Housing for degrowth
Policy paper — Institutionalisation of Degrowth and Post-Growth:
The European Level Seminar — Brussels, 17 September 2018
François Schneider and Anitra Nelson
Anitra Nelson — firstname.lastname@example.org
François Schneider — email@example.com
Abstract — The most significant policy dilemmas in improving housing
affordability and environmental sustainability take three forms: distractions
towards broad system change; searches for a silver bullet, which inevitably
prove conflictual; and ‘shooting in all directions’ without any coherent
approach. Instead, a cooperative, coordinated and trusted housing for
degrowth movement leading to a new systemic reality requires a powerful
narrative with exemplary models to counteract growth narratives. We argue
that creating an inspirational degrowth narrative of complementary
grassroots and ‘top-down’ initiatives is the most important strategy for
housing for degrowth, and degrowth more generally. We offer this ‘collective
degrowth housing narrative’ approach to policy.
This paper on a ‘collective degrowth housing narrative’ to guide top-down enabling
policies complementing bottom-up activities, draws on the work of contributors to
Housing for Degrowth: Principles, Models, Challenges and Opportunities, co-edited
by Anitra Nelson and François Schneider (published 3 August 2018 in the Routledge
Environmental Humanities series). All references with only the author/s, 2018 and
page numbers refer directly to that work (as listed in Appendix I).
The housing for growth narrative
According to mainstream growth narratives, more production and consumption will
solve poverty, unemployment, energy provision, food security and housing problems.
We focus on housing — a very important growth sector in terms of economic,
material and energy flows. Housing shapes the landscape and organisation of
everyday lives. Current housing for growth narratives are driven by omnipotent
beliefs, for example — ‘As we urbanise more, people will have more jobs and
facilities.’ ‘Smart green cities save ecosystems.’ Meanwhile, recent experience of
global urbanisation has been quite different, characterised by social injustices in
housing, unaffordable housing, evictions, homelessness and negative environmental
impacts — severe pollution, excessive transportation and travel, piling waste,
marginalising farming and buildings account for 25–30 percent of global carbon
emissions. (Nelson 2018a: 3–13)
A degrowth transformation will counteract housing actors continuing with this
‘business as usual’ so that housing can fulfil those significant basic needs for a
‘home’: shelter, social fulfilment and support, security and safety (Hagbert 2018, 57–
67). Three approaches characterise the most common policy discourses, identified
here to highlight their weaknesses: (1) distraction to system change; (2) the silver
bullet; and (3) shooting in all directions.
1. The fallacy of system change: Re-focusing away from housing
One discourse emphasises that we need to, above all else, challenge capitalist
growth, that developing sectoral alternatives is pointless and only overthrowing the
system will enable alternative housing for degrowth to flourish. This is a valid point —
we really do need to challenge business as usual and to change the system. Engels
(1872) took this position in his intervention The Housing Question. However, system
change can result from a coordinated response embracing sectoral and issue-based
alternatives. In short, stakeholders, activists and policy makers applying common
principles in different sectors using various alternative models can, altogether,
achieve system change.
2. The fallacy of a silver bullet: Controversy over alternatives
Another set of discourses focus on a silver bullet policy measure that will, apparently,
create a domino effect of further changes. Focusing on one alternative — such as
decentralisation or eco-collaborative housing — has the merit of being clear, easy to
grasp, and enables a detailed policy and activist response. Such alternative housing
politics convinces others of a priority way forward resulting in strong competitive
behaviour regarding the alternatives.
A mono-focus might have rich outcomes but neither challenges the existing growth
mindset nor develops a profound alternative system. For instance, April Anson (2018,
68–79) identifies the limits of focusing on tiny houses as ‘the’ silver bullet alternative.
She shows that the North American tiny house movement has tended to internalise
neo-colonialist and property-owning stereotypes; tiny houses are either marginalised
in mainstream planning and policies, or are co-opted in capitalist ways, say offering a
new housing commodity, even secondary housing, which perverts their degrowth
3. The fallacy of a grab-bag of alternatives: Fragmentation
The third approach in housing for degrowth discourses might be characterised as a
‘grab-bag’ of alternatives or ‘shooting in all directions’ approach. The T.A.Z.
(Temporary Autonomous Zone) of Hakim Bey (1985), for instance, promotes a
diversity of alternatives, but ultimately negates a coordinated housing approach.
Developing a wish list of important steps, such as the eight pages of policy and
research proposals resulting from a large group assembly process at the 2010
Barcelona degrowth conference (Barcelona WG 2010) or Carlsson’s (2008)
‘nowtopias’, a myriad of practical of alternatives degrowth practices in operation, is
not enough. While the well-focussed ten key policy proposals of Kallis (2015)
narrows the movement’s foci, there is no coherent narrative of transformation.
