Living Communally Can Make Us Less Lonely

Living Communally Can Make Us Less Lonely

Living Communally Can Make Us Less Lonely

We’ve been convinced that single-family houses on our own plots of land or isolated flats in towers signal success. Yet, for many of us, these habitats prove far from ideal.


In 2007, my 5-year-old daughter and I lived in a sort of academic commune. I’d accepted a residential fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton as a newly divorced single mother. With no nearby family for support and an ex who had returned to his native Bulgaria, I was exhausted and overwhelmed by my two full-time jobs as a professor and mommy. I rented a furnished flat on the Institute grounds at the end of Oppenheimer Lane. Our temporary home sat a short walking distance from both my office and from my daughter’s nursery school, Crossroads, founded in 1947 at the initiative of Kitty Oppenheimer, J. Robert’s communist wife.

More than 75 scholars shared this little community, which felt more like barracks than apartments. All of our units were furnished identically: same couches, same carpets, same curtains. Since we all had the same dining room tables and chairs as well as the same dishes, glasses, and silverware, a dinner party at someone else’s house felt like eating at home.

We washed our clothes in a communal laundry room, took our meals together in a campus cafeteria, and participated in both formal and informal social events. I shared a vacuum cleaner with my upstairs neighbors, exchanged babysitting and dog sitting with new friends and colleagues, and could let my daughter range freely outside with other children. There were always adults around to keep an eye out. I remained largely carless for the year, relying on my bicycle, public transportation, and the occasional hitched rides with two kindly philosophers in their minivan.

When I moved out in August 2007, I relocated to a small house in Brunswick, Me. It was my first time living in a single-family home since my divorce, and the transition shocked me. Suddenly, I prepared meals alone, did laundry alone, and arranged supervised playdates for my daughter. I became self-conscious about the things in my house when I invited colleagues over, wondering if they judged me by my thoughtless interior design choices or kitchen accoutrements. Gone was the easy sociality bred by proximity. Gone were the happy shared meals in the cafeteria. I needed a car to get everywhere.

It was then that I realized that our way of living—the very design of the dwellings we inhabit—promotes a set of social norms about the types of care work that should be provided within the individual household. Architects, feminists, and socialists have long understood that our homes both reflect and shape our ideas of family. In the standard single-family abode, we are each tasked with cooking and cleaning our own kitchens, doing our laundry in our own private washing machines that sit unused most of the week, and mowing our own little pieces of lawn—even though there are huge economies of scale to be realized in much domestic work. And we know from history and from recent empirical studies conducted everywhere from Norway to Japan that more communal forms of dwelling can make everyone’s lives less lonely, less harried, and less deleterious to the environment.

Stop reading this essay for a moment and look around. If you’re inside your home, ask yourself: How did so many of us find our way into spaces rented from faceless landlords or contained within privately owned but mortgaged walls that separate us from our neighbors and mire us in debt? When we search for a place to live, do we ever stop to consider what our ideal living arrangements might be? What if our apartments and private homes, which feel so normal to us, represent a particular cultural model perpetuated by an economic system that seduces us into thinking that we should pay a huge premium for square footage and isolation?

We’ve been convinced that single-family houses on our own plots of land,or spacious but separate flats in urban residential towers signal social and financial success. Yet for many of us, these habitats prove far from ideal.

For millennia, people from different ethnic, religious, and cultural traditions have resided together in nonconsanguineous (that is, not blood-related) extended households and communities. Whether these were small groups sharing tribal longhouses; celibate, pious, and ascetic cenobites settled in monasteries, convents, or beguinages; or secularists fully engaged with the world and living in colleges, phalansteries, or planned microdistricts, many of our ancestors rejected the isolation of the individual dwelling shared only with a handful of one’s blood-related or legally recognized kin.

Even the history of a country as hyper-individualistic as the United States brims with attempts to find more collective ways of dwelling. Our architectural options today reflect a specific set of choices about the ideal habitat for human flourishing, choices often born of our past attachments to patrilineal and patrilocal traditions.

We don’t have to live the way so many of us do.

