Reclaiming life in the precarious city

June 6, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Despite the recent crackdown on squatting in the UK and Europe, across the Global North we are now witnessing the slow emergence of an alternative politics of housing that seeks to challenge the pieties of neoliberal restructuring, and re-think ways of inhabiting cities.

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“The existential core of urbanism is the desire for radical change”                                                                                  
                                                                                   – Edgar Pieterse [i]

On September 1st 2012, a new law criminalising squatting in residential properties came into force in England and Wales. Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill made squatting a criminal offence in any building “designed or adapted, before the time of entry, for use as a place to live.” Those caught and convicted, now face a jail sentence of six months and/or a £5000 fine.

As others have noted, Section 144 was the result of a rushed last-minute amendment that followed a summer consultation in which the Ministry of Justice received 2,217 responses from individuals and organisations, 2,126 from "members of the public concerned about the impact of criminalisation." Not only was Section 144 only debated by MP’s at the Bill’s third hearing, receiving little critical scrutiny, it was also heavily criticized by legal experts (including the Law Society) who pointed out that the 1977 Criminal Law Act already provided robust protection for displaced residential occupiers.

In an earlier set of commentaries in the Guardian, I suggested that the criminalization of squatting by the coalition government in the UK should be opposed for two reasons:

1) Plans to criminalize squatting would only exacerbate a growing housing crisis in the UK and this would have a deleterious impact on forms of deprivation-based squatting. Recent attempts to ‘reform’ and cut legal aid should also be considered in this context and the disproportionate impact on the poor and homeless cannot be underestimated.

2) The new law on squatting and further moves to extend Section 144 to commercial properties betrays, in turn, a more sinister anticipatory logic that seeks to legislate against various struggles for social justice in our cities and that the impact of a ban on the use of ‘occupation’ as a legitimate tactic of protest must be considered. The legislation is, in other words, ideologically-driven and, as such, dependent on shoring up a commitment to the untouchable rightfulness of private property and to foreclosing alternative forms of urban dwelling that are often precarious and necessary.

But more than this, Section 144 must also be set against a broader wave of revanchist targeting of squatters across Europe that include the 2007 eviction and demolition of the Ungdomshuset social centre in Copenhagen and the sale of Christiania ‘Free Town’ in the same city in 2012 in a process of forced normalisering (normalization).

These developments also coincided with the criminalisation of squatting in the Netherlands in October 2010 while intensified repression in Germany against squatters and other urban activists culminated in the eviction of 25 residents from the Liebig 14 housing project in February 2012 in a police operation that involved over 2500 officers. And all of this is to say nothing of the challenges facing a wide range of squatted spaces and social centres across Southern Europe most notably perhaps in Greece where ‘austerity’ measures have coincided with a sustained and systematic process of statist repression toward squatted spaces. 

What does such a concerted wide-ranging attack on squatting and other occupation-based practices thus say about the contemporary city? How might we hold onto an alternative urbanism that prompts us to think differently about shared urban life? Is it time to open up a critical space for connecting radical urban politics with other necessary attempts to secure and sustain housing?

To answer these questions demands recognition of how cities have changed in response to what the sociologist and urbanist Margit Mayer has described as the “neoliberalization of capitalism.”[ii] This is a process that has been characterized by at least three interrelated developments:

1) The intensification of a crisis urbanism that seeks to strengthen the “intimate connection between the development of capitalism and urbanization.”[iii] The contemporary crisis of financial capitalism and the attendant problems of accumulation and surplus generation have, in other words, been displaced onto the poor while the state has withdrawn or privatised services and remaining common property rights have been enclosed and converted to exclusive private property rights.

This is a process that has only served to further polarise and fragment our cities forming new and jarring archipelagoes of wealth and poverty. Work and home have become more precarious and, for those at the bottom, the “horizons of possibility [have] narrowed to a series of provisional relationships through which they might approximate some sense of being part of something and anchored somewhere.”[iv] The city, according to this view, is now the key spatial imprimatur for a capitalist realism that privileges creative destruction and accumulation by dispossession. That ‘there is no alternative’ is now hard-wired into the very fabric and texture of contemporary urban development.

As James Butler, writing about the ongoing “whitewashing” of London, rightly notes: “The gentrifying tide of renewal in the city is determined to answer the question in one way: the city – its pleasant parts, at least – are for the wealthy alone, with those unable to hitch themselves to the property balloon banished further and further to the margins.”

2) The everyday practices adopted by many squatters and other alternative social movements have also been ‘captured’ and appropriated by the neoliberal project. Ann Deslandes and many others have shown, in this context, how new temporary forms of ‘DIY urbanism’ – from pop-up shops to site-specific art initiatives – have sprung up in recent years in Europe, North America and Australia.[v]

These initiatives have focused on place-making and the economic regeneration of urban areas often using squatted spaces as “branding assets” within wider ‘creative city’ schemes.[vi] More often than not such ‘creativity-led’ initiatives have only intensified gentrification and displacement as the poor and vulnerable are ‘decanted’ to the margins. And just as cities are remade in the image of entrepreneurial individualism and propertied exclusivity, there now exists a complex geography of temporary housing and shelter that actively plays on the makeshift informal practices of squatters from the cultivated boho chic of property guardianship to the recent re-fitting of shipping containers as live-work spaces.

