Book review: Housing for Degrowth: Principles, Models, Challenges and Opportunities

Reviewed by Ebru Kamaci Karahan

6 May 2022, 9:09 a.m.
Ebru Kamaci Karahan

Housing For Degrowth book cover

Housing for Degrowth: Principles, Models, Challenges and Opportunities

Reviewed by Ebru Kamaci Karahan

Anitra Nelson & François Schneider (eds), Housing for Degrowth: Principles, Models, Challenges and Opportunities, New York, NY: Routledge, 2019 (1st edn); 296 pp.: ISBN 9781138558052, £120.00 (hbk), ISBN: 9780367358334, £38.99 (pbk)


This is a book about housing for degrowth, which is an emerging field of study. The editors, Anitra Nelson and François Schneider, have put together a stunning contribution to the degrowth debates with Housing for Degrowth: Principles, Models, Challenges and Opportunities. The 22 chapters are authored by a diverse group of experts, including urban researchers, activists, practitioners, a permaculture designer, architects, a vegan chef plus an activist educator, a journalist, scholar activists and environmental and social justice scholars.

Along with how to build housing for degrowth, the book talks about degrowth’s theoretical and political implications. Taking such stances exemplifies the book’s multidimensional approach. The contributions in this book are grouped into seven parts: Simple Living for All; Housing Justice; Housing Sufficiency; Reducing Demand; Ecological Housing and Planning; Whither Urbanisation? and Anti-capitalist Values and Relations. Each section conceptualises the degrowth movement as well as housing for degrowth based on the book’s sub-title ‘Principles, Models, Challenges and Opportunities’, as stated by the editors (p. 251). The book starts with a foreword by Joan Martinez-Alier. In a flawless introduction to the book, he claims that this book will bring hope and motivation to anyone working in the fields of urban planning and sustainable housing, and I wholeheartedly agree (p. xiv).

Part I, ‘Simple Living for All’, has two complementary chapters. The book’s first chapter by Anitra Nelson, ‘Housing for Growth Narratives’, examines the aspirational narrative of ‘homeownership’ while emphasising the underbelly of growth narratives such as ‘unaffordability’, and justifies growth economies failing to meet society’s housing needs equally and effectively. Moreover, it embodies the book’s view of degrowth: an effort to achieve global ecological sustainability while providing the basic needs of all people not as alternative housing (p. 3). The following chapter, ‘Housing for Degrowth Narratives’, by Schneider, explains the fundamentals of degrowth ideas and practices as a means of resistance and creative construction of environmentally and socially sustainable (housing) futures for all of us. Here, the fundamental notion is that social inequities and housing’s negative environmental impacts decrease with economy degrowth (p. 27).

There are two contributions based on participatory and auto-ethnographic research in Part II. Olsen, Orefice and Pietrangeli investigate in Chapter 3 Rome’s housing movement, including its practice of occupying abandoned houses, through the lens of ‘right to metabolism’ and ‘degrowth justice’ (p. 33). Sustainable degrowth futures are characterised, based on this case, as mutual aid, sharing, conviviality and self-government (p. 41). As a participant in the Barcelona squatter movement, Cattaneo (Chapter 4) says that these have formed social movements that fight against speculative housing interests and provide decent housing.

Part III, ‘Housing Sufficiency’, focuses on the alternative meaning of home, ‘doing home’ and the selectiveness of home. Reimagining home as a collaborative, decommodified and feminist interaction with people and place, Hagbert (Chapter 5) confronts a high-consuming culture of indebtedness and neoliberalisation of housing using examples from Sweden (p. 57). As a tiny-house builder and user, Anson explores the connection between the North American tiny house and degrowth movements in Chapter 6, concluding that an environmental ethic based on degrowth ideals can benefit the tiny house movement by creating connections based on responsibility rather than scarcity, to reduce environmental and social injustice (pp. 76–78). In Chapter 7, Christie and Salong examine a post-disaster housing development case from the Global South (Vanuatu). They conclude that using community-based techniques to self-build simple, appropriate and affordable buildings that reflect low energy through the use of natural, local and recycled building materials echoes points made by degrowth proponents.

