Coliving spaces and companies such as Uber, WeWork, and Postmates are hot topics because of how they differ from the “status quo.” It’s clear that these companies are taking processes we know and putting a modern spin on them, but are alternative living concepts really that new?

Alternative living is having a moment in the spotlight, and searches for the term “coliving” have been increasing over the past few years. While the sleek designs you’ll see in modern co-living spaces are new, the basic idea of people living together has been a part of human culture for a long time.

alternative living search history

The origins of coliving — why community matters

You’ve likely heard humans described as “social creatures” or seen phrases such as “it takes a village to raise a child.” These aren’t just cliches, though.

At the root of community psychology, there’s a concept called “sense of community” which we all seek. Psychologist Seymour Sarason, who wrote an influential book on the topic in 1974, says that the sense of community is “one of the major bases for self-definition.” In short, humans strive for the feeling “that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together.”

This desire for membership is inside us all whether you’re an introvert or extrovert. If you’ve ever joined a club, rooted for a sports team, helped out a family member, or hung out with friends, you’ve experienced the sense of community that we all crave.

The evolution of coliving — then vs. now

We know that belonging to a community is beneficial, but how has this need helped shape the way people live over time? Is coliving just a fad? In short, no. Elements and experiments in coliving have been documented throughout history.

Ancient community structures

alternative living ancient community structures
Photo: National Geographic

Communities, whether small family units or thriving civilizations, have been around for a long, long time, and so have living spaces that support the sense of community. A prime example of this is Montezuma Castle in central Arizona.

English settlers named this “castle” thinking the structure was built by the Aztecs, but historians actually estimate that it was built between 1100 and 1300 A.D. What does this old abode have to do with coliving? The Sinagua people not only used the structure as their home but also as their community center. Here they “held community meetings, worked, stored crops and seeds, and even buried dead family members,” according to History.com.

Rooming and boarding houses of the 19th century

alternative living: boarding houses
Photo: University of California Press

The next stop on our history of coliving spaces looks at the boarding houses that helped shape American cities in the 19th and 20th centuries. During the 1800s, upwards of half of Americans in urban areas spent some time as either boarders in other people’s homes or hosts for boarders. As urbanization continued, rooming houses featured shared kitchens and dining halls, and private rooms in San Francisco cost as little as 35 cents a night. (If you can believe housing in San Francisco was ever so affordable.)

Paul Groth, author of Living Downtown, notes that “the surrounding sidewalks and stores functioned as parts of each resident’s home,” since the houses were so close to downtown. Boarding rooms for 35 cents a night in the heart of San Francisco don’t exist anymore, but some historians insist that these early coliving homes helped shape American cities and culture.

Isokon in 1930s London

alternative living spaces
Photo: Failed Architecture

In the 1930s, cohousing buildings started to look similar to today’s coliving. One home in London, called Lawn Road Flats or “Isokon,” was a foray into coliving more than 80 years ago. This coliving building for working professionals was part of a broader experiment by the Modern Architectural Research Group.

The group aimed to encourage a minimalist lifestyle with already furnished rooms and offered amenities such as shoe-shining and housekeeping. The image above shows the similarities between 1930s Isokon and current London cohousing.

Denmark’s “living communities”

alternative living communities
Photo: Bofaellesskab

While boarding houses were popular in American cities in the 19th century, community living has always been a widespread part of Scandinavian culture. A 1967 article by Bodil Graea entitled “Children Should Have One Hundred Parents” summed up a feeling at the time that “modern” housing wasn’t adequate for wellbeing. Instead, the Danish thought that ‘bofællesskab’ (living community) was the way forward. And so, a flourishing cohousing culture began. Sættedammen claims to be the world’s first community residence, with a collection of independent homes sharing a common house and eating areas. The community, established in 1971, is still thriving today.

Why people are drawn to alternative living

From homes that double as community centers in 1200 A.D. to Scandinavian neighborhoods that share meals, living amongst neighbors isn’t a new idea. Why has it stood the test of time, though? Do people really love socializing that much? Maybe. But there are plenty of other benefits that have lured people in for centuries, too.

Prime location

Boarding houses in early American cities had the same draw as many of today’s coliving homes: an amazing central location in the heart of the city. Having a comfortable place to stay in an urban area puts people close to their work, restaurants, shopping, recreation, and more.

Cost-effective

More often than not, a prime location in the city comes with a heftier price tag. By sharing common spaces such as kitchens and living rooms with neighbors, people renting private rooms are able to snag comfort and location for a lower price.

Community support

Laura McCamy has been in a coliving home for more than 14 years and has no plans to leave. One of the reasons she loves her community-focused home is the support she is able to give and receive. Parents take turns babysitting kids, neighbors help each other pick up groceries, and the community helps care for the sick and injured.

While cohousing can come with all of the little annoyances to be expected when you move in with new people, it ultimately provides the sense of community that many people want. Alternative living scenarios might have taken different forms over the years, but the benefits of living within a community are constant.