Demographic trends: How is the increase in co-living changing the planning process?

Demographic trends: How is the increase in co-living changing the planning process?

Co-living takes many forms, but broadly speaking when we talk about co-living we mean people who share living space but who are not part of the same family. A quick rummage around on the web shows that co-living is often described as a new way of living or a modern re-think of how we can make the most of housing.

In fact, there’s nothing new about co-living – it’s been around for years, in different forms and in different cultures. Nonetheless, there has been a marked increase in co-living in recent years, with it being reinvented in terms of the kinds of people who are doing it, how they’re doing it and their reasons for it.

In the UK, many people’s knowledge of co-living is based on flat-sharing as students, but 21st century co-living is something experienced by people of varying ages, life-stages and socio-economic groups. It’s starting to play a noticeable part in community regeneration.

Whatever the reason for co-living, it’s set to be an important consideration for urban design, now and in the future.

Where does the rise in co-living come from?

There are a number of reasons for the rise in co-living. They include:

  • The UK housing shortage
  • Increased housing costs – for both rents and mortgage
  • Choosing ‘non-nuclear family’ lifestyle models
  • An aging population
  • A more mobile working population

The housing shortage and increased housing costs are probably the most obvious of the reasons for co-living. An expensive mortgage can be offset by taking in one or more lodgers and when it comes to the rental market, sharing is often the only way of making it affordable. This used to be a casual arrangement with individual homeowners sharing with one or two lodgers, or several people taking on a joint tenancy. Now it’s also become the focus for large scale commercial ventures which are growing in popularity and with implications for urban design and environmental impact. More on this later.

As the housing shortage reduces the choices of accommodation available, sharing becomes the norm, but it can also sometimes open up options of living in preferable, more expensive accommodation through sharing costs.

A more mobile working population means that more adult professionals are sharing as they move to different locations for career reasons, which may not be seen as permanent home locations where they intend to put down roots. A mobile workforce will also be looking for opportunities to meet people and make new friends, which is something that co-living can supply.

And where does the aging population fit into this?

Co-living for community regeneration

It used to be fairly common for an elderly relative to live with their younger family. In many cultures and within some families this remains the case. However, it’s often simply not practical. Younger families frequently lack a spare room or the capacity to give care, and many families live a hundred or more miles apart.

Enter a new type of co-living, which matches elderly people who have a spare room with younger people in search of affordable accommodation.

Organisations like Share and Care and HomeshareUK match young and old to create a system that strengthens community understanding and cohesion, while giving low cost accommodation to the young and low cost household help to the elderly.

89-year-old Observer journalist, Katherine Whitehorn, has written about how her Share and Care companion is extremely helpful when she occasionally needs help with her computer.

People’s attitudes to co-living have changed. At one time the idea of single people in their 40s sharing a flat may have raised eyebrows. Nowadays, it’s just one of many ways of living amongst a wide variety of habitation arrangements.

Community regeneration isn’t just about bringing young and old together to tackle social issues like housing and care. There are many who benefit from the reduced isolation of single living and bedsit accommodation.

Urban design, co-living and millennials

Co-living is far from being the last option for the single, the broke and the dispossessed. For many, it’s a highly desirable design for living that matches their vibrant social existence and professional aspirations. This kind of co-living is already a big part of community regeneration and urban planning in the USA. Companies like Open Door offer high-quality co-living to young professionals, where they live in smart, modern rooms and share meals, social spaces and ideas. US co-living company WeLive will soon be opening its first London property. Many property entrepreneurs see this type of development as a growing trend for ambitious and social millennials with high professional and lifestyle expectations who continue to move to high-priced urban areas.

Co-living start-up, Common, received almost 10,000 applications to fill its nine residences across three major US cities in 2016.

What are the planning implications for this trend?

