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. 

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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. 

By David Harvey,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Rebel Cities as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Long before Occupy, cities were the subject of much utopian thinking. They are the centers of capital accumulation as well as of revolutionary politics, where deeper currents of social and political change rise to the surface. Do the financiers and developers control access to urban resources or do the people? Who dictates the quality and organization of daily life? Rebel Cities places the city at the heart of both capital and class struggles, looking at locations ranging from Johannesburg to Mumbai, from New York City to S o Paulo. Drawing on the Paris Commune as well as Occupy Wall Street…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Alexander Vasudevan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Autonomous City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Autonomous City is the first popular history of squatting in Europe and North America. Drawing on extensive archival research, it retraces the struggle for housing in cities such as Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Detroit, Hamburg, London, Madrid, Milan, New York, and Vancouver. It looks at the organization of alternative forms of housing-from Copenhagen's Christiana 'Free Town' to the Lower East Side of Manhattan-as well as the official response, including the recent criminalization of squatting, the brutal eviction of squatters and their widespread vilification. As a result, Alexander Vasudevan argues how, through a shared history of political action, community organization and…

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

Why did I love 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. 

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

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Public Goods Versus Economic Interests as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Squatting is currently a global phenomenon. A concomitant of economic development and social conflict, squatting attracts public attention because - implicitly or explicitly - it questions property relations from the perspective of the basic human need for shelter. So far neglected by historical inquiry, squatters have played an important role in the history of urban development and social movements, not least by contributing to change in concepts of property and the distribution and utilization of urban space. An interdisciplinary circle of authors demonstrates how squatters have articulated their demands for participation in the housing market and public space in a…

Migration, Squatting and Radical Autonomy

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

Book cover of Migration, Squatting and Radical Autonomy

Why did I love 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. 

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

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Migration, Squatting and Radical Autonomy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book offers a unique contribution, exploring how the intersections among migrants and radical squatter's movements have evolved over past decades. The complexity and importance of squatting practices are analyzed from a bottom-up perspective, to demonstrate how the spaces of squatting can be transformed by migrants. With contributions from scholars, scholar-activists, and activists, this book provides unique insights into how squatting has offered an alternative to dominant anti-immigrant policies, and the implications of squatting on the social acceptance of migrants. It illustrates the different mechanisms of protest followed in solidarity by migrant squatters and Social Center activists, when discrimination comes…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Squatting in Europe Kollective,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Squatting in Europe as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Squatting offers a radical but simple solution to the crises of housing, homelessness, and the lack of social space that mark contemporary society: occupying empty buildings and rebuilding lives and communities in the process. Squatting has a long and complex history, interwoven with the changing and contested nature of urban politics over the last forty years.

Squatting can be an individual strategy for shelter or a collective experiment in communal living. Squatted and self-managed social centres have contributed to the renewal of urban struggles across Europe and intersect with larger political projects. However, not all squatters share the same goals,…

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