The rise of living alone has been well-documented but are our cities doing enough for this growing cohort?
An increasing number of Australians are living alone. In 2016, the ABS recorded 2 million lone-person households, with that projected to increase by somewhere between 3 and 3.5 million by 2041.
The trend is driven, in part, by increasing wealth and equality in the West and more women choosing to live alone. A researcher at engineering firm Arup, Georgia Vitale, identified a knowledge gap regarding how the built environment could accommodate the needs of this growing demographic.
Vitale, who is Arup’s cities associate director, spoke to architects, planners, academics, government staff and developers to identify the challenges and opportunities associated with the design of cities that have many solo households.
Some of the biggest challenges include the inefficiency of dwellings with only one person living in them, and the isolation and vulnerability those people often experience.
The research found many lone-dwellers were still living in big houses, some in homes with as many as three bedrooms.
There is a dearth of smaller homes and studios; larger detached dwellings make up 72 per cent of Australia’s existing housing stock. On top of that, smaller houses also have an image problem. Vitale says the allure of big homes remains “ingrained in the Australian psyche”.
As a result, single people living in large homes are using more resources per person, including energy for heating and cooling, than they might otherwise use if they lived in smaller homes.
There’s also legislative limitations on how small residential dwellings can be. These laws prevent cruelly cramped dwellings but minimum floor sizes can also hamper innovative design that makes the most of smaller spaces.
Vitale says the traditional single household may not be the most efficient way to house a growing population but a shifting economy based more on sharing and circularity might change that. Thanks to digital platforms, it’s easier to lease spare bedrooms, for example.
Also, people living alone in apartments can share facilities such as car spaces and laundries.
An emerging build-to-rent sector will also make life easier for lone households by helping renters obtain secure, relatively affordable housing, while providing a stable, long-term investment for developer/owners.
Research shows security is another challenge for people living alone, especially compared with other household types. Having good locks and other security measures in one thing. But Vitale says people living alone also need to feel safe.
This is why safe spaces outside a dwelling, where people can interact with friends and neighbours, are critical. It is also more important for people who live alone, who are less likely to own a car, to be safe walking through local streets.
Another reoccurring concern for lone-person households is connectivity. Although research has found living alone doesn’t necessarily equate to loneliness, some people are more prone to loneliness than others.
Vitale says lone-households fall into two categories: those who choose to live alone (often young professionals with the resources to do so comfortably), and those who have involuntarily fallen into the situation, say, after a relationship breakdown, or other such life event.
Researchers have found loneliness disproportionately affects the latter group. This might be because, unable to afford suitable housing in their neighbourhood, people are forced to move away from their friends and family, Vitale says.
As with safety, spaces such as dog parks and community libraries can help alleviate this problem by providing informal spaces for people to come together.
The City of Sydney is working to strengthen the social connections of people living in apartments. It’s “vertical communities” program targeted block parties and “community concierges”, as well as more communal spaces in new developments.
More studios and housing options needed
Because the lone-household demographic is such a diverse cohort – ranging from the elderly who have lost their partners to young professionals choosing the solo life – it’s impossible to find a one-size-fits-all solution.
However, what most cities need is more and varied housing options for this growing demographic. Vitale says this allows people to stay near their social networks when they want to downsize, for example.
What the research does show is that when cities are designed with lone-person households in mind they operate well for all households, with increased walkability and more safe community spaces, which is better for everybody.
Where are people choosing to live alone?
The growth in lone-person households is often attributed to greater wealth and equality, with more women choosing to live alone now that they have the choice to do so. This is why the wealthiest suburbs tend to have the highest rates of single-person households.
But the research also found the biggest growth in this household type across the middle and outer ring areas.
Vitale says this is why it’s important to consider catering to everybody living alone, not just a single demographic group.