Illustration by Max Guther

Can shared living improve our mental health and wellbeing?

Ahead of the final event in our lecture series exploring ‘Designing for Shared Living’, architect and writer Hannah Wood explores what an uptake in shared living could mean for our mental health and collective wellbeing.

May 17, 2018 · 7 min read

“We have dinner together every other night, we watch each other’s kids and borrow each other’s cars. We participate in community events and political rallies and we support each other through difficult life circumstances,” says Grace Kim, referring to the Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing project, a nine-unit shared development in Seattle which the architect calls home. The project was designed to facilitate everyday interactions between residents: the shared rooftop garden sustains the common dining room, while exterior circulation offers views down to a shared central courtyard where residents hang out when the weather permits. For Kim, who founded the architecture firm Schemata Workshop, which is situated on the ground floor, this is “communitas” in action — the sense of togetherness and support from the everyday familiarity of fellow co-dwellers. “Living in cohousing, we’re intentional about our relationships and we’re motivated to resolve our differences,” Kim has written. “We follow up, we check in, we speak our personal truths and, when appropriate, we apologize.”

It is this sense of commitment and loyalty to one another which separates the concepts of “cohousing” and “co-living” for Kim, whose TED talk on “how cohousing can make us happier (and live longer)” has been viewed almost two million times. She defines “co-living” as an arrangement where people have their own rooms but share kitchens, living rooms and possibly bathrooms, such as dormitories. “Many people are looking for community and meaningful social connections, and co-living communities have opened up to serve these young hipsters or tech workers, recent divorcees and low-wage workers in high-cost cities,” says Kim. “It is my perception that people tend to consider these short-term living arrangements and experience community ‘in the moment’. If conflict arises, people may have no incentive to resolve it and may just move out.” By contrast, Kim views “cohousing” as an intentional neighbourhood where people know and care about each other. “People have their own private homes but share many common areas, both inside and outside,” Kim explains.

“They intend to live in cohousing for many years, or the rest of their lives. There is a focus on long-term relationships and people work collaboratively to resolve conflict.”

Kim first came across shared living in 1992 while studying architecture in London. But it wasn’t until she and her husband moved back to Seattle that it became their focus and Kim began to study co-living models, which led to the publication of her manual “Design of the Common House” in 2004. While Kim didn’t set out to investigate the social bonds between residents, she felt the impact that shared living appeared to have on wellbeing was significant enough to be recorded as part of the study. “While I wanted the research to be quantitative, such as optimal dimensions, I learned a lot about how communitas is born through making meals and doing work together,” explains Kim. “This shared work helps build rapport and trust amongst the residents, and the consistent and frequent interactions help us create a strong social web which enables us to live longer. According to a study by Julianne Holt-Lundstad, those experiencing loneliness have a 32 percent greater likelihood of premature death.”

Michael Birkjær, an analyst at the Happiness Research Institute (HRI), an independent think-tank in Copenhagen, seeks to quantitatively map changes in national wellbeing through the use of reports and “big data”, with an aim to influence public policy. “With rising global economic prosperity there appears to be a decline in overall happiness. While at the HRI we understand the difficulty of pinning ‘happiness’ to a metric, this loss of social capital is significant, especially when read with datasets of people living alone,” Birkjær explains. “Might this unhappiness be due to an increased sense of isolation?” When Birkjær and his team explored groups of countries that were doing exceptionally well in terms of ‘social capital’ for their income levels, such as those in Latin America, they began to consider whether there was a link between strong communities and mental health. “That’s how we first got interested in shared living as one of the solutions, as we believe social engagement has a huge impact on wellbeing,” says Birkjær.

Illustration by Max Guther

However, according to Itai Palti, an architect and fellow at the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health (UD/MH) and founder of the Conscious Cities movement, not all shared living arrangements have a positive effect on personal well-being. “When it comes to mental health, co-living presents both opportunities and challenges,” he explains. “It has the potential to create new meaningful social connections — in this case, a network of potentially supportive friends — which decreases social isolation and is therefore beneficial both for our individual and collective mental health.” However, poorly designed, cramped accommodation with high rents and a lack of privacy may sometimes increase distress, as can strained relationships with fellow co-dwellers. “On the flipside, co-living may induce stressors, including a lack of privacy and spaces for individual use, which also impacts wellbeing,” explains Palti. Research into the cognitive and psychological impacts of shared living is part of UD/MH’s overall aim to create a more “human-centric” assessment of the built environment. Both Birkjær and Palti agree that urban investment should be restructured to acknowledge mental health and wellbeing issues alongside more measurable concerns such as transportation and physical accessibility.

“Awareness of the psychological impacts of social isolation is growing quickly, and rightly so, as loneliness greatly damages our mental health,” says Palti.

“We are, as it is being termed, facing a ‘loneliness epidemic’ which is ironic given the pace of urbanisation and densification of our built environment.”

Could a wide-scale uptake in shared living begin to address some of the emotional and psychological challenges of emerging urban environments, including social isolation and loneliness? Might imaginatively designed co-living spaces safeguard people’s welfare as they age? These questions, among others, will be addressed by Kim, Birkjær and Palti on Thursday evening at SPACE10’s ‘Designing Shared Living: Happiness and Wellbeing’ event.

The first step towards reducing the insecurity and stress experienced by many urban dwellers is by offering the widest selection of housing layouts and options possible within the reach of an average salary. When an individual or community decides that co-living is right for them, it is then about finding the right balance: current research supports the idea that successful shared spaces are those that are designed both to respect individual privacy and to allow people to socialise comfortably. If co-dwellers are to feel at home long term, they also require private spaces which they can adapt and personalise. This negotiation between individual identity and flexibility in sharing is different for different people, at different stages of their lives, and is what makes it difficult to suggest overall guidelines for the design of shared spaces. Instead, architectural proposals need to listen and respond to the diverse needs of their future resident communities and ideally involve them in the design process.

My research for this series of articles has affirmed that designing for shared living presents such an exciting challenge for architects and designers because of its untapped potential to positively impact the lives of individuals, their neighbourhoods and the city at large. How do we, as designers, expand the diversity of possibilities and capabilities of future shared living beyond the models out there already — many of which are poised to amplify existing urban issues, such as rising living costs and undersized homes — to offer more people a choice in where, and how, they live? How can we connect and facilitate community groups such as the Older Women’s Co-housing group through state-of-the-art financing mechanisms and digital platforms? And how do we expand these diverse co-living configurations into a broader notion of sharing the city? There isn’t one solution to these challenges, there are many — and designing for shared living will require a collective effort.


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