Food for Thought

Anitra Nelson:

Community Conversation; Eco-collaborative Housing and De-growth

June 2018

I am really happy starting off a discussion here in my hometown, an incredible space of creative and sustainability-oriented activism with a culture not only of resistance to McDonalds and pokies, but also of defending our natural and built heritage in our landscape. We are building a regenerative culture as our experiences of struggle, defeat and success are passed on through generations who need to keep fighting for social and environmental justice. These conversations and many much more informal aspects of our everyday life in the Castlemaine region are part of that process.


Today, we face massive environmental and economic challenges, so big, that they call on us to not only to imagine, but also to create, a new kind of world. That new world would need to be much more environmentally sustainable and socially fair and just. I think it will be us at the grassroots who will make these changes; I think that governments and markets are incapable of that task at hand.


That doesn’t mean I would give up on asking and partnering with government and even businesses to achieve certain goals and projects. But I certainly wouldn’t necessarily expect them to ‘dance with us’ or to dance to our tune. So, if we are to achieve change, we need to engage in direct action, demanding and achieving the creation of safe and impressive spaces that are all ours, where we nurture collective governance and shared self-management.


Small is Necessary


Today, I just quickly refer to my book released earlier this year Small is Necessary: Shared Living on a Shared Planet — because I will talk on it at a Castlemaine library organised event at the Town Hall on Thursday at 5.30pm. Small is Necessary is on what I call ‘eco-collaborative housing’ and focuses on how to achieve small ecological footprints and low impact developments through sharing households that economise on space — making them, ideally, more environmentally sustainable and affordable.


The book covers a range of cases in the English-speaking world along with European examples and I argue that eco-collaborative housing ought to take a strong role in urban and rural redevelopment because it fulfils key criteria with respect to affordability, environmental sustainability and conviviality. The idea to write the book came as I was researching affordable and sustainable housing in the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University in Melbourne and saw the relevance of drawing on the experiences I had of living in two Australian cooperatives and staying in intentional communities in the United States for, accumulatively, a decade. I came to the topic as an insider with a deep understanding and passion as well as being able to cast a scholarly eye on the development and future of eco-collaborative housing.


The ‘small’ in small is necessary points to the key criterion for me of us creating smaller, i.e. one planet footprints, that simple living can achieve. In Australia we have been building some of the biggest average-sized new houses in the world. Even though households shrank through the twentieth century from around 4.5 to 2.5 people, houses grew to become the typical McMansion. So we probably need regulations over maximum sizes for houses now rather than minimum ones.


Another solution, is for co-living in the big spaces we now have. So Small is Necessary catalogues a gamut of shared housing models from living with a couple of other non-kin in rented or owned dwellings, through to sharing land and associated activities, cohousing, eco-communes, ecovillages, and politically oriented squats. It’s about pulling down fences and working as neighbourhoods.


I think that the most inspiring cases are housing solutions with utopian drivers and outcomes dreamed up and realised by activists, such as the cultural and sustainability based ufaFabrik in Berlin, and the rural Twin Oaks in Virginia that strives for collective sufficiency. Such grassroots groups united in Occupy!-style to form typically ecovillages independent of both state and market — drawing on rich socialist, feminist and anarchist traditions but with a contemporary concern to address climate change through radical innovations, frugal and convivial living. They have formed communities that point towards a community mode of production.


All this is a good introduction to the main topic, ‘housing for degrowth’, that I’ll talk about tonight. The degrowth movement was born in Europe and is still centred there. Here in Australia there are scholar-activists like myself who identify with the degrowth movement. Samuel Alexander from the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute and retired sociologist from the University of New South Wales Ted Trainer are prominent advocates of degrowth but we haven’t formed a formal movement here. That’s partly because we all have our fingers in many pies and to some extent achieve degrowth principles through other movements and networks.


So, what exactly is degrowth?


So, what exactly is degrowth? ‘Degrowth’, a type of ‘postgrowth’, is becoming a strong political, practical and cultural movement for downscaling and transforming societies beyond capitalist growth and non-capitalist productivism to achieve global sustainability and to satisfy everyone’s basic needs.


