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

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.