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Building Belonging: Excerpt

May 16, 2023

bookcoverThe piece below is excerpted from the book Building Belonging, written by Yana Ludwig and published by the Foundation for Intentional Communities. All rights reserved. Parts of this book may be reprinted with permission of Yana Ludwig. Academic and other educational purposes do not require permission.

Chapter 11: Land and the Importance of Search Criteria

“Stewarding our own land, growing our own food, educating our own youth, participating in our own healthcare and justice systems, this is the source of real power and dignity.”— Leah Penniman, Farming While Black

Land is not just the spot your community sits on. Land holds both history and potential, and is not only a source of security, but also the stage your community plays out their dramas on. Land has inherent worth in a way that little else does — life giving food and water can spring from land, as can material wealth that empowers and grounds communities.

The modern world of real estate obfuscates much of this truth. It treats land as a commodity only, something to be consumed, bought and sold, used, and all too often used up. In a world where zoom meetings have become the norm, we are often not even meeting each other in physical space any more, and this (for all of its goodness in terms of accessibility and low carbon work options) has further disconnected relationships from place.

Community provides us with an opportunity to re-invest in a direct relationship with the land. While this is easier to see in rural places where “acreage” is part of the real estate listings many of us will end up pouring through to find “our place,” it is also true in urban areas. The most satisfying community experiences I’ve had have been in communities who know something of the history of the place they are occupying, and have a developed narrative about what that means.

Decolonization and Community Building

​​”colonized minds



and think of


decolonizing minds



and feel


— poem by josie valadez fraire

One of the early inquiries in this book was about how we can ethically build community on stolen land. The Land Back movement is worth discussing here, even briefly. Land Back, like all movements, is diverse in its tactics and specific asks. The general idea though is that the relationship we currently have with land is one based in oppressive and often violent power dynamics that have been at play the whole time white people have been on this continent, and that it began with the forcible taking of land and claiming it as a possession.

Sustainability, resilience in the face of change, and living ethical lives all ultimately require a change in this most fundamental relationship. The land — the earth — is literally what gives us life and makes everything we do possible.

I know Land Back advocates who are literally asking that land be returned to the Indigenous tribes who are local to the place. I also know Land Back advocates who are challenging the relationship that people have to the land they occupy, regardless of formal legal ownership.

Here are just a few examples of how communities can change their relationship to land and thus begin the process of decolonization.[1]

  • Learning about and celebrating land- and seasonal-based holidays (like Solstices and Equinoxes). This can help begin a practice of not taking land and the gifts — which vary seasonally — for granted, a core piece of starting to change how we relate to land and move toward right relationship.
  • Listening for and acting on what is wanted and needed by the land. One method for learning to listen is to use permaculture. Permaculture principles are, according to many Indigenous teachers, simply repackaged Indigenous wisdom and observations. Practicing permaculture with direct acknowledgement of its roots is one way to begin decolonizing.
  • If permaculture is too heady or feels overwhelming to learn, you can also get into a practice of sitting quietly on the land and simply listening and observing. Get to know the contours of your land, the plants that grow there, the flows of water and wind. And let what you learn influence your decision-making.
  • Having land owned collectively, rather than by (an) individual(s), and thus leaning into feeling connection more than thinking about possession (as the poem that opened this section says).
  • Pay “Real Rent” if your local tribes have an established program, or if they don’t, reach out and ask how your group can make a monthly donation with this intention. Build into your community budget a line item, and commit to paying it over the long term. Real Rent Duwamish suggests $18.55/person/month (recognizing the Treaty of 1855).
  • Finally, literally give land back. If you can afford 75 acres or someone in your group has inherited a 125 acre family farm, and you only need 15 acres for your vision, contact your local tribe(s) and open a conversation about ceding the rest back to them. Or ask them what they want to see happen with it, and be open to ceding not just property rights but at least some control over what your group is doing with the property. Or see if there is a local land trust that is part of the Land Back movement or indigenous-led, and work to put part or all of your property into that trust.

In a decolonized world, a community’s relationship with the land is just that: a relationship. As Robin Wall Kimmerer (an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation) says in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass:

“Knowing you love the earth changes you. It activates your will to defend, protect and celebrate. But when we feel the earth loves us in return, the feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street to a sacred bond. You do not want to harm what loves you. The ultimate reciprocity; loving and being loved in return.”

Community is a great place to work on changing ourselves and our worldviews. I encourage groups to consider this core relationship between people and land as one of the more powerful transformations available to us on this journey.

Property search and acquisition

 For many of us, the property search phase is a combination of exhilarating, stressful, inspiring, and overwhelming. Here’s my guide for how to have this part be more manageable, and also end up with a property that really works well for your group.