3) While creative temporary approaches to urban space are increasingly valued by policy-makers and planners, other marginal uses of abandoned or empty space have been securitised. As Stephen Graham has pointed out in a recent contribution on this Cities in Conflict series, we are witnessing the widespread emergence of a new military urbanism based on “preemptive surveillance, the criminalisation of dissent, the evisceration of civil rights, and the obsessive securitisation of everyday life to support increasingly unequal societies.” To be sure, these techniques, as Graham argues, have their origins in the “neocolonial predation of distant resources,” a perpetual war on terror and non-state insurgencies and the development of a transnational security economy that treats the city as the exceptional source of insecurity and violence.

What matters here is the degree to which this security apparatus have become the ‘new normal’ in everyday life in Western cities. This has taken on a number of forms as Graham’s forensic examination of the impact of security operations during the London Olympics on future urban development shows. In Graham’s own words, “the security preoccupations of Olympics present unprecedented opportunities to push through highly elitist, authoritarian and speculative urban planning efforts that otherwise would be much more heavily contested.”

The increasingly militarised policing of squat evictions and other forms of housing-related displacement thus represent only one example of a whole host of practices and techniques that not only serve to edify and protect private property and transnational corporate interests but have also come to see any form of shared common life as a threat to the security of the state.

It is against this backdrop that the question of squatting as a critical urbanism must be posed. It would be easy to strike a defeatist tone in response to the recrudescence of a revanchist urban imaginary in recent years across the Global North. And yet, the resurgence of occupation-based practices – from the improvised protest camps that characterized the Arab Spring and that were central to the emergence of the Indignados Movement in Southern Europe and the Occupy Movement in the US and the UK to the ongoing struggles for public education throughout Europe and the Americas – speak to the persistence and re-working of alternative ways of thinking about and inhabiting cities.[vii]

It is not my intention here to posit a blithe romanticism about squatting nor do I mean to sidestep the sheer precarity and insecurity that many face in seeking adequate forms of housing and shelter. Rather, it is important to consider the connection between squatting and a broader response to a longstanding ‘housing question’ that has repeatedly condemned significant numbers of people to a state of permanent misery. Across the Global North, we are now witnessing the slow emergence of an alternative politics of housing that seeks to challenge the pieties of neoliberal restructuring and that is based on new forms of contestation and refusal from eviction resistance networks to private renters groups.

The challenge here for radical urbanists is twofold. First, to re-examine what squatters actually do, the terms and tactics they deploy, the ideas and spaces they create. And second, to consider the lessons that may be learned from squatters both in the global North and South and how they might feed into the making of specific infrastructures through which an act of occupation or resistance is transformed into a set of alternative spatial practices that seek to extend and sustain precarious lives and livelihoods.

Taken together, these orientations provide a pressing point of purchase on the different ways in which new, provisional, often ephemeral and sometimes durable urban worlds are composed in settings of growing inequity.[viii] While this depends on perspective that draws attention to the sufferings and injustices of city life, it also re-casts the ‘right to the city’ as a ‘right’ to forge other different spaces. To produce a critical geography of squatting is to ultimately recognize and acknowledge the emergent possibilities of this “other world” and “other life.”[ix]


[i] Edgar Pieterse, City Futures: Confronting the Crisis of Urban Development (London: Sage, 2008), p. 6.


[ii] Margit Mayer, “Preface” in Squatting Europe Kollektive (eds), Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles (Brooklyn, NY: Minor Compositions, 2013), pp. 1-9, p. 3.


[iii] David Harvey, “The Right to the City.” New Left Review 53 (2008): pp. 23–40, p. 24.


[iv] AbdouMaliq Simone, City Life: From Jakarta to Dakar (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 26.


[v] See Kurt Iveson, “Cities within the City: Do-It-Yourself Urbanism and the Right to the City.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 37,3 (2013): pp. 941-956.


[vi] Mayer, “Preface,” p. 4. See also Johannes Novy and Claire Colomb, “Struggling for the Right to the (Creative) City in Berlin and Hamburg: New Urban Social Movements, New ‘Spaces of Hope’?” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, forthcoming.


[vii] See Judith Butler, “Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street” ( ) and W.J.T. Mitchell, “Image, Space, Revolution: The Arts of Occupation.” Critical Inquiry 39,1 (2012), pp. 8-32.


[viii] See AbdouMaliq Simone, For the City Yet to Come: Changing African Life in Four Cities (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), p. 240.


[ix] Michel Foucault, The Courage of Truth: The Government of Self and Others, 1983-1984, trans. by Graham Burchell (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011), p. 340.


Tags: housing policy, squatting, the commons