The Future Starts Here, on now at the V&A until November 4th, is an exhibition that explores recent innovations that are likely to be prototypical of ways of living in the near future; its broad scope of specimens ranges from new wearable technologies to new voting systems, currencies and forms of housing. Among the housing futures on display is a model of “The Collective” a co-living space which recently opened in Willesden Junction, London.
Co-living is an emerging trend in cities worldwide. It is typically marketed at young professionals in their 20s and 30s and involves renting a room in a large space that is a bit like a cross between student halls and a hotel. The Collective offers en-suite bedrooms, the rent for which comes inclusive of bills, a Netflix subscription and access to communal facilities including shared kitchens, dining spaces, workspaces, a library, a gym, a roof terrace, a cinema and sports bar, a laundrette, a restauran and a spa. Price starts at £245 per week.
At a time when young people on middle incomes are struggling to get onto the housing ladder, or even to find good quality, appropriate rental properties, co-living spaces like The Collective market themselves as a solution to these housing crisis conditions, providing an alternative mode of living for young peopled pushed out of the housing market. Equally, they propose to help tackle the potential loneliness of life in big cities like London, by creating instant communities, and to provide an environment for work-related networking and collaborations. As well as highlighting the many leisure activities, clubs and classes on offer, The Collective’s website includes quotes from a resident who now employees two other tenants, and advertises the multiple workspaces on offer for solitary or collaborative working.
Although they have emerged in response to the housing crisis, co-living spaces are pitched as better, rather than second choice, ways of living, in that they provide a luxurious environment for shared living, improved experiences of community and enhanced work opportunities. But are they really a utopian model of future urban housing? Arguably, they cement, rather than alleviate, many of the problems of contemporary urban housing.
The private bedrooms offered in the collective are very small, offering a minimal amount of space for time alone or non-public intimacy with others, so doing little to fix the issues of overcrowding or lack of ability to rent or buy alone for millennials. And, while The Collective offers access to high-quality communal facilities, these are the same amenities that urban dwellers have long had access to (i.e. gyms, restaurants, spas, libraries, laundrettes), only brought within the confines of a gated community likely to be made up of a very specific demographic. Rather than enhancing urban community experiences, these in-house amenities may, therefore, cause further segregation, encouraging young professional to retreat from more mixed communities (in terms of age, ethnicity, class background etc.) in the city. What’s more, at a time when many public services such as libraries and laundrettes are shutting down, they may worsen the situation by normalising the idea that such services should be accessed privately.
The dual offer of co-living and co-working spaces within The Collective also has worrying implications. Encouraging tenants to see their home as a networking space exacerbates the ‘always on’ work culture within contemporary labour economies, creating a potentially unhealthy blurring of work and living space and times.
Is, then, the future offered at The Collective an improved model of urban living? Or does it distract from the failings of the housing market while entrenching many of its issues?