Global/local learning exchange on contemporary housing struggles: Habitat International Coalition, and Experimentdays Berlin
By Thomas Doughty, on 27 October 2017
What is the role of civil society in addressing housing and habitat struggles in today’s globalised world? How can people, activists and organisations from diverse contexts worldwide collaborate and exchange their learning from struggles against the housing adequacy and affordability crises facing cities across the Global South and North? And what can Europe learn from other places?
Habitat International Coalition
These questions are particularly pertinent to a global civil society network such as Habitat International Coalition (HIC). Undertaking a dissertation fellowship with HIC as part of my MSc, I collaborated with HIC and its members – including urbaMonde, BSHF and Habitat en Mouvement – to research the implications of these questions.
From its origins as a Europe-based council in the 1970s, HIC has evolved into a more diverse, southern-focused coalition. Today, its membership covers five continents, forming “the global network for rights related to habitat”. Yet as HIC’s locus has shifted southwards, its European role and identity has become uncertain.
While cities have always been shaped by global flows, neoliberal globalization has pushed the scale and speed with which money, ideas, people and commodities traverse the world to unprecedented levels. The financialization of land and housing – housing’s exchange value as a commodity outranking its use value as a social good – now drives displacement in diverse cities worldwide as cities increasingly clamour to attract global capital.
Added to this is the increasing blurriness and contestation of the world’s categorization into the global north and south. 2010s Europe, shaped by austerity and quantitative easing, bears striking similarities to 1980s/90s Latin America, shaped by the Washington Consensus, with the casualization of labour and withdrawal of state support for low income housing and other social security pillars. Meanwhile, radical shifts in urban theory reject colonial notions of planning ideas travelling solely from north to south in a linear cut-and-paste process. There is growing acknowledgement of urban learning as iterative and multidirectional: all planning ideas are reshaped locally when applied somewhere new. This can be part of the process, creating greater potential for civil society to learn both ways across the north-south “divide”.
So, what is HIC’s actual and potential role in uniting global struggles for equitable, sustainable alternatives between Europe and elsewhere?
It is well placed to facilitate global exchange between diverse members. Rather than seeing the growth of other networks operating in HIC’s thematic space as competition, there is potential for much greater collaboration, to which it can bring its uniquely global and longitudinal perspective. HIC is an integral part of global platforms such as the Right to the City, and the Social Production of Habitat (hosted by urbaMonde, one of its European members) which helps to build such collaboration.
Since HIC’s origins, the digitalisation of global networks has reshaped the nature of peer-to-peer exchange. Many organisations – including HIC and members – house rich digital platforms online, yet these remain siloed, with potential for far greater interconnectivity. This brings additional challenges of overcoming multifaceted language barriers – from the avoidance of technical jargon, to translation (HIC’s strongest, most cohesive region globally is Latin America, in no small part to the shared language of most of its nations). It also requires more equitable access to communication infrastructures, to ensure all regions can benefit and contribute.
Yet technology cannot replace physical, face-to-face meetings. The value of sharing ideas and experiences in person is invaluable: from building the visibility and legitimacy of small scale projects and struggles, to facilitating the exchange of knowledge, skills and ideas.
Attending the Experimentdays European Collaborative Housing Hub in Berlin on behalf of HIC and UCL, I discovered the benefits of this first-hand. I presented my research, and collaborated in workshops with participants from over 20 European countries: activists, cohousing residents, academics and professionals, united by the pursuit of non-market, non-state provision and management of housing.
Communities in Berlin have long taken advantage of its vacant land and building surpluses, following the fall of the Wall, to pioneer alternative housing projects. Today around 10% of the city’s housing stock is cooperative. This relatively unique context is exemplified in Spreefeld, the housing cooperative where Experimentdays began. Home to over 140 people, together with coworking, social and community spaces, it occupies a central riverside site – something difficult to imagine in today’s London for example. And yet encouragingly, London was represented at Experimentdays by several exciting projects at different stages.
It was difficult to choose from the inspiring range of workshops being held across the weekend. Exploring approaches to engaging with policymakers with people from a variety of political contexts – from Slovenia to France, UK to Italy – our discussions raised the “chicken and egg” nature of policy change and societal change. Oftentimes policy is catching up with how society is changing, yet policy can also be used to trigger experimentation to mainstream housing practices.
Another workshop raised the challenge of ensuring diversity and inclusivity in collaborative housing movements, and working towards securing affordable housing for everyone. In Berlin as in Europe, cohousing is often pursued by a middle-class educated population – yet greater engagement with minorities, outsiders, and increasingly, refugees is essential to realise common good goals. In Spreefeld, the incorporation of two flats for refugee families as integral to the community, works towards this wider social benefit. Spreefeld also supports the wider community. For example, it provides its “Teepeeland” neighbours – a collective habitat of teepees on city-owned land – with power, water and advocacy, arguing that there is little difference between the two settlements, both developed on the basis of sharing and recycling.
Tours on the final day of ufa fabrik and Schwarzwohnerhaus, which originated as squats in former West and East Berlin respectively, reiterated the unique enabling factors of Berlin’s recent history. Yet also apparent was the universal need to establish ways for cooperatives to transition to new generations, while retaining their initial objectives. And, as was raised several times throughout the weekend, global market forces are steadily catching up with Berlin as elsewhere, and its many activists, movements and cooperatives face a challenge to try to retain their non-market driven approach.
At the end of the final day, I chatted with one of Spreefeld’s refugee residents from Syria, who told me “In Syria, we have always shared our food, our cooking, our childcare and our homes with other families in our community”. Indeed, returning to the question of what Europe can learn from elsewhere – the answer is a lot. What is often seen as pioneering, already has precedence in other places.
I am grateful to my dissertation supervisor, Alexandre Aspan Frediani, and to HIC and its members who supported my research. I also wish to thank the organisers of Experimentdays, for facilitating such an interesting and inspiring event.
Thomas Doughty is a recent graduate of the MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development. Coming from an architectural background, he is interested in innovative approaches to sustainable and equitable urban development.