The rise and fall (and rise?) of communal living

This essay takes a step back to trace the evolution of communal living in the UK, and explores how policymakers have responded to it over time. Nicholas Boys Smith argues that even though our desire for privacy has driven decisionmaking about the built environment, the appeal of communal living may be growing. While Rohan Silva identifies globalisation and technological change as key forces, Nicholas points to an ageing society and rising social isolation as major trends that encourage us to look at the potential of new models such as co-housing.

10 min readMar 21, 2018

By Nicholas Boys Smith, the founding Director of Create Streets


“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1,9

Don’t believe the hype. Communal living was not ‘invented’ by a group of Scandinavian hippies in the 1970s. It’s not the latest thing ‘on the block.’ It’s not a third age, generation ‘z’ (or wherever we’ve got to now) response to the challenge of rootless modernity. It’s as old as homo sapiens. Tribal man lived communally. Medieval villages rotated land communally. Feudal vassals in their lord’s castle lived communally. Monks lived communally. The seventeenth century coffee house was communal.

But here’s the rub. Philosophers and dreamers may have approved of this. Plato’s Republic was communal. So was Moore’s Utopia and (perhaps more relevant) many of William Morris’ medievalist fantasies or Le Corbusier’s modernist ones.

English urbanism and the innate human preference for privacy

However, back in the real world, as the architectural and economic history of our towns and cities shows fairly unambiguously, whenever they can afford it, people seek space and privacy from their fellow citizens. The growth of wealth, of trade, of our cities could almost be interpreted (indeed has been interpreted) as a systemic process of de-communalising our lives, rendering them less prone to the whims and prejudices of community elders or cantankerous grandmas.

If you doubt me, pricing data for the homes that people actually buy could barely be starker. As people get richer they will pay for more space, more privacy. It’s one of the most consistent themes in hundreds of pricing studies and many hundreds of thousands of data-points. Polling supports this. In a European-wide 2013 survey, a detached house remained the ‘dream home’ of a clear majority of Europeans (61 percent). Nor are people’s preferences necessarily irrational. There is a respectable corpus of controlled studies that associate living in lower density areas with better overall mental health and find conversely that, ‘a high level of urbanisation is associated with increased risk of psychosis and depression.’

The architectural history of English urbanism is the case study par excellence of this innate human preference. Untrammelled by the continental need for city walls and the consequent packed mansion blocks, the English city grew spatially further and faster than its European brethren, limited only by the dictates of horse-borne transport. The quintessential English gift to world architecture is therefore the terraced house– that perfect vessel for cramming as much domestic privacy as possible into as small a section of street. As their historian and muse wrote:

By the end of the 19th century the vast majority of Englishmen, including the middle and lower classes, lived in neatly ordered and at least moderately ornamented, terraced houses.”

Growing prosperity was being used to buy more privacy. For a thousand years, consciously or otherwise, the state has encouraged, or at any rate permitted, this retreat from the communal to the private. Common law has typically found it much easier to protect individual than collective property rights (as the enclosure of those medieval strip fields and many ancient ‘commons’ shows). The monasteries were dissolved. And, particularly in London, Building and Metropolitan Acts throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries underpinned the creation of an essentially private city of individual units. The height and width of different individual building classes were set. Exposed wood which could help fire jump down from building to building was banned. Private tollgates to keep the masses out of particular streets were gaily permitted. And the structure of leaseholds and, from the 20th century, private mortgages which were used to pay for it all permitted ever more households to develop or buy their little slice of the city creating their own slight variation on the wider theme.

Post-war housing and the retreat from the communal to the private

Twentieth century rules changed their nature almost entirely from their Victorian and Georgian predecessors. Externally, they became more ambitious but less certain. They also starkly increased their focus not on the urban form but on the interiors. Crucially, however, their focus remained very much on private-occupied dwellings not on communal living. Many post-war architects, influenced by the Karl Marx-Hof in Vienna or by Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation, wanted to insist on gymnasia, libraries or roof gardens in the brave new post-war worlds into which they were decanting working class house-residents. It rarely happened. Certainly, it was never required by the various housing standards from 1944 to 1961 which set minimum flat and house sizes but never insisted on a gymnasium-to-residents ratio or the like. Some mid-century architects may have dreamed of utopian communal living. The authorities, more often than not, gave them short shrift and squeezed the communal facilities out of the plan to save money. Co-operative and mutual housing accounts for less than one percent of UK homes.

Communality amid the push to privacy

So far so simple. Is it a case, therefore, of ‘exit the commons’ unneeded by modern humanity and unprotected by the state? Not quite. Those 1970s Scandinavians and the many thousands who have followed them are on to something important. For, here’s the twist. Until surprisingly recently our privacy-seeking ancestors could eat their cake both collectively and individually. They were buying more privacy not complete privacy. This was mainly due to technological limitations. The lack of trains or cars meant that towns had nevertheless to be compact and walkable (terraces not suburbia). Friends and cousins and aunts were often literally around the corner as would now be rare. And, absent cars driving at 30mph, it was safe for even small children to wander round and see them. Rich and poor, people also lived more communally within the house itself. Again, this was due to technology but also to poverty. The poor may have normally lived in houses. However, sheer impecuniousness meant that they sublet and packed entire families into single rooms in a way that is now shocking. They also worked in their homes more rather than commuting. They certainly lived more communally. To read a description of, for example, pre-war East End life is to read a case study of how the network of apparently private houses and streets were actually part of one organic communal whole.

