Community Building: Social and Spiritual Permaculture for Intentional Communities and Transition Towns

Our ecovillage set up ‘invisible structures’, to build a strong community, to work together well, from practical land care to our deepest vision.

by Dido Dunlop


Those of us who create intentional communities hope to build a way of life that could help us live well into the future, and restore the planet – nature, land and people. Its values are different from our neoliberal world. 

Many communities and ecovillages have marvellous permaculture gardens and buildings. People often focus on practical projects, gardens, buildings, solar, and assume that because everyone is nice, and well motivated, we’ll naturally get on. Nup! Great veg is not enough to bind the community. Meetings and general community living can be difficult. We’re raised in old patterns, not used to community ways. Often inner work is neglected. We need to cultivate our skills to keep relationships friendly and open. 

We design and build swales, orchards, windbreaks, food forests; we also need to design and build the swales and food forests of interpersonal and inner work: social permaculture, and spiritual and heart permaculture.

Our ecovillage set up ‘invisible structures’, to build a strong community, to work together well, from practical land care to our deepest vision. For a good consensus process in a smallish intentional community, we created a fairly tight structure. A Transition Town is a looser community.

Inner Heart and Soul

Transition Towns includes inner work as part of its structure, called Heart and Soul, or Inner Transition. This makes it a very special, well-rounded model. They know that to transform our outer ways of living, we also must transform our inner attitudes, beliefs, fears and desires, from the expectations we were raised with, to values that will sustain our healthier future vision. We drew on this work a lot, to create the various groups and activities you see in our diagram.

We visited a community that started in the seventies, and they’re all still there. They said, ‘We have one principle – it’s the people, not the land. You can’t manage an orchard together unless your relationships work.’ We took that as our bottom line. 

Our three core principles:

First, it’s the people. We develop the people side so the rest will work. 

Second, land: permaculture and regeneration. 

Third, pioneering a new way of life, which we called Partnership.

The Diagram of Invisible Structures 

The rings of the diagram above show the various elements of our structures: I explain them a little below. We start on the outer rim, and move through levels of social permaculture towards spiritual permaculture in the centre. The core values of Nature at the centre are what this way of life is founded on. Nature creates and nurtures life. All creatures in nature’s communities, large and small, are equally important. Nature is also the spiritual heart of our life and work.

Partnership way: the Outer Ring

Riane Eisler calls this way of living the Partnership Way. We live now in Dominator style. Think of Partnership as a cover-all term for the values we seek in community. Every time I ask a group what values they want in community, they come up with pretty much the same list: cooperation, interconnectedness, compassion, mutual support, kindness. This shift to a Partnership society, from a Dominator one, is crucial to our future on this planet. People come to community because they want this partnership lifestyle. Like permaculture, it’s based on the same principles as nature’s ecosystems. Partnership lays out those principles and values in the human sphere. 

The most difficult thing is making the transition. We need to figure out ways to do it. We have one foot in both worlds. It’s often confusing. Our structures help.

Social Permaculture

Welcoming, Entry process

Everybody who comes to the door is lovely. How to choose who will work with consensus successfully? We asked two questions. One was, are they conscious of communication skills, so they won’t just blame others? Are they willing to keep on examining themselves: ‘I was rude to that person; what could I do to make it better?’ easier to say, ‘Oh well, she deserved it.’

The other was, are they on the same page? Diana Leafe Christian says to do consensus your group must be on the same page. We all might think we are, but differences emerge which can look big. We had a veto, so we could say no if we thought someone wouldn’t fit. 

Diana Leafe Christian says joining a community is a combination of getting married and starting a business together. Both require getting to know. Financial interview and building relationships protects the community – and the people coming in. If you are to sink your money into it, you need to know it’s right for you. You vet us, and we vet you. 


Fun together. Shared meals, working bees, singsongs, kids’ games, celebrations. 

Formal structures

Community meetings to make decisions and agreements about land, food, guns and so on. Farm management meetings. Permaculture design meetings.

Formal structures for meetings and communication

How we make decisions: meeting agreements, conflict resolution models, consensus models, core principles. 

Training Workshops

We did four workshop days each year to train in community skills, and get on the ‘same page’ so we could do effective consensus. Perhaps the word ‘training’ doesn’t give the right impression. The group explored different themes together. They were happy times, deep sharing and interaction, and deepened relationships.

When you joined, you agreed to turn up forever to process meetings, and to these four days’ training a year. If you said, ‘oh, it’s not worth it,’ you won’t suit this kind of deep group process. We didn’t ask that everyone was perfectly skilled already. Willing is the crucial word. That’s enough, to begin with. It means you get the idea.

Communication skills

When I did my chainsaw certificate, I learnt to fix the safety catch right. Communication is like a chainsaw. If you don’t have skills you can do a lot of damage. When I learned to listen, I learned to see others, and to love. ‘Oh, she’s different from me,’ my heart opens. Skills change our way of looking at life. That’s what I mean by communication skills. 

Workshops were on skills like listening, and giving positive feedback; meeting procedures, conflict resolution, facilitation skills. 


For basic consensus we used ‘the cards’[1]. We also went deeper into how to work consensus. It’s not about everyone agreeing. How do we make a decision when we have five heartfelt opinions? How do we keep relationships strong? 

We won’t all get what we want. There are big emotions behind consensus, which can wreck the process. Will I be left out, will I be scapegoated, will people hate me forever? How do we get consensus to work so it builds relationships, and deepens connections? So if it’s not as you imagined, you can go along with it.

We also explored alternatives such as sociocracy. Even consensus minus one sometimes didn’t cut the mustard.

Group process 

I call it ‘group exploration’ in the map. Cooperative leadership roles, how the group deals with its shadow, scapegoating patterns that can appear. People’s roles in the group, by which I mean, do they tend to behave like tigers or mice? 

Partnership Workshops

These were a crux of our process: on what ‘the page’ is: the partnership system. We got clearer as a group about what kind of world we wanted to create. In each workshop, we examined a different part of the partnership model. It was personal, heart sharing and group exercises, rather than theory. 

What’s the partnership in my relationships; what are my ‘dominator’ habits? 

This paradigm is based on happiness, not on suffering and competition. Most of us don’t prioritise pleasure in our lives. How do we make ourselves and each other happy? 

Heart permaculture 

Process Meetings

Every two weeks we had a meeting to process the process of moving to a new way of living. It was entirely heart sharing. People often said, ‘This is my favourite meeting.’ It wasn’t easy, we dealt with difficulties as well as the joys.

Spiritual permaculture: optional

Nature spirituality and deep ecology; Ecomeditation. Meditation helps us embody ways to live in partnership. We develop compassion, ways to treat each other with respect and care, and to feel interconnected, not isolated and separate. 

Community of All Nature 

Our modern world desperately needs to feel our interconnectedness with nature, so we care about her enough to stop wrecking her. Community living builds our capacity to connect and care for each other, and for all creatures.

Dido Dunlop: Meditation teacher, artist, Transition Towns trainer,

Note: Our ecovillage disbanded, for other reasons; not because this structure didn’t work.


Diana Leafe Christian: ‘Creating a Life Together’, ‘Finding Community.’

Riane Eisler: several books on partnership in relationships, money, education.

See Earthsong’s website for community agreements, and the Cards.

[1] Cards:

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