For the first time in Canada, there are more people living alone than coupled up with children, new data from the 2011 Census revealed on Wednesday. In five short years since 2006, the number of homes with just one occupant increased to 27.6 per cent of all households in the country – one percentage point more than “couple households” with kids aged 24 and under.
How will cities house this growing demographic? Ask Stockholm: With more than 60 per cent of its populace living alone, it has abundant and affordable solo apartments, appealing communal spaces and solid public transit, says Eric Klinenberg, author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, published in February. Mr. Klinenberg spoke with The Globe and Mail from New York.
How will planners accommodate people living alone, without isolating them?
Living alone is easier in places that have a robust collective life, in places where there’s a generous welfare state. Sweden has had relative prosperity in the last several decades. The Swedish welfare state subsidizes housing and pays for health care and home care if you’re sick. It maintains the quality of cities and allows people to have basic human security without relying on family. The big thing design-wise is that Sweden underwent a massive housing-construction program in the 1960s called the Million Program. They built a million housing units: There’s a lot of small, compact urban apartments that nicely fit single people inside Swedish cities.
The conclusion that I made from looking at places where living alone is common is that it’s our interdependence that makes our independence possible. When you invest in the public realm and promote the social security of the collective, you liberate individuals to live the way that works best for them. I continue to believe that most people in the abstract would prefer to live with the right partner. What’s different today is that we don’t want to settle for the wrong partner. We’ve had enough experience with divorce and broken families that we fear being lonely and isolated inside our relationships.
It’s also a mindset that the Swedes promote: Parents used to register their newborns on waiting lists for small apartments – the way we do for daycare – so they could live alone after graduating from high school.
It’s a cultural value there: Parents will often downsize, sell their place and buy a smaller one when their kid turns 18 so that they can help their children have their own place. There are so many Canadian and American parents who are living in houses that are far too big for them. It’s complicated because our homes are the base for our communities and it’s hard to move.
In the 1930s, Swedish planners conceived the Collective House. Designed for women who lived alone, it had a restaurant, daycare and laundry service.
The Swedes realized that people who lived alone wanted to be connected to others around them. The Collective House has a cafeteria on the first floor where people could go and eat with others, but if they were in the mood to eat at home, they could buzz downstairs with an order. The building has pneumatic chutes and the kitchen could send a meal directly to them. They had a lot of domestic supports: It seems utopian today.
There’s also Färdknäppen, a communal residence for people over 45 whose “needs are no longer dictated by family and children.”
That’s a project that has more relevance today, because it recognizes that a lot of people are aging alone who don’t want to live in geriatric ghettos and also want to companionship and support. [Färdknäppen] is well designed and located in an active urban neighbourhood. It’s open to people who are 45 and above, not 65 and above, which means there’s some generational diversity. It has a large, open, common kitchen and an enormous dining room. The obligation that you take on there is that you will contribute to the cooking a certain number times a month. Every morning, you have a choice of whether or not to have dinner there; you just sign up.
Accommodations for single adults are also popping up in New York: The initiative Common Ground refurbished a derelict Times Square hotel into housing for blue-collar labourers, artists and the formerly homeless. It has small rooms, but communal spaces too, like a rooftop deck, art studio, gym and swanky lobby.
Common Ground buildings are designed for lower-income men primarily, although some are for men and for women. It’s at attempt to turn the single-room occupancy dwelling into a safer and more appealing place. They’re exceedingly well designed, with generous and attractive common areas where people can socialize. They’re not the old rooming houses with Bowery bums – they’re places where residents feel proud to live.
Suburbs are mushrooming around metropolises, and completely inhospitable to people who live alone. How can planners possibly adapt suburbia to the way people are living today?
In the traditional suburb, the homes and plots of land are too big, the transportation’s inadequate, they make everyone car-dependent and they can be isolating if you’re not in a family. We need to retrofit suburbs. Some are already doing that, getting rid of old zoning restrictions that prohibit the construction of apartment buildings and creating more compact downtown areas. Places like Arlington, Va., and Bethesda, Md., that are technically suburbs but have features that are small scale that we like in cities: They’re more walkable, have more commercial street life and better links to public transportation.
You argue that living alone is a cyclical condition. In Toronto, condos for single, young professionals dominate the skyline now. What happens to all these tiny boxes when the singletons marry and breed?
People cycle in and out of living alone: Who can say exactly how they’ll be living five, 10 or 25 years from now? Many people will read this story tomorrow while sitting next to family members, but they’ll find themselves living alone 10 years from now. Many will read it alone in their apartment, but will be married and in a family 10 years from now. We’ve seen that numbers of people living alone do nothing but increase, even during recessions, which seems like it would be an unnecessary expense. It’s so simple to save money by just getting roommates, and yet our contemporary appetite for going solo is just too strong, and the demand is overwhelming.
This interview has been condensed and edited.