The rise of accidental co-living in London and how to make it a good thing

I could live alone, but I don’t. I’m one of the lucky ones who can afford to …ish. This hasn’t always been the case. Like most other young people starting out in London, living with people used to be my only option. But now, I’m sort of hooked on it — co-living has become my preference.

Like many people, I moved to London on my own. Co-living played a crucial part in providing a nourishing space for me to grow and shape my values. And it’s been fun. Living with people who share your values is a beautiful thing. Granted, it’s not all rosy — there are many petty issues that arise with sharing your personal space and make you wish you had your own sink with no-one else’s damned dirty dishes. And I’m not suggesting we all live in communes — I’m certainly not in one (yet, and probably never). I appreciate the balance of having my own space and life and sharing some aspects with those I live with.

This lifestyle used to be seen as hippy-dippy shit. Left-type-art-type-maybe-mostly-over-55-type thing to do. But that’s changed. What used to be a niche concept has actually become a necessary way of life for young people in London. We share our spaces with strangers as we’re unable to afford our own. But through this necessity, we have accidentally created a co-living city. And it doesn’t have to be a bad thing — we can flip this restriction and celebrate the community that it enables us to build in an otherwise quite transient, individualist society.


First, what’s what?

Commune

“A group of people living together and sharing possessions and responsibilities”.

Definition from Google Dictionary

Co-housing

Cohousing communities are intentional communities, created and run by their residents. Each household has a self-contained, private home as well as shared community space. Residents come together to manage their community, share activities, and regularly eat together”.

Definition from UK Cohousing

Co-living

“Co-living is a way of living focused on a genuine sense of community, using shared spaces and facilities to create a more convenient and fulfilling lifestyle”.

Definition from The Collective

Conscious house-share

A new term used to describe a house-share, typically a rented house, that has been setup with the intention to encompass a set of values (e.g. Vegan-centred house-share).


And how can we make an impact?

Change perceptions of co-living

Despite the fact that we’re all pretty much co-living anyway — the term ‘co-living’ is still a little alienating to young people. There’s something about it that’s intimidating and just feels ‘a bit much’. The concept basically needs a deep rebranding. Design can play an important role in creating tools that speak the same language as the generation adopting it. In order to design, i.e. solve problems in this space, we must first connect emotionally with the people using it.

Connect people through common values

In a city, it often feels like you must go against the grain to pursue what you love. Living with people that share your values means you live in an environment where you all push each other. To that end, having aligning common values can be incredibly enriching. It creates a situation that offers consistent encouragement in the pursuit of the life you want — the most effective buddy system. It also creates a greater opportunity for serendipitous moments than when you live alone or with others you share the larger part of your life with. This living situation is crying out for design intervention. By understanding the layers and dissecting ‘values’ in, perhaps, a series of design workshops — we can build services that truly help connect people to those who share their values.

Although there are many who relate — we’re constantly hacking a system that isn’t designed for us. Spareroom is the best tool we have, and it’s enough to demonstrate the need for services in this space (reporting more than 2 million visitors to their site each month). However the problem with Spareroom is that responds to our problem in a pragmatic way. That’s evident in the solution, which has little regard for the emotive element on a feature-level, meaning the only way to get a sense for the person/people is to read lengthy descriptions on their ad page. To make up for this emotive gap, we use Facebook groups. There, we can have a better feel for people based on their profile. But the problem with using Facebook is that it isn’t designed for this purpose, so using it is a hack — it’s hard to search/filter which can be frustrating. Essentially there is no single tool or service that really caters to our needs.

Left: A room advertised on a Facebook Group (linked to Spareroom ad). Right: A room advertised on Spareroom

Make way for the nomadic lifestyle

The One-Job, One-Home model has been replaced with the promise of choices and mobility. The growing trends in flexible working hours and freelance culture has affected our perspective on permanence. It’s no longer synonymous with our notion of stability. This flexible life thing is just happening. Co-work, co-inhabit…companies like Roam and WeWork have successfully tapped into the flexible co-working trend and it’s long been woven into the fabric of our mainstream culture. But flexible living isn’t really a ‘thing’ yet. It’s either this is my flat or I live in a van… Making nomadic life easier is the next step. We need to start by exploring what flexible looks like without the work part. Then consider how to truly integrate the authenticity of temporal living experiences like Couchsurfing into whatever that is. It’s a rare opportunity to define and shape something new rather than fix something that’s broken — the perfect design brief.

Facilitate growth of ‘authentic’ communities

Community is a hip word, thrown around to sell shit. The word ‘community’ itself has lost its meaning in the world of luxury flats. Companies like The Collective or WeLive have tried to capitalise on this trend by developing purpose-built co-living spaces. But it doesn’t work, it’s almost ironic — luxury flats with cinemas won’t offer a sense of community. Why? Because the core value of that is in the dollar sign — a soulless instrument; and at the heart of community is a set of subtle interpersonal interactions that cannot be boiled down to money. The gift economy and platforms like Impossible People, are at the heart of a new movement that brings social cohesion to community living. The opportunity for us is to get the balance right — making sure to never lose sight of the core principles that define co-living. As a designer, I wonder how we can isolate these emotive drives to accommodate to this growing mindset wholly. What does make communities authentic?

Instead of purpose-built co-housing, just connect people to their neighbours.

There have been some attempts at re-instilling community values through smaller interventions, like the Olio App. Although these micro-solutions are a step in the right direction — they don’t quite fit into the broken bigger picture. You can’t force a community in a place where people don’t communicate. This needs to be tackled at its foundation, fuelling a slower and more complex social revolution that deals with a culture of loneliness.

The long game: Reclaim city space

Despite the many reasons to celebrate this situation, it’s important to acknowledge that this house-sharing making-lemonade-from-lemons scenario won’t be possible for much longer. Put simply, rent is becoming increasingly unaffordable. It’s pushing real communities out of the city. Rent prices don’t have adequate legislative control and neither does property ownership (I’m referring to the buy-to-leave phenomenon, where wealthy people buy up homes as an investment and leave them empty us they increase in value). Of course, that’s an over-simplification of a very complex issue and I’m no expert on property-related legislative matters. But what I’m trying to get at is — we have no control over this. We are at the mercy of governments to provide affordable housing or be lucky enough to be on the right side of rich. Is there a way to take back control by building community-owned affordable housing? Would it be possible to start buying back land somehow and cap rent? Essentially grow independently-funded affordable housing? Could we crowd-fund the purchase of housing/land in London and use that asset as a tool to slowly buy back parts of London? I have no idea. But that’s something to think about.