Squatting: historical movement or contemporary tactic?

“Squatting is essentially a tool, that may have been employed more often in the past, but can still be employed at any moment to intervene in a spatial conflict.” René Boer read The Autonomous City. A History of Urban Squatting by Alexander Vasudevan.

Casa de Okupas, Parc Guell, overlooking Barcelona, 2007 – photo Mick Stephenson

In the absence of alternatives, occupying a space that is not your property is of all times. If all ways of acquiring living space prove unsuccessful or unaffordable, people are soon inclined to take matters into their own hands and reconcile the irrational coexistence of a housing shortage and vacant property. However, appropriating vacant property without an owner’s permission is often met with resistance by those very owners. And authorities generally get a little uneasy as well when the inviolable right to ownership is directly undermined.

Throughout history, therefore, the unlawful occupation of both land and property has been violently repressed. But since ‘squatters’ were rarely the people who wrote their own history, little is known about early forms of squatting. It wasn’t until after World War II that this situation changed. From the 1970s onwards, as Western inner cities became increasingly dilapidated and a vocal post-war generation demanded housing of its own, squatting became a coherent movement that profiled and documented itself as such. Within a short space of time, the squatter movement developed a clear political identity, and an accompanying urban vision. In response to the rigidity of top-down, modernist, organized post-war reconstruction, and later to more suburban developments, a culture of taking possession of urban space and organizing, designing and sharing it in a freer and more playful manner blossomed among squatters.

In his book The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting, Alexander Vasudevan, Associate Professor of Geography and the Environment at Oxford University, takes the reader to a number of big cities in Western Europe and North America. On the basis of case studies, Vasudevan shows the various ways in which the seeds of what in many cases would become strong squatter movements were planted in each city. For example, the White Housing plan by the Provo counter-culture movement is mentioned as an early expression of the squatter movement in Amsterdam, while a publication in the alternative paper Hovedbladet is identified as a starting point in Copenhagen. This article invited people to come and explore a ‘forbidden city’ close to the centre, where ‘the framework for an alternative city was already in place, and could be developed further through shared experiments’. In reality, this ‘forbidden city’ was a series of military barracks that would indeed over the following years be transformed into the free zone known as Christiania.
The publication also reveals how during the 1970s and 80s, as the exodus from dilapidated inner cities reached its nadir, squatter movements emerged in practically all major Western cities; and how in the 1990s, as the middle classes hesitantly returned to inner cities and neoliberal city development took off, the movements shrank in size owing to the lack of suitable space for squatting and increasing repression.

It is striking that, apart from a few incoherent references, The Autonomous City largely ignores the more recent history of squatting, even though recent events add a remarkable new chapter to the squatter story. For example, in recent years, large groups of refugees who were unable to find housing in many places in Europe have found homes for themselves with the help of local squatter movements. This phenomenon has assumed serious proportions especially in southern Europe, but in Amsterdam too, dozens of large office buildings have been squatted by refugee collectives over the past five years.
Most of the cases described in The Autonomous City will be unfamiliar to the general public. After all, squatter stories are not the first thing you learn about a foreign city, in part because cities are so skilled in concealing social unrest and strife in the image they try to present to the world. But some of the places described are reasonably well known, such as Copenhagen’s Christiania.
Many stories do appeal to the imagination, such as the one about the London community of queer squatters. In 1974, members of the South London Gay Liberation Front (SLGLF) squatted a terrace of homes in the borough of Brixton, built up a commune, and created space for an alternative urban infrastructure. Besides a gay café, the venture included two women’s centres, an anarchist news service and a food cooperative. Another noteworthy episode concerns the struggle by Operation Move-In, which in the early 1960s fought against housing shortages and vacancy levels on the Upper West Side in New York. Led mostly by Puerto Rican women, this group squatted apartments on a massive scale on behalf of poverty-stricken families stuck in unsuitable or unsafe homes, or forced out of the area because of urban renewal. In the end, many of the families received rental contracts and could stay.

