Here are five lessons on the future of co-living

A co-living building, The Collective Old Oak, in north west London. Image: Getty.

In a new report from the Royal Society of the Arts, we asked a range of thinkers and practitioners to explore the concept of co-living – a form of housing that combines private living space with shared communal facilities. Unlike flatshares and the like, co-living is explicitly designed to encourage communal interaction and build community. Although it accounts for a very small proportion of the overall housing stock, it is growing.

In this article, RSA researcher Atif Shafique summarises the findings of that report.

Sometimes described as the hipster’s answer to the commune, co-living may actually represent more than just a trendy throwback to the utopian communities of the past. Its growing appeal is in fact linked to very modern challenges, that some claim it can meet better than more ‘mainstream’ (and less affordable) forms of housing. Issues ranging from rising loneliness and ageing to changing patterns of work, consumption and living are compelling us to think differently about the sorts of homes we need or desire.

Some of this is forced upon us because of the crisis of affordability in cities such as London. But it’s also driven by a desire to get something different out of a housing system that tends to provide little in the way of affordability, quality and choice. Younger generations are bearing the brunt of this, especially as housing tenure shifts dramatically from owner occupation to private renting (60 per cent of Londoners are predicted to be renting by 2025) – a tenure which generally is less secure and of lower quality.

Squeezed out of fast-shrinking social housing and unable to get onto the housing ladder until they’re middle-aged, millennials understandably feel they have few options available to them. Only 17 per cent consider social housing an option, while only 23 per cent have looked at shared ownership schemes. Meanwhile, demand for flatsharing is ballooning, especially in London. (As a side note, use this brilliant interactive heatmap by splittable.co to see how much of London is affordable for living on your own versus sharing. Spoiler: if you’re on a modest income, not very much of it.)

Oh dear. Click to expand. Image: Splittable.

Can co-living provide a higher quality alternative? One that provides flexibility and security, but also builds social capital amid rising loneliness and growing turbulence in the economy and labour market? Can it become a key option in efforts to meet the housing challenge?

The collection of essays provide a range of perspectives on these questions. Below I provide five key take-always from the publication.

1. A lack of housing supply isn’t the only issue we face

So much of the housing debate is narrowly focused on finding ways to build more homes. As important as this is, we also need to think hard about challenges relating to housing quality, security, choice, space standards and design. The types of homes we build matter.

In his essay, Rohan Silva, a former adviser to David Cameron, argues that our housing system is too slow to respond to the twin forces of globalisation and technological change that are transforming our lives. With more innovation in our approach to planning and the built environment, new models of housing (including co-living) could flourish and better meet our needs and ambitions.

2. Community isn’t a commodity that can be manufactured

The unique selling point of co-living is that it can foster a lasting sense of community among diverse residents. But as co-living developers are discovering, this isn’t easy – and especially not ‘at scale’ in a commercial setting, without a ready-made community' of driven and likeminded individuals.

Jess Steele’s essay points to possible solutions using the Heart of Hastings (HoH) Community Land Trust project as an example. Using a combination of methods drawn from social enterprise, neighbourhood development and community-led housing, HoH shows how diverse communities can be brought together with initiatives that build their sense of ownership and capacity to make decisions, promote self-help and encourage community enterprise.

Traditionally, co-living has been criticised for creating gated communities. But HoH shows that communities of place, and not just communities of (homogeneous) residents, can be built with the right approach.


3. Communal living isn’t alien to Britain

We tend to think of Britons as having an innate, unshakeable preference for privacy and private consumption. This is perhaps why co-living is sometimes written off as small-fry housing that won’t ever have ‘mainstream’ appeal, even though similar models are prevalent in other parts of Europe)

Nicholas Boys Smith traces the history of communal living and its policy context, and finds that this description lacks nuance. People value communality deeply, but also like to be able to retreat into the private.

It is this balance between privacy and social interaction that co-living tries to get right. The growth of the sharing economy and the rise of co-working, impact hubs and other forms of collaboration suggests there is an appetite for greater sharing and social engagement – and some would say co-living is part of this trend. As society ages, the need to live together differently (and more communally) will only grow.

4. Design can help us to re-imagine housing

The housing crisis is usually presented as a political or policy problem, rooted in dysfunctional decision-making structures. However, Manisha Patel argues that it is just as much a design challenge. If we are to tackle climate change and improve the quality of social connections in society, we may need to transform how we live and how we design our homes and our neighbourhoods.

The Low Impact Living Affordable Community (LILAC) in Leeds illustrates this with its community of eco-friendly homes. Manisha examines how design principles can be at the heart of co-living, and co-housing schemes in particular. She identifies how architecture can promote “social contact,” how new forms of design can enable intergenerational living among extended families (for example, the multi-generation house), and how processes such as modularisation can achieve energy efficiency at scale. 

5. Homes have become speculative assets, but we can redefine our relationship to them

Speculation is rife in the housing system. It isn’t just investors, banks and oligarchs that are involved: many of us engage in it. When people buy homes with the expectation that they will rise in value, that’s speculation.

Government has supported it too, because house price growth contributes to consumer spending and broadening home ownership enables wealth accumulation, premised on the cash (and borrowed cash) to be paid by future buyers. Despite the sheer amount of money that government has invested to get people on the housing ladder, the dominant home ownership model is clearly cracking and the dangers of housing speculation (not least recession and economic instability) are becoming increasingly clear. The financial crisis of 2007-8 was triggered in US housing markets, and the home ownership rate in the UK has fallen for at least the last decade. 

It doesn’t have to be like this. Jonathan Schifferes and I argue that it is possible to support a shift away from seeing homes as speculative assets to seeing them as sources of collective and community wealth.

Notions of wealth and equity in our housing system are understood far too narrowly: they tend to mean individual ownership of a financial asset, the value of which is determined by the market. It is possible to broaden this understanding to encompass the benefits of  having a stake (financial, social, personal) in the success of  the community in which one lives and contributes to. Co-living and more co-operative approaches to housing can support this: experience across Europe suggests that such models can become major parts of a mixed economy of housing.

Co-living isn’t a magic bullet solution for resolving the housing crisis; nor is it an approach without significant challenges itself. The essays pick up on the problems that co-living models often face, in particular their lack of diversity and occasional tendency to produce exclusive communities. In the for-profit private rental sector there is the added danger that they commodify community.

But as Matthew Taylor notes in his introduction to the essays, if it can overcome its challenges, at its root co-living offers new choices for those who see communality as part of how they want to live, work and thrive.

Atif Shafique is a senior researcher on inclusive growth at the Royal Society of Arts. He tweets at @atif_shafique. You can read the RSA’s co-living report here

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.