“Dorms for adults” aren’t for everyone, but they have the right idea when it comes to intra-building communication.
Around one-third of Americans have never interacted with their neighbors. Especially in cities, that’s hardly surprising—Eileen Bjornstrom, a professor of sociology at the University of Missouri, says research suggests that cohesion is a byproduct of stability, and something that develops slowly over time. In places where moving apartments at the end of every one-year lease is often a fact of life, that’s hard to come by.
New York Magazine recently asked five authors to record the experience of striking up a conversation with neighbors they’d previously ignored. The writer Katie Arnold-Ratliff described the reasoning behind her initial reticence:
I don’t know my neighbors. It’s not that I’m a jerk, exactly. It’s that this time of my life is illegitimate; very soon I’ll leave this tiny sublet for an apartment, rather than a scale model of one. I’m not here to make friends.
That’s probably not an unfamiliar sentiment, but it has an antidote: co-living. Structured, communal housing in cities has been on the rise for a while now, and this week might well be its apex: The Collective Old Oak, a 550-unit tower, opened in London as the largest building of its kind in the world; in Brooklyn, the third Common cohort moves into the company’s new Williamsburg location on May 7.
These communal buildings have been touted as the solution for time-crunched urban twentysomethings, desperate for connection but also for privacy; addicted to communication but dependent on efficiency. Residences like Commonspace in Syracuse, New York, my Atlantic colleague Alana Semuels wrote, appeal to a very specific demographic: “a generation that has grown up with luxury, and may be accustomed to college campuses with climbing walls, infinity pools, and of course, their own bathrooms.” Co-living, Semuels added, “gives these Milliennials the benefits of living with roommates…with the privacy and style an entitled generation might expect.”
It’s not for everyone. But co-living buildings like Common are designed to fast-track friendships and connections; residents are paying, essentially, for pre-fabricated community, for neighbors who open their doors to potluck dinners and Sunday night Game of Thrones screenings. “We’re all about community, we’re all about getting to know your neighbors,” says Brad Hargreaves, founder of Common.
While co-living represents a type of neighborliness that anonymity-craving urbanites might shun, it accomplishes something that all city residents should be working harder for—intra-building communication.
In her research, Bjornstrom has noted the benefits of neighbors getting to know and trust each other—those who do, she says, are likely more able to effectively pool resources and work together on building-wide issues (like presenting a united front against a mouse infestation, or issues with a landlord); cohesion is also positively associated with better health, and “there’s the positive effect people might get from just feeling they belong somewhere,” Bjornstrom adds.
However, Bjornstrom notes that a good deal of neighborhood effects research is “based implicitly on a model when people were in their homes more—when in-person socialization was more the norm.” Now, people rate the difficulty of approaching strangers a four on a scale of six; the ease of communicating with loved ones far away via technology has, perhaps, made talking to someone right next door that much more daunting.
Hargreaves advocates simply changing that mindset. “Just accepting the idea that it’s not weird or awkward to know the people in your building will get you 90 percent of the way toward forming a community,” he says. The other 10 percent, Hargreaves says, involves finding a way to sustain that connection over time.
While in-person apartment bonding—showing up at your new neighbors’ door with a pie, catching up over late-summer sunsets on front stoops—looms large in the cultural imagination, Bjornstrom says that perhaps non-co-livers can benefit from copying that model’s productive use of technology. In a modern adaptation of the bulletin board, Old Oak in London comes equipped with an app to notify residents of goings-on; Common communicates via Slack (smaller, independent groups, like apartment buildings, can sign up for it, too). There’s also MyCoop, a social network designed specifically for building tenants. And barring any of these sleeker platforms, there’s still something to be said for starting up a simple email chain.
In today’s hyperconnected culture, individual apartments often serve as tiny bastions of much-needed isolation. But when you live in an apartment building, you are still a part of a whole. While co-living’s take on that concept is not for everyone, its insistence on open channels of communication between residents could prove beneficial to any type of building—and the people who live in it.