To explain more, I will draw on the second chapter of our collection coming out in the Routledge Environmental Humanities series later this year, a book called Housing for Degrowth: Principles, Models, Challenges and Opportunities that I co-edited with François Schneider. François has established and lives in a degrowth centre on the border of France and Spain. In the second chapter François writes:


Degrowth challenges the hegemony of growth and calls for a democratically-led proportional and redistributive downscaling of production and consumption as a means to achieve environmental sustainability, social justice and well-being (Demaria et al. 2013). A consensus for degrowth centres on reducing the exploitation of natural resources and humans, because ‘planetary boundaries’ and social limits to growth are being surpassed. Furthermore, degrowth implies other types of institutions and ethics, and an efficiency, which is frugal or based on reducing inputs and outputs.


Before I mentioned Ted Trainer and Sam Alexander — these two advocates of degrowth have very much emphasised ‘simple living’, or what Ted calls the Simpler Way. I come from a much more collective approach to living and creating change. To pick up again from François’ second chapter:


Degrowth involves a multiplicity of actors working in complementary ways from the bottom-up (from the individual to the collective) and from the top-down (from the collective to the individual). These actors include, amongst others, practitioners, researchers, artists and activists. Degrowth involves a set of values typically encompassing the search for more justice, recuperation of ecosystems, care for future generations, preference for convivial, non-utilitarian human relations, the deepening of democracy, the importance of wellbeing and giving full meaning to our lives. Degrowth is about keeping the functional; a great deal of social and low-tech innovation, so-called ‘frugal innovation’; a bottom-up refusal of certain technologies and reduction of others; the integration of limits; and the adjustment to a new systemic reality.


Now I expect many people in this room, even if not card-carrying members of the degrowth movement, actively practice degrowth. Think Lot 19, think Mount Alexander Sustainability Group, think Castlemaine Permaculture, Local Lives Global Matters and Localising Leanganook.


What distinguishes degrowth from similar, say transition towns and sustainability movements, is its foci on economic growth and political change: ‘system change not climate change’. Degrowth is anti-capitalist. Still, having just returned from a ‘postcapitalist’ conference in Montreal, I am painfully aware that there are lots of questions around what we might mean by saying ‘postgrowth’ and ‘post-capitalism’. I belong to those who think we need to go beyond the state and beyond the market but there seem to be lots of activists who think of ‘postgrowth’ and ‘post-capitalism’ more in terms of changing the ways in which the state and market function. So those queries remain in the degrowth movement.


To get back to housing, what François and I found was a lot of literature on sustainable planning and housing addressing decarbonisation and dematerialisation of the built environment, but most took a housing for growth approach. So our new collection Housing for Degrowth developed out of a session of the same name at the Fifth International Degrowth Conference in Budapest in September 2016. We had an open call, headhunted some people who’d already contributed significant works in this area and chased up everyone who presented a paper related to our themes. In the end we even had to knock back some and still ended up with 25 contributors.


The book


The collection functions as an introduction and in-depth interrogation of how urban and rural housing expressing degrowth principles and goals can be established. The book frames the application of degrowth principles: simple living for all; housing justice; housing sufficiency; reducing demand (i.e. market demand vs need); ecological housing and planning; debates around urbanisation (and decentralisation); household forms and anti-capitalist (versus monetary) values; and financial relations that insulate collective property from market prices for housing and speculation.


Our collective perspective offers a unifying narrative for the institutionalisation of housing for degrowth applied by a range of citizen, professional and political actors and actions. We see housing as a basic need and human right; we argue that too much housing for some must be curbed so all can live in decent conditions. We see housing as offering physical shelter, personal security, comfort and conviviality.


To give you an idea of the range of cases that we refer to, they include communities such as Christiania (aka Freetown) in Copenhagen that distribute housing on fair and equal bases. There’s a chapter on two cases of communal support in self-building, which catalogues all the planning, building and financial hurdles of being alternative builders. There’s a chapter analysing a high-profile campaign against the demolition of a social housing estate in London, it discusses the centrality of the politics of valuation in the wider ‘demolition versus refurbishment’ debate. In particular, it shows how the construction sector offered weak economic arguments for demolishing estates and building new ones, when those living in the estates would have been more satisfied with retrofitting and refurbishing their homes, and the environmental outcomes would have been positive instead of negative.


