IMAGINE Podcast, Episode 3: Utopia in Practice

12.10.187 min read

IMAGINE is a podcast produced by SPACE10 and Unsinkable Sam that explores the brave new world of shared living, and whether the spaces we inhabit can be designed to improve our well-being. This episode dives into the world of intentional communities and tries to answer this simple question. Is shared living better living?

To do so, we go on a road trip deep in the heart of the Danish suburbs to meet some people who have chosen to share much of their daily lives. They’re not cults. They’re not communes. They’re shared-living communities — and they could just well be the future of living.

“When we left our Stone Age way of living and developed agriculture and industry, we made changes to our way of life that come with lots of benefits, but also some negative aspects.” Bjørn Grinde is an evolutionary biologist interested in “mismatches” between our modern way of life and how we’ve evolved to live as a species.

Most mismatches are welcome — like the iPhone or antibiotics. But, as Grinde sees it, other mismatches — like processed food or our sedentary lifestyle — are detrimental. “They’re causing obesity and anxiety,” he says. “We should try to find these negative mismatches or discords that we live by and then try to amend them.”

One way of correcting the mismatches, Grinde argues, is to rethink our living structures and live more like we did in the Stone Age — in tribal communities. What interests him, as part of his research at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, are the positive aspects of living in what he calls “intentional communities”. Grinde believes people who live in these communities may be happier than the rest of us because they enjoy more close relationships.

He sent questionnaires to residents of shared-living communities. The questionnaire is known as Diener’s Five – a five-point test devised by American psychologist Ed Diener. It’s a standard way of probing for happiness. Respondents are asked to look at five statements and decide whether they agree or disagree using a scale of 1 to 7. The statements include things like: “In most ways my life is ideal” and “If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.”

When Grinde used the questions to explore the well-being of people in intentional communities, the results were astonishing. “The people that responded to these questionnaires, which were about 1,000 people, they’re at the highest level of happiness of any populations that have been studied in a similar manner,” he says.

Grinde also asked residents questions about their way of life to determine which factors correlated with happiness. “Not surprisingly, we found that their level of social integration, how close they feel with their society, their group, is a strong predictor of people being happy,” he says. “That’s in line with lots of other research saying that social relationships are probably the main contributor to happiness. That is, having positive social relationships is a very important factor, and having bad social relationships is a very negative factor for how people score on happiness tests.”

There is, of course, the possibility of a selection bias influencing the results — in other words, that only those residents who wanted to respond to the questionnaire did so, and that happier residents were more inclined than unhappier residents to respond. But Grinde stands by his research. “I think the result is reasonably robust in that the people living in these communities, they’re doing very well,” he concludes.

The Canadian anthropologist Catherine Kingfisher also studies the well-being of people living in shared-living communities. She follows “the participant observation” model, which in her case has meant spending several months living among and documenting the lives of people in two urban collective communities: one in Tokyo that’s home to about 40 people, and another in Vancouver, which has about 30 residents.

Central to her thesis is the notion that residents of these two communities might be onto something when it comes to well-being. “No one thinks these communities are utopias in the sense that everything is perfect,” she says. “There are struggles; there are conflicts. They go through difficult times. I think about it as utopia in practice.”

To see if we could find “utopia in practice”, SPACE10 visited two of Denmark’s best-known shared-living communities. We were joined by American architect Grace Kim. She designs various types of buildings but specifically co-housing, which she describes as “an intentional neighbourhood where people know each other and care about one another”. In fact, Kim designed the Capitol Hill Urban Co-Housing scheme in Seattle where she lives with her husband and daughter alongside eight other families.

Our first stop was Munksøgård, Denmark’s largest organic community. It’s a rural settlement west of Copenhagen that’s home to almost 250 children and adults. There’s also a large compost, egg-laying hens, beehives, a car-sharing scheme, a small organic shop, and a recycling centre that would put many municipalities to shame.

One of its residents is Cecilie Caspersen, an anthropologist and filmmaker. She says that Munksøgård offers residents three types of accommodation: “You can either rent, you can be part of a co-operative association or you can own.” Munksøgård also offers flexibility across one’s lifetime. In theory, you could start living in a youth housing unit, move to a larger family unit when you have kids, and downsize to one of the housing units for elderly residents.

