Shared Living


By 2050, two-thirds of the world population will live in urban areas. This will force us to rethink how we organise our cities. In the Western world, the ‘co-housing’ model is gaining ground, where common housing areas are shared by several individuals and families and are designed to meet challenges such as ageing populations and a growing demand for energy efficiency and environmental responsibility.

Sofie Thorsen

Posted Jul 29, 2019 in Cities, Urban Life & Mobility Article from Scenario 05:2018

People are moving to cities like never before. The planet’s urban population has soared from 751 million in 1950 to 4.2 billion in 2018, according to the UN, meaning that more than half of us live in a city today. Continuing population growth is, moreover, projected to add 2.5 billion people to the global urban population by 2050. As a result, the proportion of people living in urban areas will reach almost 70 percent. This makes urban development and housing one of the most important challenges of the 21st century, being associated with problems of accessibility, affordability, sustainability and isolation, among other things. But what if we could address these issues by reimagining the way we live? And what if shared living, rather than being the preserve of Millennials, might provide a better and more sustainable future for the many? Could co-living models help house our ageing societies and foster healthier and happier communities? If so, we will need to rethink the infrastructures of financing and development of housing to enable this change – and new technology will likely play an important role in that process.

A changing urban reality

The next time you complain about how packed your morning train is, try imagining the world in just over a decade’s time: By 2030, almost 9 percent of the world’s population will be living in just 43 megacities (those with more than 10 million inhabitants). But rapid ur- banisation will not only make our cities more crowded. It also will lead to enormous pres- sure on the housing market, rising house prices, and smaller homes due to congested and more expensive spaces, making demand for affordable housing an acute issue everywhere. In fact, the UN estimates that almost two billion people – a fifth of the world’s population – will lack access to adequate housing by 2030. That is a not an isolated issue, but a collective problem for the many people, and it will affect both developed and developing countries. To give you an idea of the magnitude of this challenge, imagine that we had to build a city the size of New York. Then do it again and again every second month for the next 32 years. That is, according to Alex Steffen, author of Carbon Zero: Imagining Cities That Can Save the Planet, what is needed to house the global population in 2050. This is a challenge that politicians are only too slowly starting to address. Yet, no matter how ambitious they are, it seems unlikely that cash-strapped governments will solve the housing crisis through large-scale construction projects alone. Meanwhile, the construction industry remains the top consumer of raw materials, and constructed objects account for 25-40 per- cent of the world’s total carbon emissions, making the expansion of cities an environmental issue as well. Some steps towards sustainability can be taken by leveraging new, advanced materials and construction technologies such as 3D printing and modularised, prefabricated components. Still, we need to ask ourselves if the most responsible solution is to continue down the path we are already on. Large, extended families are becoming less common as people are having less children. Meanwhile, single-person households are estimated to make up 40 percent of all households in most OECD-countries by 2025. This means that we need to de- sign living spaces for a future in which the nuclear family is not the centre of universe, but for a variety of lifestyles, family types and communities. Even so, developers continue to build only two products: one-family houses and apartments. But what if we could do things differently?

As cities expand to house growing populations, there is an extraordinary window of opportunity for all of us to design even better cities. According to the US National Intelligence Council, the volume of urban construction for housing, work, and infra- structure over the next 32 years will roughly equal the entire volume of such construction to date. To put that simply: half of the built environment that will be in place by 2050 does not yet exist. This offers us a chance – and an imperative – to completely reimagine the cities we inhabit and innovate our current housing model. Now is the time to ask how we actually dream of living.

Happier and healthier communities?

One answer might be found in shared living, which – though it can come in many forms – is the idea of sharing some or all living spaces, resources and services between more than one household. In recent years this concept has started getting traction as an alter- native to the one-family housing offered by the real estate market. Although communal housing types and forms of living have existed in many different cultures, the modern form of intentional co-housing was developed in Denmark in the 1960s. Co-housing is a type of collaborative housing in which residents have private homes, but share communal spaces, facilities, and resources and take active part in the design and operation of their community, organising activities and looking out for each other. Co-housing is already big in Scandinavia, making up 8 percent of the Danish households, but the concept is now also spreading to other Euro- pean countries, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, where the number of co-housing projects is expected to double within the next few years, according to CoHousing Solutions. By conserving resources and combining assets, co-housing communities can create inexpensive housing, and can hereby help alleviate the shortage of affordable housing that we will see in the future. Moreover, sharing of facilities and spaces mean that co-housing uses less land than individual housing. Meanwhile, shared resources such as cooling and heating units, cars, food and use of communal gardens act to reduce waste and make co-housing energy efficient.

But shared living models do not only offer a way of housing more people in a sustainable way. They might also allow us to tackle some of the social issues facing our future societies. In the next decades, developed societies will experience a significant ageing of the population. It is projected by the United Nations, that by 2050 the number of people over 60 years old will make up a fifth of the global population and a third of the population in high-income countries. At the same time, half a million people over the age of 60 spend most of their days in complete solitude, according to the charity Age UK, while 50 percent of all people aged 75 or over live alone in the UK. This change has huge social implications that we have to start addressing if we want to care for our elderly. So what if we could rethink the way we organise our living - not only in terms of housing, but also financial security, social support and well-being – through the lens of shared living?