April Anson critically addresses how tiny houses do, might do and do not contribute to degrowth ideals. A tiny house builder and resident herself, April charges the North American movement with mimicking the ‘frontier rhetoric of pioneering, homesteading and individual freedom tied to histories of class and racial violence’ and argues that ‘the tiny house miniaturises instead of challenges class distinctions’. She sees degrowth and sustainability movements having the potential to shake mainstream imaginaries, specifically of our challenged and uncertain future, and argues that they encourage transformative integration of humans and nature.


Australia architect Wendy Christie and housing expert John Salong critically report on Vanuatu where ‘there is no consciously labelled degrowth movement’ but the typical self-sufficient, convivial and non-market based ni-Vanuatu way of life might be considered a living example of degrowth. They show how collectively building simple, appropriate and affordable dwellings with natural local and recycled building materials expresses low impact living. They highlight outcomes from the dramatic 2015 Tropical Cyclone Pam and grassroots ni-Vanuatu achievements post-cyclone to show the advantages of the frugal and collective do-it-ourselves resilience (in contrast to the top-down and market based official response).


The chapter on squatting points out that squat might serve as a ‘social centre’ with some housing in it, or a housing squat might constitute activities and relationships that make it a visible part of a social movement. For example, activists in the well-known Platform of People Affected by Mortgages association squat buildings to rehouse those evicted from their homes, which constitutes one of the movement’s strategies to denounce commodification of housing. Squatting to fulfil a basic housing need is easier for most to understand than the social need for self-organisation that motivates activists agitating for radical social change to address issues such as economic inequalities and environmental unsustainability. This chapter shows how many of the politicised squats have interests aligned to degrowth as they occupy otherwise abandoned buildings, often renovating or retrofitting them.


There’s another Global South perspective from the point of view and current practice of an innovative architecture studio in the increasingly urbanised high-tech city Bengalura (formerly Bangalore), South India. Vishwanath shows not only how natural, renewable and erstwhile waste resources of the city can be used to build new sustainable dwellings but also how deskilled, competitive and precarious building industry work can be transformed to encourage self-building and sharing between households in the building stage. She offers a model contribution to degrowth discourse from and for professionals that, in this case, integrates well with social and solidarity economy and sharing city approaches.


The chapter on housing struggles in Rome centres on people who occupy buildings either for need and/or political reasons. The authors develop an argument that they go beyond arguing for a right to housing in the city — a right which is increasingly being denied residents of global cities such as Melbourne, with gentrification, unaffordable rents and homelessness rising. Through interviews they show that marginalised residents argue not only for greater access to housing and services but also question the ways in which the state and market function to exclude and unfairly distribute materials such as concrete and non-renewable energy. Interviewees expressed discomfort with categories of ‘private’ and ‘public’ property, arguing instead for community-based action and use-rights of land and buildings as commons — sharing without ownership, sharing fairly and on the basis of needs.


There’s an analyses of the German umbrella Mietshäuser Syndikat of housing cooperatives, residential cooperatives that develop in semi-autonomous ways to promote affordable and self-managed housing within processes and practices that express collective solidarity. The syndikat is a company that has a share in collectively owned houses ensuring they will not return to the speculative market even if the current households collapse. They have developed a model whereby established households support new ones and the syndikat has grown to hundreds of houses and households and is still growing. Radical Routes is a similar UK case.


In a final chapter, I compare and contrast two eco-collaborative housing models in terms of their processes and levels of collective governance; their models of land ownership and use rights; and their degree of collective sufficiency. These are just a few of the contributions that offer imagined and real transformations breaking through the dominant narrative and practice of mainstream housing for growth.


We argue that squatting, sharing and self-building are some of the activities that governments need to enable through changes in policies and new regulations. In short, our collection addresses key challenges of unaffordable, unsustainable and anti-social housing today, international case studies showing how housing for degrowth is based on sufficiency and conviviality, living a ‘one planet lifestyle’ with a common ecological footprint.


