The impact of the shrinking household on the environment | Rachael Scicluna

Rachael Scicluna | The phenomenon of one-person households and alternative living arrangements are now becoming urgent matters in policy terms due to their environmental consequences

Rachael Scicluna is a consultant and lecturer in the Faculty of the Built Environment, University of Malta 

At first glance, the relationship between the shrinking household, its consumption practices and climate change may seem a strange mix of social and environmental factors.

At the last International Social Housing Festival held in Helsinki, as an active member of the UNECE Committee Bureau on Urban Development, Housing and Land Management, I had the opportunity to discuss how affordable climate-neutral housing based on cohousing models can be a solution in Malta.

There is compelling statistical evidence indicating a global transition towards smaller households. The average number of people living in the same address has been sharply diminishing for a large majority of the world’s countries since the 1900s. Around a third of households in North America, Europe and Japan are now of only one person, and indicators show that this trend is forecasted to continue. Like other post-industrial countries Malta is also showing such indicators.

The phenomenon of one-person households and alternative living arrangements are now becoming urgent matters in policy terms due to their environmental consequences and have not been theorised or explored at a housing policy level. As larger households consume fewer resources per person due to economies of scale, shrinking households have been named among the major problems facing climate change mitigation efforts. Smaller households tend to increase (direct and indirect) energy and resource consumption, domestic waste, production of CO2 and biodiversity losses across a range of national contexts. In reality, people living alone do, own, make and consume resource-intensive things alone rather than together. These mechanisms mean that increased solo living fundamentally affects domestic life and domestic resource consumption.

The above suggests that it is time for the local and international housing sector to rethink the way housing developments, including neighbourhoods and their amenities are designed and planned by taking the current changing household arrangements and their shrinkage as real social and environmental indicators. Building more one-bedroomed apartments is not the solution for the obvious reasons of high consumption use and the dire implications related to social fragmentation, isolation and loneliness.

This shift in finding 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 industry can itself be the driver of certain abuse, inequalities and injustices especially those related to energy poverty based on class, gender, ethnicity, and race. My point is, that without a functioning housing system based on a justly governed system which sees a direct relationship between the domestic lives of people, housing policy, financial prosperity, inclusive infrastructure and good health, our society cannot truly flourish. Our homes need to be put at the centre 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 developments and urban policies. The co-housing design typology may be the right solution as it offers the possibility of implementing shared energy resources, while providing a good balance between social interaction and privacy. The simultaneously share of amenities in multiple-person households of appliances, water and energy usage has environmental benefits as it reduces the overall carbon footprint through sharing as opposed to usage in private households. Additionally, this housing typology is promoting the idea that good housing is also about community engagement.

Moreover, common resource use can offer a window of opportunity in collecting environmental data based on domestic life. This collected data can become a new parameter that feeds into real time decision-making processes, enabling us to think of 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 with what is provided by the state, market and the community. A household may not need a car if there is excellent public transport available; green spaces and allotments may compensate private gardens. Shifting towards common resource use in new housing developments can be ideal even in understanding the health value of domestic space.

In short, national housing policy and the private housing industry in Malta can really benefit by including the demographic, social and environmental dimension at policy level and planning stage. Often these factors are side-lined where the emphasis is more on the importance of the hardware of cities and its economic outcome rather than the wellbeing of our society.