Each and every one of these stories offers a remarkable glimpse into a rebellious city history that makes the reader realize just how free cities must have been at the time. The case studies illustrate how powerful the impact of well-organized, bottom-up interventions in the urban environment can be. In addition, the studies are set in the context of social, political and spatial developments of each city. It is interesting to read, for example, that in Milan, squatting was directly linked at neighbourhood level to community groups that organized rent strikes or collectively tried to lower high energy bills. In East Berlin, the local squatter movement enjoyed a heyday in the political vacuum that followed the collapse of East Germany. Schwarzwohnen, as it was called, became a phenomenon that continued to inspire even after reunification.

page from the book discussed


But Vasudevan never explains why he chose these particular cities. The selection is random and nowhere justified. A number of obvious cities are left out, among them Barcelona and Athens. Moreover, while there is an enormous squatter culture outside the ‘Global Cities’, he fails to explain his exclusion of non-Western cities. His choice of case studies also seems totally arbitrary, randomly selected from various periods and places, and discussed in a criss-cross manner. Any connecting thread is difficult to detect, and no effort is made to make links or uncover influences. Further, Vasudevan frequently repeats the usual cliché that is so common in accounts of squatter history, namely the disproportionate attention given to confrontations between squatters and authorities. Although the author states in his introduction that he does not want to romanticize the history of squatting, he opens practically every chapter with a prime example of ‘riot porn’ as he salivates uneasily over some disturbance that got out of control. Squatting is in itself a fairly militant political strategy of course, which is perhaps why it achieved so much, but The Autonomous City often fails to clarify the relevance of the confrontations in the cities in question.

Vasudevan’s sensationalism therefore overshadows the reality of squatting, which is perhaps a good deal less exciting. Instead of the presented image of major riots, squatting in most of the cities discussed involves, for example, a small group of youths who collectively occupy a building, or a lonely drug addict who occupies a floor for a while, or an artist collective that conducts a campaign to preserve their squatted studio. In addition, from the perspective of geography (the profession of the author), the mechanisms that facilitate squatting, the way it relates to the city and urban politics, and the spatial distribution of these movements are all more interesting. While The Autonomous City emphasizes sporadic eruptions of violence and the broad contours of housing policy in each city, it fails to detail how squatting functions as a spatial practice.

The book praises the Amsterdam squatter movement for its lasting impact in propagating another view of the city, promoting social housing, preserving existing housing stock, and making the planning process more democratic. The relatively big influence of squatting in Amsterdam compared to other cities is largely down to the remarkably institutionalized character of the movement. Not only the once-intricate network of ‘squatter information centers’ and the many protocols passed on from generation to generation, but also the extensive jurisprudence illustrate its institutionalization, but unfortunately they are only mentioned in passing here.
In the case of Amsterdam, The Autonomous City again emphasizes one particular confrontation, the riots that marked the queen’s coronation on 30 April 1980, which were perhaps a measure of the explosive power of the movement at that time, but in no way do they offer a framework for genuinely understanding the functioning of squatting itself or its impact on the city. Also, Vasudevan’s statements that ‘no real squatters took part’ in the riots and that ‘real squatters massively distanced themselves from them’ are remarkable to say the least. Apart from the fact that the definition of a ‘real squatter’ is thorny – someone who lives in a squatted building? someone actively involved in the movement? – the reader is left wondering then why these riots are even discussed in a book about squatting.
Vasudevan’s emphasis on the rise and fall of the Amsterdam squatter movement and his attempt to divide it into four periods does not convince. What eludes the author is that squatting is essentially a tool, that may have been employed more often in the past, but that it can still be employed at any moment to intervene in a spatial conflict. At the time of writing, for example, a collective is occupying two large buildings close to the Vondelpark in Amsterdam, premises that were about to be converted, without the necessary permits, into short-stay apartments for tourists.

On balance, The Autonomous City adds little to what we know about Amsterdam. A quick glance at the sources indicates that the chapter is based on an incomplete archive that is not up to date, and a number of books that are controversial to say the least within the squatter movement back then and today. Thorough historical research into the impact of subversive spatial movements can of course be highly interesting, but that does not seem to be this geographer’s strong point.
What is particularly problematic is that this ‘history of urban squatting’ is never clearly defined thematically or in terms of time, which suggests a sort of completeness and hence creates the impression that squatting is largely a phenomenon of the past. Not only is this incorrect, but it also wrongly portrays squats that still exist and which continue to play a significant role in their urban context. In addition, the faulty analysis of Amsterdam raises questions about the quality of the other case studies. Vasudevan is also tempted to reach rather hyperbolic conclusions. Squatting in New York is thought to have led to a ‘widespread desire to live and imagine the city differently’, while squatted buildings in Amsterdam ‘were the scene of radical possibilities and promise, as well as the source of intense despair and disappointment’. Although there really is a grain of truth in these slapdash conclusions, what most appeals in the book are his sketches of the squatting scenes in the various cities. This uphill battle for a fair city fought at various times and in various places around the world, remains just as relevant and inspirational to this day.