Archio’s Kyle Buchanan talks about what the pandemic can teach London about sharing
London is facing a time of great change. Notwithstanding the immediate impacts of the pandemic and our changed relationship with Europe, London is predicted to grow by 2 million people over the next three decades. Efforts to house the burgeoning population will have a transformative impact on the city, and by 2050 London will be taller and denser than ever before.
Even before the pandemic, London could be a difficult place to live. Beset by perennial problems of traffic, air pollution and safety, London’s lowly 41st position in the 2019 Mercer Quality of Living City Ranking suggests systemic issues.
In the last year, London’s centre of gravity has shifted away from business districts to neighbourhood centres, which has provided an opportunity to reflect on the role that our homes and communities, or the deficiencies in them, have on our wellbeing and our collective experience of the city. In many ways the pandemic has changed our assumptions about how the city should grow.
As London begins its recovery, the Mayor has called on us to build on the community spirit shown over the last difficult year, and to strive for a city “where we have economic opportunity, thriving neighbourhoods and improved wellbeing for all.” How then can we seize this moment for positive change and ensure London retains the vibrancy that has made it a world leading city, whilst also being a better place to live?
Housing density at the level needed to meet London’s demand means flats, accompanied by an increase in shared space and amenities. The key to a more liveable, sustainable, and denser London will rest on our ability to share the city’s limited space and resources, whilst fostering the social interactions and mutual support that come from being part of an active community.
Conventional wisdom tells us that sharing space is not something that comes easily to the English. However domestic tropes, like the insular suburban home, are becoming increasingly removed from the way many people live. The reality of how we use our homes is more nuanced than the generic nature of much new housing would suggest. Sharing is not as alien to Londoners as we might think and could be the key to making London a better place to live after the pandemic.
One way this has manifested in London in recent years is through a significant increase in community-led housing groups. Housing models such as co-housing and community land trusts have become a way for residents to take direct action to meet the housing needs of their communities. This has been supported by the Community Housing Fund and the Mayor’s ‘Small Sites’ land disposal programme, much of which has been targeted at community groups.
In parallel, there has been an increase in ‘co-living’, which differs from co-housing to the extent that it tends to be implemented by commercial developers rather than community groups. In London this model has been predominantly aimed at young professionals who are prepared to trade reduced private space for more shared space and organised group activities with other residents. The model has attracted a certain amount of scepticism and accusations that it is a symptom of, rather than a solution to, the housing crisis. However, elsewhere in Europe co-living has been used successfully in community-led development, for example in intergenerational co-living flats at the Mehr als Wohnen housing cooperative in Zurich.
Shared-living schemes deliver practical benefits that come from sharing space with neighbours, including communal ancillary space like laundry rooms or spare bedrooms. However, there is also increasing acknowledgement of the mental health benefits that come from living as part of an active community, and this is perhaps the key advantage of shared living.
The pooling of domestic resources is not limited to space in our homes, and there are signs of a growing sharing economy as the economic and environmental benefits of sharing rather than owning become clear. The emergence of car-clubs and ride-shares are one example, as is the increasing prevalence of ‘libraries of things’, where household objects which are expensive or bulky are collectively stored and used.
The pandemic has underscored the need for every home to have access to private outdoor space, as well as the need for high quality spaces and facilities between and around homes. Designing and programming outdoor spaces that facilitate shared uses, whether through play streets, communal gardens or more indeterminate parts of the public realm, has a significant positive impact on people’s experience of the area they live in.
Even sharing these spaces with the city’s non-human inhabitants has benefits, and like the people of a community, exposure to nature supports good mental health and quality of life. To take full benefit of this we need to do more to share the city with nature and make the most of existing natural assets such as trees, water and wildlife habitats, as well as creating new green spaces where wildlife and people can co-exist.
As the city increases in density, creating high-quality local neighbourhoods will become more and more important. Greater flexibility towards homeworking seems set to be one enduring outcome of the pandemic. Even before Covid-19, the 2019 Modern Families Index identified that 86% of working parents want to work flexibly, including working from home. More homeworking means that people will be spending more time in the areas around their homes. This has advantages such as reducing community time and alleviating pressure on the transport network, but homeworking doesn’t work for everyone. If it is to become the norm then greater (and cheaper) access to co-working space is likely to be needed to alleviate the pressure on private domestic space and make sure that a disadvantage at home, like overcrowding, doesn’t translate into a direct disadvantage in the workplace. This distribution of office activity across the city could have real benefits for the vitality of local neighbourhoods and perhaps homeworking will eventually become neighbourhood-working.
It has often been said that the pandemic will not so much create change as accelerate the direction of travel. Many of the changes that we will see post-pandemic were probably happening anyway. However, being forced to live more locally over the last year has reminded us that community is one of the most fundamental benefits of city living.
There was already a change happening in society in which people were increasingly living in different ways, sharing more with their neighbours and placing more importance on human interactions. Building on this through new forms of coexistence and better ways of sharing urban assets will deliver a better and more equitable city.
American economist Edward Glaeser says that, “because the essential characteristic of humanity is our ability to learn from each other, cities make us more human.” People and community are central to creating vital cities, and the continued success of London will depend on building densely whilst maintaining the quality of human experience for both existing and new residents.
Rather than being seen as a compromise, sharing should be seen as something that can foster community to create vital neighbourhoods, and enhance quality of life by enabling people to live more locally, spend less time commuting, know their neighbours better and have better access to nature. Sharing gives people a sense of agency and ownership of the city. Such a sense of ownership leads to cherished places, which are the key to creating vital neighbourhoods and bringing resilience and longevity to 21st century London.
Kyle Buchanan is a director at Archio, an architecture company founded in 2011. He has a particular interest working with communities and is currently a member of the Tower Hamlets Self Build Association, established to liaise with the local authority over the release of public land for self-build housing. Archio are curating this year’s London Society ‘changing ways of living’ events stream.