Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles

SQEK - Squatting Europe Kollective is a research network focusing on the squatters’ movement. The group is an open collective, whose members represent a diversity of disciplines and fields seeking to understand the issues associated with squats and social centres across Europe.
The book "Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles" aims to move beyond the conventional understandings of squatting, investigating its history in Europe over the past four decades. Historical comparisons and analysis blend together in these inquiries into squatting in the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, France, Germany and England. In it members of SQEK explore the diverse, radical, and often controversial nature of squatting as a form of militant research and self-managed knowledge production.

Squatting is defined in the broadest sense as the occupation and transformation of land and buildings that are unused or underused. It is based on the assumption that occupation and use constitutes a right in itself above and beyond legal ownership. In this squatting is a political act, privileging direct action to oppose the privatisation of land for speculation and individual gain. An ancient practice, one of the earliest examples of squatting was the Diggers declaration that 'the earth is a common treasury for all', reclaiming what was common land for cultivation. A recent version of this impulse in the UK is the movement, The Land is Ours, which campaigns for free and equal rights for all to the country's open spaces through policy change and land occupations.

As worldwide phenomenon, in the global South squatting is often tied to housing rights and strategies of survival, urban organisations such as the Shack/Slum Dwellers International or Abahlali base Mjondolo are fighting for the land rights of those living in informal settlements whose numbers are burgeoning. The Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST - Brazilian Landless Workers' Movement) established in 1984 is an example of a rural squatting movement, which aims at redistributing unproductive land to people who need it most to provide food and a source of income. MST has its roots in a long struggle over land in Brazil and has now become one of the largest social movements in South America. The land occupations of MST exercise a legal right enshrined in the Brazilian constitution, which allows unproductive land to be used for a 'larger social function'. The legal status of squatting thus differs across countries, from being considered a civil conflict between squatters and the legal owners, to being deemed an illegal act.

In the global North squatting is usually tied to ideological struggles and the desire to find alternative ways of living. These include the setting up of free cultural spaces and political centres, such as the large Centri Sociali movement of Italy or the Freetown of Christiania in Copenhagen. Berlin has been the locus of squatting in Europe with many local initiatives such as the K77 squat whose ten-year history has seen the refurbishment of an old uninhabitable building into a communal living and working space, through a participative and self-organised process. The US has its own phenomena of urban homesteading, where in neighbourhoods with large numbers of uninhabited abandoned homes, poorer residents take over and refurbish properties for their own use. Usually a grass-roots endeavour, urban homesteading is legal and has been used by some state governments as a solution to the lack of affordable housing. There is also a growing squatter movement in the US following the financial crisis of 2007, which has led to thousands of homes being repossessed. As the group Take Back the Land points out, these homes are left empty whilst evicted families are left homeless; the organisation coordinates action groups to move people back into empty homes.

In architecture squatting has played an important role, spanning grass-roots neighbourhood initiatives such as Park Fiction, responses by architectural professionals such as community technical aid, or writers and activists such as Colin Ward, who uncovered another history of land rights in the UK from the Diggers to the Plotlanders, or the many people and practices working with and for those living in informal settlements. They are all related to the squatter movement, which whether an act of survival, a political act or both, is based in a completely different way of imagining the world than the dominant capitalist mode.