Community Involvement in Decision Making –

Discussion Paper

Prepared by: Lexi Randall-L’Estrange Date: July 2018

This discussion paper relates to the event ‘Could a ‘Standing Citizen Chamber’ restore trust, confidence and resilience within local communities?’ held in Castlemaine on July 24th 2018. Relevant links can be found at the end of the paper.

Event Overview In July 2018, 16 central Victorians came together to discuss the opportunity presented by changes to the Local Government Act as well ‘Standing Citizen’s Chambers’ as one model of deliberative decision making. The conversation was led by Cathy Wheel, who spoke to the opportunity that deliberative democracy offers for trust and resilience, Geoff Turner, who spoke to the changes to the Local Council Act, and Lexi Randall- L’Estrange, Democracy for Dinner Convenor, facilitated the conversation.

The opportunities presented in the Local Government Bill Exposure Bill that were focused on in this event were: Part 3 – Council decision making, Division 1 Community accountability – Community engagement policy (page 53), and Part 4 – Planning and financial management, Division 1 Strategic planning – Community Vision (page 74).

Discussion Conversation flowed from questions to both of the presenters as well as semi-structured whole of group and small group conversations. The ideas put forward are captured below.

High level statements and ideas

– Councils will be obliged by the new Local Government Act to set up a community

engagement policy. We believe this is a great opportunity for the community to participate in this process. – The community wants an opportunity to be involved in decision making, not just ‘advising’.

People present felt they had previously been ‘victims of community consultation’. – We are not asking for funding, we are asking for process. There is an enormous amount of

talent and time in the community and it can be harnessed to support engagement

Community Involvement in Decision Making – Discussion Paper Democracy for Dinner

Democracy for Dinner July 2018, Castlemaine Victoria


Democracy for Dinner E: W:

processes. If we can collectively decide on a process that works, then all stakeholders (State and local government, business, service delivery organisations, community groups, philanthropy, individuals etc) can work on the resourcing approach. – The needs, concerns and opportunities for our community extend beyond what the Shire

has the authority or resources to deliver. We want processes and a vision that is inclusive of our whole lives individual and collectively, including issues like physicality, liveability, access, environment, heritage, economy etc. When the Shire can’t deliver certain initiatives (because of scope or resources), then it can support the community to advocate / apply for funding / seek alternative courses of action. – There is a desire to work on an iterative process that helps the Shire to develop their trust in

the community and get comfortable sharing power. Building trust, respect and communication goes both ways – the Shire (elected and employed) need to learn to trust residents and residents need to learn to trust them in return. We want to know – what issues are the Shire facing? How do we show the Shire we can help? How do we work in a way that is complimentary and supportive? – If we can’t make new models of decision making and engagement work in this community

then where else could it! We have so much underutilised social capital.

Shire-led community “engagement” Concerns were shared that the engagement policy developed would not in itself be an inclusive process. There is a desire to work together on the pending engagement policy to decide:

– Definition of “engagement” – What issues are the priority for being addressed by the Shire – What issues matter to whom in the community (and therefore who should be engaged in

decisions that impact them) – What issues will the community be involved in – Which engagement methodologies are used for what type of issues (mindful of inclusion and

reaching the people who don’t opt-in to consultation. Balancing face-to-face / online). – Level of power and authority is granted to the community in each engagement methodology – How are the processes monitored and by whom – What are our metrics of success – Who / how is accountability managed regarding delivering on community advice / decisions An overarching desire for transparency, proactive communication to the community, and an inclusive process for all of the above.

