An intentional community is a community formed on the basis of shared belief (religious, political, social or environmental) by people from more than one family who come together to live cooperatively.
Some communities strongly challenge established notions of private property and personal privacy – members pool finances and possessions, eat together, and may even sleep communally. In other intentional communities just a few facilities are shared, and dwellings are individually owned by occupants.
Some groups deliberately withdraw from mainstream society and locate themselves far from other settlements. They aim at economic self-sufficiency, perhaps running their own businesses, and members have limited contact with non-members. Other groups are more integrated with the outside world – they are located near (or in) urban areas, and members typically have jobs outside the community.
In some communities all members are celibate, while in others people have non-monogamous relationships. Where there are children, childcare may be shared by everyone. Other communities consist of a number of nuclear families, each living in separate accommodation, but sharing some facilities, and possibly owning land communally. Some communities (mostly religious, but also feminist) are entirely male or female.
Many intentional communities are strongly egalitarian, and all members take part in making decisions. However, abusive practices can occur when a charismatic leader demands unquestioning allegiance from others.
Māori lived communally, in tribally based communities. However, some communities were formed by followers of particular spiritual and resistance leaders, rather than being based purely on traditional kinship ties.
Followers of the Taranaki prophets and resistance leaders Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi were drawn to their settlement at Parihaka in the 1870s. Parihaka was the centre of a campaign of peaceful resistance to land alienation until it was invaded by government troops in 1881.
The Tūhoe prophet Rua Kēnana created a community at Maungapōhatu in the Urewera in 1907. Residents, from the Tūhoe and Whakatōhea tribes, resisted land alienation and called themselves Iharaira (Israelites). The community survived Rua’s imprisonment in 1916, but was abandoned in the early 1930s.
From the 1920s a pan-tribal settlement of followers developed around the farm of the religious leader and healer Tahupōtiki Wīremu Rātana, south-east of Whanganui. In the 21st century it remained the centre of the Rātana movement.
Two reporters from the Canterbury Times visited Bickerton’s Federative Home in 1899. Residents told them how the communal lifestyle avoided ‘the manifest folly of a row of a hundred tenement houses, in each of which an overworked, weary wife, assisted by restless babies, are cooking on a hundred separate stoves … [w]here a hundred little pokey parlours have to be dusted and kept in order because of the possible intrusion of the casual visitor; where to each home is the separate favourite dustheap and aesthetic rubbish box awaiting the dust cart.’1
In 1874 followers of the late Brethren preacher Albert Feist set up a community at Halcombe, near Feilding, under Feist’s brother-in-law Joseph Bridgeman Roots. Members had no private property; they farmed, and ran a sawmill and a school. However, Roots was tyrannical, and the community dissolved in the early 1890s.
In 1896 science professor Alexander Bickerton set up a ‘federative home’ at his Christchurch property, Wainoni. Around 30 people lived there, some working in community businesses. Residents saw social unity as more important than individual success. The community dispersed around 1903 after allegations of sexual misconduct.
Beeville was an anarchist commune established near Morrinsville in 1933 by Ray Hansen and his extended family. The community survived for about 40 years, and involved vegetarianism, eastern religions and anti-war activity decades before the hippie era. Beeville was often in conflict with the government over taxes and military service.
Dave Silvester remembers the reaction of neighbouring farmers to the idea that Riverside residents might help harvest their crop: ‘Their reply was that they did not want any bloody pacifists pulling their beans. Unfortunately they could not get anyone else.’ He spent three days on the job, ending up with an aching back and knees, and infected, painful fingers from gorse and blackberry thorns. ‘I was determined to see it out to the bitter end and to deny them the chance of saying that a bloody pacifist couldn’t take it. After that they always greeted me in the most cordial way.’2
Riverside was founded by Christian pacifists in 1941 at Lower Moutere, west of Nelson. During the Second World War some members were held in detention camps for refusing conscription, and the community faced hostility from neighbours. In the 1970s Riverside moved away from its religious origins. It was still active in the 21st century, running a dairy farm, an orchard, a café and an events centre.
In New Zealand, as in other western countries, the late 1960s and 1970s saw an explosion of counter-cultural activity. Many idealistic young people, dissatisfied with suburban nuclear-family life, headed for the countryside, while others set up urban communities.
