How sustainable living can succeed: Benjamin Görgen examined the practicalities and the potential of communal housing projects

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What will sustainable living in towns and cities be like in the future? Communal

What will sustainable living in towns and cities be like in the future? Communal living could represent a successful approach, says Benjamin Görgen. © Unsplash - Jonas Tebbe

In many cities, there is a shortage of housing, and it is expensive. At the same time, an increasing number of people are moving into cities to live and work. In 2020, around 77.5 percent of the total population of Germany were living in towns and cities. At the same time, the number of single households rose steadily, as did the average living space per person. The consequences are an increasing usage of space, as well as an increase in consumption (including food), in electricity and in heating. Further challenges for urban living include the consequences of global climate change, for example torrential rainfall and heatwaves. In the view of experts, alternative and innovate forms of living together could offer opportunities for meeting these challenges.

In his dissertation at the Institute of Sociology at Münster University, Dr. Benjamin Görgen examined the potential for sustainability that communal forms of living in cities have. Besides ecological aspects, he also looked at the social dimension of sustainability, which is linked to questions of social justice. "It is all about designing communal living in such a way that it benefits everyone involved - both now and in the future," Benjamin Görgen explains. "And in addition to a fair distribution of material and financial resources, a key role is also played by questions of respect and participation."

Communal living comprises a variety of concepts of living together, for example living and working, housing projects for families, multi-generation households, collective and ecological housing, facilities for people with disabilities, and a large number of mixed forms. "These forms of living together vary in many different ways as far as the history of their development, the ownership situation, the way people live together or the composition of the households are concerned," says Görgen.

Most research on the connection between sustainability and communal forms of living has focused on projects in rural areas. Towns and cities have often been neglected in this context, says Görgen - although they play a key role in any social and ecological transformation.

Basing his research on two communal housing projects in urban areas, Görgen, a sociologist, is studying the conditions for realising sustainable living. These projects are an alternative housing project - predominantly student-oriented - and a multi-generation housing project. "For my research I interviewed the residents, did a comprehensive analysis of documents and undertook observation as a participant in both projects," says Görgen to explain his methodological approach.

His results show that in the housing projects studied, the carbon (CO2) footprint in the areas of food, mobility and energy requirements is well below the average for the population of Germany. What can also be observed are increased political participation, an above-average social engagement and, in particular, examples of social integration and mutual support.

At the same time, there are differences between the two projects as regards their overall conditions, their lifestyles, and the ecological and social effects they have. While the low levels of emissions in the student-oriented project are connected with, among other things, the smaller living space per person as a result of sharing bathrooms, kitchens and other communal spaces, in the multi-generation housing project they tend more to be attributable to a good energetic constitution of the building. "A sustainable lifestyle is not an individual matter, but is characterised by a complex interaction between socio-material arrangements, subjects, discourses and social relations," Görgen explains.

"Benjamin Görgen is doing pioneering work, and he is contributing to a better understanding of the opportunities and barriers in realising more sustainable forms of living," comments Prof. Matthias Grundmann, who researches into socialisation and communities at the Institute of Sociology at Münster University and is supervising Benjamin Görgen’s PhD. The findings, he says, are important for urban planning and housing policies, he says. Ultimately, he adds, it is the people themselves who are living in communal housing projects who also profit from the practical examples given."

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