in Economics, Psychology, The environment

One way in which the lives of contemporary urban dwellers must differ from those of most people in the 250,000 years of anatomically modern human history is in not knowing our neighbours. In a small settlement in a time before widespread travel and privacy, you would probably know everybody. Now, many of us couldn’t pick out the people who live on our block from a lineup.

I suspect this has several negative effects. Because so many of us duplicate what would once have been shared spaces (living rooms, laundry rooms, kitchens), urban density is lower than it might otherwise be, contributing to sprawl and the time and energy inefficiencies of long commutes. Socially, there is ample evidence that we are atomized and isolated to an unprecedented expense.

Living for three years at Massey College offered one alternative model. The college has the physical layout of a Benedictine monastery, with shared spaces including the common room, libraries, and the dining hall on one end and private rooms looking inward around an enclosed quad. Everybody gets their own small bedroom and attached office, but all other facilities are shared. Meals are taken in common, and cellular phones are prohibited in the dining hall. It’s an attractive approach that combines privacy with communality, and it probably fits more people into a Massey-sized area than private apartments would. If it were more than three stories tall, it could be much more dense than conventional housing, while still not having so many residents that people won’t all know one another.

A commercial take on a similar idea is being tried in London:

The Collective is a pioneer of a new property format known as “co-living”. Instead of self-contained flats, residents live in tiny rooms with 12 square metres of floor space. Most contain just a bed and a bathroom.

It is outside these rooms that the building makes its pitch. It comes with a gym, spa, libraries, a good restaurant and a cinema. Residents get access to all of these amenities, as well as their room, for a rental payment of £800-£1,000 ($1,033-$1,292) a month. That includes all bills and high-speed Wi-Fi; they pay extra for meals in the restaurant. Residents have come up with their own services, too. The Collective houses a “library of things”, or a shared repository of useful objects—hammers, tape measures and even tents.

They do note that this building is too large for close social pressure to prevent bad behaviour:

With too many co-livers to be able to know everyone personally, CCTV is used in these areas as a guarantor of good conduct and cleanliness.

That said, I have experienced problems with chores, shared cooking equipment, and cleanliness in situations with just two or three housemates.

Along with innovations like more laneway housing and policies to discourage low-density urban living, such approaches could contribute to a more sustainable future which also includes stronger communities.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

alena September 13, 2017 at 9:18 am

Vancouver has several co-housing units and they work on the same principle. One very nice feature is that this type of housing is multi-generational. Today, the young and the old can both face poverty and with a lack of family support a community is a wonderful alternative.

Oleh September 15, 2017 at 12:36 am

I have been particularly interested in co-housing as a sustainable and enriching form of living. It is most prevalent in Denmark and Netherlands and is growing in Canada. I find the shared space and multi-generational aspects the most interesting.

Matt September 17, 2017 at 8:37 pm

Not to be contrarian, but my experience is that in living in apartments in downtown Vancouver, I never knew my neighbors, even those living one door over. Living in detached houses, I have always known my next door neighbours. I don’t think you can take much from that… I do enjoy the feeling of community however it manifests itself.

Oleh September 18, 2017 at 1:37 am

Co-housing is very much about community – from the developing a community together and then realizing it. Reducing private use space and replacing it with common space enhances it. This is very different from the typical apartment or detached home experience

Milan September 18, 2017 at 12:06 pm


It’s good to hear from you.

Certainly just packing people together more densely doesn’t create social connections between them. Shared social spaces, like at Massey and the buildings described above, could be important. In co-ops, shared chores of various types (from cleaning and cooking to gardening) are often a community-building feature. Sometimes there are also shared meals.

. September 24, 2017 at 9:23 pm

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