In Denmark, people have been experimenting with something called “co-housing,” which feels similar to the community where I once resided in Princeton. Beginning in the 1960s, these communal housing projects (bofællesskab in Danish) sparked an international movement against the single-family home. Scandinavian feminists played a critical role in promoting early private co-housing developments as a way for groups of families to share common chores more equitably between the genders.

In 1964, a Danish architect named Jan Gudmand-Høyer conceived of the idea of building a community of 12 rowhouses that would surround a shared common house and swimming pool. Gudmand-Høyer and some of his associates actually bought land and gained municipal approval for their development, but suspicious NIMBY neighbors objected to having a multifamily complex built near their homes (assuming that it might diminish their property values), and so this first project failed.

Three years later, a Danish feminist named Bodil Graae wrote a groundbreaking article called “Children Should Have One Hundred Parents.” She argued that communal living would lead to a safer, more supportive, and happier environment for children. Graae’s essay explicitly challenged the nuclear family and single-family dwellings, advocating for a profound transformation of the prevailing concept of “home.”

In 1972, Bodil Graae and a group of Danish families started an intergenerational co-housing project now known as Sættedammen—often credited as the world’s first modern co-housing community. Britta Bjerre and her husband were among Sættedammen earliest residents. “We didn’t want our family to spend our lives in an insular way in a house on a suburban street somewhere,” she explained to PBS NewsHour. “And one day we saw a newspaper ad saying that some people had their eyes on a plot of land, and they were looking for 25 to 30 families to buy it and build houses as well as a communal house.”

Over the next decade, co-housing communities spread across Denmark, usually in suburban or semirural areas with an architectural style known as “dense-low,” dense because people lived close together and low so that the developments would maintain a greater harmony with nature. Much like the initial plans devised by Gudmand-Høyer, the layout of co-housing usually included a cluster of independent homes—much smaller than single-family homes, but still with private bedrooms, bathrooms, and a galley kitchen—together with shared walkways, gardens, parking, laundry facilities, workshops, tools, recreational equipment, and play spaces. The collective facilities encourage sociality and many co-housing communities include a few hours of weekly labor requirements so residents can work together toward common goals.

Since the 1970s, co-housing has spread from Scandinavia around the world. Berlin boasts one of the highest densities of co-housing projects in the world: As of 2017, there are more than 150 different communities. Berliners often join together in Baugruppen (building groups) to pool money and build their own multistory, multifamily urban dwellings. Because German banks approve mortgages to Baugruppen, groups can more economically construct their own buildings by cutting out the middleman of a developer.

In Colombia, the intergenerational and matriarchal ecovillage Nashira contains more than 80 homes built by women and children displaced by their country’s decades-long civil war. Once women contribute a fixed amount of sweat equity, they become co-owners in the cooperative community, sharing in its collective revenues and partaking of its many facilities. Although some men live in the community, all authority rests with the female residents who grow their own food, source their own clean drinking water, and run their own shared, solar-powered kitchen.

In the United States, a recent Pew survey found that the number of Americans living in multigenerational households has quadrupled between 1971 and 2021. The most common reasons for this arrangement were financial pressures and caregiving responsibilities. Of those adults over 25 residing with a parent or adult child, 58 percent reported that the arrangement was “convenient” and 54 percent said it was “rewarding,” with only 23 percent stating that it was “stressful.” Since so many of us are already expanding the shape of our households, perhaps it’s time to take things one step further and imagine new ways of sharing our domestic spaces with those who aren’t our kin.

As I learned back in 2007, our architecture—the boxes in which we choose to live our private lives—can make us feel more or less lonely, more or less supported, and more or less secure.

Across the globe, many communities—rural and urban, traditional and progressive—are experimenting with different forms of dwelling together, whether for cost savings, the convenience of shared responsibilities, or the furtherance of a certain set of ideals: environmental, feminist, anarchist, Christian, Buddhist, or simply to reduce the negative effects of loneliness and isolation. Instead of paying a premium for privacy, what would happen if we chose to reorganize our lives to maximize our connections to the people around us?

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