Collective initiatives by citizens for housing sustainability hardly ever get off the ground. Why is that? It is because professionals who are involved rely too heavily on their own agendas, says PhD candidate Fred Sanders. Residents find neighbourhood ties much more important than projected returns.

For a government with a tight budget, it actually sounds like an ideal strategy to make two million homes more sustainable before 2020. It seems a simple matter of encouraging residents to contribute funds towards their collective wind turbine or thermal storage system and the problem will solve itself. This would also appear to produce significantly fewer objections than when the government erects a wind turbine itself. Unfortunately, attempts by municipalities or energy companies to encourage such initiatives are by no means always successful. Professionals all too often assume that they will convince people through rational justification, concludes PhD candidate Sanders based on his research. ‘People are not only concerned about money. They distrust fine promises about payback periods. They find it much more important that the sense of safety and security in the neighbourhood is increased by tackling things together.’ It is preferable, therefore, to have a neighbour who waters the plants than to earn back a few euros over time. Investing part of the profits of a wind turbine in improving public space usually generates more enthusiasm than a story about payback periods. Residents are mostly concerned with the here and now.

Sanders draws his conclusions on the basis of qualitative research in the neighbourhoods of IJburg (Amsterdam) and Hoograven (Utrecht). Research was carried out during intensive interview sessions into the cohesion of resident groups and the attitude of professionals. Although the two neighbourhoods are very different, both resident groups are nevertheless interested in improving the sustainability of their homes. However, the average person is usually deterred by the complexity of setting up an organisational and financial structure. There is every reason therefore to involve professionals or a resident in the neighbourhood who has a vested interest in the matter. They can have a pioneering role, provide information effectively and organise the business side of things. It is important that also they use ‘pull’ factors, Sanders argues. ‘Don't forget to stay and chat after an information meeting at the local school on the collective procurement of solar panels.’ This does not mean that sociability is paramount, however. ‘Being too sociable will work against you, turning it into more of an obligation. People have enough on their plate already.’

Before he started his PhD research at TU Delft, Fred Sanders worked as a director of housing corporation ZVH in Zaandam. In that capacity, he successfully implemented inner-city restructuring projects by handing control to residents. Sanders will defend his dissertation ‘Duurzame Ontwikkeling door Collectief Bewonersinitiatief’ (Sustainable Development through Residents’ Collective Initiatives) on 26 September.

Published: September 2014