Residential Tower Blocks as a Solution for Degrowth Housing

by Emma River-Roberts.

Alternative communities such as Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in America, Sunseed Desert Technology in Spain, and Narara Ecovillage in Australia show how radical creativity and conviviality can create spaces for housing solutions to emerge that are aligned with degrowth’s vision. But these living conditions are not feasible for everyone: people have existing social ties in their hometowns, employment may prevent relocation, and large-scale migration from one area to the next could deplete social networks for those who remain. Yet this doesn’t mean that degrowth’s housing solutions are limited to alternative communities. Conversely, what it does mean is that we must look to the transformative potential of existing infrastructures. This piece points to residential tower blocks in England as an example of how this can be achieved, drawing inspiration from successful changes that have been implemented elsewhere.

Co-Operatives and Self-Governance

Many residential tower blocks (sometimes known as high-rises) have fallen prey to chronic underfunding, confining many to unsafe living conditions (with the Grenfell tragedy serving as England’s most tragic example), and without local access to vital services. Raising living standards for all would be possible by forming housing co-operatives, empowering communities to decide for themselves how best to manage their places of residence. This would lower the cost of living there too: for example, at the Stanford Housing Co-Operative in London the standard monthly rent is £260, 87% lower than the city’s average monthly rent of £1,975. For those without the means to independently fund the start-up costs associated with forming a co-operative, mutual-aid networks such as Radical Routes offer ethical loans to its members, meaning that the exploitative for-profit banking system can be avoided entirely.

Self-governance need not end at housing and can be extended to utilities as well. Narara Ecovillage’s residents obtained a water utility license to manage their own drinking water, recycled water and sewage treatment systems, and in El Pumarejo, Spain, wireless broadband connections are shared with other neighbours and strangers in the area. However, when it comes to taking ownership of utilities in England the largest challenge will hinge on the reluctance of companies to relinquish ownership, or even permit behaviour (such as sharing broadband) that will result in them losing revenue.

Spatial Transformations

When thinking about transforming homes through degrowth’s vision, we can look to the many ways space in existing tower blocks have been adapted as a source of inspiration. The Marina One development in Singapore was designed to allow rainwater to be harvested from its roofs, terraces and façade which can then be used for irrigation. A biodiversity garden on the ground floor creates its own microclimate, in addition to injecting the beauty of the natural world for people to enjoy. Carving out spaces for people to interact with nature’s elements is vital, especially as almost 10 million people in England live in areas with very limited access to green space, and a 2019 study uncovered that one in three city children have never been for a walk in the countryside. Engagement with green spaces promotes positive social interaction, reduces stress and increases happiness. Providing this within people’s own communities can help to create, strengthen and maintain convivial relations through a shared increase in wellbeing, in addition to having the added benefit of increasing local biodiversity in the area.

Locally produced food in England is often costly, making it an inaccessible option for many. Yet rooftop spaces can be turned into vegetable plots for people to grow their own food. In New York, the Eagle Street Rooftop has had great success with this, and they have since branched out to grow their own chillies and turn them into hot sauce to sell. Not only would this give people access to fresh produce, but turning them into foodstuffs to sell to others provides scope to generate an income and engage in creative activities. The food that is grown can be paid for by working on the vegetable plot, offering a donation (as they may not have the time or skills required to work on the plot), or be given for free to those based on need. As the organisers of the Eagle Street Rooftop noted, an additional benefit is that the farm can hold over 1.5 inches of rain, of which capturing it served to naturally cool down the building below, curbing the use of electricity and subsequent environmental impact of energy consumption.

Knowledge is required to bring these visions to fruition. Some residents may already hold these skills and can share their expertise with others, but in cases where help is needed other locals nearby, or even organisations could offer their time to impart their wisdom – perhaps in exchange for the produce grown from the rooftop, or by gifting the residents’ own skills to others. This form of engagement could also be used as the basis of communal events for the residents, such as gatherings where people cook for others, hold debates about pressing issues – or absolutely anything people feel inspired to do.

Final Reflections

It is fundamental for these conversations to factor in the dynamics of local social networks. Sometimes, certain demographics are excluded from housing co-operatives, compounding existing inequities by marginalising certain members of the community. Therefore, there must be an equal representation of people that reflect the residents’ heterogeneity (such as social class, race, gender, disability), as well as creating democratic ways for their voices to be equally heard and respected.

All of the components are there to transform tower blocks into housing compatible with a degrowth society, it is just a matter of putting the pieces together. Of course, this is all far easier said than done! But all radical changes in society were born from a single idea, and there is every reason to believe that radical thinking holds the key to bringing communities back into convivial social terrains with one another.


Emma River-Roberts is a student on the Degrowth: Ecology, Economics and Policy masters at ICTA-UAB, and has a Social Anthropology masters from Sussex University. Her research interests include degrowth and the working class, and exploring the impact environmental policies have on local social networks and citizen-state relations. She also works at the Post Growth Institute. You can follow her on Twitter at: @ER_Roberts_

The opinions expressed in the text do not necessarily reflect those of R&D, but are those of the author.