Forget community: London’s co-living spaces are about living selfishly

The Collective co-living space in Old Oak, London. Photo credit Alice Whitby

The media’s obsession with millennials continues apace, and the focus has turned again to the concept of co-living.

Is co-living the new Airbnb for millennial nomads?” asks the Guardian. “Living with strangers holds the key to housing crisis and loneliness” claims The Times, suggesting “childless millennials” give it a go.

Communal living – where residents pool space, time and resources for shared benefit – could remedy a dysfunctional property market riddled with damp flats and replete with landlords syphoning off your paycheque for their pension.

But that’s not what’s on offer in London for aspiring co-livers. Companies like The Collective, Roam, Fizzy Living and Lyvly are all vying to cash in on the accepted wisdom that millennials are happy to compromise on space in return for an on-site gym. Websites with cheerful stock images promise concierges, community managers, cleaners and cinema rooms.

It’s the WeWork model expanded to leisure time. Co-working spaces thrive off oustourced housekeeping and shallow perks. Who needs wages that rise in line with living costs when you have beer on tap?

These companies have a similar allure. Redistribute the hassles of cohabiting with other humans in sub-par rentals. Avoid awkward spareroom scrabbling where one must suss out which potential flatmate might litter possessions with passive-aggressive post-it notes.

But as with open plan co-working-style offices that make us miserable, the promises of this housing model are hollow. 

Community can’t be bought with a deposit and a monthly rental fee. It doesn’t rely on underpaid staff to organise clutter and clean living areas.

Not having to draw up a cleaning rota for your housemates sounds appealing, but skipping negotiations over whose turn it is to clean the loo only trickles the burden downwards.

Anyone who has worked in an office with a kitchen will have witnessed and likely succumbed to this diffusion of responsibility.

It’s easy to assume that other people will sort out the mess. This is how cups pile up in the office sink and suspicious tupperware moulders in the back of the fridge. It falls on the office manager to deliver motherly chivvying, and the invisible office cleaners to arrive after dark and wipe down tea stains and toast crumbs.

The co-living model creates the conditions for collective apathy to emerge. If you’re not hashing out communal responsibilities with cohabitors, you’re not doing the work required to live in a community. Relying on a shadow workforce of zero-hour contract labourers is no substitute.

Feminists and socialists have long puzzled the problems of sharing labour, feeding inhabitants and maintaining a household. Today’s corporate co-living spaces are deliberately vague on such thorny political issues and offer none of the collective solidarities that co-housing movements in the 20th century strove to create.

Sharing meals is one of the most basic ways of bonding a human social group. In London’s co-living spaces, communal kitchens are touted as backdrops for group cookery classes. Dining rooms can be booked in advance with all the joy of a boardroom meeting.

In London’s co-living communities you’d be more likely to order a Deliveroo meal from one of the capital’s dark kitchens, exhausted from the sensory overload of a day in an open-plan office.

The “co” prefix is a misnomer: these are spaces for living selfishly. The radical promise of co-housing has been co-opted with nauseating capitalist buzzwords like “rentysomethings”.

The logic at play is peak tech bro: like replacing public transport with ride-sharing apps, corporate co-housing offers a private-sector fix that merely scrapes the surface of a problem that the market first created.

It could be otherwise. In Denmark, co-housing is a progressive alternative to the owner-occupier model. The Social Market Foundation think tank suggests government-backed schemes that allow residents to buy at a lower price in return for sharing rooms and facilities could be a UK version (though suggestion of luxury cinema rooms smacks suspiciously of developer-speak).  

But we need to act fast. Last week Chinese co-living company Danke Apartments received $500 million funding to upgrade its algorithms for its WeWork-style model that involves taking out loans in tenants’ names for them to pay back, instead of charging rent. Just no one tell London’s build-to-rent sector.

 
 
 
 

Can places make us healthier?

A 19th century vision of ideal homes for the respectable working classes. Image: Wellcome Images.

All of us feel better when we’re surrounded by beauty and good design. It’s why we put so much effort into DIY, interior design or gardening. And it’s why for our holidays we seek out places that will make us both physically and mentally healthier than we can in our working life.

This might seem blindingly obvious. Yet public policy often points in the opposite direction. Developed societies rightly spend huge sums of money on health – hospitals, primary care, and new and old drugs account for at least 10 per cent of GDP and more in some countries.

But if you look at what we know about health there is an odd paradox. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one of the world’s largest funders of health, summarising a huge amount of research, the causes of premature death are roughly as follows: 40 per cent behavioural patterns, 30 per cent genetics, 15 per cent social circumstance and 5 per cent environmental effects. The remaining 10 per cent is attributable to healthcare.

Given that medicine is an evidence-based field you would expect that this widely understood knowledge would be reflected in how funds are allocated. Instead, the opposite is the case. The vast majority of health spending goes to healthcare and within that to particular industries, notably pharmaceuticals.

We now take this for granted. But it wasn’t always like this. In the 19th century when rapid industrialisation and urbanisation left cities like Manchester, Birmingham and London wracked by ill-health, crime and misery, huge efforts went into dealing with the physical causes of ill-health. Vast public spending projects worked to deliver cleaner water and air; comprehensive sewers; better housing; and later such things as safe roads. These were all seen as just as important to a healthier population as better hospitals.

Indeed, there is a long history of using urban design to promote health. This thinking was integral to the great projects of Bournville and Peabody, the garden cities of the early 20th century and the new towns of the 1940s, and more recently it’s shaped the NHS Healthy New Towns initiative.

Yet health design has never had the same prestige or support as more narrowly clinical knowledge, and although much is known, little has been rigorously tested. So we can fairly safely say that hospitals are more likely to promote recovery if they make good use of nature, light and art, and if they offer privacy rather than long soulless wards. Similarly, health centres work better if they give people the scope for interaction rather than long lines of chairs or grim corridors.


But we don’t have strong evidence or detailed work on just how much impact these designs have, and even though much of this may appear fairly obvious, a moment’s reflection confirms that it’s at odds with how far too many hospitals and surgeries were designed.

The same imbalance is evident in the ways that towns and cities are planned. You can deliberately design transport and roads to make it easier to walk, cycle or run rather than always depending on cars. You can shape cities to make them full of nature, or even edible, with plenty of fruit trees for example. Planning can be used to reduce advertising of junk food near schools, to cut noise levels and to promote clean air. Much is known about how the presence of green and blue spaces – which means water, ideally in motion – can be good for mental health. Social norms can be influenced in a healthy direction, for example encouraging people to stop their cars from idling. And we’re beginning to see more systematic attention to what could be called MEEs – Mind Enhancing Environments – which can both calm and stimulate us in healthy ways.

But again there is surprisingly little rigorous evidence and surprisingly little use of systematic experiment so that when new initiatives like the Healthy New Towns one are started they have relatively little to draw on.

This under-development of health design reflects a broader mismatch in where we direct resources. Over the last few years, an ever-larger share of public funding has gone to biomedical research even as the results of that research have continued a remorseless long-term decline in terms of impact on health outcomes.

It’s not that we shouldn’t fund such vital research: it’s just that the imbalance with other fields that focus on behavioural, social and environmental influences on health has become huge, and indefensible.

Most new urban developments ignore what’s known about health design, and the situation is even worse in countries like China where cities are being built that are highly likely to be bad for physical and mental health.

We shape our buildings and our buildings shape us, as Churchill famously put it. For now, too many of them aren’t shaping us well. I hope that a new generation of doctors, architects and planners will put this right.

Geoff Mulgan is chief executive of the innovation charity Nesta.