In the Netherlands alone, there are currently 300+ co-housing schemes providing safe and secure communities, in which the elderly take care of each other, according to the UK Cohousing Network. And co-housing does not only appeal to Millennials or the elderly. In fact, more and more people take to shared living as a way to combat loneliness: Many Western countries see tragically high levels of loneliness today, with more than 9 million people in the UK stating that they often or always feel lonely. It has even been shown in the General Social Survey from the University of Chicago that the number of Americans with no close friends has tripled since 1985. This is not just a problem of happiness, but of health as well. Loneliness increases risk of depression by 80 per- cent for working-age people, while enlarging risk of smoking, obesity, dementia and heart attacks. A 2018 survey by global health insurance service company Cigna even reveals that loneliness can be as detrimental to physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In light of this, the promise of shared living is not only to build happier, but also healthier communities. But if sharing is so great, then why are we not seeing more of it already? Even in Denmark, where the co-living trend originates, one-family housing continues to be the dominant form of residence by far. What is holding back the development of a society in which more space and resources are shared?

Hack the system: cooperative 2.0

Over a century ago, a new collective housing model arose in Den- mark: the cooperative. It was designed as an alternative form of ownership that promoted collective financing, operation and maintenance, being supported by fair distribution of risk and responsibility among its members. That sounds reasonable enough. So why don’t we produce homes like this today? Imagine that a group of families walk up to a bank to get a collective loan to purchase land together. Or try to get clearance to build co-housing on it. It is close to impossible within the current infrastructures of financing and developing. That is why it took members of Older Women’s Co-Housing 20 years to launch the UK’s rst co-housing community for elderly women. The simple reason is that building homes is risky. It takes a lot of money that regular people do not have and is associated with a lot of uncertainty and risk. As a result, home ownership is at a record low among the 25-34 year-olds in both US and UK. Fewer can afford the one-size- fits-all housing solutions provided by the large developers, and other products simply do not exist on the shelves of the housing market. But what if we could change the way we build houses, and turn access to ownership inside-out? What if we could hack the system?

This question was recently explored during Copenhagen Architecture Festival 2018 in a collaborative project – the Cooperative 2.0 – curated by housing platform Doma together with the urban research organisations Eutropian and In-Between Economies. The project envisions a future in which we take full advantage of social media, peer-to-peer networks and blockchain-technology to scale up the original co-op model and build decentralised platforms of housing-development. The idea is that this approach could enable people to distribute risk, leverage finance and coordinate a community themselves. Some initiatives are already working towards creating such solutions. The Danish investment company Almenr, for instance, is dedicated to business ideas that empower local communities to break down centralised power structures and monopolies of urban developers. They combine architecture, social media, participatory design and financing to build a platform that enables people to connect and build co-living communities on their own. What is at the centre of their work is the realisation that the emergence of new technologies offers us entirely new ways of organising communities, making decisions and raising money together.

Crowdsourcing the future

The power to design our own homes is increasingly put back into the hands of the individual consumer with the emergence of trends such as participatory design, digital fabrication, and open- source architecture. At the same time technologies such as block- chain and the ability to do crowdfunding and crowdsourcing via new platforms offers new means for organising and financing.

Blockchain’s many use cases all have decentralisation as a defining characteristic. Among the most radical examples perhaps, we find the newly proclaimed micronation Liberland, established in 2015, which uses blockchain and smart contracts to facilitate a decentralised, democratic government and legal system. What if blockchain could be used in a similar way to create a decentralised urban development system, and embed collective resident control, non-hierarchical decision-making, and stewardship into the legal and financial structure of housing communities? While smart contracts are already used for real estate transactions, several business cases demonstrate the growing belief in blockchain’s ability to change the real estate market and disrupt the property industry in the future. An example is Atlant, founded in 2016. The platform offers peer-to-peer rentals that enable tenants and landlords to connect directly and solve disputes in a fair manner. At the same time, Atlant’s platform empowers distributed ownership, in which a property can be tokenised and owned by multiple stakeholders at the same time.

Another great potential for re-thinking the housing model is to be found in digitally enabled crowdsourcing, which has already started affecting policy-making and improving citizen agency in some countries. Examples include a crowdsourced constitution reform in Iceland, participatory budgeting in Canada, and crowd- sourced federal strategy processes in the United States. During re- cent years, however, the Finnish government in particular has taken pioneering steps in experimenting with methods for participatory and direct democracy, using crowdsourcing technology. During a period of nine months in 2013, the Finnish Ministry of Environment collaborated with the Committee for the Future in crowdsourcing a legislative process by asking citizens to contribute ideas for a new law on off-road traffic: Citizens were asked to share concerns, experiences, and problems regarding off-road traffic and their ideas for how to solve those problems. Both the crowd and a globally distributed expert panel were then asked to evaluate the generated ideas. This process was used again in 2014, when a digitally crowdsourced law for same-sex marriage was passed in Finland. What if the same could be done for the way urban development is organised, making it more inclusive, participatory and decentralised?

As new technologies are creating a new space of opportunities for re-thinking the way we live, we will be able to reframe the question from what will buildings look like to what future are they designed for. Leveraging these new technologies might allow us to turn rapid urbanisation into the momentum for creating an alter- native urban reality in which shared living helps us mitigate the challenges of the future. Now is the time to ask ourselves: What do we want to get out of our cities and of urban life?

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