For Owen, the creation of community was an all-important undertaking. Owen based many of his ideas on the experiences he had at New Lanark, near Glasgow. In 1782 David Dale (1739-1806), one of Scotland's major importers of linen, an industrialist, and a director of the Royal Bank of Scotland had founded the mill town just outside of Glasgow along the River Clyde. He erected a series of large square stone mill buildings alongside the river, and on slightly higher ground erected long rows of housing creating a crescent-shaped open green. From 1800-1824 Owen was the manager and part owner of the New Lanark mills, effectively the governor of 1300 workers (men, women, and their families).
Owen's initial changes, seemingly modest, were radical for the time. He enlarged the houses by one storey to provide families with two rooms; he instituted regular sanitary checks to insure that the houses were free of vermin; the mills turned down the youngest workers (sent by local parishes); he closed the local stores and opened company-run stores where better quality goods could be obtained at reasonable prices; he asked workers to contribute 1/60th of their salary for medical insurance. To improve worker conduct he developed the "silent monitor," a system of control that would allow overseers to see how a worker had behaved during the day. Consisting of a square block of painted wood it could be rotated by the overseer to show on its face the behavior of the worker the previous day: black = bad; blue = indifferent; yellow = good; white = excellent. Owen slowly won the trust of the workers and the stories surrounding his activities have the character of parables in which a worker's lapse in behavior is always met by reasoned argument backed by firm principle.
In 1816, based on his experience at New Lanark, Owen developed a new kind of community. Populated by 1200 persons and surrounded by 1000-1500 acres these communities would engage in a balanced combination of farming and manufacturing. Inside each community unit would be public buildings with communal kitchens, schools, a library, and a house of worship. He proposed dormitories for the children (for families with more than two children and for children over three years of age) and apartments for the professional residents (clergy, surgeons, teachers). At one level it was a solution to Enclosure, the process by which the traditional long strips farmed collectively by British peasants over the centuries had been converted to large square fields divided by hedges and owned by well-to-do aristocratic landholders. Owen's "Villages of Cooperation" gained the economic efficiencies of large square fields without throwing agricultural workers off the land as had happened with enclosure. Traditional cooperative practices of rural agriculture were now provided with a modern and rational spatial frame.
Owen also made friends among a number of the landed gentry in Lanarkshire, most notably Archibald James Hamilton (1793-1834). Together with Abram Combe, who had met Owen at New Lanark in 1820, he organized a group to construct a community at Orbiston, on three hundred acres of Hamilton's land in Motherwell, just outside of Glasgow. Construction on a great residential block began in 1825 and the first families moved in1826. "It is plainly, but I daresay substantially enough built," wrote Robert Dale Owen, Owen's son, in July 1825 of its square-U plan. By 1828, the community had failed and today nothing remains.
In 1824, with the proceeds he received from the sale of New Lanark, Owen purchased the town of Harmonie, Indiana and its surrounding fields from the religious schismatic George Rapp (1757-1847). America offered new opportunities and he was quickly able to translate his reputation in Britain into a platform in the United States. In October 1825 the first contingent of Owenite intellectuals came to the United States to settle in the town he now called New Harmony. He brought teachers rained in Switzerland by Johann Pestalozzi (1746-1827) for the school. The architect Stedman Whitwell (1784-1840), a figure associated with the circle of the architect Sir John Soane, was also a member of the party. In their luggage was a library of 1400 volumes and a six-foot square architectural model for a new community.
The model imagined a structure covering 22 acres ("nearly three times as large as Russell Square" in London) with space for a library, reading rooms, a printing office, bookbindery as well as a theater for lectures, exhibitions, discussions and classrooms. Long residential rows, like those of an Oxford college, framed the courtyard, and he planned collective kitchens, a central heating unit, and centralized laundry services. In effect, Whitwell's design offered a self-sufficient "combination teaching institute and research center whose findings would be nationally disseminated." As at Orbiston, the New Harmony experiment ended in failure - though aspects of Whitwell's design later emerge in plans for the Smithsonian Institution.