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Changing norms around housing and everyday life can lead to more sustainable lives

Foto: Unsplash
Published Oct 20, 2021

The climate debate has long had a tendency to individualize responsibility and place great focus on technological development - and painted this as the saviour for the planet. Pernilla Hagbert researches at Department of Urban Planning and Environment and works with the project Gendered Sustainability. The project broadens the view of energy and climate challenges that are linked to gender equality and justice issues and links this to norms about how people live and understand the need for a sustainable change in relation to their everyday life.

Pernilla Hagbert

The project uses an intersectional perspective on the climate and sustainability challenges, as everyday life and power structures are linked and change cannot take place without us connecting them together.

"Our research focuses primarily on the relationship of sustainability, housing and everyday life. There has been a tendency to place the responsibility on the individual when it comes to sustainable change. For example, household recycling is something that comes up in almost every interview with residents as an example of how they interpret sustainability in their everyday lives. Although recycling materials is important in itself, it is far from the most crucial action that residents can or should take to contribute to greater change. However, it is the result of the fact that we have had a discourse that in recent decades individualized responsibility and we can then both feel that we are doing the right thing for ourselves when we recycle, but still we feel bad and feel that we should do more and then it often gets stuck there."

Missing the mark on how to achieve climate and sustainability goals

In the above-mentioned thinking, major aspects are missed about how we live and work and how we should be able to achieve social and environmental sustainability goals, says Pernilla Hagbert.

"It will be problematic. When it comes to the construction and housing sector, there has been a discourse that has leaned towards a technical understanding of how sustainability solutions should be implemented. But the people who live in the houses and their behaviors also affect this. Research has long been ahead on, and also points out, that it is not just about individual behaviors that need to be changed, so-called nudging, but that we must understand how different norms and systems affect housing. So it is not just our technology, or the behaviors of individuals that need to change for a sustainable future. Why we do as we do, how we interact, what the housing market looks like and what responsibility different players take is also of interest here."

Critical analysis of energy, design and behaviors

The project is funded by the Swedish Energy Agency, within the program Design for Everyday Energy Efficiency, which is examining energy, design and behavior. Pernilla Hagbert explains that the project has chosen to question all three topics in order to challenge how we understand the changes we are facing.

"Housing is an important node in everyday life and an important place to lift the conversation and to be able to point out the opportunities and responsibilities that exist. It is not just about energy efficiency, but speaking in broader terms and starting from people's everyday lives. How do we view sustainability in relation to housing? What would the transition to a socially just development within planetary boundaries mean? Can tenancy and tenant-owner associations be an arena for driving change? What is in focus is to address the major changes required on the basis of the everyday life level."

Rental and housing owner associations as an arena for conversion

The project is coming to an end and some sub-results include creating a conversation material aimed at rental and tenant-owner associations.

"Here we want to take advantage of what we have seen in our studies of housing associations, including how commitment to sustainability issues is valued and how a deeper discussion can be stimulated. This is where the start can be to start talking to your neighbors. One of our main results is this material, which is aimed at an intermediate level of collective action that involves doing sustainability together, instead of focusing on the individual level."

As the title of the project reveals, the researchers have adopted an intersectional perspective to see what a more inclusive adjustment could look like.

"The change must be based on an intersectional perspective. It is about shifting from the technological eco-modern that often dominates today, to understanding how different power structures intersect in different ways to reinforce or prevent change. There is a lot of research that shows how women and men as a group use energy. We have realized from the beginning that the interesting thing was to go beyond that, to instead look at the norms and take in intersectional perspectives such as class, age, ethnicity and notions of who the sustainable citizen is."

The home as a window of opportunity for change

When Pernilla Hagbert describes the home, she describes a new norm around housing as a node for our lives. At the same time, she believes that the discussions concerning the home must be able to contain some chafing and friction for us to move forward.

"We talk about the home as a window of opportunity for change. Then it is important taking the dialogue and that the grief and the chafe that arise around climate and environment as well as social justice issues get out. It is not possible to turn one’s head from the fact that different conditions prevail. People who rent their homes already have less income and live on average in a smaller area. What is the minimum for a good, dignified and healthy life?"

There are lots of trends and myths linked to the image of who the environmentally conscious citizen is supposed to be that can be critically highlighted.

"What can such a conversation look like? What am I willing to sacrifice? Status? Class also comes in there. It makes a difference if you can choose to give up or be forced to do so involuntarily. There is an increase in inequality, where more people live in overcrowding while others live in superficial and material abundance."

New narratives about housing and everyday life

How, then, are we to live and work in the future in order for our everyday lives to be more sustainable?

"We must think beyond technology and change our view of the home and housing. By that we do not mean that everyone should live in collective housing or that it will not be important to continue working to reduce the impact in the construction process. We need to see who will make the changes and change power structures that keep the prevailing norms in check. It's not just a matter of recycling our garbage or installing solar panels. For example, it can be about developing different degrees of sharing in our residential areas and cities that can also make it easier for people to make everyday life go together."

Family, health and time are most important to most people

Although some oppose the discourse of sustainability in society, there is a new debate which, according to Pernilla Hagbert, is a bright spot.

"We ask ourselves how we can live in symbiosis with people and nature. For most people, family, health and time are most important. After we peel off all the other stuff, this is where we land in the end. At the same time, we see greater openness and people feel locked in having too many things and some choose voluntary simplicity. It is not always with sustainability as a background but for one's own well-being. There is a greater openness than we often think in the debate about change. There is room for a new type of conversation to enable a society that achieves social goals while staying within our planetary boundaries."

The research in short

  • In the future, we must live smaller, live less resource-intensive, share more, think beyond technology and change our view of the home and housing.
  • An intersectional justice perspective becomes important as certain groups, for example regarding income, gender, etc., have a lower climate footprint, while, for example, those with higher incomes are responsible for a greater climate impact.
  • The change must take place at all levels, but instead of focusing on an individual or purely political level, researchers such as Pernilla Hagbert and her colleagues examine the intermediate level where people can meet and realize their collective responsibility. We must share spaces, things but also share the commitment and ensure that it is made inclusive.

Text: Hanna Kalla

This is the 17th article in the   School of Architecture and the Built Environment ' s new series of articles on selected research, education or collaboration initiatives from each department. You can find the previous articles here:  Archive

Belongs to: School of Architecture and the Built Environment (ABE)
Last changed: Oct 20, 2021