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Take care of the squats (because they contribute to a just city and not just to a vibrant urban life)

Often seen as a nuisance and facing endless legal battles, squatters can actually have positive effects on the urban environment, by helping with the housing shortage and creating grassroot environments.

decorated squat in Amsterdam Squat with decorated exterior in Amsterdam. Flickr/Vandalo. Some rights reserved

A few months ago the editor of an architecture magazine emailed me and asked me to write a short piece about squatting, squatters and squats. His request was accompanied with a few guidelines: "The argument I am interested in is that squatting, far from being harmful to cities, is an essential component of social, cultural and economic development and should be welcomed and supported by governments and local authorities. I think it is important to make the case that squatting overtime contributes to the mainstream economic and culture vibrancy of a place as well as its alternative scene.” This is, definitely, my own position about squatting in general although I admit that many urban conflicts often burst out once squatting emerges in a community. Needless to say, I felt happy with the prospect that a widely read architectural publication might cover what I consider a progressive and sensible issue. With this orientation I started writing.

However, further messages exchanged with the editor, headed in the direction of what I would call the “gentrifying imaginary” of squatters: “[the area] in London where our office is based was once full of squatting artists and designers who gradually transformed the area from one that was quite dangerous to one that is now home to Google, Facebook and a myriad of trendy bars. Now that squatting is a criminal offense in the UK I suspect we'll never see such an organic and successful transformation of a neighbourhood. That's not to dismiss the value of an alternative cultural movement but as many of our readers are firmly embedded in mainstream industries it is the joining of the dots between mainstream and alternative that will persuade them to think differently."

Well, the challenge for me had climbed up a notch or two by then. How could I persuade architects and real-estate managers that banning squatting is a 'bad idea' without mentioning that squatting tackles the very core of the housing market? Even worse, would I have space for arguing that squatting is not exclusively about producing culture and revitalising urban life in decaying urban areas?

Simply put, I see squatting as a great practical alternative to capitalism although not always very effective in changing housing and land policies. At least, it provides affordable spaces for living, for politics and for social and cultural life. But, if it were the case, gentrification as a side effect of squatting would be a key site of contradiction in this urban movement. To my knowledge,on the whole squatters are not gentrifiers. Rather, they tend to oppose global corporations, urban redevelopment where residents have no say and market speculation.

It is easier to find squatters who are more concerned about social justice, homelessness, displacement, house prices, the commodification and surveillance of urban life than those proud of belonging to a so called 'cultured class'. And I said so. Not surprisingly, as I feared, the article was rejected. Perhaps, I thought, critical thinking can still appeal to other architects, planners and people interested in improving urban life beyond the stereotypes of squatters and the culturalist approach to gentrification. What follows, therefore, it is the original text.

Why evict squatters? This reaction has always shocked me deeply. Are authorities, private owners and real estate developers right to aim at the eradication of squats? According to their immediate interests, squats are an obstacle to their projects. Squatters, they argue, take over spaces illegally and sometimes overtly confront urban redevelopment. Counter to such simple market-driven reasoning, as a sociologist and urban scholar who has also been involved in some squats, I argue that the repression of squatters is indeed a big mistake. Squatters and squats contribute to enhancing cities in many ways that are not usually taken into account by politicians, judges, mass media, the public at large and, even, urban developers. Furthermore, opponents to squatters tend to base the repressive measures on either weak or insufficient evidence, if not on a very narrow minded view of city life.

My experience and knowledge stem mainly from squats in European cities which are not slums, shanty towns nor self-built houses in derelict land on the outskirts. Although all forms of occupation of empty spaces must be regarded as essential parts of any urban history, and all their dwellers deserve respect and resources with which to improve their living conditions, their challenges are somehow different.

Hence, I refer to squats only as those occupations of vacant buildings or flats without the owner’s permission. For instance, to mention a common misunderstanding, if a residence is broken-into when their owners or tenants go on vacation, this is not a squat, but a distinct serious offence. A durable vacancy or abandonment of a house, factory, school, etc. is a prerequisite to set up a squat. Only then is it manifest that the holder of the legal title of property does not need it in the short-run. His or her underuse of the estate and lack of maintenance may even ruin the building and cause damage to other residents. Therefore, while using it, squatters must help to keep the property in a liveable state.   

Squatters’ purposes may vary between mere housing provision and the performance of a broad range of cultural, economic and political activities. Importantly, not all squatters use this label to identify themselves. Notwithstanding, when squatting grows up over the years in a given urban area, it is likely to give birth to a wider movement with manifold expressions of collective identity.

There are indeed many types of squatters and squats. Their needs and impacts can be very different. One primary error is to pack them all under the same social category: but another goes to the other extreme and splits squatters between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Setting aside the lack of tolerance towards many squatters’ criticisms of the capitalist system, the dismissive attitude facing the ‘bad squatters’ is based on the assumption that most of the squats engender stereotypical problems - for instance, noise that disturbs neighbours, or the spoiling of properties - something that can happen everywhere, not necessarily due to the presence of squatters.

