Rainbird Village wants to build a modern commune in Utah
“We’ve been living in the clouds,” says Colleen Dick, nutritional biochemist and co-founder of the Rainbird Village project. “We take so much for granted: food, clothing, housing, even basic materials. We assume that it’s always going to be here. We think we’ll always be able to go to the store. Really, no, we won’t!”
That’s why Dick is working to establish the Rainbird Village, a cooperative in rural Utah where residents have fractional ownership in the village as well as stock in the local businesses.
Creating a community
“I’ve lived all around the United States,” Dick says. “But I spent a lot of my life driving back and forth between Utah and Ohio. When I was young, the Midwest was full of little towns. The last trip I made across the country, I saw that most of those towns were gone.”
Her vision with Rainbird Village is to rebuild company-owned communities like these.
“When we stopped localizing industry, we lost those communities,” she says.
How does something like Rainbird begin to take shape? It’s all based around Dick’s one-word motto: regeneration.
“We’re localizing the basics in an upgraded form,” she says. “Automating what we can. Delegating repetitive things to machines so that humans can go back to doing what they do best: being creative.”
Dick’s pitch for the village envisions an ecosystem where people live where they work.
“We’re thinking in terms of this question: How do we support the people who are then going to support the land? It does very little good to go out someplace and build lots of housing if there isn’t work to support the people living there, right? Instead, we’re people-focused.”
Dick plans to put serious emphasis on all kinds of automatization.
“We’ll use drones that can go out and check the property lines,” she says. “We want to use that kind of technology in ways that streamline the day-to-day lives of our residents, but that also respects their privacy and autonomy.”
The goal of the village is, ultimately, to give people control.
“The whole idea of living a purposeful life is important to us,” Dick says. “We see that feeling as the core of what makes people happy.”
She’s not alone in this mission—this pitch attracted people from all over the country to help Dick build her vision.
“This question of building regeneratively is what my career is all about,” says Alan Booker, founder and executive director of the Institute of Integrated Regenerative Design. He’s also the engineer and community designer for Rainbird, tasked with guiding the building plans for the project. Booker is confident he can see the project through—he’s done it before.
“I’ve done lots of smaller projects like this,” he says. “Most recently, I’m consulting on a rebuild of an Indigenous community in central Alabama. Guided by these same permaculture principles, we’re building with locally sourced items. Literally 90 percent of our materials are from within a few miles of the site. We’re engaging the local ecology to feed into nature’s cycles. Rainbird isn’t the only place doing this; it’s just the biggest attempt.”
“We take so much for granted: food, clothing, housing, even basic materials. We assume that it’s always going to be here. We think we’ll always be able to go to the store. Really, no, we won’t!”
Right now, Dick says three locations in Utah—all rural or semi-rural land—are up for consideration. The standard village model would include homes, greenhouses, farmland, and established businesses from surrounding areas and the Regenubator, a business incubator.
“We’re hoping to attract individuals who are having a hard time with their existing businesses or those who have ideas that fit well with our model,” she says. “We’ll see what we can do to help them.”
For their first village, Dick’s team settled on a healthcare orientation.
“In the long-term, we plan to have multiple villages with different focuses,” she says. “But in our first, we’d like to build a postdoctoral school where people coming out of medical or osteopathic school can study functional medicine with us.”
That first village’s focus comes from Dick’s personal interests, which launched the Rainbird project in the first place.
“I have been in healthcare-related fields for 50 years,” she says. “I’ve seen the full span of how the industry works, from nutrition to nursing. As my kids left home, I started working with physicians who’d send patients to me. Young people would come to my office here, sit around a table with me and cry. They had diseases that they shouldn’t have had, lifestyle and nutrition-related, more often than not.”
While traditional medical models are symptom-based, Dick became interested in identifying problems through a causation lens.
“Functional medicine, integrative medical disciplines—that’s the path I decided to follow,” she says. “I was focused on nutrition, trying to understand what kinds of foods were right to recommend for certain diets.”