Issues that matter A small group got together in the breakout session to discuss issues that mattered to them, as an example of an issues analysis. Issues raised were:

– Disability and social inclusion – Affordable housing policy (co-housing, public and social housing, tiny houses) – Compulsory inclusionary zoning

Community Involvement in Decision Making – Discussion Paper Democracy for Dinner


Democracy for Dinner E: W:

– Local waste recycling facilities to create local jobs and provide resources (e.g. materials for

local artists and industry) – Retirement village (private industry and non-profit partnership, Shire land) – Piloting and supporting new processes for democracy – Shire tendering / consulting / procurement policy (reduce outsourcing, keep it local, develop

local economy, develop local capacity) – Far better community transport including walking, cycling, public transport, gopher policy. – Secondary education – Local jobs / economy – Policy and transparency for selling council-owned land, focus on community infrastructure

Representation We discussed what constitutes adequate / fair representation of the community in a sortition (random selection) model

– Recent census results were proposed as a basis – What constitutes diversity? Identity diversity, cognitive diversity, what else? – What other dynamics could reflect a diversity of views / values? E.g. old / new guard

Other topics / comments

– We want an approach that builds capacity of community and leverages the talent, good will,

time and other resources available – We want to explore successful models e.g. Voices for Indi and build off these cases (success

and failure). A participant mentioned the Toowoomba engagement model used in the 90’s to develop a plan for Toowoomba 2050 that was successful in mobilising investment for the airport and other major community-identified needs. – We want to explore “How do we motivate people to get involved in the process?” and “How

do we help people see ‘community’ for what it is and can be?” – We want easy access to information i.e. how do we find out about Shire owned land so we

can have a collective understanding of community assets?

Ideas / Projects The following ideas and projects were put forward during the dinner conversation for further consideration:

– A community-wide skills analysis (could be extended to other assets / resources) – A community-wide issues analysis (all issues, not just those in Shire remit) – Development of collective values to guide community processes that can be enacted in

operational decision making – Pilot the sortition model on a particular issue that is important to the community – Shire, with supporting from Democracy for Dinner and/or other active community groups to

do community engagement and surveying. – Over 90 groups submitted for community grants – we should reach out to them proactively

in the first instance. Build from there as a means to gather diverse views.

Community Involvement in Decision Making – Discussion Paper Democracy for Dinner


Democracy for Dinner E: W:

– Find out who in government and industry is looking to pilot new models of community

engagement and position Castlemaine as a destination to test and pilot e.g. ‘living lab’ (as a means of bringing resources in).

Limitations Attendance at the events is open to anyone however time of day (evenings), cost associated to attend, and the nature of the topic, means that the attendees don’t reflect a cross-section of the community (nor is this the intention of dinner format events). As such, the views presented in this document are of the attendees only, and are not being presented as a reflection of the community.

Every effort has been made to ensure the events are inclusive and accessible. All venues used are wheelchair accessible and cost of food is $25-$35 depending on the venue. Democracy for Dinner is volunteer run and has no funding, so participants must cover their own costs to attend. Grant funding is being considered to increase the inclusivity and sustainability of the model.

Thank you Thank you to the presenters who worked on developing the content for the event, Cathy Wheel and Geoff Turner. Thank you to Castlemaine District Community House for access to the venue and Murnong Mammas for the catering. Thank you to participants Adam Meehan and Lucy Kendall for volunteering to serve food and clean-up which made the event possible.

Links July event ‘Could a ‘Standing Citizen Chamber’ restore trust and resilience?’ article including link to event brief (paragraph 1), resources and case studies: March event ‘How can we do democracy better?’ (in partnership with Localising Leanganook) in video: in-conversation-with-gen-barlow-and-cam-walker/

Context Following two years of D4D community dinner conversations on democracy and policy, and the first public format event in March 2018 held in partnership with Localising Leanganook (see above), significant energy has be catalysed in the Mount Alexander Shire Community and surrounding areas to take practical steps towards improving democracy. Two ideas presented at the March event have gained traction. The first is a development of a community vision to support collective action, developed through a community-led process. The second was adopting community engagement approaches that engage ‘beyond the usual suspects’ (self-selected groups), and consideration of the ‘kitchen table model’ adopted by Voices for Indi as a means of creating a welcoming environment that is proactively inclusive of the diverse views of the community. These projects are being explored with Democracy Working Group partners (Democacy for Dinner & Localising Leanganook).

Community Involvement in Decision Making – Discussion Paper Democracy for Dinner


The February 2018 conversation was with economist Warwick Smith.

The Political Economy of Housing.

Watch the video here: