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Housing, displacement and the elderly: intersectional spatial narratives from Tareek el Jdeede, Beirut

CamilloBoano26 June 2019

By Monica Basbous, Nadine Bekdache and Camillo Boano

The current habitability crisis, the failure of progressive policies to consider the way cities adapt to different forms of displacement and resisting the three interrelated venomous practice of expulsions, extraction and externalisation are clear to everyone engaging with urban spatial practices. Displacement is a key characteristic of the urban present that requires interrogations across different geographies and with different methodological approaches. This short contribution stems from a current research partnership between Public Works Studio and DPU in the remit of the RELIEF Centre Project to study the effects of real estate policy and the financialisation of housing markets, which have resulted in the eviction and displacement of the most vulnerable social groups in Beirut turning the capital city into an exclusive, unjust and vulnerable place. The brief reflections below stem from the first part of the study, focusing on the eviction of the elderly in the neighbourhood of Tareek el Jdeede in Beirut, and were presented last week in London by Nadine Bekdache, Monica Basbous, Abir Saksouk and Camillo Boano in the symposium “Vulnerability, Infrastructure, and Displacement: The role of Public Services, in Lebanese spaces of Migration”.

Methodologically, the research develops housing narratives and spatial stories that, situated within a larger research, are narrated as the crossing point between the impact of market-driven urban development on housing rights in the context of Lebanon, and the strategies, opportunities, expectations and disappointments of elderly women in mitigating evictions, displacement and the social security of their families. Housing stories and diagrams were investigated with design research and drawings that were published on The Housing Monitor an interactive online platform for consolidating research, building advocacy and proposing alternatives to advance the right to housing in Lebanon.

 

Dwelling in Tareek el Jdeede

In this phase of the study, we examine the eviction of the elderly in the neighbourhood of Tareek Jdeede and in the wider city. Although today’s urban transformations in Tareek Jdeede may seem similar across most of Beirut’s neighbourhoods, the urban history and socio-spatial make-up of each neighbourhood determines a particular set of interactions, strategies of resilience, housing typologies and vulnerabilities. 

Mazraa – the larger administrative zone containing the neighbourhood of Tareek Jdeede – gathers around 30% of Beirut’s tenants living under the old rent law. These tenants – whose contracts were established prior to 1992 – have been subject to case-by-case eviction through a candid reconfiguration after the civil war that aligned the interests of local bureaucrats with real estate development[1]. Yet with the new 2014-rent law, evictions became a city-wide condition. Many of Tareek Jdeede’s old-rent tenants, today aged 45 and above, have been evicted or threatened with eviction at an increasing rate (Public Works Studio, 2015-2017). Among these, the elderly (and the retired) carry as a social group a set of particularities that places them at odds with state housing policies, which are basically reduced to homeownership loans. They also face the threat of displacement in the absence of social housing programs and with limited social-security benefits. The elderly in some neighbourhoods are nonetheless protected by family connections and attract charity organisations that are often affiliated to sectarian institutions. When it all fails, displacement has severe impacts on the elderly’s ways of life and on their physical and mental health well-being. While their relocation generates a number of possible scenarios, we focus on two cases: on the one hand, a case of eviction and relocation within the neighbourhood; and on the other, a case of eviction and relocation to a distant suburb. Through these case studies, we set out to investigate two main questions: in what ways do urban processes and property frameworks impact the displacement – and more generally the housing conditions – of vulnerable social groups? And what urban and architectural forms are being generated as a result of housing-related displacement?

 

Em Yumna and Em Hassan graphic stories 

Em Yumna and Em Hassan lived a few meters away from one another, yet they had never met. While Em Yumna’s eviction led to her displacement outside of the city, Em Hassan managed to relocate across the street from her previous dwelling.

Em Yumna was 14 years old when she moved from Beqaa to live in Beirut. She had married a young Berjaoui man who worked at a company in the city, and they settled in one of the small homes of Ras Al Nabaa in the mid-fifties. A year or two later, the country would be shaken by a series of earthquakes. Entire villages collapsed in Chouf Al Aala and Iklim, and Em Yumna’s house in Ras Al Nabaa came apart. In 1957, the young family packed up their belongings and moved. At the time, Em Yumna did not intend to spend the next 55 years of her life in that little three-room house atop Zreik Hill in Tareek el Jdeede. 

Em Yumna was evicted in 2012 when the owner made a development agreement with an investor to demolish the 3-storey building, and moved to Barja, a town located 35 kilometres south of Beirut. Her social relations and daily activities were severely ruptured, as they revolved around practices in the alley behind her house.