The community attracts a mix of people. “We have nurses, high school teachers, PhD biologists,” says Caspersen. “I do feel like it’s a range of backgrounds that people have. There must be something that drives all of us together out here.”

What that appears to be is a desire to build a community, pool resources and share facilities. Residents frequently break bread together, too. “We try and eat together three times a week and take turns,” says Caspersen. “That basically means you have to cook once a month.” However, there is no obligation to be social. Residents may collect a plate of food and go home to eat, if they wish.

Caspersen says that learning to live with other people interdependently is about being unafraid to say no: “I think that’s something you have to find a way around, that it’s OK for me to be in my apartment and see people sitting at the bonfire and be OK with not joining in,” she says. “I don’t think anybody in co-housing would say that you’re best friends with everybody. I think that prolonged exposure and the constant interaction allow you to see different dimensions.”

Later, we met architect Laura Juvik, who founded Lange Eng — a co-housing community in Albertslund, a suburb of Copenhagen. Built in 2008 and officially opened a year later, it has 54 privately owned houses and apartments, making it home to just over 200 people, half of them children. There’s a large community house which boasts an industrial-sized kitchen, a cinema, a playroom and a dining hall big enough for almost everyone.

Lange Eng’s four founders built it from scratch. “We were all very young, so we didn’t have a lot of money,” explains Juvik. “People didn’t have spare money from, you know, other privately owned housing. So everybody was on a budget.”

They selected Dorte Mandrup, a renowned Danish architect, to design it. And for the past decade, it has drawn a steady stream of visitors, including architecture students and would-be community builders.

Juvik says one motivation for setting up the community was that she had grown tired of city life and having to travel across town to meet friends. “Here you can just get that social interaction right away,” she smiles.

At Lange Eng, residents have established what seems to be a sensible way of running the community and making decisions. All adults are members of a group that takes care of a different aspect of operations, like cooking and cleaning the common house.

Six days a week, whoever’s on kitchen duty cooks a large meal for residents. Most days between 130 and 150 people show up for dinner, with about a third of them choosing to eat in the communal dining room, and two thirds taking their meal home. During school holidays, there are no communal meals. Juvik says residents miss them greatly. “Even if you only come and pick up food to take home, it’s like meeting at the well once a day in the small village, because everybody talks,” she says.

“I think co-housing leads to happier lives from the standpoint that it increases social connections,” says Kim. “And I think it’s really in large part because of those daily interactions and deep social connections that you have with your neighbours.”

The value of daily interactions and forging those deep social connections is something she has seen personally in her own co-housing community: “We eat together three times a week and it’s really hard to not be connected to the people that you’re preparing meals with.”

As well as providing much-needed support in times of trouble, Kim believes that co-housing could even be the antidote to one of the biggest mental health crises we face. “I came to this conclusion after doing a bunch of reading around loneliness and starting to understand the dramatic impact of loneliness in our society—not just American society but globally,” she says. “And recognising that loneliness is not a factor of being alone but has to do with how socially connected you are to those around you.”

Catherine Kingfisher makes a similar point. “When I talk to people about why they join these communities, social isolation is a huge reason,” she says. “I’ve heard people say things as dramatic as ‘this place saved my life because I’m not isolated and lonely, and I didn’t fall into the depths of depression’.”

Kingfisher says shared-living communities could appeal to parents looking for safe spaces in which to raise children: “People tend to live far away from their extended families. This is a way of creating a kind of extended family.”

Bjørn Grinde, the evolutionary biologist, agrees that the close-knit coherence of co-living communities offers residents a major benefit: “They will tend to be less lonely. They will tend to find that there’s always somebody around that they can talk or interact with. That’s the most important factor for happiness, I think.”

As well as making people happier, shared living could make us healthier. Psychologists believe that loneliness is a greater health hazard than obesity or smoking — and so, by combating social isolation, shared living could help us to live longer.

So, could shared living be better living? “This is about heading in the direction of something better,” says Catherine Kingfisher. “And we don’t even know where that’s going to end up, but it’s going in a direction that seems like the right way.”