If not now, when? The opportunity for intergenerational living in town centres has never been greater

The UK has become increasingly age-segregated in recent decades. This risks entrenching isolation and ill health across the generations, thereby promoting ageism and loneliness. 

Intergenerational living has emerged as a positive response to this trend, but to date it has failed to become established as a mainstream alternative form of housing and neighbourhood planning. Crucial to the concept of intergenerational living are intergenerational shared spaces that can act as a kind of ‘glue’ that supports social interaction and friendship beyond the remit of conventional housing.

The combination of Brexit, the pandemic, online retail and planning reforms is already radically reshaping our town centres and high streets. Places of social and economic exchange, town centres are fundamental to our society, but have also survived repeated cycles of upheaval over hundreds of years. 

This latest cycle is already revealing winners and losers, though. The recent Create Streets Foundation ‘No place left behind’ (opens new window) report devotes a chapter on recommendations to tackle these emerging gaps. The report begins with a summary of past regeneration policies and initiatives and rightly highlights the inherent problems of focusing on places, rather than people – improving a place’s fortunes doesn’t necessarily improve the fortunes of the people that live or lived there. 

In doing so, the report identifies a shortcoming in the policy of levelling up – inequality exists within places as well as between them and tackling isolation and segregation between people within a place is at least as important as levelling up between places. In fact there is ample evidence that for any place to succeed socially and economically, internal equality is a necessary precondition – this philosophy lies behind Preston’s oft-quoted inclusive growth experiment.  Places matter, but they are made by all the people that live, work in and visit them. 

Intergenerational living in town centres therefore seems an enormous opportunity to bring together people-based solutions in places that are searching for new purpose. The ‘glue’ of socially-inclusive shared spaces is something that is required by both intergenerational living and town centres. 

Many high streets, which historically were highly ‘layered’ combinations of retail, manufacturing, civic and leisure functions, became literally and functionally narrowed in the twentieth century. Servicing areas behind shops, created by clearing these historic uses, can readily be developed for housing. But unless they are combined strategically and programmatically with the high street itself, making use of vacant shops and public spaces as socially inclusive ‘glue’, this unique opportunity will be lost. 

Barriers still exist – fragmented ownership, asset class and land values as well as planning use classes make change difficult but local authorities are ideally placed to overcome these, with visionary, locally focused initiatives in partnership with local communities and civic organisations. Commercial developers have an important role to play, but local authorities need to provide the leadership, broker local consensus, and create the right investment conditions through tools such as Compulsory Purchase and local plans.

Every crisis creates opportunity, but fleetingly so. There is great potential to create inclusive town centres for all ages that are economically, socially and environmentally resilient, but the alternative scenarios of increased fragmentation, isolation and inequality will not wait for long. If not now, when?

If you’re active in town centre planning and regeneration, please take our survey (opens new window) here about the future of town centres and high streets and the potential for intergenerational living.

Roland Karthaus is Director at Matter Architecture, Associate Professor at the University of East London and a High Streets Task Force Expert. His ground-breaking research on intergenerational housing is published here (opens new window)

Roland will be speaking at the Housing LIN’s intergenerational living HAPPI Hour session, Intergenerational Living is the future – where are the opportunities on Tuesday, 19 October 2021 (2.30pm-4.30pm.)

Stephen Burke is co-founder of United for All Ages and will be chairing Housing LIN’s intergenerational living session on 19 October. He is CEO of Hallmark Foundation and Hemraj Goyal Foundation, and has held leadership roles in national charities, local government and the NHS.

United for All Ages (opens new window) coordinates the Intergenerational Housing Network (IHG). 

Lastly, the Housing LIN is proud to be a member of the IHG. And, if you found this blog of interest, you can also read a range of other resources on intergenerational housing on the Housing LIN’s dedicated webpage here.


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