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Housing — and planning — for Degrowth

by Anitra Nelson on October 9, 2018
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In capitalism, i.e. ‘growth’ economies, housing (construction) is a significant — even leading — economic sector and area of social concern. Moreover, housing exposes many of the weaknesses of capitalism from crises of over-production, financialisation, inappropriate supply, over-consumption and unmet demand. Today housing presents various and numerous challenges across the world, which can be clustered under ‘affordability’ and ‘environmental sustainability’.

Our new collection Housing for Degrowth: Principles, Models, Challenges and Opportunities was released 3 August in the Routledge Environmental Humanities series. With 25 contributors, this work breaks new ground in bridging the areas of housing, and associated planning, with degrowth.

While our collection starts with a chapter on housing for growth, the rest of the work is focused on creating degrowth alternatives (even if contextualised in growth narratives and practices). Degrowth is a political, practical and cultural movement for downscaling and transforming society beyond capitalist growth and non-capitalist productivism to achieve global sustainability and satisfy everyone’s basic needs.

Degrowth emerged in Europe, and is still a substantially European movement, attempting to address the wellsprings of ecological crises and to heal inequities, including the Global North and Global South divide. Our case studies are located in Rome and Italy more generally, Vienna, Barcelona, Bengalura (previously Bangalore, South India), France, the United States, Norway, Vanuatu (Pacific), Denmark, London, south-east Australia, Wales and Germany.

Principles of housing for degrowth

The collection is structured around key principles for degrowth: simple living for all, housing justice, housing sufficiency, reducing unmet demand, ecological housing and planning, de-urbanisation and de-monetisation. Other central goals on the degrowth agenda include compact settlements, re-using, renovating, recycling and recreating housing and its components. As such, how might cohesion evolve, beyond each of these principles acting as a cog in the wheel of housing for degrowth?

My co-editor François Schneider frames the collection in a chapter that offers a narrative approach to make connections between otherwise fragmented campaigns and to advance a cohesive housing policy and practice. This approach attempts to go beyond three pre-existing weak approaches: those who argue for holistic system change and trivialise attention to the housing sector in particular; the competitive ‘silver bullet’ approach, which tries to identify a key or lead reform; and, blind faith that shooting in all directions will result in success.

The narrative approach shows connections both within housing for degrowth activities and between housing and other sectors or areas of everyday life (see Figure). The meta-narrative, the narrative of narratives, is degrowth in all sectors, a living reality. A significant aside — a point not revealed or pursued in the book —Schneider is keen to see this approach evolving as an organising principle of the degrowth movement, an argument elaborated at the first launch of the book at the 6th International Degrowth Conference in Malmö (Sweden) 21–25 August where one organisational group was formed to pursue this approach.

Moreover, we were keen to expose a significant controversy in the degrowth movement between the tendency for urbanisation and a tendency for decentralisation. For this reason, Part VI is devoted to chapters written by proponents of urbanisation from both planning and political perspectives, and three detailed responses from those less inclined to oppose decentralisation.

From practice to policy

All activist-scholars, or scholarly activists as the case may be, the contributors draw on strong experiences to flesh out top-down barriers to degrowth as they analyse activities invariably initiated and driven from the grassroots. We advocate for a series of enabling policy mechanisms for such grassroots activities to flourish in the future. Enabling policies and regulations would advance top-down institutionalisation of degrowth, which is attracting the interest of the European Parliament — as demonstrated in a forum of post-growth briefs and discussions, initiated by ten European Union Members of Parliament who represent six distinct political groups, which took place mid-September.

Volunteers at degrowth project ‘Can Decreix’ in Cerbère (South France)

As outlined in our talk to a preparatory seminar to the two-day post-growth conference at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, cases in our book include:

  • citizens self-building simply designed, modest and low impact dwellings by re-using local at-hand materials and benefiting from collective work parties
  • tenants campaigning for refurbishing and expanding social housing (against demolition, reduction of public housing and gentrification)
  • squatting or occupying, preserving and enhancing empty, disused, and degrading housing
  • applying alternative collective off-grid water, sanitation and energy services
  • tiny houses and shared, eco-collaborative housing economising on material and energy use
  • grassroots production and distribution of local housing
  • locally ecologically-appropriate and affordable settlements.

Along with advice for degrowth activists, contributors to Housing for Degrowth offer a series of policy recommendations, such as:

  • revising planning and building application processes to allow for simple self-built dwellings and collective land settlements
  • enhancing social housing with sustainable renovations preserving history and conserving nature
  • enabling alternative, ecologically sustainable, housing services
  • applying maximum standards (such as space per capita) for homes, land and service use
  • flexibly applying planning conditions along ecological and affordability criteria.

As soon as top down policy meets grassroots efforts citizens will be able to perform and experience housing for degrowth narratives so citizens can engage in satisfying affordable and sustainable housing needs and households can live with one planet footprints. Our book is a manual for the first steps in that journey.

Housing for Degrowth: Principles, Models, Challenges and Opportunities is available from two sources, as follows.

At the Routledge webpage enter the code FLR40 at the checkout to receive a 20% discount off the print books, i.e. the following prices:

Hb: 978-1-138-55805-2 | GB£92.00 | US$112.00 | A$193.60

eBook: 978-1-315-15120-5 | GB£32.00 | US$43.96 | A$34.00+

The co-editors have a special print run of 200 paperback copies selling for 25 Euros (A$40) at international events, 35 Euros (A$50) for postage within Europe/Australia.

For more information, contact lead editor Anitra Nelson: anitra.nelson@rmit.edu.au

Anitra Nelson
Anitra Nelson is an activist-scholar and Associate Professor at RMIT University’s Centre for Urban Research, author of Marx’s Concept of Money: The God of Commodities (1999), co-editor of Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies (2011), and her Small Is Necessary: Shared Living on a Shared Planet was published by Pluto Press (London) in January 2018.

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