This international history makes the case for squatting as a radical alternative to neoliberal urbanisation and a shared vision of the city

Alexander Vasudevan’s study is the first comprehensive attempt to reconstruct the history of squatting as “the expression of an autonomous understanding of shared city life”. Each of his eight chapters takes a specific city and charts the evolution of squatting since the radical social movements of the 1960s, showing how the occupation of buildings became a way of reimagining the city “as a space of necessity and refuge, experimentation and resistance”. As well as providing an instant solution to the need for housing, squatting was also a way to reclaim the city in the face of gentrification and urban renewal schemes that were stripping it of public spaces and displacing working-class populations.

Belgravia, London, where the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians recently took up residence in a mansion.
Belgravia, London, where the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians recently took up residence in a mansion. © Yui Mok/PA

But Vasudevan goes further, claiming that squatters were also urban pioneers who explored a new kind of lifestyle, reclaimed spaces and asserted, to use Henri Lefebvre’s phrase, a universal “right to the city”. Squats became laboratories in which people experimented with new identities and collective living. In cities across Europe and the US, squats were places “where one could build an alternative world”.

Vasudevan sees his book not merely as a dry contribution to urban history, but as celebration of the vital ideas and achievements of those squatters who dared to imagine an alternative vision of life, an alternative to the neoliberal city and the urbanisation that is still engulfing the world. His highly original argument is that the history of squatting reveals “the potential reorganisation of our cities along more collective, socially just and ecologically sustainable lines”. Using archives created by squatters themselves, documenting their evanescent experiments, Vasudevan demonstrates that “the squat was a place of collective world-making: a place to express anger and solidarity, to explore new identities and different intimacies, to experience and share new feelings, and to defy authority and live autonomously”.

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