Similarly, with the inspiring ‘pluriverse’ dictionary of Kothari et al. (forthcoming), who
present a large array of degrowth movements and approaches.
Since the nineteenth century, Proudhonist positions have resonated in the
cooperativist movement to foster many alternatives that are either marginalised or
coopted within capitalism. Their protagonists have a point: sharing alternatives and
brainstorming is a constructive, creative process and fundamental first step. Yet no
holistic transformation has developed, rather, fragmentation and even competition
between models and principles, as with Fallacy 2.
To overcome such fallacious pathways, we have devised a collective degrowth
housing narrative connecting various efforts like spokes in a wheel where the hub is
degrowth, as shown in Figure 1 (Schneider 2018: 14–29). We call for shared
principles and perspectives applied in diverse ways. In summary, we aim ‘to show
that housing for degrowth can represent a long term mutually integrative zone with
transformative capacities’ (Nelson and Schneider 2018, 256–64, esp. 264).
Collective action for housing for degrowth
To mainstream systemic change with inter-related policies and action at different
scales, we need a coordinated response by diverse housing for degrowth actors and
housing policy-makers. If bottom-up meets top-down, then we will achieve much
more than each might separately. For change, we need a cooperative, coordinated
and trustful collective movement in housing that involves all actors, including policy
makers, i.e. collective action organised using a holistic narrative or a ‘narrative of
narratives’ (Mayer 2014).
With respect to collective action, we need a new framework defining our housing
objectives within a ‘degrowth’ framework (Flipo 2007; Demaria et al. 2013; D’Alisa et
al. 2013). Degrowth embraces collective and individual actions grounded by values
focusing on social and environmental justice, the recuperation and regeneration of
ecosystems, care for future generations, convivial, non-utilitarian human relations,
deep democracy and well-being. Our narrative of narratives has degrowth principles
at its heart with environmental and social activities initiated, monitored and assessed
on the basis of these principles — refer to Figure 1.
Figure 1. A narrative of narratives for housing for degrowth (Schneider 2018, 20)
Time as quality
Movement for housing
Anti ads movement
Right to housing
Reduction of credit
Reform of the banking
compact settlements -
The degrowth housing narrative in a nutshell
Housing for degrowth goals focus on: reducing the total urban area and industrial
urbanisation; simplifying and redistributing access to housing; de-urbanising and re-
naturalising areas; renovating dwellings to improve living conditions; increasing the
sharing of dwellings; and developing low level, low impact, small scale,
decentralised, compact settlements. Degrowth is about keeping what is, or potentially
is, functional. Degrowth requires a great deal of social and low-tech innovation, so-
called ‘frugal innovation’. Degrowth requires bottom-up refusal of certain technologies
and reduction of others. Degrowth defines limits and adjustments to a new systemic
reality. All these goals depend on grassroots action in concert with local government
policy and regulations, which permit, encourage and support such bottom up
developments contra building for growth developments.
Institutionalists emphasise institutional change. The chapters in our book on
squatting (Cattaneo 2018), occupying (Olsen et al. 2018, 33–43), large sharing
households (Nelson 2018b), demolishing rather than refurbishing social/public
housing (Ferrari 2018, 109–19) and collective self-building (Dale et al. 2018, 145–55,
and Trainer 2018, 120–30) all recommend changes in government policies and
regulations to enable — rather than oppose or severely limit — such activities. This
will mean reversal of some state and local government policies, for instance, where
appropriate imposing maximum space per capita for residential buildings or minimum
household sizes rather than just maximum sizes (Stefansdottir and Xue 2018, 171–
Our book offers cases where measures have been successfully trialled and tested to
achieve such goals, i.e. offering models for policy change and grassroots activities.
There are several examples of what specific collective self-building has entailed
within both top-down and bottom up spheres. An analysis of housing in Freetown
Christiania, Copenhagen, shows housing distribution in fair and equal ways by
residents on the basis of need rather than produced as a commodity through housing
and real estate markets (Verco 2018, 99–108). Similarly, Hurlin (2018 (233–43)
shows how an umbrella association of housing cooperatives in Germany collectively
finances housing, which is simultaneously withdrawn from the private market.
Christie and Salong (2018, 80–95) on the ni-Vanuatu response after Hurricane Pam
and Vishwanath (2018, 133–44) on Bengalura (South India) show the merits of
traditional building techniques, materials and designs — in contrast to imported
housing for capitalist growth methods, labour conditions and materials. Many of these
cases showed resistance by policy makers and bureaucrats to support such
measures; they require revisions to regulations and standards to act appropriately.