 


In 1982, Em Hassan, aged 18, moved from the neighbourhood of Noueiri to Tareek el Jdeede with her two children. Originally from the south of Lebanon, she married a relative of hers who resided in Beirut. Today, Em Hassan is in her late fifties, and continues to live in the same quarter of Tareek el Jdeede, but in a different house, after she was evicted from her previous home in 2016. A real estate company bought the building in 2011, and Em Hassan agreed to evict, using the compensation money – in addition to other resources including a loan from a religious institution – to buy the adjacent house. By doing so, she bought into a shared property, which is by itself another form of vulnerability.

Between her two dwellings lies a small courtyard that holds the past, present and future of Em Hassan’s housing. One can find her there every afternoon, having coffee and a cigarette, while at her right lies the window of the house she lived in for 34 years but is no longer hers, and facing her, the door of the house that allowed her to remain in the city. After having lived as an old-rent tenant for decades, Em Hassan’s eviction led her to buy her new home as her only means of resisting displacement. 

Em Hassan’s courtyard (1982)

 

Em Hassan’s courtyard (2019)


The similarities and differences of these two cases allow us to draw a comparative analysis, looking at the impact of both the process and destination of displacement on evicted elderly and their wellbeing, by looking into the following questions: what means do the elderly have to resist displacement and what role do socio-spatial networks play in this dynamic, especially in the case of Tareek Jdeede? Does relocation within the same neighbourhood mitigate the negative impacts of eviction on the elderly and how? How do eviction, displacement, and spatial typologies impact the socio-spatial practices of the elderly, their mobility and their relation to the neighbourhood? 


Reflections from the comparative analysis

Despite accessing housing for most of their lives through rent, the perception associated with property ownership as the primary means of achieving socio-economic and housing security, prompted both women to seek homeownership after eviction through mobilising a complex web of resources. The capital required to attain homeownership is tightly enmeshed with the relocation options available for these elderly women, and provisions for their children were deciding factors in this decision-making.

Nonetheless, the sense of security that homeownership might bring is accompanied by multiple forms of precarity and vulnerabilities. There are no affordable options to buy in the city where new unaffordable high-rise buildings are replacing the older fabric. As such homeownership for the aspiring middle class has mainly meant displacement from their city to nearby suburbs in the making, usually chosen in conformity to sectarian affiliations or origins. In contrast, the working class access substandard housing in the city, usually in the urban fabric built before 1992 that is threatened with sudden changes emanating from real estate investment or planning implementations. In the meantime, the gap between housing conditions is widening in the city. This takes a heavier toll when the same evicted units are used to exploit politically and economically vulnerable groups, particularly refugees and their families, whereby developers grant them temporary housing in order to generate profit while retaining the power to evict them spontaneously to proceed with building demolition.

Other forms of vulnerabilities linked to the production of housing in Lebanon manifest in the making of the suburbs. Apart from the poor urban planning practices resulting in environmental and spatial injustices in urbanising suburbs, the arrival of the displaced to these towns sheds light on the psychological violence exerted. The elderly endure the crumbling of social networks and support systems, the difficulty in fostering new ones, the reduction of mobility and autonomy, the deterioration of health, the loss of spatial references, and consequently the loss of sense of place and belonging. Concurrently, it was intriguing to observe how the urban morphology – spatial typology or density- can impact the building of social ties. Em Yumna was unable to adapt to her new surroundings in the suburbanizing town of Barja. Sparse urbanization and lack of accessible mobilities have led to feelings of alienation, which pushed her to seek a different spatiality for socialization: the grocery-store by the side of the road. This is echoed by Em Hassan’s husband who also opened a shop in the city, primarily as a means to socialize after the neighborhood was progressively emptied of its older inhabitants.

Through this study, we situate urban evictions beyond the confines of the city, shedding light on an emerging territorial dynamic between inner-city neighbourhoods undergoing waves of eviction and radical spatial changes, and the suburbanising towns that are hosting displaced households. Along this process, the myth of homeownership as a secure form of housing is revisited in its relation to poor urban planning practices and precarious ownership frameworks. These cases both present narratives that portray housing in the city as an access point to vital economic resources, in a context where urban space is commodified and financialised, both in practice and in discourse. They also highlight the importance of socio-spatial networks for the elderly – and the urban and suburban processes that threaten them – whereby the understanding of home takes on a larger, more social dimension than that of the physical domestic space. 

