Abstract Under the capitalist growth imperative, mainstream housing is connected to high social and ecological consequences. In light of the need for an alternative approach to housing, my thesis adopts a degrowth perspective to critically explore an alternative housing model: the Swedish kollektivhus (‘collective house’; co-housing). In the kollektivhus, residents have their own private apartment which is smaller than conventional dwellings but share common spaces and domestic work. Through a case study of the kollektivhus movement in Stockholm, I investigate how the kollektivhus model aligns with the values and practices of a degrowth imaginary, and how it might support a degrowth transition through the creation of alternative narratives that challenge hegemonic growth-oriented housing narratives. I conducted semi-structured interviews with kollektivhus residents and other actors in the Stockholm housing sector and coded them using thematic analysis. My findings suggest that the kollektivhus model, in some ways, enables practices that align with degrowth values such as care, autonomy, conviviality, and self-limitation. In other ways, however, it does not; constrained by the neoliberal context in which it is embedded, it cannot support for example, the values of de-commodification and, in some instances, self-limitation. My findings also illuminate alternative narratives that reflect housing aspirations that can provide an alternative storyline outside the growth paradigm, by showing that there is another way to live a ‘good life’ without striving for profit. Through a neo-Gramscian political economy framework, I discuss how these counter-hegemonic narratives might help to erode the legitimacy of hegemonic housing narratives and thus support a degrowth transition.
Överst kollektivhuset Tre Portar i Skarpnäck, ett av fyra kollektivhus där boende intervjuades i studien.
The Modern Museum of Warzaw has prepared an exhibition about living in community, Warzaw under Construction. Part of the exhibition are 18 interviews (presented in Polish) with cohousing activists, initiators and cohousing members from many countries (Denmark, England, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Spain, Canada and the US). Due to the pandemic, the exhibition had to close in advance.
The exhibition stirred quite an interest through webinars, pod-casts, debates and articles in journals. – Co-housing is THE THING in Poland now. Ever since the publication (of the interviews), people talk about it and want to form groups, says Aleksandra Zbroja, who has made several of the interviews.
Three of the interviews have been translated to English:
Hur hanterar kollektivhus, bogemenskaper, ekobyar och andra ”intentional communites” runt om i Europa coronasituationen? Michael Würfel hos den europeiska organisationen Eurotopia har frågat:
State of emergency – what about communities?
How are people in (other) communities doing in times of contact prohibitions and distance rules? As a resident of Sieben Linden Ecovillage, I asked myself this question and assumed that our readers are interested in it as well. So I wrote to all the communities that present themselves in the current edition of the eurotopia Directory and asked about it – and was overwhelmed by the reactions. Reports kept (keep!) coming and it has been a real challenge to finish up this very long newsletter and finally mail it out because I felt that I have to add reports because every one brings new insights. I did not even include every report. It’s alot of text to read below, but I think I pick up most of the content in this here article.
Although similar regulations apply to people in communities all over the world, communtiy ”households” sometimes include dozens of people, and our contacts to ”the outside world” can often be regulated so well that a community can almost be quarantined without having to change its everyday life too much. In many communities, children are looked after together at times when schools are closed – they live together in a dense space anyway, often as if in a common quarantine. And if isolation outside school hours is not possible, it would also be pointless for home schooling.
Often the official guidelines are implemented to a large extent, but cooking continues for everyone and sometimes meetings or sports activities continue to take place within the community – sometimes at a distance. One German community wrote quite openly in their last newsletter that they ”move closer together instead of keeping their distance” – so far there have been no legal consequences to admit this openly, even though it might be against German regulations (it’s not clear if government authorities would accept communities as a household or as several households; in the latter case they would be obliged to keep a distance. Obviously, nobody wants to ask…)
One answer to my mail to the communities was: ”…I am sure that you too will continue to take each other in your arms in Sieben Linden, … maybe a little less often, but not less warmly because of that…”
In fact, we only embrace each other within the groups in which we live closely together anyway. The 1.5 m distance has already become a habit for me when I walk through the village (which I have to sometimes, because we share pantry, washing machine, mail corner and much more). At the moment I’m pondering back and forth whether I may meet a girlfriend who is not part of my ”reference group” – so you could say: We take the whole thing quite seriously at Sieben Linden. We are also affected economically. Like many communities, we offer a wide range of opportunities to get to know our community as well as seminars, which usually keeps many people in paid employment; in addition, volunteers are employed in the educational sector (Voluntary Ecological Year, Federal Voluntary Service, European Voluntary Service). We hope that we will be able to make ends meet with financial aid for which we are eligible (thank you, government!) – and the volunteers may help on the construction site of our guesthouse instead of setting up breakfast for guests. In any case, there will be enough to do for many more weeks.
Some reports from the communities are frustrated. Anton Marks from Kibbutz Mishol writes: ”I have spent half my life removing my front door, hinge by hinge. Now I have to put it back on, I haven’t got a clue where to find it, and even when I do, I don’t even know which way up it goes.
