e.g. residents can choose to share communal kitchens or showers or join a goat’s milk co-op, or they can elect to buy or produce these things for themselves.) I watched preternaturally independent children wander in the grass dragging pet pigs on leashes, and I bought hand-made chapbooks from a resident who loved to write.
It’s impossible to visit a place like Dancing Rabbit and wonder whether or not you, too, could live with a composting toilet and no restaurants for 30 minutes in any direction. But I also wondered: what parts of this could I take home with me to the city?
A COMMUNITY LENS
Rae Machado is a five year resident of Dancing Rabbit and a member of the town’s outreach committee. When I asked her why the founders of the village chose to build an intentional community rather than a more traditional sustainability non-profit in a major city that coached urban residents on how to, say, recycle a little more and buy a little less gasoline, she had two answers.
One of those answers was pragmatic: “They wanted to build this alternative example of living in a place where we could experiment with natural building without building code regulations getting in the way with how we want to make our homes and what materials we want to use,” Machado said.
Rutledge’s local planning department is also willing to zone Dancing Rabbit as a trailer park, at least until their number of residents increases, Machado laughs, “to an undetermined number at some undetermined point in the future.” Most American cities simply don’t allow citizens to pick up a hammer and build their homes however they wish, much less if they want that home to be made out of cob and native clay. As we’ve discussed at Strong Towns in the past, while many of our building codes might be intended to keep us safe, they often functionally stifle all but the most monolithic, financially unproductive development, never mind the kind of creativity and beauty we see in intentional communities.
But the other answer Machado put forward about why Dancing Rabbit had build their community from scratch was more philosophical: that the founders of Dancing Rabbit actually hadn’t started fresh when they’d bought their 280 acres and started crafting a life. “[Many intentional communities] look at culture through an individual lens, through a total homesteading lens,” says Machado. “Dancing Rabbit looks at culture through a community lens. That’s why we are a densely clustered, European style village, and why we do so much outreach. We’re prioritizing community and connection and permaculture at the village scale over the individual permaculture approach.” (Learn more about communal life at Dancing Rabbit through Machado's eyes in this short video.)
Permaculture is not a new idea—put simply, it’s the ancient practice of consciously cultivating self-sustaining agricultural ecosystems, using simple techniques like planting perennial natives in symbiotic relationships to one another. But it’s still relatively novel to see the concept applied to other aspects of community life, or to see it done so broadly at Dancing Rabbit.
As I spoke to Machado, though, I realized that in some ways, community permaculture is just another term for what we advocate for here at Strong Towns.
If advocates of our dominant development pattern are akin to monoculture farmers who insist we need to raze a forest and transplant acres of a cash crop all at once if we want to make a dime at market—and then repeat that process the next season, and the next, ad infinitum, exhausting the land in the process—Strong Towns is a bit like the permaculturist, gradually tinkering with crop combinations and making the soil richer season after season as the trees bear fruit all on their own. When we discuss alternatives to the Growth Ponzi Scheme, we’re advocating for a land use pattern that is designed to yield wealth and enrich itself year upon year, rather than building quickly and exhausting all the potential of a space in one fell swoop.
It didn’t surprise me to learn, then, that Dancing Rabbit is as financially healthy as it is beautiful. Residents pay a flat 2 percent of their income in community dues each year—many hold remote jobs or work for the village nonprofit or mercantile—and they also pay a super-low monthly rent to a land trust for the property their homes sit on (10 cents per square foot for residential property, 1 cent per square foot for private garden space.) From this pool of funds, the village builds its common infrastructure, and their answer to meeting their needs is virtually always to keep costs low enough that they’ll be able to afford to maintain what they’ve built at a conservative projection of village population growth.
Debt is avoided—the village once had to take out loans on a building project for a common house, and they’ve been wary of the experience since. And where they can’t build things they can afford to maintain, they build things that will deliberately dissolve: Machado told me happily that her “footprint on the planet is going to only last about ten years longer than my time on earth. When I die, my house will dissolve, unless another member of the village elects to maintain the structure. I don’t want a building that’s going to last 200 years or multiple generations.”
STEP UP AND DO IT
Here, of course, is where Dancing Rabbit’s approach might seem untenable in the larger world. It’s hard enough to convince an American that they don’t personally need millions of miles of asphalt and a car in the garage behind their giant house in order to have a basic quality of life. Try asking them to move into a home where they have to reapply earthen plaster to their exterior walls every other year lest it melt in the rain.