Things started taking shape after a chance encounter on an airplane.
“I ran into one of the early integrative physicians on a flight back in 2014,” Dick says. “He studied medicine at Northwestern University and was interested in the same things I was, so we talked for nearly the entire flight. I had been thinking a lot about my patients and what would solve the problems they’d been facing. Eventually, I asked him, ‘Is organic food enough? Will it work to have my patients clean up their diets and go more whole-foods oriented?’”
His answer? It would have been enough a few years ago, but not anymore.
“This doctor told me about how the standards had loosened for what could be labeled as ‘organic.’ A lot of stuff was getting through the farming process that wouldn’t have just a few years earlier. I asked him, ‘If that’s not good enough, what is?’”
He responded with one word: permaculture.
“That set me off in a new direction,” Dick says. “I got online and learned everything I could about it and met all the people I could meet. I even attended the North American permaculture conference that year.”
Permaculture, a combination of “permanent” and “culture,” aims to design agriculture and land development to mimic nature—like growing certain plants together to limit weeds and pests. Indigenous peoples have inherently understood and practiced permaculture for centuries, but Dick says it’s almost the exact opposite of our world’s current approach to development.
“Our biggest existing verticals, healthcare and agriculture, are based on fighting nature,” she says. “By adopting this approach and applying the systems associated with permaculture, we can solve the problem of healthier, reliable food production.”
Dick thought that finding healthier and safer foods for her clients would scratch her itch. Instead, she was flooded with new, more complex problems to solve.
“I realized that the context is as important as the content,” she says. “Everything is connected to everything else. Permaculture, holistic management, ecology, and all these different disciplines are all talking about the same thing. I realized it went beyond what we were looking at, into problems in renewable energy, economics, government, and education. All these aspects had to be taken into consideration.”
Changing real estate
When the piles of problems started to get overwhelming, Dick thought about her grandkids and the other young people she felt she could help.
“I’ve very concerned about the youth,” she says. “I see how hopeless many of them feel right now, and it tears my heart to pieces. If I could find a solution, I felt like I should. That’s how we pushed through. We had a new doorknob on a shabby door, and we decided to keep building.”
Dick began organizing a team of researchers, scientists, doctors, architects, and designers who bought into the idea of making the world a better place.
“The more we talked, the less utopian it seemed,” she says. “The best solution was a new kind of community. A holistic village system would help us learn to live within the systems of nature instead of fighting them, and to clean up our air, water, land, and bodies.”
It’s these feedback loops that Rainbird Village hopes to close.
“Nature works in cycles,” Dick says. “When you break a cycle, you make it so it doesn’t regenerate. If you repair those breakages, nature will work for you for free.”
While Utah is known for its heat and dry patches, Booker thinks the areas up for consideration in the state won’t be hard to regenerate. It’s been done in worse circumstances, he says.
“Geoff Lawton, one of my permaculture instructors, managed to re-green the Dead Sea Valley with these same techniques,” he says. “It had a couple of inches of rain and nothing growing before he started, and he managed to regenerate even that. What we’re dealing with here, these concepts—they’re not theoretical. They work.”
It’s not just the great outdoors that Rainbird plans to harness; it’s human nature, too.
“I believe we should all care about the poor and the disenfranchised,” Dick says. “The way we’ve structured the village puts that at the forefront.”
That’s why the village is designed specifically for easy buy-in from young people.
“It’s discouraging to me how little hope the younger generations have in owning their own homes,” she says. “We’re offering the option to have fractional ownership in an entire village, and stock in the businesses that exist there will be compelling to them. Instead of owning a home, you own part of the village you live in and the revenues from the means of production.”
Anyone can purchase a fraction of or whole shares, Dick says.
“We want this to be a viable opportunity for all who are interested. While we’re expecting the cost to live in the villages to be in the neighborhood of $10,000-$20,000, if you have a skill we need—even if you have no money at all—we’ll let you just work off the cost of ownership,” she says.
