Squatting and urbanism in Amsterdam : a common history

Ingrid PETIT, 2012

Collection Passerelle

The history of squatting in Amsterdam is intimately linked to the urban struggles that have influenced the city’s urban planning and social life. The squatters, «  kraakers ", formed a movement that asserted itself from the 1960s. Today, with the experience gained, the municipality is making civil initiative a tool for urban development… Rightly or wrongly?

Origin of an alliance movement : the compact city

In the 1960s, squatting developed in Amsterdam. The reasons ? A European context of cultural revolution, a housing crisis that affected many people, conservative conditions of access to social housing (being a couple with children and working in the city) and the arrival of the baby boomers on the housing market requiring housing for only one or two people.

Urban renewal projects link occupants of empty buildings to neighborhoods

Among the projects of the 1960s, a renovation plan for the old city, in the Nieuwmarkt district, includes demolitions and reconstructions related to the consequences of the post-war period and the construction of the metro. This plan includes, in a second phase, the passage of a highway. Defense groups organized themselves against the modernist project of the municipality. Some denounced the reduction in the number of housing units in a country where the lack of living space was a recurring problem. Others, conservatives, warn against the disappearance of heritage. Still others, protesters and embodying the cultural revolution of the 1960s, the Provos, mix art and political activism through memorable actions in the public space1. Finally, often occupying the empty buildings of the former Jewish quarter from which no inhabitant returned after the war, the squatters commit themselves to the threatened future of the neighborhood. A common struggle emerges.

The more recent neighborhood of Dapperbuurt, built in the 19th century to house many workers, is undergoing similar demolition-reconstruction projects. In this neighborhood, as in Nieuwmaarkt, neighborhood committees, saneringsbegeleidingcomites, brought together residents, city officials and members of political parties. Urban planning principles emerged from the demands and dialogues in the late 1970s. Social housing was built with participatory processes, the highway was cancelled, and the «  compact city2  » carried by the counter-movement even became the planning model. But this is a final concession3.

Structuring of the movement : the supply of social housing diversifies

In 1975, the «  Decree Van Dam  » finally grants the right to social housing to young people, single people and couples without children, profiles that can be found in the squats. The municipality and the social housing providers have to provide new types of housing, both in new construction and in better quality renovation. A wave of legalization of squats is taking place: social housing providers are buying up occupied buildings in exchange for very low rents and work to be done by the squatters. The squats were the driving force behind the renewal of social housing and gained public support. Some of these squats still exist today (Tetterode, Van Oostadestraat, etc.).

In 1981, with the « Vacancy Act », the squat acquired a legal status. A vacant building can be legally squatted, if it has been vacant for at least one year and if the owner cannot demonstrate a plan of use within a few months. Between 1980 and 1985, the number of squatters, about 20,0004, illustrates the extent of the movement, which is becoming more structured and vocal. Thus, since these years, the kraakspreekuren, in each district, advise the candidates to the occupation and encourage cohesion.

Finally, the squat phenomenon and especially the 1981 law, led to the still widespread anti-krak : to avoid the occupation of their property, some owners offer a small rent in exchange for protection. Intermediary associations manage the tenant/landlord relationship. Thus, many families or students have made this their housing strategy.

Squatter : housing and work, what development support for new districts ?

Since the 1970s, with the large number of art students and the few alternative economic activities, many squats had combined living spaces with spaces for cultural and social activities and individual work spaces. They played a central role in the working class neighborhoods. The more recent history of the port site Oostelijkehavengebied (Borneo, Java and Spoorenburg islands) illustrates this spontaneous production of mixed use and the interest that was gradually shown in it by the authorities in charge of urban planning.

At the end of the 1970s, the relocation of port activities to the west of the city left territories and buildings vacant a few steps from the city center. The site was largely squatted at the beginning of the 1980s: alongside the housing spaces, an intense artistic and cultural production developed there. In the 1990’s, right-wing governments, boosted by financial booms, planned a vast housing district, wiping out the existing buildings}}. After years of struggle and dialogue between groups of occupants accompanied by architects, the municipality and investors, including social housing landlords, some squatted buildings are preserved by a process of legalization and renovation (Levantkade 10, SBS Gebouw, etc.).