When I think of the East End, I think of all the warmth. Within a radius of two or three streets you had your own little community. Like a village it was…..A time when you knew all your neighbours; when you sat outside your street door on a kitchen chair during long summer nights….If a woman worked there was always someone to keep an eye out for the kids. That’s the way it worked.”

This text may smack of nostalgia but a thousand descriptions, photos or sociological studies of life in old cities before about 1950 largely corroborate it, for all the poverty and squalor. And the growing science of happiness explains the tone of nostalgia which invariably colours such descriptions. Put simply, we are at our happiest when we can readily go out into the city to commune with our fellow humans on our own terms but also retreat from it quickly to enjoy the privacy that most of us find necessary. Communal activity and knowing our neighbours tends to be good for us. But normally only when we can choose it — not have it entirely thrust upon us. Historically walkable, compact cities got this mix of privacy and community about right for all but the very poorest.

Advertisements for early suburban development instinctively realised this. They stressed the potential for communal activity and society (think tennis whites in metro-land). And, as we have seen, suburban living continues to work for many.

The retreat from the communal may have gone too far

However, there is also growing evidence that suburban living is creating isolated lives of physical inactivity and atrophying neighbourliness. This is partly due to commuting. Driving is seemingly the worst culprit with longer drives reliably associated in a US study with higher blood pressure, more headaches and higher levels of frustration. According to Robert Putnam in his influential study of declining US social capital, Bowling Alone, these increasingly sprawling suburbs are partially causative of declining American participation in civic and political organisations, social and sports groups, charitable donations, dinner parties, and community projects. In short, suburbanisation may have gone ‘too far’. Motivated to accommodate efficient and speedy motor vehicle transport, governments fuelled this transformation through building motorways. But urban traffic and low suburban densities have conspired to make where we live less liveable — making many public spaces in our cities less communal, and suburban streets devoid of communal interaction.

The other crucial phenomenon is the ageing of society. By 2040, over a quarter of the total population will be over 65. Older people tend to find it harder to get about and the evidence is also building that loneliness is bad for us and makes us sicker. It is not just, therefore, that co-housing advocates have a point. It is a point which can save the government money, especially if older people can live supportively cheek-by-jowl with each other or with the young — so-called senior co-housing.

Is policy embracing the potential of co-living?

Unsurprisingly, this has attracted the government’s attention. Ever since the 1999 publication of the Urban Task Force review British governments of left, right and coalition have been advocating denser development for reasons both of sustainability and social capital (for more on this, see Manisha Patel’s essay in this collection). Now the NHS is doing the same with their Healthy New Towns initiative. And within this framework, support for self-building, custom-building and co-housing has become increasingly sharp. The 2012 National Planning Policy Framework made provision for self-building. The Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015 required authorities to set up registers of individuals or bodies interested in self-build. And co-housing schemes can bid for financial support from the recently increased £300m Community Housing Fund. Some boroughs (for example Central Bedfordshire or Cambridge) are apparently particularly excited about the potential for older people’s co-housing not just to save them money but also to ‘solve’ the problem of increasingly unpopular and expensive to manage 1980s ‘old people’s homes.’ The potential for traditional, walkable market towns to embrace senior co-housing seems very real.

The internet and the ease with which groups can share best practice nationally and internationally is also helping. So is Neighbourhood Planning. Seven of the first 50 neighbourhood plans are supportive of community-focused housing. More and more community groups are therefore promulgating their own developments. From nothing 20 years ago there are now 19 built co-housing communities and 60 groups planning new ones.In parallel, commercial teams such as Pocket Living and The Collective are building co-housing ‘within a building’, with new shared club-like facilities aimed at tempting young professionals to live in much smaller flats than they would otherwise be likely to find acceptable. The state has supported this to some extent. The Greater London Authority has been prepared to create a new one-person flat requirement (of 37m² not 50m²) which has helped make this possible.

It is important not to get carried away. On the ground, development control officials are not always, ‘following through’ on political encouragement. Britain’s curiously high-risk, uncertain and development control-led planning process remains inimical to self-build, smaller developers and community groups. And some senior officials regard co-housing as ‘small fry.’ In a way they are right. On present trends, communal living is still only set to produce a tiny fraction of Britain’s housing need. But as European comparisons show, the potential is much higher. And the state seems increasingly willing to support it, keen to square circles of more housing on less land with cheaper services provision and more neighbourly support.

But this begs an important question. What, ultimately, is co-housing? The profound attraction of the best schemes old and new (for example Marmalade Lane currently being built in Cambridge) is that their urban form layers together the narrow and the wider community. They often look out or into a communal garden and to some degree plug into the streets around them. The worst don’t do this and have been criticised for their social and physical exclusivity. For all their talk of affordability the impression remains that most co-housers are middle class.

The danger of co-housing, particularly of the ‘all you need in one building’ type, is that rather than enriching the city’s social fabric by intermingling their communal strength with the wider community’s, they are denuding it. At its best, co-housing is bowling together, sharing skills and taking a village to raise a child. At its worst, is it creating exclusive gated ghettos of the rich able to live, work and play safely sequestrated from the wider world? Defined too widely, is there a risk that the state is supporting not the good society but an exclusive club? For all of its unquestionable potential, advocates of co-housing and co-living more broadly must continue to answer these questions.




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