Quite the opposite, what I have observed more often than not is a great effort to take care of the occupied places, to promote communal ways of living and to share ideas with the surrounding neighbourhoods. These are all reasons not to focus just on the illegality of the use of private or public space.

To name famous squats in Europe is not difficult because, occasionally, they obtain media coverage due to the massive protests that their eviction, or threats of eviction, ignite. This is the case of the recent public outcry against the City of Hamburg that paved the way for the clearance of the Rote Flora, a Social Centre occupied in 1989.

After several days of demonstrations and clashes, there has been declared a truce that will prolong the activity of the squat, but one wonders why the media did not pay the same attention to the impressive 25 years of continuous exhibitions, concerts, workshops, talks and sociability fostered by the voluntary work of several generations of activists and thousands of visitors.

Less successful was the defence of another long lasting squatted Social Centre, the Kukutza Gaztetxea in Bilbao which was evicted in 2011 after an overwhelming wave of mobilisation and support coming from all the social forces involved – from neighbourhood associations to university professors, architects, lawyers, political parties, artists… almost everybody except the Mayor and the proprietor of the former factory.

This was not a squat only for young radicals, as the pervasive stereotype of squatters invites us to think, but also a place open to all who wanted to practice sports, learn foreign languages, create artistic stuff, launch cooperative enterprises, organise meetings and engage in political campaigning.

Let’s look at Paris as well. There, when squats are, above all, about artistic production and given some favourable governance conditions, squatters may achieve a legal status and even access to munificent public funds. 59 Rivoli (nowadays called “aftersquat”) at the core of the commercial city centre is a well-known example. Nonetheless, when migrants, homeless people and poor youngsters squat just for living, their struggle to reach a secure tenancy is always hindered with a much more fierce attack by the powers that be.

Again, the hot issue over the desks of the decision makers is why do they prosecute those who find an affordable means to house themselves while there are abundant empty apartments and a real scarcity of social housing. A proof that squatting is has more claim to legitimacy (the right to a decent housing) than to legality (the prohibition of trespassing a private property) is that in cities such as Berlin, Amsterdam, London, New York and Rome, it was feasible to negotiate and legalise many of the former squats.

Authorities tend to praise the artistic squats and are more prone to tolerate or subsidise their continuity because these are conceived as city landmarks for the so called creative class and they appeal to tourists. However, they forget that low paid and precarious artists need an accessible place to live too.

As a consequence, the housing question cannot be omitted from this discussion. And it is also misguiding to think of squats as a simple temporary solution, because cases such as the three aforementioned conspired to drag on for more than a decade. (For those interested in knowing the fates of many other squats I recommend that you check the collective book Squatting in Europe).    

You can disagree, as I do, with some squatters and dislike the way they manage the building. This may also occur with any social movement. Take, for example, a controversial environmental action or policy – some activists are so single-issue oriented that you are soon convinced that they do not address the core source of the ecological problems.

Regarding squatters, their economic troubles for daily survival, their academic obligations if enrolled in a university or just an easy going way of living may produce a low level of activities and social and cultural vibrancy according to the standard expectations of those who view the city as a permanent off-limits growth machine.

Obviously, the latter framework and its associate prejudices is likely to avoid a very careful consideration of the particular circumstances of every squat. The central or peripheral location of the squat, the speculative and gentrification processes currently ongoing, and the more or less conflicting relationship between squatters and authorities, may determine the reach of the outcomes. Actually, the most utopian, heterotopian and liberated urban spaces can also be constrained by those and similar not-always-so-tangible powers.

I prefer to cite the outstanding qualities of most squats: i) squats are made up of squatters, active citizens who devote a great part of their lives to providing autonomous and low-cost solutions to many of the flaws of city life (whether this is the housing shortage, expensive rental rates, bureaucratic machinery that discourages any grassroots proposal, political corruption often as not in the background of urban transformation); ii) squatters move but squats remain as a sort of 'anomalous institutions', neither private nor state-owned, but belonging to the 'common goods' of citizenship among many other public facilities; iii) since most of the squats have a non-commercial character, this entails easy access to their activities, services and venues for all who are excluded from the mainstream circuits, which represents a crucial contribution to social justice, equality and local democracy; iv) the occupation of buildings is not an isolated practice but a collective intervention in the urban fabric that prevents the deterioration of decaying areas, by recycling materials, by greening the brown fields and the sad plots of urban void, adding to a critical mass of clients for small retailers, raising unexpected synergies, etc. which are a palpable social benefit, although not easy to measure by the official statistics and, not least, by building up social networks and street life ( chatting and mutual aid); v) there is a long tradition of legal regulations that granted rights to the inhabitants of abandoned properties after a certain number of years of occupation, although in recent years neo-liberal politicians have worked hard to sweep these old rules under the carpet.

Squatting, after all, may make explicit deep social conflicts, but there are very effective and positive urban contributions derived from this well rooted practice. To conclude, instead of suppressing squats, I recommend giving them a hand as valubale forces for progress.

About the author

Miguel Martinez is an Assistant Professor at the City University of Hong Kong. He is a sociologist and political scientist who has been devoted to the research of urban and social issues, mainly in Spain, Portugal and Europe in general. Most of his publications are available here.


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