Midway through the “I Love Lucy” series, Ricky and Lucy Ricardo give up their Manhattan walk-up flat for a detached house someplace in the suburbs. The move was part of one of the greatest American migrations that saw millions move from urban apartments to their piece of what was then construed to be the American Dream, complete with a carefully manicured front lawn and a garage. The Ricardos, like much of the post–World War II generation, had a growing family. Who could resist the allure of a garage and an outdoor grill, or the subtle symbolism of independence?
That was in the 1950s, when the Ricardos exemplified the typical domestic unit, and only 22 percent of American adults were single, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. People who chose to live alone were pitied, and “old maid” was not just a deck of cards. Today, more than 50 percent of American adults are unmarried and one in seven adults lives alone, according to Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, a provocative new book by Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist and professor at New York University.
Klinenberg began researching his book after the 1995 Chicago heat wave that resulted in nearly 750 heat-related deaths, many of whom were people living by themselves. In writing Going Solo, he expected to chronicle lives of isolated quiet desperation. Instead, after more than 300 interviews, he found that those who chose to live alone are generally happier than those who are married. Further, they’re more engaged in the lives of their communities. This, as Klinenberg says, is unprecedented in human history. If the trends continue, as the author believes they will, this will force radical changes in housing and social policy, not to mention how well design can facilitate the kind of revitalized community engagement that Klinenberg documents.
Of course, living solo is not without its own challenges, especially for the elderly poor. Yet, although there are relatively few architects to serve a U.S. population of 312 million, never in our lifetime have those engaged in residential design been in a stronger position to effect positive change by responding creatively to the way we actually live.
Jeff Potter, FAIA, 2012 President