Milagro ("Miracle" in Spanish) is a Tucson, Arizona community founded to isolate its members from the supposed dire effects of the year 2000 computer anomaly called the "Millennium Bug." The community consists of 28 homes and 50 residents, ages zero to 92, on 42 acres. Planning started in 1994 and construction wrapped up in 2002.
There are small gardens and what is billed on the web site as a "community orchard." Residents do most of the maintenance on a volunteer basis, including operation of the wastewater treatment system that reclaims black water for irrigation through a biological process involving reeds.
Members (who buy in by purchasing or leasing one of the existing 28 homes) hold meetings to develop policies, which they call "agreements," scrupulously avoiding the term "rules". The goal is always consensus. Voting is a last resort.
Although the community was started by older couples, younger people are joining as houses change hands. Some are attracted by the feeling of security provided by the social arrangements. The other attraction is the self-sufficiency ethic, which has become more pronounced as utility prices rise and reliability diminishes. During the winter of 2010, Southwest Gas supplies proved inadequate, and parts of the city were left without heat. People are mindful of California's summer brownouts and rolling blackouts, and also of the rising costs of power and the increasing demands on the system imposed by electric vehicles and unsteady renewable power sources.
Like Milagro, a space habitat or deep space urban hub, whether situated on the surface of another world or in space, would have a shared infrastructure and a finite life cycle, requiring maintenance, repair, and eventual replacement. Some of the requirements are the same: Shelter, electrical power, water and waste-water management, agricultural production, and transportation are similar in space and on Earth in broad concept. Many of the needed technologies are virtually identical. Solid waste management is one item which, so far, has not been worked out to anyone's satisfaction, even on Earth.
To give an idea of what space colony requirements might be, we can cite the results of continuing work that began with Gerard K. O'Neill ( The High Frontier ), TA Heppenheimer ( Colonies in Space ), and others in the 1970s. A Bernal sphere, for example, would be a little over a half-mile in diameter with a number of smaller rings stacked on each end of its spin axis. Agricultural and industrial facilities are located in the rings, along with the zero-gravity axis spaceport. Rotation about the axis provides a kind of artificial gravity on the inside of the sphere. (One's weight falls away as one climbs the inside walls from the "equator" toward the zero-gravity axis.) Illumination is by toroidal periscope using external mirrors to collect sunlight. The mirrors also regulate the length of the day. The built environment on the inside houses a population of 10,000 in a terraced community. It is protected from radiation by the lunar regolith and water used to create an earth-like setting. (The materials come from the moon and / or asteroids, not from Earth, which means that space mining is a necessary first step, but that is another subject.)
Space habitat design cannot overlook the potentially lethal consequences of enclosure. The individual's right to leave must be preserved. I believe this is best done by dividing the urban hub into cells, small communities like Milagro, separated by open space. Each community should be as self-sustaining as possible.
Optimum community size might depend on technology, the objective being a minimum sustainable unit size of a few individuals. The strategy at Milagro was to pool the funds of a dozen or so financially capable couples to build the community, and then sell units. The problem has been that some of the buyers have not understood the community's objectives, thinking they bought into a subdivision, where they could demand to be served according to their needs, and they were prepared to be as needy as possible.
It may be better to organize space communities (or their analogs on Earth) by less collective principles, in part to avoid what the environmentalist Garett Hardin called "the tragedy of the commons," but mostly to give first priority to individual rights. One such approach might be to set up the community as a corporation, which could, in principle, be owned by its residents, who buy stock. The corporation leases space to smaller entities, industrial, commercial, and residential.
The corporation makes its profits by building, maintaining, and leasing the necessarily common systems: the habitat structure, environmental control and life support, fire suppression, solid waste management, and main electrical power for industrial and commercial use. The villages have the option to recycle water for direct potable reuse, generate electricity for local use, grow food locally, and provide their own security and auxiliary environmental controls, or they can purchase these services from commercial sources. The urban hub corporation has no obligations in these matters. Of course, one can also organize a colony, on Earth or in space, using collectivist principles and see what happens. The point is, it's an experiment.
Like the American colonies of four hundred years ago, intentional communities can make credible test facilities for alternative social and philosophical arrangements. They can also test the emerging technologies of self-sufficiency (distributed power, solar energy, and reuse of wastewater, for example), acting as analogs of space habitats. As opposed to reliance on centralized resources, they represent an active approach to the future.
You can visit Milagro online at http://www.milagrocohousing.org . You can also visit in real space. Tours are by arrangement.