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Regenerative Communities: How big should they be?

Bill Mollison's Permaculture Design Manual I was reading some more of Chapter 14 in the Permaculture Design Manual and found some useful insight on village size. I’ve been asked many times and have thought about ideal sizes for intentional communities for some time. Some prefer small and others’, myself included think a larger group is more compelling. The Dunbar Number is often pulled into this conversation as Robin Dunbar theorized that there is an upper limit to the number of people we can maintain stable social relationships with. It is not an exact number but an approximate one – roughly 150.

Bill Mollison reasons it this way:

  • At about 100 income-producing people, a significant financial institution can be village-based
  • At about 500 all people can know each other if social affairs are organized from time to time
  • At 2000 people theft and competitiveness is more common and sects are set up in opposition

He goes on to add:

Perhaps we should start small at about 30 or so adults, build to 200-300 people, and proceed slowly and by choice to 500, then “calve” into new neighbourhoods or new villages

He supports this reasoning with the Mondragon Cooperative example from Spain which:

at first grew large (3,000 – 5,000), but later reduced to 300-500 to preserve the identity of every individual

This reasoning seems sound to me. Obviously, village-scale needs to be matched to the local environment’s ability to supply food, energy, water and other resources as well work for the citizens of the community.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you know of any communities that have followed this development path?

2 Responses

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  1. Julie Mihalisin

    I don’t have any personal experience with intentional communities, but the numbers you suggest make sense to me. I’m curious to know the story behind the Mondragon Cooperative split – how it was handled.
    It also makes more sense to me that a community plans on an approximate number of people and then does its best to stay within that realm (if possible). Starting small means foregoing the kind of infrastructure that’s possible and sometimes required for a larger group, not to mention design efficiencies! Thanks for the great work, Justin. I look forward to learning more.

  2. Justin,

    Bill’s chapter is great as a general guideline. The “identity limit” (around 600) has been arrived at by many researchers as the maximum population that guarantees good social cohesion, but this obviously changes from culture to culture. Some say the boundary should be the amount of names that the average member’s memory can hold. My view is that with internet technologies and social networks that number is changing and will increase.

    At http://www.rubania.org we are developing a web tool that will allow people to self-organize new communities from scratch and jump start them. It’s still in embrionic stage, but you can read what it will be like.

    Love & Gratitude

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