Shrinking Domesticities: Towards a global research agenda on urban micro-living

Blog 2nd May 2024

In this guest post, Dr Mel Nowicki, Dr Ella Harris and Dr Tim White describe their research on urban micro-living, which was supported by a Seminar Series Awards grant from the USF. 

In cities across the world, small spaces are becoming big business. From co-living developments to micro-apartments, there is a growing urban trend for housing models that shrink private living space. Our work seeks to critically examine shrinking domestic space in the context of neoliberal capitalism, whereby shrinking living space is repackaged as an aspirational urban lifestyle rather than the consequence of diminishing choice.

Johannesburg Seminar
Johannesburg Seminar, Credit: Ella Harris

Building on our 2023 edited collection, The Growing Trend of Living Small, we particularly wanted to connect with scholars exploring small living outside of Europe, North America and Australasia, where the majority of scholarship on shrinking domesticities as a housing crisis solution has been focused.

Therefore, the core purpose of this seminar series was to expand the discussion on urban shrinking domesticities beyond the Western context, with an eye to developing a global research agenda on the topic. With the generous assistance of our host institutions, we organised seminars in Johannesburg (December 2022), Buenos Aires (May 2023) and Tokyo (July 2023), bringing together scholars researching micro-living from a wide range of countries across sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and East Asia (for further details of each seminar, including a list of participants, please see the above links).

Despite the very varied contexts, we found that the concept of shrinking domestic space was prevalent across all regions and that there were many overlapping themes, including:

View of microapartments in Buenos Aires
Microapartments in Buenos Aires 2023, Credit: Ella Harris
    • The impact of shrinking domestic space on the lifecourse: For example, some micro-housing developments explicitly banning people with children; intergenerational co-living developments; older people downsizing to free up capital for adult children struggling to afford housing.
  • The financialisation and marketisation of shrinking living space: For example, increasing developer interest in micro-living as a means of maximising profit; the most extreme forms of micro-living, such as capsule hotels in Hong Kong, being marketed as co-living.
  • The intersections between shrinking living space and agency. For example, increasing trends in communal living to counteract shrinking private domestic space; and the differences between those who were actively choosing to live in smaller spaces, versus those who were being forced to do so due to a lack of alternative options.
Tokyo seminar
Tokyo seminar, Credit: Ella Harris

For the series’ closing event in October 2023, we held an online seminar, inviting participants from all three seminars, plus other academics interested in shrinking domestic space, to further consider these commonalities and discuss next steps for the project. Since the final event, we have set up a researcher directory, where scholars can share contact details, research interests and projects. We are also planning to develop a special issue based on some of our key findings.


Overall, we found the seminar series to be an incredibly positive experience. We met a wide range of scholars, learned a lot about shrinking domestic space beyond the Western context, and set the groundwork for a global network of scholars who are working on this topic. The enthusiasm for the subject reiterated to us how important and prevalent the normalisation of shrinking domestic space is – and that this is a global issue. We feel there is huge potential for future impact.