Interview: Cul-de-sac communes

Published March 2010 Vol. 14 Issue 3

by Tim Covi

Since the beginning of 2009 a new term, the cul-de-sac commune, has created an almost monthly buzz in Internet chat rooms, newsrooms and forums. Even without investigating much further, it’s easy to see why. It’s a combination of dipolar things. The cul-de-sac is the quiet compound of the suburban soccer mom. You think of easy Sunday mornings where the only sounds are a few finches and the gurgled zip of a freshly oiled bike chain as a neighborhood kid peddles by.

The commune, by contrast, is the cluster of stilted structures slapped up like a Tim Burton daydream on a remote desert horizon. It’s full of poorly washed hippies with radical ideas about free love, or at the very least, visions of utopia.

But for Stephanie Smith, the ideas of a commune and a suburban cul-de-sac don’t have to be at odds. They can even be right at home together in a Denver suburb.

Graduating from Harvard with a Masters in Architecture, Smith has been at the helm of a few businesses, and started the idea of cul-de-sac communes as a way for people to share resources in a daily-life setting.

She envisions a world where people in cul-de-sacs, and other suburban and urban settings, can share things ranging from communal gardens and solar or wind-harnessed power, to cars, tools, appliances, wireless Internet, lawnmowers, or just about anything. In the process, people cut their costs, get more amenities and can reduce their carbon footprint, without deserting society to do any of it.

Smith says the most basic impediment to sharing resources is a lack of technology to help people network. She started a technology company, WeCommune, that is focused on creating things like widgets for social networking media such as Facebook, whereby people don’t have to commit to lengthy meetings to share
tasks, duties or goods.

That said, even at such a selling price, community is a tricky subject in American life. I talked to Smith about the challenges of creating community in American cities, and about what urban design is working and not working in places like Denver.

For some of our readers your ideas about cul-de-sac communes are going to be completely new. Can you tell me about the concept, about WeCommune and how the idea started?
Sure, and how I pronounce it is ‘we commune,’ [as in the verb, to commune] and I do that—it’s a good kind of a lead off for answering your question—I do that because I like to use the verb of communing rather than the noun of commune as a format. And I think, what’s interesting to me is that there’s a huge opportunity to help people do a better job of communing, no matter what format they use. Meaning, if they want to go and tell you they’re starting a commune, that’s great, but there’s a way to be more communal, do a better job of communing, right where you are in your daily lives. So, that’s the premise of WeCommune. And I got very inspired by communes as a format. They’re quite extreme in their real format. The early premise of these commune projects were…where you go to Northern California or New Mexico like they did it in the 60s and you and a bunch of other like-minded people come together and agree to live in a very separate way from how we normally live in America, and grow your own food and kind of disconnect. That was the old-school way to do it, that’s typically how they did it in the 60s, and that’s also why they failed. Because they didn’t actually make enough connections back to our normal, daily world, which has a lot of upsides. So I’ve always looked at that model of separation as being way to extreme, but the underlying goals to be really valuable.

The definition of a commune, interestingly, is very simple. It’s a community that shares resources. Period. So I thought ‘Wow, Okay: let’s find opportunities to apply that model in places that are in our daily lives.’ So, that’s how cul-de-sac commune came about. … And I knew that it would be kind of polemical, I know [commune] is kind of a crazy thing to say, and it’s gotten a lot of mileage because of that. On some of the diagrams that you created, you showed that there were possibilities for spaces that aren’t designed like cul-de-sacs, for more urban spaces. Can you talk a little bit about that, and how this model can be adapted to other areas? I think it’s as good, if not better, in urban areas. When there’s more density of people in an urban condition, you automatically just have more opportunity to find people to share things with that have similar needs as yours. So, there’s that part. But I think that the type of things that get shared and collaborated on are slightly different. And you can imagine things like people grouping up together and making a Costco run and setting up buying clubs; you can imagine babysitting co-ops. You can, frankly, imagine all of this in the suburbs too. You can imagine…obviously, there are whole areas of recycling, magazine sharing. It’s funny, we have a list of maybe 200 or 300 things that are possible to be shared
and engaged in terms of resource sharing. When you’ve got to open your mind up to the possibilities of it, it’s kind of endless.

