How co-living communities will replace our empty offices

For hundreds of years, human beings lived, worked and played in local, intergenerational communities. That changed when industrialisation lured young people to cities, leaving their families behind. In 2020, however, we returned to the former way of living. Across the globe, Covid-19 has changed how we interact with friends, family and co-workers, basing ourselves predominantly in our homes and streets, connecting with colleagues, shops and services over the internet.
In 2021 we will increasingly work and socialise in connected local communities. These groups of people will become the magnets for life’s activities, as opposed to constructed developments that require people to travel to and from segregated activities.


Some of these drivers are pre-Covid, but they are likely to be strengthened by the pandemic. In 2019, nearly two thirds of businesses had adopted some form of flexible-work policy. Now cities such as London, Paris and New York are exploring new ways of urban living, as thousands of businesses consider downsizing their space. Conversion of office space into residential hubs will follow, with these spaces supporting wider community activities. The Paris administrative region has already committed to turning one third of its underutilised office space into residential housing.
It is not just offices that will become connected, mixed-use communities. Even before the pandemic, many UK property developers were looking to convert retail outlets into housing in response to the changing high street. John Lewis and IKEA are both seeking to retrofit retail space into a mix of private, affordable and social housing. This aligns with a 2020 report by the Social Market Foundation, a public-policy think-tank, which argues that the UK government should look to turn empty shopping parades into residential hubs. It concludes that replacing this commercial space with residential property could create 800,000 additional homes. In 2021, office parks and shopping arcades will become residential hubs with local work, retail, care and leisure spaces.
This will be facilitated by the continued rebalancing of individual and communal needs, leading to a growth in intergenerational, socially integrated communities. Independent living in western societies is an accepted sign of adulthood, but co-living still enables this. We will see the construction of new-style family homes which incorporate an adjacent unit for ageing parents. This will then become the first home for the adult children, until they then move into the family home and the parents become the residents of the adjacent unit, all maintaining a degree of independence.
Intergenerational living can also occur among unrelated people, leading independent lives. London-based startup The Collective and PLP Architecture are developing ways of living based on individual space and shared experiences, such as their Old Oak co-living space in west London, which is aimed at young, city-based professionals. The collaboration is considering such collectives for all ages.


The extension of intergenerational shared sites is starting to take shape around the UK. Take Marmalade Lane in Cambridge, a cohousing development of families, young workers and older adults, who jointly manage their living environment. Or Granby Four Streets in Liverpool, which is being retrofitted through community land ownership to turn empty buildings into affordable homes, creating accessible shared public space. This trend will continue well into 2021 and beyond.
In the rental sector too, forward-thinking landlords are moving towards occupancy from cradle to grave, with one third of investors and operators of privately rented housing considering this to maintain buoyancy in the rental market.
This development of collective living is not just about “hardscaping” the physical environment. It is also about “softscaping” our neighbourhoods. The Danish concept of “dense low” architecture, in which buildings are kept low and tightly packed to promote social contact, has led to the concept of the “soft city”, with its blurring of indoor and outdoor space, enabling the sharing of external private spaces with public common space. The Donnybrook Quarter social-housing project in east London is an example of low-rise, high-density housing that is also low cost and high quality.
Two new streets have created a rejuvenated public space where one street widens to become a public square, enhancing walkability and community interaction. A similar philosophy is behind the retrofitting of Dronningensgade Street in Copenhagen’s Christianshavn district. Located next to a public square, close to the main thoroughfare, various non-residential uses have flourished on the ground floor – shops, offices, a restaurant and music venue – alongside a range of dwelling types, including a student residence. The courtyard includes a nursery and a shared laundry.


The soft-scaped intergenerational community of 2021 is a policy solution to tackle concentrations of deprivation and poverty. Refitted and refurbished residential, corporate and retail spaces will enable professional, managerial and service workers of all ages to live alongside each other in the new hub of work, care and family – the home.
Sarah Harper is Clore professor of gerontology at the University of Oxford

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