For a degrowth housing system involving all stakeholders and institutions acting
together, we need to create a cooperative, coordinated and trusted degrowth housing
movement. To drive us to a new systemic reality, we need more powerful and
integrated narratives than growth narratives, narratives that inspire us, motivating us
to act collectively with hope. This is the most significant framing of policy questions
for both degrowth and housing for degrowth. The degrowth housing narrative must
illustrate that another housing world is possible, that a realistic pathway exists for
transformation — a strong, coherent, realist narrative where bottom-up and top-down
action and interdisciplinary perspectives can inspire such a holistic movement. A
degrowth housing narrative can structure a powerful coalition of actors to define their
own position and understand the relevance of other actors’ roles and actions.
Beyond affirmation and status, a collective housing for degrowth narrative will re-
define opponents and misguided actions, as well as highlight concrete models, useful
actions and appropriate policies and how they interrelate. The construction of such a
narrative is not conflict-free and will be a working document subject to continuous
change, or living story. In Housing for Degrowth, there is an entire part, led by Xue
(2018, 185–95) and Vansintjan (2018, 196–209), arguing the merits of compact
urbanisation versus decentralisation. Respondents Exner (2018, 210–16), Krämer
(2018, 217–22), and Schneider and Nelson (2018, 223–30) offer alternative
approaches through case studies and mundane experiences. This part is an example
of the necessary transparent and respectful debates on key issues needed in a
democratic degrowth transition. Such forums need to embrace politicians, urbanists
and associated professionals so we can understand and formulate full and detailed
policy responses to the challenges that face us.
The virtuous loop of the housing for degrowth transformation
Figure 1 shows a series of interdisciplinary principles of housing for degrowth and
examples of their application. This is a virtuous loop where housing transformation
proceeds from many activities supporting one or more principles of housing for
degrowth and embraces various interrelated actors in the housing system. Instead of
fragmented reforms, there is a concerted, broad and interlinking approach to achieve
housing for degrowth.
In mainstream growth new materials and copious energy flows for new developments
mainly serve richer residents. Poorer residents are squeezed out by gentrification,
suffer from pollution and higher costs of living for basic needs such as energy, food
and housing. Housing for degrowth fully recognises that housing is a human right in
practice. This requires policy makers to, say, support rights to allow residents to live
in empty dwellings, if they simultaneously preserve them (Cattaneo 2018; Olsen et al.
2018, 33–43). If citizens observe and experience greater fairness as the state
develops social housing and institutes enabling mechanisms for people to fulfil their
housing needs themselves, then inequality in housing can be reduced, housing
sufficiency increased and housing aspirations and competition for bigger houses will
lessen. Justice will be supported and facilitated by valuing and practising simplicity in
housing; greater housing justice reduces frustrations and eases the choice for
simplicity in housing. Moreover, housing struggles in Rome have integrated
environmental justice, rights to the urban metabolism, by rejecting over-use of carbon
emitting concrete and energy (Olsen et al. 2018, 33–43).
Sufficient and satisfactory housing
Living modestly with minimal impacts needs to be permitted, even encouraged and
supported (Cattaneo 2018, 44–53). Government regulators can ban billboard
advertising as has been done in Australia’s capital city, Canberra. Advertisements for
newer, bigger and better ‘aspirational’ housing, and invitations to access onerous
mortgages showing housing as a status symbol, can be limited to print matter in the
first instance, and counteracted by promoting education on the real costs of
mortgages. Permits to build and renovate might be decided on the basis of their likely
impact, with small impacts assessed most favourably. Voluntary simplicity, house
sharing and collectivisation of large houses need to be encouraged (Nelson 2018b).
This swing to minimisation also requires policy measures to ensure safe, secure and
De-urbanisation, deeper democracy and ecological recuperation
Seemingly endless urban sprawl surrounds many cities. De-urbanisation is about
compact settlement and expanding space for food production, conservation, wildlife
corridors and ecological regeneration. Government laws and policies can be revised
to curb unnecessary developments and enhance natural environments. Deserted
rural villages can be re-inhabited with minimal government support via permits and
infrastructure to modestly house people prepared to live there. Governments can
allow and support communal self-building, the re-design of social housing,
conservational repairs and ecological renovations. This process can deepen
democracy, participatory democracy, and intensify ecological regeneration.
Degrowth politicians and administrators can model degrowth by proudly living in
simple and eco-collaborative housing. Such housing reduces needs for heating,
cooling, furnishing and cleaning. We can temporarily house exchange for holidays.
Empty Parisian pieds à terre can be transformed into student flats. Old warehouses
can be transformed into housing using inexpensive sustainable renovations. Policy
support is needed for small-scale ‘reversible’ housing, i.e. housing made from
materials that can be readily re-used, recycled or composted when buildings are no
longer useful as houses.
Demonetisation and re-distributing quality time
Transforming to more satisfactory, sufficient, environmentally sustainable housing
and lifestyles relies on a society-wide degrowth transformation. Most sectors will
shrink in terms of needs for materials, energy and workers — freeing people to build,
and spend more time caring, within large households and tight-knit neighbourhoods.
