Environment & Urbanization

World leading environmental and urban studies journal

Small Is Necessary: Shared Living on a Shared Planet

Anitra Nelson

Pluto Press



Small Is Necessary is a book-length argument for the premise, related to modern housing, “that coupling shared with small makes greatest social and ecological sense” (page 14). It profiles various examples of deliberately small and shared spaces attempting to forge more environmentally sensible and socially vibrant models of shelter. These include an urban ecovillage in the UK, an environmental living zone in Australia, and a hacker village in Spain. (Indeed, the book focuses almost exclusively on Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.)

Small Is Necessary looks at the rise of recent trends in micro-apartments and tiny houses against a longer historical trajectory, pointing out that it’s only relatively recently that high-income countries began privileging a private housing model based around a nuclear family. This household type isn’t the norm anymore, yet planning regulations in the US, for instance, continue to centre on this model.

Nelson explains that simply small isn’t enough, as some small New York apartments, for example, are still high-consuming, unaffordable, and detrimental to a sense of community. The communal element is crucial to her vision of a community where people are brought together by choice, not merely financial necessity, as well as a shared commitment to sustainability. This distinguishes Nelson’s idealistic communities from the many examples in low-income countries of shared housing and basic services that derive from limited resources. In both cases, however, resourcefulness is needed to make small spaces hospitable, and Nelson gives examples of communes where people live comfortably on reduced incomes, waste and services. These lifestyles might seem unpalatable to some – the residents of Tinkers Bubble, UK eat roadkill, while Christiania is a car-free settlement that salvages materials from other parts of Copenhagen. Yet Nelson presents a picture of residents deliberately avoiding high-consumption lifestyles and feeling more content for it.

Small Is Necessary describes a number of frameworks for building ecologically minded intentional communities, from architect-led cohousing to self-build groups and government-supported social experiments. And it critiques commercially based frameworks, such as coworking/coliving spaces and “tiny homes” that, it argues, fail to live up to their ethical claims. Altogether, these examples show the range of innovation that urbanites are bringing to ideas of compact, community-oriented living spaces. It also offers one suggestion to counter the unsustainable growth of housing sizes in urban spaces around the world.


Further reading:

Buckley, Robert M, Achilles Kallergis and Laura Wainer (2016), “Addressing the housing challenge: avoiding the Ozymandias syndrome”, Environment and Urbanization Vol 28, No 1, available at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0956247815627523.

Patel, Sheela, Jockin Arputham and Sheridan Bartlett (2015), ““We beat the path by walking”: How the women of Mahila Milan in India learned to plan, design, finance and build housing”, Environment and Urbanization Vol 28, No 1, available at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0956247815617440.


Book note prepared by Christine Ro

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