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How housing can help solve the loneliness crisis


Last year a new crisis was added to the growing list of crises in the UK: loneliness. Though the issue has been bubbling below the surface for many years, 2018 saw its emergence into the mainstream with the production of the first ever national study into the topic. The report brought together startling evidence about the negative effects isolation can have on mental and physical health, including an increased risk of developing high blood pressure and clinical dementia, and of having a stroke. In fact, it is estimated that loneliness is as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

At the heart of this social condition is a lack of connection in the modern world. Increasing individualism has embedded itself into all aspects of life, most notably housing. Large and stable communities have been replaced with precarious and atomised collections with few roots and a poor sense of belonging. Interactions have decreased. Loneliness is the consequence. Consider for a moment the widow with no close family, or the young person uprooted from their social network and you’ll see that they face a common problem.

Enter Homeshare, a scheme that pairs an older person in need of home assistance with a younger person looking for somewhere to live. In return for a regular commitment of time, the lodgers get a rental rate far below market level and, crucially, a home. Schemes like this are most effective in places like London, a city which faces notorious issues matching its sufficient housing stock (the number of beds per capita in London is 1.01) with the people that need it. Furthermore, Homeshare also helps to alleviate the burden of loneliness that affects both young and old by providing valuable companionship. In this case, it is the housing model that is able to fix issues of isolation and this shows the integral link between the two eminent crises.

Moreover, homesharing is not the only way that housing can help to tackle loneliness and in recent years the concept of co-housing has begun to take root in the UK. The theory, borne out of 1960s Denmark, truly puts community at its heart. Housing is built around shared space, with priority given to communal areas. Both open and closed spaces are utilised to encourage interaction and communal decision-making is built into both the ownership model and the design. For example, cohousing models feature a shared house, with rooms that can be used for play, meeting or hosting. There are community eating and dining facilities, walking is promoted and cars are pushed to the periphery. Residents are encouraged to find what level of interaction they feel comfortable with, knowing that the facilities are there for them if they want to be around others.

Whilst co-housing, like homesharing, will not suit everyone, crucial aspects of its design can be replicated in traditional homes. Putting spaces that encourage interaction at the very heart of the design ensures that community facilities have the maximum positive impact. Whilst some housing already includes the facilities featured in co-housing models – community centres, green spaces, allotments and so on – too often the way in which these facilities function is an afterthought. In short, good design involves building houses around a community, rather than building community around the houses

There is a lot to be learned from looking at homesharing or co-housing initiatives: the beneficial role of shared space, the necessity of regular contact, the relevance of good design. And perhaps most importantly, we can learn that if our homes can be the source of loneliness, then they can also be the solution.