The best books on squatting and urban activism

Bart Van Der Steen Author Of City Is Ours: Squatting and Autonomous Movements in Europe from the 1970s to the Present
By Bart Van Der Steen

Who am I?

Ever since I was young, I have been fascinated by – and worked with - people protesting injustice and inequality. By standing up, following through, and letting their voice be heard, people have the potential to change the world for the better. As a researcher, I have studied the history of various European protest movements – from labor activists to squatters and direct action groups. I have published on radical philosophers, Dutch Trotskyists, and even a socialist astronomer - but my main focus has always been radical squatters in the Netherlands and Germany.

I wrote...

City Is Ours: Squatting and Autonomous Movements in Europe from the 1970s to the Present

By Bart Van Der Steen (editor), Ask Katzeff (editor), Leendert Van Hoogenhuijze (editor)

Book cover of City Is Ours: Squatting and Autonomous Movements in Europe from the 1970s to the Present

What is my book about?

Squatters are people who occupy houses and empty dwellings – so why do we even care? Well, actually, squatters have been at the forefront of campaigns to reclaim the city for common people - by fighting speculation, gentrification, and government-led ‘urban renewal’ projects. Who are the squatters, what drives them, and what are the keys to their success?

To answer these questions, we present eight local histories of squatter activism from European cities such as Amsterdam, London, and Berlin. Together, the histories paint a picture of a radical movement and lively subculture capable of effectively fighting for A City of All. 

The books I picked & why

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Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution

By David Harvey,

Book cover of Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution

Why this book?

Harvey is one of the most prominent scholars on capitalism and the city. He has shown how capital regularly takes recourse to urban ‘renewal’ plans to overcome crises of capital accumulation. In the form of gentrification, rising rents, and housing shortage, such plans directly affect the lives of those who live and work in the city, and they have repeatedly united to resist such developments and reclaim the city. In Rebel Cities, Harvey explains how enduring conflicts between capital and labor have turned the city into a contested space and how these struggles influence the development of cities. This book reconstructs the history of urban movements and provides a theoretical framework for understanding the possibilities and hurdles that movements such as squatters face when reclaiming the city. 

The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting

By Alexander Vasudevan,

Book cover of The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting

Why this book?

Vasudevan is one of the first to provide an account of the global history of urban squatting, from the late 19th century to the present. His central claim is that squats are never simply about acquiring housing, but also ‘offer place[s] of collective world-making’. He wants to find out how squatters ‘reimagined the city as a space of necessity and refuge, experimentation and resistance’. As squatters take buildings into use, they recreate the space, filling it with new life and energies, forming new networks and identities as they work towards making abandoned places inhabitable again. Vasudevan’s study allows for global comparisons, and he explicitly includes the actions and experiences of migrants, women, and queer activists in the history of squatting.

Public Goods Versus Economic Interests: Global Perspectives on the History of Squatting

By Freia Anders (editor), Alexander Sedlmaier (editor),

Book cover of Public Goods Versus Economic Interests: Global Perspectives on the History of Squatting

Why this book?

Histories of squatting mainly focus on radical activists in Europe during the 1970s and 1980s, ignoring the fact that squatting has always been a global phenomenon. Anders and Sedlmaier have responded by creating a collection of chapters that highlight the global and historical nature of squatting. Their volume is the first to initiate an in-depth discussion of the similarities between first world and third world squatting, and thus covers cases from Seoul to Bucharest and Bangkok, and from Turkey to Brazil and the UK. In doing so, the book raises fascinating questions on how squatting oscillates between being a self-help and a collective protest strategy, on the relationship between migration and squatting, and on the influence of squatter movements on urban development. 

Migration, Squatting and Radical Autonomy

By Pierpaolo Mudu (editor), Sutapa Chattopadhyay (editor),

Book cover of Migration, Squatting and Radical Autonomy

Why this book?

Migration and squatting are integrally linked. Migrants have always been the ones who have had the most difficulty in finding adequate and affordable housing – and this is even more so for undocumented migrants. Mudu and Chattopadhyay are the first to systematically document and analyze the recent squatter experiences of illegalized migrants in Europe and the US. While some chapters discuss political actions - such as seeking sanctuary in churches and occupying houses and squares - others focus on more covert strategies of migrants for seeking shelter. The contributors ask how migrants are being portrayed in politics and the media, how they can form coalitions with others, and under what conditions they can build power. 

Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles

By Squatting in Europe Kollective,

Book cover of Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles

Why this book?

From 2009 to 2021, the Squatting Europe Kollective provided a platform for innovative research on squatting by both academics and activists. The group organized international meetings, created an interactive map of squatter actions in various European cities, and published a number of books. Their 2013 volume provided a state of the art of squatter research. The first chapter distinguishes between different modes (‘configurations’) of squatting; for example squatting as an alternative housing strategy, a strategy for saving monumental dwellings from demolition or squatting as a tactic for confronting neoliberalism. The subsequent chapters zoom into particular issues, such as the ways in which squatters organize the running of occupied places, respond to criminalization and form international travel networks. 

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in squatting, immigrants, and Europe?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Take Back the Land: Land, Gentrification & the Umoja Village Shantytown, Les Enfants des Héros, and A Reporter At Large: Dateline: Pyramid Lake, Nevada if you like this list.