As the historian Yuval Noah Harari reminds in his Financial Times article, it seems like we are all living in an unexpected social experiment, and nobody knows what will be its effects on our lives in the long run. Our daily lives have radically changed. We stay at home and it is all we can actually do. According to the World Economic Forum, a third of the world’s population is now living in lockdown. Although united in our condemnation to all stay at home, everybody is experiencing this condition in different ways. This may depend on our background and personality, but a very relevant role is also played by our setups at home.
The features of homes particularly impact on our experience of the pandemic. Some people have now come to view their balconies as “new kinds of freedom, to embrace social isolation without feeling trapped [nor] worrying about breathing in the virus” (link), others see the social make-up of their type of housing, such as cohousing, as a way to “fight social isolation”(link).
I currently live in a student hall, close to Covent Garden. I chose this location to be near the LSE campus and because when I decided to start my MSc in Regional and Urban Planning Studies, it was too late to look for a shared flat in London. I have been living here since September 2019 and I’ll be staying until the end of the Summer term in June.
The student hall has 447 private rooms of 9.5m2 to 12.6m2, all in a single building, making it very high-density. My residence also has common facilities such as a living room, communal TV and laundry, a computer room, a concierge and canteen which is open only during Summer but can be used as a gathering space.
Home for me means feeling safe indoors and being surrounded by people I can spend time with and rely on in case of need. This is why I usually like student dorms. This hasn’t been my first experience living in one of them; indeed, I have already lived in student halls in Rome, Oslo, Mannheim and Washington DC. However, I also have experience with other types of living arrangements, including a shared flat with two friends of mine before moving to London.
Before the pandemic crisis invaded and changed our daily lives, what I liked about this place was its central location and proximity to the campus, but also being surrounded by people and sharing common areas with other residents. However, when lockdown started, the downsides of high-density living have become more evident: the limited private space available; the lack of sunlight and fresh air when your room overlooks the backyard and you cannot fully open the window (because of security concerns); and the absence of outdoor space or windows in the kitchen.
Since the Covid outbreak, my university has moved all teaching activities online. Even exams format changed to adapt to the current situation that witnessed the shutdown of the campus. Therefore, I’ve been attending all lectures online and working from home. Meanwhile, in my student hall health and safety concerns have been prioritized. Staff wears masks and gloves, and this actually makes me feel safer. However, social meetings have been transferred online and common areas are usually empty, except for small gatherings which are not encouraged by the residence management. Therefore, I don’t feel the sense of community experienced in other forms of “co-living” such as cohousing, which generally prioritizes residents’ involvement in the management of their shared living arrangement. It seems that living close to one another, even in a student hall, does not necessarily translate into being closer to each other as a community. And apparently, design is not capable of encouraging a community feeling.
So, if you ask me how my life has changed since the beginning of lockdown, I will say that Covid has had a significant impact on my perception of housing. Besides taking a walk once a day, I tend to spend the rest of my time at home, especially in my room, which can be exhausting given its dimension and the limited light. As restrictive measures are predicted to last for a long time yet, we are almost certainly going to continue to spend a lot of time indoors. Given my experience, and those of others in similar housing situations, I believe that high-density living needs partly to be reconfigured. The aim should be to try to find a compromise between the lack of available land for housing in cities and the space needed to ensure residents’ mental and physical well-being are adequately considered not just in the era of pandemic disease.
On the basis of LSE London and LSE Cities research, several ways to make density work can be implemented in the longer run, in terms of design, community enhancement and management.
The pandemic has emphasized the need for new high-density schemes to be able to guarantee residents access to amenities and outdoor space, not to mention the liberating power of balconies.