Urban density as economic resource: Em Hassan’s son and his service business

Looking further into the vulnerabilities associated with homeownership, we will next investigate how the legal framework for inheritance in Lebanon perpetuates women as minority-shareholders in collectively inherited properties. Our previous research has shown that these women are often the only shareholder still living in the inherited property but have limited negotiating power and constrained agency over their housing conditions and their susceptibility to displacement.

Through an in-depth study of such a case, the next phase of our research will aim to identify the social and legal conditions that systemically place female heirs in a position of weakness regarding the future of their dwelling.

_______________________

[1]“Evicting Sovereignty: Lebanon’s Housing Tenants From Citizens to Obstacles”, Nadine Bekdache – Arab Studies Journal (Vol. XXIII No. 1), Fall 2015 – p.p. 320-350

_______________________

Monica Basbous is an architect, designer and urban researcher. Producing maps, images and writings, her work tackles questions of urban mobility, informal spatial practices, politics and representations of space, and speculative geography. Monica teaches architectural design at the Lebanese American University since 2017, and is a researcher and partner in Public Works Studio since 2016. She holds a MSc. in Architecture from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne.

Nadine Bekdache is a practicing designer and urbanist and co-founder of Public Works Studio. She researches socio-spatial phenomena through multidisciplinary methods; including mapping, imagery and film as both processes of investigation and representation. As part of her research on urban displacement, she authored “Evicting Sovereignty: Lebanon’s Housing Tenants from Citizens to Obstacles”, and co-directed “Beyhum Street: Mapping Place Narratives”. She is also a graphic design instructor at the Lebanese University.

Camillo Boano is Professor of Urban Design and Critical Theory and Joint Programme Leader of MSc Building and Urban Design in Development at the Bartlett Development Planning Unit, where he is also the Director of Research. Camillo is also co-investigator of the the RELIEF Project.

A Half Full Beirut

SamiaKhan15 March 2019

One person is forcibly displaced every two seconds in the world and over twenty-five million people are now refugees worldwide as result of conflict.[1] They journey seeking settlement in a place where they can secure livable circumstances.

Humanitarian literature on refugees is clear to distinguish the types of protection at play; UNHCR for example determines that the three ways to protect a refugee is to rehabilitate, repatriate or resettle.[2] A majority of refugees in the Arab world who have fled failed states and armed conflicts have resettled in neighbouring countries and still continue to do so.[3] Throughout the past 70 years, Palestinian refugees have been through several phases of vulnerability and displacement, affected by their immedeate struggles, but also by a shifting set of tensions: deterritorialisation, urban pressures and geo-politics. Arab host countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and ‘temporary’[4] camps set along the West bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza strip[5] lack the proper infrastructure and regulatory frameworks to integrate refugees which complicates resettlement processes. With the arrival of refugees as a result of the Syrian crisis of 2011[6] existing refugee camps and displaced communities in host countries such as Lebanon started to overflow by a population of over another million[7], and reached a crisis point that needed immediate attention.

Recent events show how political unrest impact the plight of refugees. Lebanon was without a stable government for nearly two and a half years before starting to form cabinet structure very recently.[8] This political unrest suspends efforts for urban planning which tackles the influx of refugees. The economic infrastucture is still recovering from the conflicts the country witnessed, particularly the 1975 – 1990 civil war and the armed conflict of 2006 with Israel. Though efforts were made for public and social reconstruction, economic growth was insufficient and large areas were bought by private sector for real estate development to help the Lebanese economy thrive.[9]

The extended political crisis resulted in an eminent economic downfall. Tax reforms, suspension of bank loans and Lebanon’s debt of $81 billion being the third largest in the world, soared real estate prices.[10] According to a recent conversation with a local activist, Elza Seferian, “ the ‘unliveability’ of Beirut is like a Pandora’s box for me. The price of renting a room in Beirut is as costly as Paris. Affordable housing is scarce.”.

With refugees from neighbouring countries moving in at an exponential pace, existing refugee settlements such as those for example in Sabra, Shatila and Akkar are overpopulated and in dismal living conditions.[11] The lack of space in temporal arrangements pushes refugees to the capital to rent spaces in tower buildings, that were abandoned by private sector initiatives. ‘A half full Beirut’ is a notion that is derived from the complex situation in Beirut where private sector developers have run out of money and are unable to complete real estate projects[12] leaving Beirut’s skyline half empty. However, these abandoned spaces have been vacant on the formal market for years, yet are rented out to refugees albeit on extortionate rates[13], hence are more often than not ‘half full’.

