While the crisis in access to housing has exploded, a second crisis in the quality of housing has become clear alongside it. Many of the manifestations of this are obvious — housing that’s cramped, squalid, poorly-maintained, riddled with mould, unfit for human habitation in the most basic sense. But below the clear, immediately-visible surface level, a more subtle problem has festered unnoticed in the way that so much of the existing housing provision — even when it’s otherwise habitable — is still unfit for purpose when it comes to providing a mentally and socially healthy environment to live in.
To use a general analogy, imagine a house that’s structurally sound, built on strong foundations with solid walls and a waterproof, well-insulated roof, but which was built without plumbing. In terms of the most basic function of a house, providing shelter, it does its job well enough, but it still lacks an essential functionality for living. When it comes to physical needs this is clearly recognised — a house without plumbing or electricity would be seen as unfit for use, even by a London landlord. And yet the less immediately tangible needs of psychological and social wellbeing are still ignored, resulting in housing designed as utility boxes that meet the needs of the bodies inside them, but not the people — spaces built for existing in, but not for living in.
At a fundamental level this is inextricably tied to a system that treats housing not as a public good but a private commodity. The market redefines necessities into luxuries wherever it can get away with it. This is a simple fact of market forces — the logic of profitability creates pressure to offer the minimum viable service for the maximum viable price. Scarcity increases market value, and where scarcity does not exist by default, market forces create pressure to manufacture it — just as the property market sequesters unoccupied housing away from use to inflate prices, so too does it sequester away more than the bare minimum of provision, layer by layer, to inflate the market value further of homes genuinely designed for living in. In this system, anything above the baseline becomes a luxury add-on for those who can afford more. At the very least, it’s time to shift where that baseline sits. People need shelter and utilities. They also need personal life, community and, as the latest research shows, access to nature. In creating a new-generation model of housing that’s fit for purpose, it’s necessary to expand the current understanding of necessity beyond the bare-minimum approach that characterises the existing model.
The opportunity now exists to create a new model of housing that’s fit for purpose — sustainable, integrated with nature, built around community space, designed for living in and accessible to all.
So what would a model of housing built around mental and social health look like? It’s a huge question, and an open, in-depth and wide-ranging discussion is going to be needed to answer it thoroughly enough, but there are three relatively simple areas this conversation can begin with.
Let’s look first at access to nature. When talking about nature, it’s easy to conflate it with wilderness and rurality and dismiss the idea of its role in everyday life as a back-to-the-land fantasy, but urban environments can be designed to reincorporate nature as well. This is now being explored in the form of an idea called biophilic design. The principle of biophilic design is, at the most basic level, that human beings as both a product and an inextricable part of nature fundamentally need a connection to nature to live healthy lives, and that severing human life from nature severs us from key parts of our own physical, mental, and social health. Conventional urban environments, increasingly stripped bare of the presence of nature, become alien to their inhabitants. It’s only just being fully understood now how serious the detrimental impact of this on mental health can be, but also, conversely, how significant the benefits can be of reconfiguring environments in the opposite direction. Even the presence of nature in small, abstract or artificial forms has been demonstrated to have a beneficial effect — for example, many people use recordings of rain or wind to aid in sleep, work, meditation or general stress relief, the sound of the natural environment alone having a positive impact.
In terms of practical housing design, reintegrating plants into the living environment is an obvious first option to look at. Ensuring the presence of plant life offers the most straightforward method for creating a connection to nature in a residential space, with clear benefits not only to mental health, but also to physical wellbeing through the improvements this can make to air quality. By reintegrating elements of nature into living spaces, they become living spaces in every sense, with an immediate benefit to the health and quality of life of their residents just through the mental health benefits alone and the resultant knock-on effect on the social environment. This is before the improvements to air quality generated by the presence of plant life, and the physical health benefits that come from that. Right now, an environment connected to nature is seen by conventional received wisdom and market logic as a luxury. It should be recognised as a necessity.
A second option to consider is energy self-sufficiency. Local-area microgrids, using a combination of renewable resources such as solar, small-scale wind, and biogas to provide for the energy needs of multiple homes, are a proven model for how this can be done. Though firmly in the category of meeting physical needs, residential energy independence and the freedom it brings from worrying about utility costs can relieve a major source of stress for low-income or no-income residents. After a point, a functional microgrid setup can even produce a saleable surplus, potentially giving residents some level of guaranteed income. The role of ever-growing living costs in the societal grinding-down of mental wellbeing has to be confronted; creating housing designed to offset those costs can be a powerful tool for improving mental health alongside its more obvious benefits.
Finally, we need to look at how housing can be built around a sense of connection and community. A dysfunctional housing system is of course not the only cause of the current epidemic of isolation, created by a work culture that increasingly dominates life to the exclusion of all else, impoverished unemployment that can become an experience akin to a prison sentence even for those relatively fortunate enough to have a roof over their heads, and the stripping away of public life in general, especially in urban areas. Improvements in housing alone can’t solve these problems, but housing designed to facilitate a collective experience can mitigate at least some of the harm done. Something as simple as an open communal garden can have a meaningful benefit, creating a sense of being part of a shared community instead of the constant mental strain of social atomisation and loneliness.
To sum up, the nature of this problem is ultimately not a practical one. The solutions are mundane, inexpensive, and logistically manageable; they don’t require hypothetical or untested technologies, they don’t require outsized land or resource footprints. The obstacle to overcome is, at this stage, a cultural one; a subset of the same way the overall housing crisis is driven not by a lack of capability, but by a set of norms that treat housing as a commodity instead of a necessity. It’s easy to look at a concept like this and see utopian idealism, when in reality it’s neither utopian nor idealist — it’s simply viewed that way by a culture that’s become so used to radical dysfunction that practical, achievable improvements have come to look unattainably utopian by comparison. The opportunity now exists to create a new model of housing that’s fit for purpose — sustainable, integrated with nature, built around community space, designed for living in and accessible to all. What it requires now is a willingness to do it.