Uncovering JAPA

Increasing Sharing Options in Housing to Improve Mental Health

In 2023, numerous articles addressed the U.S. Surgeon General's comments on loneliness as a health crisis and the need to strengthen social connections in the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated many mental health issues but has also shown areas where planners can improve the built environment for people's wellbeing.

In "Enhancing Sharing Capabilities: Housing Neighborhood Planning Opportunities for Improving Health" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 89, No. 2), Vinit Mukhija and Lois M. Takahashi provide a framework centered on sharing for planners to create spaces that better improve mental health.

Promoting Sharing Through Planning Tools Integration

Mukhija and Takahashi expand on philosophers Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum's "capabilities approach" to argue that increasing people's freedom to utilize planning tools allows them to improve their built environment without force. This allows for more self-determination by residents. The capabilities approach allows for there to be a shift in how planners view housing from outcomes "to creating or expanding the capability of sharing in housing and neighborhoods."

Mukhija and Takahashi's framework involves three sharing dimensions of housing and neighborhood sharing:

  • Spatial sharing: "Residents share their living space and amenities"
  • Everyday governance: "Residents collectively make decisions about maintenance and investment and decide rules and procedure of living"
  • Property rights arrangements: "promoting sharing and collective ownership"

Each of these dimensions can exist on a high or low level and different kinds of implementation fall on different ends of this spectrum. The authors give an example of how traditional single-family housing and multifamily housing typologies are low in all of these dimensions. On the opposite end of the spectrum are shared housing and shared living, with each site having high dimensions but different structures on spatial sharing, governance, and property rights arrangements.

Table 1: Examples of planning interventions and how they fit into Mukhija and Takahashi’s sharing dimensions on different scales.

Table 1: Examples of planning interventions and how they fit into Mukhija and Takahashi's sharing dimensions on different scales.

Empowering Communities With Flexible Planning Options

Different planning tools can be applied to each of these sharing dimensions on different scales: lot, block, and neighborhood (Table 1). Under the capabilities approach Mukhija and Takahashi are calling for planners to make these tools available for people but to leave it up to residents in these different scales to decide if they want to implement them so that there is "sharing without force." This approach to planning allows for more spaces and ways to share resources that can help improve health by improving housing typologies in the U.S.

I think that Mukhija and Takahashi's framework and use of the "capabilities approach" helps to further highlight the importance of self-determination for communities and gives a structured way of how this self-determination can vary on different spatial scales in the city.

While in the past, planners have creative prescriptive policies for shaping the built environment, this article calls for planners to create optionalities for different coalitions of communities to decide which policies and tools to use. Planners must provide a flexible backdrop for people to live within so that new physical and social structures can arise that meet the social needs of Americans today.

Top image: iStock/Getty Images Plus - designer491

About the author
Holly Hodge is a master of urban planning candidate at Harvard University.

June 15, 2023

By Holly Hodge