Note that this chapter comes quite late in the book. That’s because you have a lot of work to do before you get to this phase. It is especially important to create ownership and membership models, including entry and exit plans, based on your vision. That work will then feed into answering the search criteria questions in a much more coherent way. If property suddenly appears that is a great match, you want to have these things in place before a bunch of money needs to be put on the table to buy it.

Have a business plan before you start the search and more than enough solid commitments to make it real. (See Chapter 9 for more on what I mean by a business plan.) Watch the market for a while to get a feel for what kinds of things come more and less frequently available where you want to settle. Be prepared with your budget documents to run new scenarios before you make an offer, and adjust your estimated financial needs based on what you learn from watching the market. If you already have a well developed spreadsheet based on the business planning section guidance, you will have a tool handy to understand, for instance, what accepting a counter-offer from the seller might mean for your membership dues or other ways you are planning to get the bills paid.

Work with a real estate agent who can competently partner with you. You may need to educate someone about what communities like yours are and how this is different from a standard transaction. Cassandra Ferrera’s workshop on property acquisition for communities could be a great thing to steer them toward if they are willing to take the time to watch it.

The most important new piece of work for your group in this chapter is to create search criteria, based on your vision, ideally before your search begins. I’ve developed a list of questions that have worked well for the property search for both my own communities and clients I’ve worked with. I’m sharing that list. Using these questions as a guide, work up a list of property search criteria as a group.

The list will be most useful as a decision-making guide if you prioritize it. At the least, talk about which ones are “must haves” versus “ideally we will have.” Note: some criteria may have levels to them, such as proximity to a city, where “within an hour of an urban center” might be a must have, and “within 20 minutes of an urban center” might be your actual ideal. The more thoughtful your group is with this process, the more you will have clear criteria to sort out your options when a property or properties present themselves.

I strongly recommend doing this as pre-search work. There are two scenarios that make this pre-work essential:

  • If a property that some or all of you think has promise suddenly pops up in a fast moving market, you may have to move very quickly. Your group needs a way to either act decisively while staying aligned in that moment, or to be able to resist the temptation to jump on something you may regret a year later. Having well-developed search criteria gives you a way to stay grounded in this moment.
  • You may be in a market with lots of potential options (most commonly for urban groups). In that case, having clear, already agreed upon criteria can keep you from devolving into a battle of personal preferences. Let the mission and values guide these conversations!

Property Search Criteria Questions[2]

  1. Do you already have a location picked out or property in hand?[3] If not: what states, municipalities, and counties interest you?
  2. Have you already looked into legal limitations or benefits in those places? If not: What do you need to consider? (Some examples: legalized marijuana, tiny house or composting toilet restrictions, property tax rates, Medicaid expansion, etc.)
  3. How urban or rural do you want to be? How near to a major city do you want or need to be? What cultural, social, or economic features does that city need to have? (Some examples: living wage laws, a vibrant arts scene, a particular type of political organizing, etc.)
  4. How should your property relate to transportation systems? Close to a major highway, airport, or train station? Walkable and bikeable to amenities?
  5. How many people will your ideal community have that the land needs to accommodate? How much land do you ideally want for that to work well? Are there minimum acreage needs for this to be a viable project?
  6. Do you want existing structures? If so, what kind? If you want raw land, are there utilities that need to already be in place (like city water or a well, internet cable, an electric grid hook up available for the site)?
  7. What water needs do you have and what are the most common water sources and processing options in the area where you are looking? Is there city water and sewage service available, or is it more common to have well water and septic where you are looking? Are constructed wetlands appealing and allowed? Whatever the anticipated water source, is there water test data available for it?
  8. What physical features or amenities interest you to have access to (examples: trees, water, parks, next to national forests, mountains, library, jobs, highway, public transit, high speed internet)? For each amenity, consider: Does it need to be on the property? Within an easy walk or bike? Within an easy drive?
  9. Are there particular things you don’t want? (Some examples: heavy winds, openly homophobic neighbors, highway noise, near a confined animal feeding lot, etc.)
  10. Do you need zoning that allows for multi-family units? For mixed use functions? How much bandwidth does your group have for getting exemptions if need be? If exemptions might be needed, what body approves those and what is their general orientation?
  11. Do you need building codes that allow for certain types of building materials or techniques? If you aren’t able to find a place that currently allows what you want, are you willing and able to compromise on materials, location, or the timeline (the latter of which would give you time to seek exemptions or change local policy)?
  12. Are there spiritual or ethical considerations?[4] (Some examples: connection to land spirits, Indigenous land history, land reclamation or brownfield development, to not participate in gentrification, etc.)
  13. Do you want to grow food, and if so, what criteria will allow for that? How much support (if any) do you need in learning and is there reasonable support for that locally?
  14. What factors related to climate disruption are you considering? What are the predictions for this area, and what would you need to build into your plans to prepare for those changes?
  15. Are there any existing intentional communities near where you are looking, and are they interested in supporting you?
  16. Who do you want to attract as members? Will they mostly come from the local area or from people moving to join you? What do you need to consider in terms of that answer?
  17. Are there development ideals you are willing to give up to make it economically accessible to more people? If so, which answers that you’ve already provided in earlier questions are places you are willing to flex?
  18. Are there professionals (in real estate, legal and financial services, design and building, group process and training, etc. in the area(s) you are look ing who are aligned with your community values?
  19. Are there any other specific needs you have for your vision?

A few specific thoughts on location:

 Costs: coastal communities and liberal cities tend to be more expensive, but have more social services available. The cost to get in might be a bit in tension with the cost of surviving and thriving in a place for the people you want to create community with.

Politics: There is always a good news/bad news aspect to this. Not having hostility is good, but places with less good political alignment may be places that have more need for a project like yours.

Urban versus rural: Urban areas tend to have better access to good jobs, reliable internet, and more racial and cultural diversity, but they also come with lots of distractions (meaning you might have challenges with getting people to focus on the community, both during the start up phase and once you have landed). They are also almost always more expensive.

Proximity to resources: This could be a subset of the urban, rural conversation, except that there are definitely pockets of more progressive and well-funded small towns. Looking for places that have what you need in terms of amenities such as hospitals, water, “alternative” culture, nature, and public transit.

Climate (and the fact that it is changing): Many communities look for places with abundant water, a long growing season, and good soil. Increasingly, it is important to take into account climate disruption impacts that are expected and already happening where you want to locate: sea level rise, unpredictable weather, etc. There are projections available for many places about what may happen in different states, but these are changing as new data emerges.

Still, it can be worth finding out what scientists currently think may happen in the area you are considering in 20–50 years, and at a minimum check current flood zone maps to get a sense of the current baseline. And in a more big picture way, talking about how you are going to relate to changes (both in data and in real time and space).

History of the place: While I’ve already mentioned the history in the context of Land Back, there are many ways that a place’s history might matter. Red-lining and green-zoning practices (both of what are easily google-able if those are unfamiliar terms for you) have created still-existing pockets of racial and class segregation that affect everything from cost of living to quality of public schools to general neighborhood vibes and who has political power in different places.

There are also places with interesting communal or political histories, including Fairhope Alabama, Astoria Oregon, Taos New Mexico, and Yellow Springs Ohio to name just a few disparate small towns that represent interesting pockets of activity in unexpected places. Learning a little about potential places can be fun and lead to some interesting additional factors for you to take into account. Sometimes a place ends up just feeling right because of history that has ripples into the now.

Cost, Codes, and Zoning

Intentional communities are not islands — we are communities embedded in larger communities. These go by a lot of names — everything from the Indigenous tribes whose land we are on, to political environments, to municipalities. And some of those other communities have definite ideas about what should and shouldn’t be happening in their space, and the power to legislate around them.

Building codes and zoning are one of the more impactful expressions of those wider community values. They are also two of the three biggest factors in determining how hard or easy it is to get the community you want. They affect affordability, how experimental your project can be, and what kind of self-determinism the community has in terms of the physical plane. (The third factor is property prices, which is pretty self-explanatory.)

Here’s a bit about codes and zoning. First, the difference between the two:

Building codes are basically about HOW you can build, and mostly regulate the materials, and quality and safety standards of building projects. Codes are intended to be public safety regulations at their core, and that’s a great intention.[5] They also unfortunately are often very limiting for groups wanting to be more experimental or use non-manufactured materials (such as straw bales).

Zoning is basically about WHAT and WHERE you can build, and they limit the type, size, and number of buildings a property can have, and whether the property is used for business, agricultural, or housing purposes. There is usually what is called a “mixed use” zoning option that allows you to combine these purposes. Zoning plays a major role in regulating the so-called “character” of neighborhoods, and mostly serves to reinforce class separations in building patterns and protect property values.

You must check the zoning of property you are considering buying to make sure you really can do a community on them, and that might involve a call to the county to confirm it. If you don’t have time to do that before an offer needs to be made on a property, I recommend writing confirmation of zoning into your offer as a contingency, which will buy you some time.

Rural Missouri, Tennessee, Virginia, and New Mexico all have lots of intentional communities compared to their population sizes. They have the magic combination of low cost, low regulations, and good growing seasons that have attracted a lot of community founders over the years. That also means that there is potential for being part of a local network that has already navigated the state’s culture and regulations. You can spend some time browsing the communities directory maps[6] to see these hot spots.

“Hot spots” means in part that you may be able to find a community mentor in one of those places (as well as more populated places: Boston, Austin, Chicago, and the Bay Area in California, for instance all have much more predictably dense community settlements). Some of the better known and more successful communities took off and became stable quickly because of this mentorship relationship. I encourage all the communities I work with to find the Twin Oaks to your Acorn, or the Sandhill Farm to your Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage.

 Working for Reform, and Exemptions

“A no is just an uneducated yes.”

That’s one of my favorite quotes from Brandy McPherson, one of the founding members of O.U.R. Ecovillage in British Columbia. BC is one of the few places where groundbreaking work has been done on “ecovillage zoning” and Brandy’s community has led that work.[7] It didn’t start with wide scale reform attempts, however. It started with working with their local officials to patiently educate them on how the new building technologies that a lot of communities are drawn to was a reasonable and even positive way to fulfill the intent of building codes, and how intentional village design had enough going for it that should be respected and codified in the form of new zoning designations.

They got there in large part because of persistence, and a willingness to see local officials as potential allies in need of some education (thus the quote) rather than seeing them as enemies or barriers to be overcome. In part because of their work, Canada, in general, is much more receptive than the US. That said, many other communities over the years have faced a similar challenge of being committed to building community in a particular place and needing to dig in to long term work with local officials to make that possible.

The legal and economic contexts that communities form in matters. I got on this soapbox for a whole chapter in Together Resilient, and I won’t reiterate the whole thing here. I do want to celebrate the places where reform is in the works or has in recent years made community living easier.

Like Boulder CO, where a dedicated group of community activists finally got a cooperative housing ordinance[8] passed in 2017. That ordinance has already impacted affordable housing access in a very expensive urban area. Or the work the Sustainable Economies Law Center has done to pioneer new models for community living, including the Permanent Real Estate Cooperative (you may remember them from the sidebar in the last chapter), inspiring anti-gentrification action with ideas like “Land Without Landlords” and “restorative economics.” Or the ongoing work of the Green Building Council, whose website has a whole section for articles on advocacy and policy.[9]

I know many people in the communities movement who have worked for years on reform. It feels important to at least mention in this context that change is possible, both in the form of getting exemptions to do your project the way you want to, but also to clear the way for it being easier for everyone who comes after us because we worked for larger scale reform.

A real question for your group is whether or not you want to sign up for that work and are willing to potentially delay manifesting all or part of your vision to do it. As you are contemplating where you want to end up, your patience level (and the additional resources it would take to be patient) with the reform process may or may not end up being a factor.

Exercise 13: Develop Property Search Criteria

Using the list of 19 questions from earlier in the chapter, work together as a group to come to your collective answers. Then, prioritize them. What are your “must haves”? What are the top three places where you feel flexible? If it is a choice between affordability and some of your criteria, what are you committing to choose?

[1] For more information, see: ​​

[2] You can find these questions as a downloadable pdf at:

[3] If the answer is “yes” to this, some of the questions that follow will serve more as taking stock of what is rather than creating criteria for what you want.

[4] Cassandra Ferrera teaches an excellent course on land relationships and acquisition for communities that covers this topic really beautifully.

[5] In fact, it’s such a good intention that if you end up in a place without external codes, it is a good idea to spend a little time creating some internal community codes to make sure buildings don’t fall down and kill anyone. For instance, plenty of non-code approved materials have data about them to support the idea that they can be just as safe and structurally sound, but you will need to do some of your own investigations on that if you want to use those materials. Straw bale and cob, for instance, are both more fire-safe and earthquake-safe than the most common stick building methods if you do it properly.


[7] Learn more at



Yana Ludwig

Yana has 25 years of cooperative living experience, including four community start-ups. She served for over a decade on the Board of the Foundation for Intentional Community, and as a trainer, facilitator, and consultant for progressive projects since 2005. Yana is co-author of The Cooperative Culture Handbook: A Social Change Manual to Dismantle Toxic Culture and Build Connection and author of Together Resilient: Building Community in the Age of Climate Disruption, which won the 2017 Communal Studies Association Book of the Year Award. Yana’s 2013 TEDx talk, Sustainable is Possible! (And it doesn’t suck…) kicked off an era for her as a public speaker and advocate for communities. She is a founding member of the Solidarity Collective, an income sharing community in Laramie, WY. She currently serves as the Executive Director of the North Coast Food Web in Astoria OR, where she lives with her partner, Matt Stannard, and a very large dog. Find out more about Yana on her website:

Tags: building resilient communities, intentional communities