This transformation will mean de-monetisation, reduction of credit, the flourishing of
mutual support, and informally conducted exchange. Widespread impacts on
financial and monetary systems will see massive changes not only because forms of
producing and distributing housing have changed but also because other sectors will
undergo such change. Degrowth transitions release people from more than around,
say 20 hours, of work that might be remunerated by pay or in-kind. Meanwhile,
various strategies involve attempts to move away from mainstream money (such as
using local currencies); to delink from the conventional market in cooperatives (Hurlin
2018, 233–43); and, to collectively produce to directly satisfy basic needs, i.e. without
use of money (Nelson 2018c, 244–55).
The virtuous circle of connected change at the centre of our collective degrowth
housing narrative allows for diverse activities and collaborations working together for
the same visions with strong social and environmental values. Practical utopians
Hans Widmer (‘P.M.’ 2018, 156–70) and Ted Trainer (2018, 120–130) sketch
compact neighbourhoods and villages with great opportunities for personal
differentiation and festive collective local initiatives providing images of the visions
towards which we work.
We have focused on housing for degrowth as a concrete sector but strong degrowth
narratives need to be developed for all aspects of our lives. In the context of holistic
transformation, including in work and public places, residential change for degrowth
will flourish and inform the broader transition to degrowth.
Note: All references in the text with only a name, ‘2018’ and page nos but not listed
below refer to Nelson and Schneider (eds) as below and contents page, Appendix I.
BarcelonaWG (2010) Degrowth Bullet Points. Barcelona Working Groups of the 2nd
Conference on Economic Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity
Bey H. (1985) T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy,
Poetic Terrorism — https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/hakim-bey-t-a-z-the-
Carlsson C. (2008) Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and
Vacant-Lot Gardeners are Inventing the Future Today! AK Press: Chico (Cal.).
D’Alisa G., Demaria F. and Kallis G. (2013) Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era.
Demaria F., Schneider F., Sekulova F. and Martinez-Alier, J. (2013) ‘What is
Degrowth? From an Activist Slogan to a Social Movement’, Environmental Values,
Engels F. (1872) The Housing Question —
Flipo (2007) ‘Voyage dans la galaxie décroissante’, Mouvements 50(2): 143–151,
Paris: La Découverte.
Kothari A, Salleh A, Escobar A, Demaria F and Acosta A (2018, forthcoming)
Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary. Authors Up Front, Dehli.
Kallis G. (2015) ‘Can we prosper without growth? 10 policy proposals’, Green
European Journal 11 https://www.greeneuropeanjournal.eu/can-we-prosper-
Mayer F.W. (2014) Narrative Politics, Stories and Collective Action. Oxford University
Nelson A. (2018a) ‘Housing for growth narratives’ in Nelson and Schneider (see note
above and Appendix I below).
Nelson A. (2018b) Small is Necessary: Shared Living on a Shared Planet. Pluto
Nelson A. (2018c) ‘Non-monetary eco-collaborative housing for degrowth’ in Nelson
and Schneider (see note above and Appendix I below).
Nelson A. and Schneider F. (2018) Housing for Degrowth: Principles, Models,
Challenges and Opportunities. Routledge, London. (See Contents in Appendix I,
Videira N., Schneider F., Sekulova F. and Kallis. G. (2014) ‘Improving understanding
on degrowth pathways: An exploratory study using collaborative causal models’,
Futures 55: 58 –77.
Appendix I. List of Housing for Degrowth (2018) chapters
Housing for Degrowth:
Principles, Models, Challenges and
Routledge Environmental Humanities Series (3 August
Housing for Degrowth responds to key challenges in urban
and environmental sustainability, and social justice, by
adopting the lens of degrowth. Degrowth, post-growth, 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.
Co-edited by activist-scholars Anitra Nelson (Centre for Urban Research at RMIT
University in Melbourne) and François Schneider (Institute of Environmental Science
and Technology, University of Barcelona, initiator of Research & Degrowth, degrowth
conferences and pioneer activist of degrowth) with 24 other contributors — Housing
for Degrowth presents a range of cases and models from various countries and
continents — Italy, Norway, Vanuatu, India, Austria, Spain, England, Germany, USA,
Sweden, Australia, Wales and Denmark.
Special paperback print run copies available directly from the editors at 25 Euros
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This is a splendid and very readable book on housing and urban planning for
degrowth… There are many chapters on actual types of degrowth housing in
many countries and fundamental discussions of top-down versus bottom-up
urban planning leading to these objectives. This book should become a
textbook for courses in architecture, and urban and rural planning.
Joan Martinez Alier, Emeritus Professor of Economics and Economic History and
Senior Researcher at ICTA, Autonomous University of Barcelona