While the idea that our built environment affects our health is not a new concept—the Chinese have, after all, employed the principles of feng shui for centuries—there is now mounting scientific evidence to support these ideas. Researchers in Denmark have found that architectural design can alter our physiological response to psychosocial stress. Results from this study showed that when faced with a stressful task, participants in a closed room had a higher cortisol reactivity and higher levels of cortisol throughout recovery than did participants in an open room.
Kim asks us to picture the home that many American see as ideal—a single-family house with a big yard, a fence, a garage, in a neighborhood of similar single-family houses with big yards, fences, and garages. According to Kim, “the danger of achieving this dream is a false sense of connection, and an increase in social isolation.” In neighborhoods such as these typical American ones, Kim points out that we rarely know our neighbors. It is easy in these communities to live in close proximity with dozens of people, and yet rarely see or spend time with any of them. Despite most people living nearby others in cities or in suburban towns, an increasing number of Americans are living by themselves. About one-third of Americans over the age of 65 today live alone.
Kim proposes a solution to this widespread isolation—cohousing. Cohousing does not mean simply living in a multiple-family house, or moving to a condominium with hundreds of other residents. “Cohousing is an intentional neighborhood where people know each other and look after one another,” Kim says. For Kim, cohousing’s biggest strength is its common areas shared by all residents. “In cohousing,” Kim explains, “you have your own home. But you also share significant spaces both inside and out.”
Kim’s favorite aspect of cohousing is community dinner. Three times a week, all of the residents come together to share a meal prepared by three people, on rotation. Kim says that on this schedule, she cooks for the entire complex once every few months. On all of the other nights when she is not cooking, Kim says, “I just show up. I have dinner, I talk with my neighbors, and I go home having been fed a delicious meal by someone who cares about my vegetarian preferences.” Besides having an enjoyable time with friends and family, Kim has noticed that when people eat together, they plan more activities together. Further, research has found that children who eat at least five meals a week with their family are less likely to develop poor eating habits and alcohol and substance dependencies.
One can imagine the other benefits that cohousing has to offer. Cohousing can make it easy for parents to find babysitters, for someone to borrow a power tool from another resident, and for children to find a playmate. This setup also presents an opportunity for residents to develop intergenerational relationships. Several studies have shown that both young children and older adults benefit from spending time with one another. In a cohousing community, one could even imagine residents’ grandparents moving into another unit in the cohousing community, so that nuclear families can enjoy the mutual benefits of having extended family members nearby, while still maintaining their independence.
It is not surprising that such a system of cohousing has yet to take hold in the United States. Americans tend to value autonomy, individuality, and independence to the extreme—even when it compromises our emotional and physical health. While only a small fraction of people in Western cultures live in cohousing, the concept has started to take hold in some areas. In Denmark, for example, where the intentionally designed cohousing movement began, over 50,000 people live in such communities.
Scholars across several disciplines are starting to catch on to the importance of designing our built environment with the “intentionality” that Kim stresses. Architecture and design schools such as at Georgia Institute of Technology and University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne, for example, recognize the impact that home and community design has on health and social integration. Both schools have programs dedicated to the study of architecture and its impact on human health. There is also a small but developing discipline of neuroarchitecture, in which scholars seek to construct physical environments conducive to human flourishing in health, behavior, and well-being.
In a time when the U.S. Surgeon General has declared isolation to be “a public health epidemic,” it is time to consider how we can alter our environment to help foster social ties for all people. As Kim concludes her TED talk, she claims that “cohousing can save your life. If I were a doctor,” Kim says, “I would tell you to take two aspirin and call me in the morning. But as an architect I’m going to suggest that you take a walk with your neighbor, share a meal together, and call me in twenty years.”
 Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, Mark Baker, Tyler Harris, and David Stephenson. Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review. Perspectives on Psychological Science 2015, Vol. 10(2) 227–237.
 Lars Brorson Fich, Peter Jonsson, Poul Henning Kirkegaard, Mattias Wallergard, Anne Helene Garde, Ase Hansen. Can architectural design alter the physiological reaction to psychosocial stress? A virtual TSST experiment. Physiology & Behavior 135 (2014) 91–97.
 Alex Coburn, Oshin Vartanian, and Anjan Chatterjee. Buildings, Beauty, and the Brain: A Neuroscience of Architectural Experience. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 2017, 29:9.