Rachael Scicluna is a consultant and lecturer at the Faculty of Built Environment, University of Malta
At first glance, the relationship between the shrinking household, its consumption practices, and climate change may seem like an odd mix of social and environmental factors.
At the last International Social Housing Festival held in Helsinki, as an active member of the Bureau of the UNECE Committee on Urban Development, Housing and Spatial Planning, I had the opportunity to discuss how affordable and climate-neutral housing based on co-living models can be a solution in Malta.
There is compelling statistical evidence indicating a global shift to smaller households. The average number of people living at the same address has fallen sharply for a large majority of countries around the world since the 1900s. About a third of households in North America, Europe and Japan are now made up of a single person, and the indicators show that this trend should continue. Like other post-industrial countries, Malta also has such indicators.
The phenomenon of single person households and alternative living arrangements is now becoming a pressing issue in policy terms due to their environmental consequences and has not been theorized or explored at the level of housing policy. Since larger households consume fewer resources per person due to economies of scale, shrinking households have been cited among the main issues facing climate change mitigation efforts. Small households tend to increase (directly and indirectly) energy and resource consumption, domestic waste, CO2 production and biodiversity loss in various national contexts. In reality, people living alone do, own, manufacture and consume resource-intensive things alone rather than together. These mechanics mean that increasing solo life fundamentally affects domestic life and the consumption of domestic resources.
The above suggests that it is time for the local and international housing sector to rethink the way housing developments, including neighborhoods and their amenities, are designed and planned taking the current changing household arrangements and their shrinkage as true social and environmental indicators. Building more one-bedroom apartments is not the solution for the obvious reasons of high consumption and disastrous consequences related to social fragmentation, isolation and loneliness.
This shift in seeking energy-efficient solutions through planning and design requires political will and a regulated housing system based on good governance. It is important to highlight that the housing sector can itself be the driving force behind certain abuses, inequalities and injustices, especially those related to energy poverty based on class, gender, ethnicity and race. What I mean is that without a functioning housing system based on a justly governed system that sees a direct relationship between people’s domestic lives, housing policy, financial prosperity, inclusive infrastructure, and good health , our society cannot really flourish. Our homes should be placed at the center of our society.
The above requires an intersectional approach to developing climate-neutral housing policies. This can also be extended to institutional decision-making and the planning of housing estates and urban policies. The cohabitation design typology may be the right solution as it offers the possibility of implementing shared energy resources, while offering a good balance between social interaction and privacy. Simultaneous sharing of amenities in multi-person households in terms of appliances, water and energy use has environmental benefits as it reduces the overall carbon footprint through sharing as opposed to use in private households. In addition, this housing typology promotes the idea that good housing is also a matter of community engagement.
Moreover, the common use of resources can provide a window of opportunity for the collection of environmental data based on domestic life. This collected data can become a new parameter that feeds real-time decision-making processes, allowing us to think about a health value of domestic space and economic growth. The goods and services available in households, and the things considered normal to produce and consume in them, are interdependent on what is provided by the state, the market and the community. A household may not need a car if it has excellent public transport; green spaces and vegetable gardens can compensate for private gardens. The shift to common resource use in new residential developments can be ideal even for understanding the health value of home space.
In short, national housing policy and the private housing industry in Malta can really benefit from the inclusion of the demographic, social and environmental dimension at the policy level and at the planning stage. Often, these factors are overlooked where the focus is more on the importance of cities’ hardware and its economic results than on the well-being of our society.