This is leading me to a question about the purpose of all this. I think there’s a tendency to consider, when you think of a commune, that it’s traditionally something where you’re going to take yourself off the grid, you’re going to create this kind of utopian reality based on whatever your belief system is. And this sounds very different than that. This sounds kind of practical and pragmatic. So, can you talk a little bit about what community actually is and what that means to you in this context? And what communes are going to do?
Yeah, I hear you. I think that there is that perception of communes—that they’re very radical as an approach. And my interest has always been to deradicalize that. The commune format has been around for a long time. To your point, people typically think of it as something that is about separation or removal. But the irony, yet, is that as a really intense form of community—which is what a commune is— isn’t so rarified that only a few rare and special people get to participate in that.

So to answer your question: I think community is an infrastructure that most people actually create for themselves, and that we don’t have a good language for in America. And some people do a better job of creating it than others. For instance, if you’re a mom, and you’re looking for help, there are 50 million Yahoo! mommy groups out there. And they’re incredibly active. And they’re incredibly powerful. And you know, politicians tap into these groups all the time to get things done. You know, this is like the soccer mom phenomenon. People are deeply connected in communities, but we don’t have good language to talk about A) that it even exists, B) to formalize it, to talk about how we value it and participate in it. And we don’t
have good tools to help us do it better.

You talked about how communes failed in the past because they tried to detach and start over. And this idea of cul-de-sac communes is really starting where you are. But even if you don’t separate physically, they still seem somewhat psychically a departure from consumer culture at least, or Western culture. It kind of takes the ego out of neighborhood design and puts the focus on the common good. So is there a way to retain some of that sense of individualism?

Oh yeah, that’s, I think, a huge issue, but also a huge opportunity to develop an approach that can help people find that balance between being communal and being individuals. Because that’s where the fear lies—at least definitely among Americans, because we are so intensely individual—that I’m gonna get sucked into some community format that I’m gonna kind of drown in, right? And I suddenly have to service the group and I can’t make unique decisions on my own and so on. And that’s a great fear we have. I think, to me as a designer, my perspective, call it pragmatic, or just a kind of design opportunity, but that’s just all in how you set it up, right? … It doesn’t have to be so consuming. And I think it gets very consuming when people bring these value ideas to the table, where—well we have to have shared values, or we have to have a religious kind of infrastructure that we’re connected by.

And, so, what I want to help people get past is that all or nothing quality to it, right? [Historically] people go into crisis around economic and communal issues and then look for models that could help them out of crisis. And I think a deeper community resource-sharing model is absolutely crucial right now. Perfect timing. Important for us to get this right this time. I would love to see this work better. You know, communes in the 60s lasted for about nine months. They had such a radical impact that we’re still talking about them today, and start to finish [the movement] was about a year and a half. Like 50,000 communes were started between summer of love, 1967, and then the winter of 1969. They had started and then failed and ended completely in like 18 months.

Denver has been pretty deeply engaged with some of the principles of new urbanism: designing new developments to be more condensed, more mixed-use, more local and walkable. but a lot of these developments just seem like a recasting of some of the negative parts of suburbia: they’re like condensed strip malls. they have the shape of community, but without any real community.
Yeah, it’s like faux community, or community-lite, L-I-T-E. You know?

I guess some spaces seem more conducive to community— like you were talking about cul-de-sacs and the way in which everyone is in this circle shape and looking at each other. and i’m wondering, in these new developments that are cropping up, how can design influence that and make it more conducive to creating community?                                                                                                                                            Well, you know they’re trying to get rid of cul-de-sacs, and there’s a whole movement around that, which I think is kind of sad, because one of the things community does depend on, it’s almost like a nodal idea, where when people are clustered together…and you’re implicated in a little group for whatever reason, that tends to foster better community than if you’re along a line, right? So there’s the node and then there’s the line that connects the node, right? And what’s happening right now with new urbanism is they’re replicating this little—it’s the Jane Jacobs model—of like a little street in New York City, which is a line, right? And so they think, “Oh, if there’s 10 houses in a line, and then 10 houses across the street in a line, that somehow this feels like a city, so therefore in cities it’s all very vibrant and so this will be vibrant.” That’s not remotely why New York works like it does. And anyway it’s not about New York, it’s about village— it’s a village model when we talk about community. It’s not a street-in-New-York model. And so that’s where they’re going wrong. … And, yet, it’s not as simple as just making circles everywhere. (laughing) Although that’s never been tried. So maybe. I don’t know actually. But that’s what I love about culde- sacs, is they’re this big, untapped circle. Like they’re the little village.

