The Tiny House Movement: A progressive movement or a reactive defense of place?

Isabelle van Acquoy wrote an essay on the Tiny House Movement for the course RSO-55306 A Global Sense of Place. Is the Tiny House Movement a progressive movement reaching out or a reactive sense of place, she asked herself? Below a condensed version of her essay.  

The Tiny House Movement is an upcoming ‘social and architectural trend that advocates living simply in small spaces’ (Anson, 2014). A tiny house is on average between 10 and 40 square meters and is originally a mobile house, however they exist in different sizes and shapes. The movement became booming in the United States as a result of the housing market crash in 2007 and 2008 in which a lot of people lost their homes due to the inability to pay their enormous mortgages. Quite recently, the movement also became of interest in the Netherlands where different pioneers are experimenting with this alternative way of housing and living.

The aim of this paper was to look at the Tiny House Movement from a relational perspective by questioning why people change their living preferences or, otherwise stated, change their way of ‘being-in-the-world’. This paper discussed whether this being-in-the-world is a defensive strategy of place as reactionary to external oppressing forces (Escobar, 2001) or a progressive movement trying to change the current system by creating a different lifestyle (Massey, 1994, 2004).

The United States housing industry was mainly building multi-story houses with no clear architectural style- a typical ‘one size fits all’ manner of building houses for middle-class American families. Most could not really afford living in such a big house, which came to show in the mortgage crisis in 2007 and 2008 when a lot of families were put into huge debts. This, of course, was not just the fault of American families buying houses, which they could not really afford, but also because of the speculation and fragility of the financial and economical system. The effects of ‘the system’ caused a large threat for a lot of American families, which caused a sense of insecurity of losing one’s home. These events are exactly the concerns expressed by Escobar (2001) in which he sees the global structures as a threat to ‘place’. In that case, The Tiny House Movement could be seen as a reactionary response to the mortgage crisis. The decision for some individuals or families to live in a smaller house was for many not a voluntary choice as for some it was the sole option left. It is cheaper to buy a tiny home since the fixed costs will be lower, which leaves individuals or families with more financial flexibility and makes them more adaptive in these ‘uncertain’ times.

Escobar (2001) shows ‘a struggle for territory’ in which he sees global forces, such as capitalism as a ‘machine’ or ‘something above us’. On the contrary, Massey (2004) connects the global with the local and sees it as equally grounded. Place is then rather seen as a ‘site of negotiation’ and thus the ‘struggle’ mentioned by Escobar (2001) becomes a means for negotiation. According to Massey (2004) this is a ‘crucial political stake to challenge and change the hegemonic identity of place and the way in which the denizens of a particular locality imagine it and thereby avail themselves of the imaginative resources to reconstruct it’. Her she goes beyond seeing just local as meaningful and the global as abstract. Her vision transforms the Tiny House Movement from a defensive and reactionary movement to a progressive movement as the local and the global is enacted in our selves and thus, we can change it. In that regard, the movement can be seen as challenging our current way of living by addressing our relations with the world- other human beings and nature, or otherwise stated, the movement is challenging our ‘being in the world’. It is not anymore about the bigger, the better, but about the smaller, the better.

The main question of this essay was about if the Tiny House Movement was a defensive strategy of place (Escobar, 2001) or a progressive strategy (Massey, 1994, 2004). On the one hand, the start of the movement could have been a defense mechanism reactionary to the mortgage crisis in the United States and other (financial) crises all over the world. However, this would suggest that the system – the global, ‘the abstract’ – is something we cannot influence and is only something we can react upon and adapt to. Massey (1994; 2004) reflects upon this differently by seeing the local and the global as equally grounded, as interactive with each other, which makes us part of the global and thus, makes us active agents in shaping a place. This would suggest that the movement becomes more than just reactionary. It is not just about adapting our selves, but it could also suggest that we are resisting the current status quo by progressively changing it. This also relates to ‘the movement part’ as it is becoming a bigger movement spreading all over the world. As we look at it from this broader perspective there is a shift in lifestyle, not only present in the housing domain, but a new kind being-in-the-world reshaping our relations with other human beings and our environment.

Below one of the many documentaries on the Tiny House Movement in the United States called ‘Living small’ made by Stephen Hewitt. An interesting Dutch documentary called ‘Een kleine verandering’ made by Koen Derksen (HKU student) will be soon available on YouTube. Information on the Dutch documentary ‘Een kleine verandering’ can be found via this link:

See also this documentary at: https://vimeo.com/stephenhewitt/livingsmall

References

Anson, A. (2014). “The World is my Backyard”: Romanticization, Thoreauvian Rhetoric, and Constructive Confrontation in the Tiny House Movement. From Sustainable to Resilient Cities: Global Concerns and Urban Efforts (Research in Urban Sociology, Volume 14) Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 14, 289-313.

Escobar, A. (2001). Culture sits in places: Reflection on Globalism and subaltern strategies of Localizaton. Political Geography Vol. 20: 139-174.

Massey, D. (1994) ‘A Global Sense of Place’, originally published in Marxism Today (June): 24–9; Reprinted in D. Massey Space, Place and Gender, Cambridge: 146–56. Polity Press.

Massey, D. (2004). Geographies of responsibility, Geografiska Annaler 86: 5-18

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