These buildings, inhabited, living and working, woonwerkpanden at low rent, scattered on the site, balanced the residential offer, and contributed to the attractiveness of the district. And if it was realized that squatting is not incompatible with real estate and urban development, it was noted by all - including the local authorities - that this urbanization caused the loss of too many cheap square meters, to the disadvantage of a local artistic and economic production. Thus, the experience of Oostelijkehavengebied was a source of inspiration for a cross-cutting municipal policy combining artistic, urban and economic development, implemented in the 2000s…

During this time, in the 1990s, the squat movement was perpetuated by a rather flexible law. Indeed, in the Netherlands, it does not place itself, by default, in favor of the owner. In 1993, the framework law on housing Huiswestingwet constrains squatting somewhat.

More recently, many young squatters are coming from southern Europe. The myth of Amsterdam still attracts. But, less politicized than their elders, they sometimes jeopardize a form of agreement between the krakers movement and the public support obtained many years earlier. At the same time, following the general European trend, the law and political governance of the center-right have hardened in recent years. Thus, in October 2010, an anti-squatting law was passed, shifting squatting from civil to criminal law, weakening the 200 or so squats currently operating in Amsterdam and making any further action difficult.

Inheritance : civil initiative as a method of urban project

If activism is less fervent today, it is the city of Amsterdam that makes occupied spaces its culture, its program. Its promotional dynamic is that of the « creative city ». A city, therefore, compact and creative, where housing, work and culture are combined.

Thus, since 1999, the municipality has facilitated the occupation of vast spaces and heritage buildings through the BureauBroedPlaatsen service, by encouraging owners to make their buildings available to artists, small cultural entrepreneurs, and associations, on a temporary basis and for small rents. Civil society organizations5, organize the group dynamics, the economy and the management of the places with the voluntary participants. To date, 55 places have been created or strengthened through project set-ups and solid partnerships.

One sometimes evokes in connection with this dynamic, an institutionalization of culture for economic and real estate purposes. But these spaces, laboratories of work and sometimes of life, are more and more numerous and respond to real needs. And the little interference of the municipality in their functioning allows to maintain the capacities of initiative, of proposal, of self-organization of the groups. At the same time, many self-managed spaces remain independent of these mechanisms and continue to carry out their activities. They are grouped under the entity De vrijruimte6.

Moreover, with regard to access to social housing, the initiatives of the groups are clearly topical in the current liberal national and European context. Indeed, although the Netherlands has the largest social housing stock in Europe7, the landlords (Woningcorporaties) are currently undergoing a change of tradition : the financial crisis has reduced their credits, and they are proceeding with numerous resale operations of their housing. Forced by the European Union 8 since 2011, they have to drastically limit access to housing that was previously open to all and had promoted social diversity. Leaving a large part of the population facing the private market, proposing suddenly disproportionate and unaffordable rental prices - or possibly acquisition prices.

Thus the grouped civil initiatives, recognized and named CPO (Collectieve Particulier Opdrachtgeverschap, in French : Maîtrise d’ouvrage privée collective) allow a group of private individuals, organized in association or in foundation, to think, to realize, to manage in common the housing places. The sharing of costs and the reduction of intermediaries facilitate the construction under the market prices. A social landlord can be invited. The independence of the group allows to freely define the uses of the building according to the needs (housing, work spaces, proximity equipments), and their management mode (collective, external).

And the municipality of Amsterdam knows that it can count on these private and collective remedies ! Remedies that facilitate access to housing for all and good urban planning. Like the German municipalities of Freiburg or Tübingen, it has been reserving free land for CPO housing projects for ten years, and with an increasingly strong will (notably in the new district of Ijburg in 2001, and in Houthavens in 2012).

1 These are theatrical forms of collective action that aimed to denounce and ridicule. For example, happenings against the tobacco industry, the war in Vietnam or the Queen’s wedding. The Provos are also known for their White Plans which served as the basis for their serious entry into politics: « White Bicycle Plan for communal bicycles » or « White Houses Plan for promoting squatting ».

2 A certain spatial density and proximity of daily activities could constitute the « compact city ».

3 See the research of Hans Pruijt, notably The impact of citizens’ protest on City planning in Amsterdam, 2002 and Squatters in the creative city: rejoinder to Justus Uitermark, in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol 28.3, September 2004.

(note) 4] According to researcher Eric Van Duivenvoorden.

5 See for example the news of the association Urban Resort.

6 www.vrijeruimte.nl

7 It is managed by a large number of associations (woningcorporaties) that are self-financed since 1993. In 2010, 34% of the population benefits from social housing.

8 In June 2010, the European Commission enjoined the Netherlands to limit access to social housing in the name of « oversupply » and competition with the private sector.

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