And unlike homesteading communities, when you move to Rainbird, you’re not stuck there.
“That’s the trap we’ve seen co-housing and homesteading communities fall into,” Dick says. “With us, your equity grows with the village according to our productivity. If you decide you’d like to go somewhere else—whether to another village or not—you can cash out of our reserve your respective lump sum. We’re making it so turnover, which we know will occur, won’t be a roadblock for current or future residents.”
"We’ve been living in the clouds."
While Dick considers this governing style one of the village’s most promising concepts, it has also become its biggest roadblock.
“We want to keep the control local,” she says. “The people who make the decisions should also be the people who receive the consequences for them. I think that’s one of the big problems with the way the world is run today—things are too centralized to where the effects of one choice impact different types of people dramatically. We’re looking to avoid all that fallout.”
The Rainbird Village’s governing system is modeled after Mondragon, a Spain-based cooperative.
“They’ve been running for more than 70 years,” Dick says. “And they have a high retention rate for their cooperatives—it’s rare that they lose one. We studied their model ferociously, making tweaks for our culture versus Europe.”
Dick says Rainbird focuses more on privacy and ample amounts of space than its European counterpart. Still, some Utahns haven’t been open to their ideas.
“Everything we’re doing in this village is run-of-the-mill, normal stuff,” she says. “At our core, what are we doing? We’re growing food. We’re building houses. But when we start talking about a different governance model—this decentralized, cooperative ownership of the businesses, of the village itself—you’re labeled as a communist organization.”
Rainbird isn’t one to shy away from difficulties or pushback, though. That stubbornness is one of the main drivers for choosing Utah as a launchpad.
“It’s hard to grow things here,” Dick says. “We don’t have a lot of rain. I think it was bold to pick a desert to kick off Rainbird in, but we’re proving a point: If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere.”
Regardless of the ecosystem, Rainbird Village will reflect the size and structure of the rural towns they hope to recreate.
“It’s called the ‘carrying capacity of land,’” Dick says. “Just like the cells in your body do, instead of continuing to get bigger and bigger, they split. Once we hit that natural capacity in one village, we’ll look to split them up to create clusters of cooperatives. The strength of these communities comes from their small size, where everyone can know each other and know what’s going on.”
Regardless of public perception, Dick’s cornerstone remains intact.
“We’re talking about the kinds of towns and businesses that built America in the first place,” Dick says. “We’re trying to return to that state, a very democratic operation. It’s a style that we know can work.”
Funding Rainbird’s future
Aside from the politicization of Dick’s work, the sheer size of the project has put some investors off.
“Rainbird addresses hundreds of problems because it has to,” Dick says. “That level of interconnectivity can be overwhelming to our funders, just like it was to me in the very beginning. I think investors are used to more traditional pitches, with projects that are focused on one idea or one issue. That’s just not who we are.”
What may initially seem like a weakness is what snagged Rainbird its first major funding agreement.
“We do what most fund managers are doing anyway: diversification,” Dick says. “When you invest in Rainbird Village, you’re not investing in one thing—it’s a whole system of ideas, output, and growth. We’ve got risk minimalization baked in, and when investors understood that, they were ready to sign on.”
Even if they didn’t, Dick says their ethics will keep Rainbird Village on track.
“Permaculture’s system of ethics is three-pronged: people, planet, and the return of excess,” Dick says. “We subscribe to that idea of longevity and keeping the regenerative process going. We know from the people who have done this before that societies like this allow for deeper connections between people, a fulfillment of human needs, and an encouragement of artistry. We want to foster all of that. To do so, we plan on being around for a long time.”
She says construction could start anywhere in the next two to six months, depending on cash flows.
“I wish we could be more forthcoming on the plans,” Booker admits. “But the land acquisition, price, and permits are all at tentative places right now. While we’re speaking conceptually about the plans, I can confirm they’re real, they’re happening, and we have an audience for it.”
Dick is on the same page. “The groundwork for Rainbird has been carefully laid,” she says. “Now it’s all up to the financial world.”