Why town centres have intergenerational appeal

By Stephen Burke and Roland Karthaus | 07 December 2020

COVID-19 has amplified many of our economic and social problems – not least the shortage of affordable housing and the growth in loneliness experienced by both young and older people.

The pandemic has also brought communities together. Mutual aid networks have flourished in many areas providing informal help for neighbours. More families are living together as three generations under one roof, and more older people are offering spare bedrooms to young people through Homeshare. Different generations clearly want to live together.

There is one particular opportunity to tackle the housing and loneliness crises which applies to all local authorities. As a result of COVID-19, town centres and high streets have seen retail and office premises become vacant, leaving empty buildings and deserted centres.

This provides councils with the opportunity to develop a new vision for their town centres and high streets. This can breathe new life into the heart of their communities by creating new or repurposing existing buildings as shared multi-functional spaces, enabling different generations to mix and share activities alongside intergenerational housing.

We are working through the Intergenerational Housing Network with local authorities, housing associations, developers, architects, retailers, charities and community organisations to make the most of these new opportunities. Intergenerational housing is gaining wider attention.

For example, Enfield LBC recently announced the winner of a competition to design an intergenerational housing development. The YMCA in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight is working with several councils and developers to create a variety of new intergenerational schemes. Ealing LBC is embedding intergenerational housing within its strategy for older adults’ accommodation and John Lewis Partnership is seeking to develop affordable housing in some of its empty stores.

These are all positive initiatives with similar intentions, but they remain exceptional in the wider context of a housing market that is increasingly segregated and isolating and there isn’t currently a national strategy to challenge this.

There are two main facets to the concept of intergenerational housing that should be discussed and explored to develop a consensus.

First is a wide range of meanings ascribed to the term intergenerational: for some it means age-inclusive living and sharing; for others it means younger people working as volunteer carers in a home environment.

We need to understand the positive motivations behind intergenerational housing and move beyond thinking about simplistic distinctions between young and old, to create housing that can break down barriers between people.

Second is the simple fact that housing cannot create social relationships, it can only help or hinder them. This means intergenerational housing isn’t a ‘thing’ in itself – it’s a possible outcome of a series of decisions about the location, design, inhabitation and ongoing management and support that happens in and around housing.

Currently, these decisions are too disconnected from one another and consequently the potential for housing to provide wider social benefits – such as through intergenerational living in town centres – is not being realised. COVID has brought this very much to the fore.

The need to rethink the purpose and vitality of town centres presents a unique window of opportunity to square this circle.

Can we afford to continue building housing that builds in these social deficiencies, whilst our town centres struggle to survive?

Life after coronavirus will see substantial changes for people of all ages. This will include how and where we live our lives, work and travel and how we interact in our neighbourhoods. People want to see more intergenerational fairness, stronger community spirit and opportunities to interact with other generations.

Intergenerational housing can also address the needs of groups such as older and younger people with additional needs, young parents, grandparents looking after grandchildren, and looked after young people leaving care.

Intergenerational housing also supports many national and local government policies and priorities from health and learning to sustainable communities.

If we are serious about building a society for all generations, then we need many more affordable homes that work for people of all ages in the heart of our communities.

Stephen Burke is director of United for All Ages


Roland Karthaus is an architect and founding director of Matter Architecture


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