But for Machado and residents like her, this process is a joy. So is the extra time spent building relationships with her neighbors—essential in a community that governs entirely by democratic committees—and the process of learning new skills—essential in a community that relies as much as possible on a tiny group of autodidacts to build roads, install solar panels, deliver babies and grow grain (to name a few tasks).
“Sometimes we need you to bake bread and sometimes we need you to tile and grout,” Machado said. “If you don’t know how, do what you need to do to learn, and then go out and help your community. There’s this sense of, you step up and do it; don’t wait for someone else to come in and savior it for you.”
But stepping up and doing it yourself doesn’t mean that you’re totally on your own. The building committee at Dancing Rabbit, for instance, isn’t a faceless permitting body, doling out penalties for code violations. Instead, they’re a council of your neighbors, many of whom aren’t engineers by training, but who have amassed years of collective experience about natural building and act as a resource far more often than they act as a control on how new residents can create their homes.
“If somebody moves here and says, I’m building a round wood timber frame house with straw bales, [the building committee might say], okay, if you make that choice, you can look at incorporating these three aspects into your design,” Machado explains. “We try to provide some guidance, but it’s really beautiful to have those open bylaws that can embrace the diversity of what everyone wants to create.”
IS ANY OF THIS SAFE?
If words like “open bylaws” make you nervous about collapsing roofs and a government unconcerned with citizen safety, you’d be surprised. Machado told me that the community is actually hyper-vigilant of their residents’ and visitors well-being, perhaps even more so than many people in average cities are. “The children pulled a wagon into the road today filled with red bell peppers and sold them to all the adults as we were walking by,” Machado said. “That was so precious to me. It’s very rare to see a vehicle drive through [the village], and we have a five mile an hour speed limit. But even then, what a car crash would do to this community—I can’t even think about it. The kind of negative impact that a tragedy could have if a child ever got hurt, to our community happiness and emotional well-being and our reputation as a village; it’s not worth it to us.”
The difference between Dancing Rabbit, though, is what they do with that fear. Rather than demanding that their children all strap into safety-padded car seats in the back of SUVs and teach them never, ever to walk in the street, they’ve simply gotten as many cars out of the road as possible, and made it clear that the children are unequivocally allowed to walk there. Machado says she can’t envision Dancing Rabbit ever having two lanes of traffic. The roads will never be wider than what’s needed to accommodate a U-Haul or a dump truck. The local volunteer fire department doesn’t require anything more of them.
Hearing Machado talk about how Dancing Rabbit addresses safety, it’s clear just how much more intuitive and comprehensive this approach is than what the vast majority of our cities do. I think of the building inspector who examined my home in St. Louis, quickly recommending that we buy a new railing for our front porch stairs before driving off. I’m certain I’ll never see him again; I certainly can’t imagine him treating me like an apprentice, walking me through the best practices to steward the land we all shared. I think of the endless conversations I’ve had with fellow bicyclists and pedestrians about the best ways to defend ourselves against being crushed by automobiles. In all those discussion, I don’t think I’ve ever heard one of them say, simply, that even a single death by automobile is something that our community simply would not bear. This attitude from the Dancing Rabbit community seems so simple and humane; how on earth have we gotten to a point where it feels so impossible?
CAN IT SCALE?
As I drove back to St. Louis, I found myself thinking about the scale of our cities’ problems. In a city of over 300,000 people, many of whom come from vastly different value systems and none of whom have sat down and signed a covenant together, it can feel daunting to apply the principles that a town like Dancing Rabbit seems to implement with joy. The Rabbits themselves admit that; they don’t plan to ever grow their village much beyond a thousand people, and some residents think 500 or so might be an even better number.
But in a way, there are villages within all of our cities: neighborhoods and blocks and even our individual households. And we can build and retrofit them with intention if we’re brave enough to think small. And if enough of us do it, those small actions add up.
Part of the reason Dancing Rabbit is located in Northern Missouri is simply because they wanted to be a part of something bigger: there are at least four nearby intentional communities within driving distance, and these villages make it a point to gather and collaborate when they can. It’s tantalizing to imagine a future where there are even more villages like Dancing Rabbit in Northern Missouri, where a loose, city-like structure of deliberately small communities might exist side by side, each governed by their own deeply felt principles, each working hard to build the world they want to see. As each new community popped up, they’d draw on the power of the others, growing from a foundation of confidence that others before them have done this pioneering thing, and have remained behind to help. The progress would be slow, and it would take a lot of hard work and deep reckoning with what the builders didn’t know. But if they depended on one another, and kept at it, they could craft a beautiful and deliberate life.
That’s the kind of growth I want for my city. That’s our challenge: to find ways to make it real.
(Top image source: Dancing Rabbit Facebook page)