Frits from Amsterdam Catholic Worker, where anyone with symptoms is immediately isolated, feels trapped in his own community, worse than in prison. He bows to the decisions of his community and misses the freedom to deal with a possible infection as he sees fit. He feels that the ownership of a car or mobile phone ultimately kills people as well (presumably due to the consequences of the production and mining of raw materials for the mobile phone and the consequences of the operation of the car, MW), but that this decision would be left to each community member to make for himself – in contrast to the behaviour in case of a possible infection.
In my community of Sieben Linden – and obviously in most others as well – we are aware that an infection with the current Corona virus is probably not dangerous for most people, but could be fatal for some, and that the crisis with its measures and effects is simply terrible for many. But when community proves itself here, it is also an important contribution to the social discussion.
I suspect that people who live in familiar neighbourhoods and are familiar with constructive exchange are less likely to experience fear and panic. In many places, it has been shown that a community is a good place when a threat comes ”from outside”. Some even experience more community in these times, less stress and a special time in a positive sense: Many community residents seem to be doing really well. In the “Giesserei” (“foundry”) in Switzerland, community dwellers are singing from the balconies every evening, in Pendragon (England) some enjoy the peace, “because they find normal community life stressful with people coming and going all the time”, and elsewhere, travelling journeymen have stayed longer than planned and are building more than had been hoped for. Many community children are jubilant: it’s a holiday, but nobody goes on vacation, everyone is there with them, their friends, their family, and they can play with each other as much as they want (apart from some schooling). It’s paradise!
While I read that in many cases those in danger isolate themselves more strongly within the community or even leave the community temporarily in order to protect themselves, I also read that the communities get involved in neighbourhood help and feel solidarity with the ”outside world”.
I read about hope that the pandemic will have lasting positive effects (Tamera) – and I read about doubts about that. It does make us impressively aware that globally coordinated action is possible despite economic losses – why are air travel and pleasure travel not restricted simply because they make a disastrous contribution to climate change, why does a pandemic need to happen? – but on the other hand there is growing pressure to make up for the profits missed in this financial year, if possible. Roger from the Pendragon Community in England writes: ”Some people think there may be a positive outcome from this situation, like the more socially responsible attitude that followed World War 2, and a relaxation of our murderous assault on our planet, but I will be surprised, generally I think the pain this is causing is likely to make people even less considerate when they are able to get back to ’normal’.”
Of course, there are also some sceptical people among the residents of the community who disagree with the governmental measures – wonderfully detached I find the mysterious text of the Saor Thoil Clan, where it is made clear ”that we as a clan do not owe allegiance to unfamiliar politicians and their laws” and that one could actually easily obtain an antiserum against the virus… Also in the Valley of Peace in Portugal people are carefree because: ”we have a member who can see the aura and he decides at the moment if and whom we take in”.
eurotopia just represents a very wide variety of worldviews (with clear limits as far as violence, racism or other violations of human dignity are concerned).
And: in each community, perspectives vary greatly. One of the challenges is to find a common ground on a subject that is just not only a private matter if you don’t live a completely private life.
In one of the reports below I read ”Lived joie de vivre is the best immunization” – and that is a prevailing argument. Often the government regulations, which of course have been drawn up quickly and must be simple to interpret, are far from perfect when it comes to the question of what is actually most appropriate at a given time and situation. Communities are often able to better implement the goals of official policies. Communities are already trained to find good regulations for themselves on a voluntary basis, and they consist of people who are just as smart as the rest of society. After all, they are part of it: sick people in communities generally want to be treated in hospital just as much as people who do not live in communities. That is why – in my personal opinion – the regulations within the community do have to deal with and correspond to the risk assessments of government agencies. And on the whole, communities seem to be very cooperative (see below), but for some regulations it makes sense to adapt them (e.g. letting children play outside together who live together anyway).
Worth reading is the report of a community project in the Algarve – where all sorts of stranded people surprised by the pandemic have been picked up and taken into the community. They’ve all been immunised there now; they’ve got the Corona threat behind them.
What I find most moving about the statements gathered below (for example at Solens Hjerte in Denmark) is the compassion and humility in many reports. I do not read arrogance about being in a better position in community than when one has to go through the crisis alone – but a silent gratitude, and a solidarity with those who have to suffer more. This gives me hope in the not unlikely event that we humans will have to cope with other states of emergency in the future. Community dwellers remain connected to their fellow human beings, and the invitation to live in community stands.
And that is what we stand for with the eurotopia Directory.
The Swedish National Association Cohousing NOW
– in Swedish Kollektivhus NU – is an association working to promote collaborative housing and other alternative ways of living. The association supports existing co-housing units as well as groups intending to create new units. Originally formed in 1981, it has recently been revitalised with the prime purpose to inform the public about cohousing as an alternative, and to influence authorities to facilitate the creation and running of such units.
”Kollektivhus NU currently has 42 cohousing units as full members, and 15 organisations working in favour of collaborative housing. There are also a number of individual supporting members.
The over 50 cohousing units that exist in Sweden are mainly the result of civil society campaigns and positive responses from public housing authorities during the 1980s. The existing cohousing units are concentrated to the main urban centres.
Today the trend is again turning in favour of collaborative housing. Although in the last five years only a few new units have been built, more are now on their way especially in Gothenburg and Stockholm. Kollektivhus NU has an active collaboration with SABO – the umbrella organisation Swedish Association of Municipal Housing Companies.”