By Kate Lambert
The phrase “Small Is Beautiful” was coined to describe ways of living that are sustainable and person-centred. What does that look like when we apply it to housing? How can we best meet people’s need for housing and happiness while sustaining the environment?
When I first moved to Canada from the UK, I was genuinely confused about the size of things in Canada. Why are all the cars so big? The houses? Canadians have the second most floor space per person in the world (after the US) and yet 42% of us still want more space. Detached homes are still the most common form of housing. The UK built its most spacious homes in the 1970s and has been reducing since then. But looking at the majority world puts our spacious Western homes in perspective. The UN figures in the 1990s took the average size of unit in countries and divided by the family size to get an average floor space for dwellings. 58% of the more developed countries had at least 65 sq metres per person and none of the least developed had that much. In Canada the average home size is 1,792 sq feet and the average family size is somewhere around 3.
Cities are different. We expect less space when we live in cities. This (very cool) interactive tool shows the personal space in cities varies wildly. The majority world still has the cities with the least personal space, but Paris is close. One could argue that the proximity to services, culture, fun, activities, work and higher wages make up for the lack of space. Billions of us chose to live in cities and it’s a growing proportion. We are choosing less space with more opportunities. The largest urban growth is in India, China and Nigeria. Which may mean that changing economies are the main push.
Does more space or less space make us happier? It would be nice if there was a simple answer to that. But it’s very complicated and you can’t force people to live in different homes as part of an experiment. All we can look at is correlation and self-reports. The short answer is that space doesn’t make us a lot happier but does increase our satisfaction with our housing. Small increases can be found in happiness following a move but not as significant as something like getting married. And it’s sexed. Women don’t get as happy as men about moving to bigger houses. Studies attribute this to gendered attitudes to status based on house size. I’m curious about who is cleaning that extra space. We know commuting makes us miserable. If we live in a smaller place, closer to work, chances are we will be happier.
Privacy is also a concern. If places are soundproof, warm, dry and safe, then the size is less important. Compare the very smallest apartments. So-called ‘cage’ or ‘coffin’ apartments are as little as 4.5 sq feet of noise, bedbugs and being alone in a crowd for less than $200 a month. Literally warehousing human beings. The NGO SoCo is documenting and supporting people in these tiny spaces. The 80 sq feet spaces in Paris and Manhattan look positively luxurious in comparison. These very small homes raise concerns about fire safety and building standards. If people are subdividing and renting smaller and smaller spaces we need to make sure the law keeps up. People always find odd solutions to legal requirements. In NYC you aren’t allowed to build walls to subdivide because bedrooms have to have windows. So, roommates are using companies that will install partitions that don’t meet the ceiling or wall to subdivide and stay within the letter of the law.
There are similarly tiny cubicles in Japan which are much more expensive than the stacked accommodation in Hong Kong but a similar size. The difference appears to be who the renters are. In HK a lot of the renters are older men, on government assistance, expecting to stay in these places indefinitely. Many of the renters in Japan seem to be younger and see the cubicle living as a temporary step on a road to success. However that’s not the whole story, recessions and unemployment have pushed many people into these tiny spaces. Tokyo is a very expensive housing market. And as we know, location is everything. This 188 sq foot home in North London was on the market for £275,000 ($460,000 CAD) and it sold. For half a million dollars I wouldn’t expect to climb on the kitchen worksurface to get into my shelf to sleep but ‘location, location, location’. Vancouver has a triple whammy of issues; comparatively low wages, very steep housing prices and an increasing population because of desirability.
Can smaller units and homes solve the issue of affordability in Canadian cities? Maybe. Possibly unsurprisingly given Canadian penchants for detached housing, if you look at tiny homes in Canada, you see image after image of little sheds on wheels, in forests and in gardens. Free-standing in space; not solving the issue at all. And planners and NIMBYism are also an issue. City planners don’t want to allow micro-apartments and local home owners object. People worry about tenements and fire hazards and parking. And instead of solving these problems with social inclusion, updated fire code and decent mass transit, they ban small units. Seattle, the birthplace of micro-living in North America, has now made it almost impossible to build them. Effectively forcing the young and lower income people out. It’s not a choice between a small or large apartment in Vancouver or Toronto for young people. It’s the choice between a small apartment or nothing.
Rather than succumb to negative ideas of small-space living, let’s look at the benefits and solutions:
- Obviously a 300 sq. foot apartment costs less than a 600 sq. foot apartment. But it’s also cheaper to heat and cool. Utilities, taxes, even cleaning supplies should be cheaper.
- Smaller impact living. I accumulate less stuff, so I live with a smaller footprint. I can share amenities with other micro-homes, so I get more for less.
- The environment. Denser cities are greener. Less sewage, road, power lines, water usage and communication costs. Densification also eats up less of the incredible green space that Canada is famous for. Urban sprawl is a plague. Calgary is a prime example of building out, not up.
- Sort out transportation. Seriously, let’s literally get on the mass transit train. You shouldn’t need a car if you live in a city. In London, Hong Kong or New York, car ownership is small. Less than 50% in NYC, 30% in London and there are only half-a-million licenced vehicles in HK; a city of 7.34 million. Compare that to a whopping 72% of Toronto households that have a car.
Small is beautiful. And if we can change our culture to embrace high-density, low-impact cities, built for people not cars, we can keep our wilderness wild and make our cities green.