Miriam Cameron and her husband at the time, Tim Shadbolt, helped establish a commune at Huia, west of Auckland, in the early 1970s. At first they slept outside, in a double bed under a tarpaulin to keep the dew off. Possums ate all their vegetables, and their chickens insisted on laying eggs in inaccessible spots. Cameron made regular trips to her parents’ house in Onehunga for a bit of comfort. ‘They’d feed me up, look after me and I’d have a decent night’s sleep without getting bitten by mosquitoes.’ But she also remembered her time on the commune as ‘an era of great excitement’.1
Areas where land was cheap and beautiful – including the Coromandel Peninsula, Nelson and Golden Bay – became home to many communities, often with environmentalist or self-sufficiency aims. These included Wilderland (founded in 1964) and Karuna Falls (1976) in the Coromandel, and the Tui community (1984) in Golden Bay, all of which still existed in 2017.
Notable New Zealanders who lived in communes include Invercargill mayor Tim Shadbolt, former cabinet minister Marian Hobbs and the late Green Party leader Rod Donald. The theatre and music troupe Blerta had a commune at Waimārama, Hawke’s Bay.
In 1968 poet James K. Baxter had a vision that he should go to Jerusalem on the Whanganui River and establish ‘a community where the people, both Maori and pakeha, would try to live without money or books, worship God and work on the land’.2
Jerusalem residents lived mostly by hunting goats, catching eels and gardening. Resources were often tight, and sometimes food ran out entirely, prompting visitors to move on. The community also relied on donations – Baxter convinced the Rothmans tobacco factory in Hawke’s Bay to supply sacks of tobacco sweepings from the factory floor, and a Hāwera businessman turned up regularly with supplies of cheese, sausages and Port Royal tobacco.
From 1969 Baxter attempted to form a commune based on voluntary poverty, Catholicism and Māori spiritual values. Media attention led to a constant stream of arrivals, and the overcrowding and chaotic behaviour disturbed the locals. The Wanganui County Council also pressured the community to meet health standards. The commune disbanded in September 1971; a smaller, more cohesive group returned in February 1972. Baxter died that October, but the commune continued until late 1975.
In October 1973 Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk signalled government support for kibbutz-type settlements on Crown land, which he hoped would allow dissatisfied youth to participate in building the country.
The settlements were given the name ohu, a Māori word meaning to work together as a voluntary group. Land would be leased to approved groups at 4.5% of its market value.
Matiu Rata, minister of lands in 1974, hoped that the ohu initiative would ‘lead the way to a more concerned society and recapture anew the deep links of people and land. … [The scheme] is not meant to be a copy of kibbutzim or any other communes; it is not meant to be the answer to dissident left or right wingers; it is not meant to be a cheap method of developing marginal lands – it is meant to give an opportunity to New Zealanders to experience the earth, the country and each other in a new fraternal unity.’3
In August 1974 the first ohu was approved, and the Sunburst community moved onto 80 hectares near Whitianga. However, although around 20 groups showed interest in the scheme, the government struggled to find suitable land, and met resistance from the Lands and Survey Department and from local authorities and landowners. Groups waited months to be allocated land that was often inaccessible, scrub-covered and of dubious value. Negotiations with Lands and Survey, and with local authorities over building permits, often proved difficult. Some became disillusioned and gave up. Nonetheless, about eight ohu were established.
With Kirk’s death in August 1974, ohu lost one of their strongest proponents, and the scheme dwindled after the election of a National government in November 1975. By 1979 only four ohu remained, and in 1983 there were three. The longest-lasting was the Ahu Ahu ohu, on a remote site up the Whanganui River, which survived until around 2000.
Some communal households were set up in cities. James K. Baxter was involved with urban crash-pads populated by students, homeless youth and drug users in Auckland and Wellington.
Chippenham, New Zealand’s longest-lived urban commune, was established in 1971 in the Christchurch suburb of Merivale, and was a base for political activism in its early days. It survived as the Heartwood Community in 2013. Other urban communities included a household run by the Aroha Trust in Wellington for gang-affiliated women. Salisbury Garden Court in Wadestown, Wellington, was a group of 1920s houses around a tennis court which functioned communally in the 1970s.
New Zealand’s most controversial commune, Centrepoint, was founded in 1978 by charismatic psychotherapist Bert Potter. Based on a 16-hectare property near Albany, Auckland, the community had up to 300 members at its peak. It focused on personal growth and on Potter’s teachings. Residents slept in communal longhouses, experimented sexually and pooled possessions and income.
Bert Potter’s confrontational therapy methods included giving people bizarre tasks. A couple who were about to be married were told to chase one another around the lawn for five minutes each day, nude, smacking each other’s bottoms. A man who was revolted by a woman’s colostomy was given the task of changing her bag. More controversially, Potter told a woman who felt uncomfortable with sex to sleep with every man in the community.
Centrepoint faced ongoing financial problems, legal wrangles with the local council, negative media attention and public hostility. In 1990 Potter was convicted and imprisoned on drugs charges, and in 1992 he and six other residents were convicted of charges including indecent assault on minors and rape. Centrepoint was closed by the courts in 2000.
In the early 21st century eco-villages were the fastest-growing type of intentional community in New Zealand. Based on environmentalist principles, eco-villages use sustainable building materials and alternative energy sources. Members generally have separate income sources, and the communities are usually within reach of an urban area.
Eco-villages in the 2010s included Awaawaroa Bay Eco Village on Waiheke Island, and Kohatu Toa and Otamatea eco-villages, both near Kaiwaka, north of Auckland.
Earthsong co-founder and resident Robin Allison appreciates the village’s community spirit. ‘I know who my neighbours are. I can come home late at night and feel completely safe walking around outside. I can leave my door unlocked all day sometimes ... It just really feels like my home is the whole site, not just my little individual house. It’s a real sense of belonging and being appreciated and cared for, part of the greater whole.’1
Co-housing communities originated in Denmark in the late 1960s and 1970s. They aim to create a village-type community in an urban context, fostering community while preserving privacy.
The Peterborough Housing Co-operative, established in 1981 and still flourishing, is six adjoining Christchurch households that share backyards and facilities. Earthsong Eco-neighbourhood is a co-housing settlement in Rānui, West Auckland, built in the early 2000s.
In the 1980s feminists established a number of women-only – largely lesbian – communities. One community was based in Millerton, a former mining town on the South Island’s West Coast. Aradia Wimmin’s Community on the Coromandel Peninsula (established in 1989), and Earthspirit, near Kaitāia (1985), were still active in the 2010s.
Living communally is not always easy, and communities commonly face a number of issues.
Conflict can occur over principles, domestic issues and relationships. This can be distressing and destructive, and can lead to members leaving, or even to the demise of a community. Many egalitarian alternative communities are committed to consensus decision-making, which can be time-consuming and difficult.
Turnover of membership can be stressful, both for those who leave and those who stay. It may also be difficult financially – most communities require some financial commitment from members, but those who leave may struggle to find someone to buy their share.
Some communities have struggled to get planning permission for the desired number of occupants, or for developing dwellings. Some have had ongoing conflict with local authorities over building and health regulations.
Financial sustainability can be a problem, especially for communities in remote areas or on marginal land. In the past, many commune-dwellers were on welfare benefits, but from the 1980s these became harder to get. In the 2000s some long-standing communities were dwindling as the younger generation grew up and left to live in less remote areas.
A number of Christian – mostly Catholic – religious orders were established in New Zealand from the 19th century. These communities require formal commitment from their members. Some focus on contemplation, while others provide social services such as education, health services and care of the elderly. In most, members eschew private property. They follow a timetable of praying, working and eating together, and may adopt particular forms of dress, such as nuns’ habits.
Most of these orders were still active in the 21st century, but membership of some had dwindled. In the late 20th century Buddhist and Hare Krishna groups also established communities, as did some less traditional Christian groups.
Marists are a four-branched family of religious congregations of the Catholic Church. A Marist mission was established in Kororāreka (later Russell) in 1841. Schools were opened by Marist brothers and fathers from the 1840s, and later also by Marist sisters. In 2016 there were 115 Marist fathers and brothers, 58 Marist teaching brothers, 33 Marist missionary sisters and fewer than 20 Marist sisters in New Zealand.
The Irish Catholic order of the Sisters of Mercy arrived in Auckland from 1850. By 1897 congregations had been founded in the main centres, where they set up schools and cared for the aged and sick.
Pauline O’Regan of the Sisters of Mercy remembered her first visit to the Aranui state house that would become home for her and two other nuns. The three women were holding hands and preparing to pray, when they realised their legs were covered in fleas. ‘We leapt up and down to shake them off and swiped our legs wildly. In an unseemly rush we ran for the door, and outside in the street collapsed in uncontrollable laughter. The solemn moment was gone, the ritual abandoned, and any trace of sentimentality erased forever. We found in that first experience of our new life the key word: “reality”.’1
In the 1960s the Second Vatican Council called on the Catholic Church to become more relevant to the modern world. Three Christchurch nuns set up a community in 1973 in the suburb of Aranui, where they worked to support local residents. In 2016 there were more than 200 sisters in the order.
Suzanne Aubert founded the Sisters of Compassion (as the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion) at Jerusalem on the Whanganui River in 1892. A community was established in Wellington in 1899, and the first Home of Compassion opened there in 1907. In 2016 there were 57 sisters in the order, which worked to care for the elderly, sick and disadvantaged. A small group remained at Jerusalem.
The Community of the Sacred Name was an Anglican convent, founded in 1893 in Christchurch to pursue prayer, Christian vocation and service. The convent was damaged in the 2011 Canterbury earthquake and given to a local social services trust for restoration.
Other Catholic orders active in New Zealand in the 19th century included teaching sisters such as the Dominicans, the Society of the Sacred Heart and the Sisters of St Joseph. Nursing orders were established in the 20th century, including the Little Sisters of the Poor and the Little Company of Mary.
Religious orders still active in the 21st century included the Carmelites in Auckland and Christchurch (established in the 1930s), the Brigidine Sisters in the lower North Island (established in 1898), the Franciscan Friary and Retreat Centre in Auckland (1939), and Southern Star Abbey, a Cistercian monastery in Hawke’s Bay (1954).
Eric Miller and his wife joined Neville Cooper’s community as teenagers, but later took their children and moved out. ‘It’s amazing we ever had the courage to leave. Cooper is a guru on a huge power trip. What he says goes and when he organises a men’s meeting with 25 men all telling you you’re evil and have no right to a conscience, it crushes you ... I shudder when I think of the power of those people. They pre-programme your mind. They convince so many members that, if they leave, they’ll turn to drugs, booze and promiscuity.’2
Gloriavale is a conservative Christian community near Lake Haupiri, a remote area of the South Island’s West Coast, with around 500 members in the 2010s. The sect was founded in 1969 by independent preacher Neville Cooper – later known as Hopeful Christian – and was originally based at Cust, north of Christchurch. Members avoid contact with the outside world; they dress modestly and pool all property. Gloriavale runs multi-million-dollar businesses, including a dairy farm, oil exploration and aircraft maintenance.
Neville Cooper was convicted and imprisoned on sexual abuse charges in the 1990s.
Camp David was a religious commune at Waipara established by ‘Bishop’ Douglas Metcalf in 1974. The camp was raided by police on arms charges in 1977 and 1987. Metcalf died in 1989, and the sect later collapsed.
The Quaker Settlement was established in 1976 outside Whanganui, in association with the Quaker school, which ran in the city from 1920 till 1970. In 2016 it had 16 homes.
Titoki Healing Centre is a Christian community and retreat centre, established by Anglican vicar Don Ferguson outside Whakatāne in 1975.
Although the monks at Bodhinyanarama Buddhist monastery are all male, the community has its origins in the work of three far-sighted, formidable women from different ethnic groups. Somsri Parker was Thai, ‘Aunty’ Mabel Nyein was Burmese, and Irene Gurusinghe was Sri Lankan. The three women worked together in the 1980s to establish the monastery.
Bodhinyanarama Buddhist monastery was developed from the mid-1980s in Stokes Valley, north of Wellington, in the tradition of Thai forest monasteries. The monks practise and teach meditation, and support ethnic Buddhist communities. Other Buddhist communities in the 21st century included Karma Choeling Tibetan monastery, near Kaukapakapa, and the Mahamudra Tibetan centre on the Coromandel Peninsula.
The New Varshana community was a Hare Krishna community and temple complex on a 30-hectare property north of Auckland, established in 1978 and still active in the 2010s.
Baxter, James K. Jerusalem daybook. Wellington: Price Milburn, 1971.
Greenaway, Ruth, Leith McMurray, and David Colyer, eds. Utopianz: a guide to intentional communities & communal living in Aotearoa New Zealand. Christchurch: STRAW Umbrella Trust, 2004.
Jones, Tim. A hard-won freedom: alternative communities in New Zealand. Auckland: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975.
Newton, John. The double rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem commune. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2009.
O’Regan, Pauline. A changing order. Wellington: Allen & Unwin, 1986.
Sargisson, Lucy, and Lyman Tower Sargent. Living in utopia: New Zealand’s intentional communities. Aldershot; Burlington: Ashgate, 2004.