As a designer, do you think that you can you be too intentional in terms of developing a concept?
I totally think all designers are way, way, way too ego driven. As a designer I’ve always been way more interested in designing infrastructure that people then can fill in based on their own needs. I think we suffer from great over-design in this world, but also in the training of an architect and designer. That they’re trained—this is the Frank Lloyd Wright training—where it’s like, not only do you design the building, but you design the city and the furniture and, you know, the apron the wife in the house is wearing. You know, the Total Design approach has been the kind of Howard Roark model of architecture for the 20th century. I think that’s a completely failed model. And I think that it’s back to this idea I said earlier about adaptive reuse as being far more interesting. And when I say that in front of architects they, for all the right reasons, completely freak out, you know. Like I would say, ‘Look we don’t need to build anything for like ten years. Let’s figure out a way to transform what’s already there and, you know, create different infrastructures.’ And it’s completely panic inducing.

Interesting. Can you talk a little about that? You’ve been said to be the designer “most actively taking the ideas of buckminster Fuller into the 21st century.” and one of his ideas was the need for egocide, and committing all of one’s energy toward the betterment of humanity. as a designer, do you think that there’s a trend toward that right now, and where are the most exciting things happening in that vein?
In the vein of the Fuller stuff? Well I think the most exciting aspect is in Crowdsourcing, and the idea that many, many people can contribute to the making of one thing, right? And that, in fact, technology can facilitate that process to a degree that you almost don’t need the kind of mastermind, you know, at the top of things. [Although] that’s an artificial construct to a degree because for as much as I even talk about it myself, there does need to be that one person who’s the kind of framer of the process, right, and, you know, the person that triggers the Crowdsourcing.

I think that one of the things that has been fascinating me lately about the potential of technology and how it’s going to evolve, especially as it starts to come offline again, is when young people (and I mean like 15-16 year-old people) have been taught in elementary school how to code…that no longer will they wait for somebody to cook up some website or technology platform that solves the problem that they have, but they’ll just design a piece of code to solve it, right? I pray for a time when that happens with architecture and physical spaces—where people just get it in their minds that they don’t have to wait for someone else to solve this for them. And that, I think, has to do with the idea’s infrastructure and giving people via things like Crowdsourcing the idea that they can come together and create things on their own that meet their own needs. It’s like “Look, we’re not gonna wait for a developer to come and make this, we’re gonna come together and make it ourselves.” So, if you see Crowdsourcing as something that could trigger a much larger trend in terms of how we think about what’s possible, you know, and also this idea of micro-business and the ability for people to use tools that we have out there to basically solve their own problems … I’m much more interested in that.



We toss around the catch phrase, “sharing resources,” all the time, but what does it really mean? Most of us probably imagine something on a grand scale—sharing electricity, water, money, transportation. Stephanie Smith explains it doesn’t have to be that big to be meaningful. Neighborhoods can cut costs and carbon footprints simply by sharing the most basic things. You might be surprised how much you have in common you’re your neighbors. Here’s a short list of a few ideas from WeCommune.

You can go to or for more ideas.

Magazine subscriptions
Wireless Internet
Golf Clubs
Food delivery service
Kayak / canoe
Board games
Cooking equipment
Software (usually software comes with multiple downloads)
Storage space
Produce delivery
Babysitting services
Cleaning / maid service
Household tools
Vacuum cleaner
Art equipment
Studio space
Solar panel
Vacation home
Exercise equipment