Pic of the day: Why are people building a house in my neighbor's garden?
I am not a city planner, but like many people these days I have played Sim City. One thing that recently struck me was that Sim City is a game of growth, whereas the real world is less so. Even in the USA, population growth is a slow thing. Here in Scandinavia, the population would already be shrinking if not for immigrants and children of immigrants. My native Norway is held high as a shining example of a European country with a high birth rate: Each woman on average has 1.8 children in her lifetime. For those who find partial children kind of squicky, we could say that ten women have 18 children, still on average. That does not sound so bad, but actually more than half of the children are boys, and as such will probably never give birth. To keep the population stable, even in peacetime and without any natural disasters, we would need 2.1 children per woman. Another more emotionally loaded description is that in Norwegian classrooms, every seventh desk stands empty. And this is the shining exception to the decline of most of Europe. (Ireland is slightly more fertile, though.)
In light of this, why are some people building a new house in my neighbor's garden?
Actually it is not my next-door neighbor, more like two houses away. I still pass by it each workday on my way to and from the commute bus. It is not a large house, perhaps slightly larger than this one, fit for a small family. Almost all families are small these days, except for certain subgroups of immigrants. I guess this is not one of them, though, for which the whole neighborhood is probably thankful or at least relieved. Not because we have anything against children, but because we have something against inferior cultures in which people adapt to the cold by setting fire to the curtains, or cook food in the bathtub if they have particularly many guests, or keep chickens in the attic. You know, immigrants. Not like us.
Anyway, this is not the only case of increased building density, or "condensation" as it is evidently called in English, at least if the English is written by Europeans. Building in the open spaces between existing houses, or building taller houses on the same spot, are both cases of such condensation. The new house in the neighbor's garden is a pretty quiet case. More striking examples are visible near the small local train station: A series of five small apartment complexes. Nothing like the gigantic residential machines of the post-war semi-socialist society.
If we look back that far, we can see at least three distinct trends. The first was the mass migration from rural farming (and some fishing) communities to the cities and their surrounding sleeping towns. These dysfunctional towns were dominated by giant buildings well outside the cities and old towns, and populated mostly by the poor and the lower middle class. Gray, sterile, vaguely reminiscent of both factories and prisons, devoid of built-in culture or community, they were universally reviled but in practice wildly popular. Because in practice, people at the time did not have much money, and a residence factory was what was needed.
Since then, economic growth has far outpaced population growth. Given more money, people started to move to the classical suburbs, the land of the automobile, with single-family homes and picket fences. In practice, many had to make do with two-family houses, or even a cut of a long house, in any way like a single-family house except that the two shortest walls were against your neighbors. In some cases of single homes, the walls of your garage was against that of the neighbor, which gives a lot more privacy, but still was pretty dense compared to the wide open rural habitation some of us grew up with.
A third trend has been gaining momentum while the second was still in full bloom. This is "re-urbanization", a movement into the center of the cities or towns, where new small apartment complexes are being built, and old ones renovated. Today, selling a free-standing single-family home in the suburbs may not be enough to get you an apartment in the town, even in the new towns that have sprung up around the cities rather than parts of the cities themselves. It is a mystery to me why people would want to live so close, but I guess this is the urban lifestyle. I grew up with so much open room there was no way I could run over to the neighbors without stopping to catch my breath. The idea of being surrounded by people seems prison-like to me. But these new complexes are nothing like the machines of the post-war generation. They are smaller, the apartments are larger and better furnished, they are centrally located, often with shops at the ground floor and within easy walking distance of various cultural hot spots such as café, cinema or town hall.
Since there is a lot of these, and the population is growing so slowly, the people who live there must come from somewhere else. I am not sure where. The residential machines have largely become reserved for immigrants even years ago, and I guess many nuclear families have undergone nuclear fission… although the number of 1-person families is still very low, except for old widows. The actual families are not quite the same as the statistics, since there are tax and other benefits from lying about living alone. These benefits are for people who have children, though, not applicable to me. (Alas for the children!)
But some of the new residents are probably also coming from rural Norway, which is still gently shrinking. As I recently mentioned, you can get pretty cheap homes out there now. I am not going there unless I can get broadband, though. There are limits to primitive life!
Visit the archive page for the older diaries I've put out to pasture.