Part IV debates what the alternative types of housing for degrowth should be. Chapter 8 focuses on the unique development experience in Christiania, the ecovillage in Copenhagen. According to Natasha Verco, not only the importance of a commitment to local self-management but also an insistence on living in a lower-material-consumption lifestyle and rejecting home ownership and commercialisation are important in degrowth housing schemes (p. 104). A well-known campaign in London to prevent the demolition of a social housing complex is the focus of Ferreri’s Chapter 9, which examines the potential of existing houses (via refurbishment) in a programme for degrowth. In Chapter 10, Trainer proposes that with the help of local resources, ordinary people can build self-sufficient, self-governing and ecologically friendly communities that are socially synergistic and have an abundance of inexpensive and sustainable housing.

The fifth part, ‘Ecological Housing and Planning’, is comprised of four topically disparate chapters (pp. 133–181). In her chapter on design and practice for mud and brick urban buildings in Bengaluru, Vishwanath (Chapter 11) demonstrates recycling and bio-construction alternatives based on another Global South case. In Chapter 12, Dale, Marwege and Humburg discuss utilising a grassroots technique (which relates to the degrowth network’s informal social processes) called ‘building eco-homes’ which promotes new collaborations, conviviality and a healthy work–life balance. As a challenge to growth-oriented approaches, Widmer’s multi-scalar, from neighbourhood (the primary module of the global commons) to planetary, degrowth utopian symbolic vision in Chapter 13 develops an open-localist perspective. As the editors note, the term ‘open-localism’ was coined by grassroots degrowth movements but neglected by degrowth theorists (p. 25). Stefánsdóttir and Xue, in Chapter 14, by examining the ‘liveability’ concept in the case of small(er) dwellings through the degrowth lenses (referring to needs versus wants; building physical quality versus neighbourhood quality), propose a conceptual framework for smaller housing + quality of life + well-being.

In the prefatory note of Part VI (‘Whither Urbanisation?’), the editors note that ‘two of five contributions of this chapter are requested-provocative contributions from Xue (Chapter 15) and Vansintjan (Chapter 16); the other three are response to the first two which one of is the editors’ critiques (Chapter 19)’, triggering the search for ‘the most appropriate strategies for the Degrowth’ (p. 183). While Chapter 15 recommends the multi-scalar perspective, and public engagement in urban planning would effectively engage in degrowth aims, citing Bookchin (1992), Chapter 16 assumes that urbanisation enforces ‘scarcity’ by preventing strong, organic political engagement; however, degrowth municipalism requires the formation of organic citizenship or the citification of the urban area (p. 207). With ‘place-specific’ planning and social urban dynamics in modern Vienna, Exner (Chapter 17) puts to the test Xue and Vansintjan’s arguments. In Chapter 18, Krähmer advocates a ‘more differentiated vision’ based on larger perspectives and European examples. The editors carefully place ‘open localism’ conceptually on the agenda in Chapter 19.

In Part VII, Hurlin (Chapter 20) exemplifies the German Mietshäuser Syndikat model to examine either transitional or hybrid models for a group of people investing together in modest houses. In Chapter 21, Nelson promotes degrowth housing forms such as community living (one a quasi-co-housing in the city core and the other a rural ecovillage), where the collective sufficiency of communities in neighbourhoods even allows for new production. Degrowth housing types such as communal living, where the level of collective sufficiency of communities in neighbourhoods even opens the way to new production, are advocated by Nelson. The book finishes with a chapter titled ‘Summary and Research Futures for Housing for Degrowth’, in which the editors offer an overview of the significant themes that have emerged from the book as a whole, as well as emphasising the commitments of conducting degrowth research in the future.

An impressive collection of high-quality studies, Housing for Degrowth brings up more important topics and insights than this review can explore. Anitra Nelson and François Schneider’s careful editing ensures that each chapter contributes something new and essential to the book as a whole. Cross-references are used throughout the book, although this strategy is most obvious in the opening chapters (Chapters 1 and 2) and the summary (Chapter 22) where the editors reinterpret the integrative framework. All the parts of the book work together to make a coherent whole, which is one of the book’s key strengths. Perhaps one of the most important contributions of this collective work to understanding the degrowth movement (which is the future) is that it is achievable but still a work in progress. Overall, the book is exceptional, and full of hope and inquiry.


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