eyes on the U.S.

The Big Trend Of Living Small

From New York to Buenos Aires, more and more single people choose to live in tiny spaces. It's the marriage of economic forces and modern lifestyle.

A woman on her tiny balcony in Buenos Aires
A woman on her tiny balcony in Buenos Aires
Miguel Jurado
BUENOS AIRES — If you want to live in a big city, prepare to live in a tiny apartment. New York has gone crazy for the micro-apartment craze, particularly in the borough of Brooklyn. It began with one block of 55 prefabricated units, each measuring between 24 and 34 square meters (258 to 365 square feet), but more are in the works, with cranes piling up the units one over the other like boxes.
Some are saying that the apartments will be of use only to investors and awful for people. Others disagree, saying that with a larger inventory of smaller spaces, prices will fall and everybody will win.
Meanwhile, what are dubbed "micro-apartments" in the Big Apple, so small that it's almost shocking to Americans who don't live in cities, are often bigger than the affordable apartments in Buenos Aires.
To check, I asked architect Agustín García Puga, an expert in building norms and second vice president of the Central Society of Architects. "In Buenos Aires, the minimum surface area for a single-space flat is 29.3 square meters," he says. That's 312 square feet. "The living room-bedroom-dining space cannot be smaller than 20 meters (215 square feet), the bathroom 3.3 (35 square feet) and the kitchen, 6 (64 square feet). Oh, and there must be a balcony of 1.2 square meters (12.9 square feet)."
So far you might say that Buenos Aires mini-studios are at least midway between the 24 and 34 square meters of their U.S. counterparts. But as my friend García Puga says, the "devil's in the detail." In some neighborhoods, "Residential buildings can have a third of their units used as office space or professional workshops." And what are these? "Units that can have an area of 16 square meters 172 square feet with a toilet and no balcony."
Dubious honors
And here, we are a step ahead of the Yankees, because nobody can stop you from living in an "office" or "work studio" in Buenos Aires. Therefore, we can lay claim to having the smallest living areas on the continent. Take that, America!

Urbanization is now a problem in Buenos Aires Photo: Juanedc

In the United States, new micro-apartments are a means of obtaining cheaper rental space in a city where it is almost impossible to rent even a pigsty affordably. Rental costs generally are between $2,000 and $3,000 a month.
To attract tenants, investors equip the spaces with foldable furniture and rolling tables that allow the same space to be a living room by day and bedroom by night. Americans have also discovered that the smaller the apartment, the more shared facilities they need. In Brooklyn and Queens, mini-apartment towers are increasingly being built with terraces, work studios, gardens, gyms and laundry rooms, bicycle racks and storage.
Americans argue that lowering minimum living space requirements is not a problem because most single New Yorkers are accustomed to living in small, shared spaces, while a growing number of people are living alone.
The same is apparently happening here without our even noticing. In 1980, one in 15 people aged 15 and up was living alone. In 2010, it was one in six people. Those living alone in the city today are primarily young adults between 25 and 34 years old and people over 65 years old.
This must be why apartments are being built smaller. Statistics show that in recent years almost 80% of construction permits were for buildings with apartments consisting of just one or two rooms.
Paradoxically, the constructed surface in Buenos Aires is growing as the population shrinks, which means that people will have more space per head. In 2001, the built-up space per Buenos Aires resident was 31 square meters and in 2010 52 meters. The first apartment I lived in had two spaces within 36 square meters. I was in my twenties and felt like the king of New York!
Yet the 52 square meters to which each person is on average entitled in Buenos Aires is just a statistic. By that measure, my wife, three children and I should be living it up in a 260-meter (2,800 square feet) flat, which is not the case by a long shot.
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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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