Nearer to home, Old Oak in Harrow, north west London, is the world’s largest co-living development housing 550 young people. Old Oak was developed by property company The Collective, whose big idea was to take the student accommodation model and upscale it for young professionals. The Old Oak development includes gig venue, bar, spa, gym, games room, library, co-working space and a cinema.

However, this kind of co-living can mean that while facilities are good, room size can be small. Most rooms at Old Oak are just 10 sq metres. Fine for short term options, such as the academic year, but falling short of decent living space for a more long-term home. If co-living is to be an attractive option long-term, then planning needs to be mindful of realistic and reasonable space requirements, as well as profits. If this type of accommodation is set to grow, does it need a new type of planning regulation? And if so what? There are issues of environmental impact for a development of this type and size -  the Old Oak site is so huge that a mobile map has been created to help guide residents.

We need to be careful of the way in which urban planning and regulations are developed, otherwise those top-end co-living spaces in Washington and California could be used as a model for very different large-scale future slums.

Existing planning regulations for co-living

A good starting point for future planning and regulation development is to recap on the current regulations for co-living:

  • There are distinctions in planning land use categories between C3 Dwelling Houses (up to 6 people living together as a single household), C4 Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMO) (3-6 unrelated individuals who share basic amenities such as a kitchen or bathroom) and Sui Generis HMOs (6+ unrelated individuals to a house – which currently requires a planning application to change use to).
  • The C4 and Sui Generis HMOs exhibit different qualities, as the size of a C4 HMO necessarily makes them more comparable to family units, and the buildings themselves could change to a C3 house with no planning application required, whilst large purpose-built Sui Generis schemes (like those developed by The Collective in Harrow and Stratford) bear a closer resemblance to a hotel or student hall of residence.
  • C4 HMOs have always come about in highly sought-after urban locations, as individuals still seek to move to the area but can no longer afford a whole residence of their own. Landlords are incentivised to fit more people into one house by reducing rooms sizes, and tenants are incentivised by more affordable rent in coveted areas. But it is more recently that this has been commercialised on a grand scale, creating purpose-built Sui Generis HMOs.

The other P word

And apart from urban regeneration, there’s that other big environmental impact to consider - parking. The impact of parking and traffic congestion is an issue for all co-living, whether it’s a large Old Oak style development or a terraced townhouse.

One may assume that sharers of large purpose-built co-living developments would have lower levels of car ownership, as typically associated with younger people in urban areas. This would lead to a reduction in required parking facilities in comparison with families or single occupiers, and such schemes can be designed pre-emptively to take account of the predicted required parking provision.

Many councils try to keep vehicle and traffic levels down in urban areas by reducing the permitted parking provision for new developments, but is this reflected in the vehicle ownership of the residents of these schemes? And is it enough, while co-living so often consists of a townhouse shared by several adult occupants? If it were a family house, its occupants might use one or two cars, but for sharers there could be four or more vehicles, all needing parking spaces. This is of course dependent on a number of factors, including public transport links to the site of the co-living development.

This problem is not a new one and shows little sign of going away, as car ownership levels rise and people continue to flock to densely-populated areas. It is rarely possible to retrofit adequate parking for HMOs in high-demand urban areas, where space for development is scarce and every square metre is already utilised to its greatest profit.

Careful analysis by transport planning consultants is required in order to create practical parking arrangements for co-living. Are new regulations required? And what about traffic generally? Will co-living young professionals continue to live this way later in life and what implication will this have on parking and traffic, given the greater levels of car ownership amongst over 30s? What impact does several adult sharers in one space have on delivery and visitor traffic to the address?

Clearly, co-living is set to grow as pressure on limited UK housing stock shows no signs of abating. The innovative approaches to co-living that offer residents all kinds of social benefits are also being welcomed and chosen by many. With this in mind, and as co-living management becomes an increasingly attractive business model, it’s essential that urban renewal and transport planning regulations ensure that future developments take the form of high quality urban renewal that fosters community regeneration while minimising environmental impact.

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