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July 24, 2018

Why London needs co-living

 Thomas
Ed Thomas

One of my favourite quotes that captures the essence of London is from Samuel Johnson: “You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

I recently gave a talk entitled “why London needs co-living”. In it, I argued that a series of changes in behaviour occurring at an individual level and fuelled by macro-level societal trends were creating ripe circumstances for a shift in how we should approach housing in the city.

London is in the midst of a severe housing crisis where it’s housing supply cannot keep up with population growth. Between 1999 and 2015, London’s annual population increase has been around 95,000 per year, since 2007 it has been over 122,000 per year. However, the average number of “dwellings completed” per year is just 18,500 (Statistical Data Set, table 253). Given the consistent shortfall in supply over the last two decades, The Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA) estimates that London needs to be building 49,000 new homes per year to meet this demand.

While people today struggle to find anywhere to live, accommodation options for young Londoners remain limited.

Facing the choice of either renting via an online portal such a Spareroom or Gumtree (where you are at the peril of dodgy landlords), or trying to save for a deposit (according to Spareroom, based on the average salary in London and rising house prices, it’ll take you 68 years to save for a deposit), the picture is increasingly bleak.

If Johnson was alive today, you might challenge him: what good is London if we are unable to live in and experience the city?

You’d think one of the benefits of a growing population would be that there’d be more opportunity to come together, but in reality it’s quite the opposite. In contemporary society, there are fewer moments in our daily lives where we meet as a community. Take pubs for example. The number of pubs has fallen by 25% since 1982 even though Britain’s population has risen by 17%. That roughly equates to a loss of around 1,000 a year. The decline in church attendance is another indication that we spend less time in a community environment. A survey by the National Centre for Social Research at the end of 2017 showed that 71% of 18-25 year olds describe themselves as having “no religion”. Today, young people are more likely to identify with being spiritual than identifying as religious. Instead, we choose to connect via online communities which we know do not fulfil us in the same way that human connection in the real world does. In fact, there is an increasing wealth of evidence that shows that social media is causing more damage than good.

We choose to connect via online communities which we know do not fulfil us in the same way that human connection in the real world does. In fact, there is an increasing wealth of evidence that shows that social media is causing more damage than good.

It is therefore not by chance that loneliness is increasingly on the political agenda today. In a survey by the Mental Health Foundation, nearly 60% of 18-34 year olds said they felt lonely sometimes or often. Given that the impact of loneliness is comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and that it inflicts a £32bn cost on the British economy every year, it’s no wonder a Minister for Loneliness was appointed in January this year.

At a time when loneliness has been termed an epidemic, it seems logical to support initiatives that promote human connection. How might we ever be able to enjoy in London ‘‘all that life can afford”, if we are already tired of life?

Co-living is a major step toward addressing the myriad of complex problems occurring in London today. Co-living can be defined as purpose-built, institutionally managed and well-designed living spaces that create communities through a shared living experience. It seeks to address the misaligned agendas in the property sector – bringing the end user back to the centre of the housing conversation. With co-living, we’re starting with the often forgotten needs and wants of this generation.

With co-living, we’re starting with the often forgotten needs and wants of this generation.

The benefits are numerous. On one hand, in the context of the built environment, co-living increases the options available in the rental market to individual dwellers and has a more efficient use of space, providing significantly more shared space to the renter than a house-share. This model then draws out single occupancy dwellers from house-shares, allowing London’s families more choice in the housing market.

The impacts of increasing density in built environments are also significant. For instance, looking at public health, if you raise the density of housing units by 25% per hectare, the likelihood of the resident walking increases by 23% (Frank, 2005). The impact of a lack of physical activity, which leads to a significant increase in the risk of chronic diseases like obesity, heart disease and type II diabetes, can be mitigated by reimagining how we might live. In Old Oak, we provide free fitness courses as part of our events programme, such as boxing and dance (around 40% of our events are dedicated to health and wellbeing), we have a state-of-the-art gym as standard and 10 floors of stairs (if you’re feeling bold).

The environmental impact is also very compelling beyond the benefits of having more people walking. With the scale of our projects, our environmental footprint is enormous. However, as we live compactly and share our resources (e.g. such as The Collective Old Oak‘s collection of lendable objects, the Library of Things, or the shared kitchens we have on every floor) we consume less energy, water and have less waste as our space is smaller. We’re not quite at the stage of sharing everything, but we do share larger items such as bikes and cars (which then has a positive knock on effect on air pollution in cities too). We recently increased our recycling by a third in one week (3100 litres) by a simple change in our infrastructure. This is just one example of the impact (and ease) of behavioural change at scale, as opposed to individual houses or flats.

The environmental impact is also very compelling. As we live compactly and share our resources we consume less energy, water and have less waste as our space is smaller.

On the other hand, at the individual level, we’ve already seen profound impacts on the lives of our members. For instance, 68% say they feel less lonely living in Old Oak. As part of Mental Health Awareness week, we hosted a series of talks, workshops and drop in sessions focussed on promoting positive mental health conversations. We’ve also seen companies start in Coding Club, countless friendships formed at Saturday brunch, members getting jobs at the weekly freelancer’s lunch and careers changed, all thanks to the thriving community that acts as a support, a professional and personal network and a platform for people to grow into the best versions of themselves.

If executed properly, co-living can not only be an incredible part of the solution to the housing crisis but bring benefits to London beyond the simple need to supply more homes. These wide impacts benefit not only those who chose to co-live, but the local communities around co-living spaces as well as London as a whole.

Now, this sounds like something Johnson would have approved of.

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