 

Refugee laundry seen hanging outside of abandoned building project
half inhabited by refugees in Hamra district, Beirut
Photo courtesy: Elza Seferian, 2017

 

Beirut is lacking in affordable housing for middle-income and this historical issue for locals has now extended and become part of the refugee experience.[14] This shows a fracture in the market. With the relocation of refugees from camps to capital, they become an active part of the urban population and drivers of the formal and informal real estate market.

State led initiatives to mitigate refugee housing issues has been quite limited in Lebanon. It is one of the countries that has not signed the 1951 International Convention for Refugees which was established in by UNHCR. The convention’s core principle “asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom…”.[15] The civil society, though unstructured, is the major agency of support for refugees alongside non governmental organizations.[16] A detailed mapping of Civil Society Organizations and their scope in Lebanon can be found here: https://eeas.europa.eu/archives/delegations/lebanon/documents/news/20150416_2_en.pdf

Refugees rely on housing arrangements made by CSOs and NGOs such as ACTED[17], URDA[18], ANERA[19], DRC[20] and more.[21] They are ready to take on any opportunity for housing they can secure. Without formal paperwork, documentation or legal rights, refugees become susceptible to exploitation. The real estate black market thrives on premium rental rates, making refugees susceptible to forced evictions and other forms of abuse that pose no repercussions on the landlords.[22]

Though private sector developments are abandoned, they stand on land bought by private companies from the government, stripping the government from authority over majority of Beirut’s land or the real estate projects. In light of these conditions, the following conclusions can be considered:

  • Government can strenghten legal frameworks and negotiate alternative uses for abandoned spaces to provide more liveable urban solutions to locals and refugees
  • Since CSOs and NGOs possess the role of primary support to refugees and low income households with housing, agency can be established between the private sector and civil society to liaise with discontinued developments and create affordable housing schemes
  • Refugee integration schemes can be enhanced by CSOs and NGOs by creating a rigid framework of lease documentation to closely monitor the resettlement process

There is a pressing need for housing in Beirut yet an abundance of uninhabited spaces. Perhaps if the underlying opportunity within these spaces was recognized and organized, a solution could arise for the housing crisis that affects millions.


Samia Khan
is a graduate of the MSc Building and Urban Design program at the DPU


Additional Resources:

http://portal.unesco.org/en/files/27465/11162415081UNDP_NGO1.pdf/UNDP%2BNGO1.pdf

https://openmigration.org/en/analyses/syrian-refugees-in-lebanon-still-reluctant-to-go-home/

https://website.aub.edu.lb/ifi/publications/Documents/policy_memos/2017-2018/20180318_you_can_stay_in_beirut.pdf

https://germanwatch.org/sites/germanwatch.org/files/publication/8889.pdf

https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/download/45502

http://aub.edu.lb.libguides.com/c.php?g=276479&p=1843038

http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@arabstates/@ro-beirut/documents/genericdocument/wcms_240130.pdf

http://blog.blominvestbank.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/In-Depth-Review-of-the-Lebanese-Real-Estate-Sector-in-2015.pdf

http://website.aub.edu.lb/ifi/Documents/op_ed/20190208_sjc_op_ed.pdf

http://reporting.unhcr.org/node/2520

http://reporting.unhcr.org/sites/default/files/UNHCR%20Lebanon%20Operational%20Update%20-%20January%20-%20June%202018.pdf

https://www.alnap.org/system/files/content/resource/files/main/20150907-noplacetostay.pdf

http://www.undp.org.lb/communication/publications/downloads/intgov_en.pdf

https://www.daleel-madani.org/civil-society-directory/cooperative-housing-foundation

 

 

 

[1] https://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html

[2] https://www.unhcr.org/50a4c17f9.pdf

[3] https://carnegieendowment.org/2017/03/29/refugees-and-displacement-in-middle-east-pub-68479

[4] Refugee camps are often thought of as a temporary solution under the assumption that refugees will one day return to their home countries. These camps have now evolved to urban slums as the influx in the Middle East increases.

https://www.ft.com/content/b27283ce-ed29-11e8-8180-9cf212677a57

https://unhabitat.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/From-Refugee-Camps-to-Urban-Slums.pdf

[5] https://www.unrwa.org/palestine-refugees

[6] https://www.britannica.com/event/Syrian-Civil-War

[7]https://www.researchgate.net/publication/321779706_Syrian_Refugees_in_Palestinian_Refugee_Camps_and_Informal_Settlements_in_Beirut_Lebanon

[8] https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2018/12/21/why-lebanon-struggles-to-form-governments

[9] http://www.lb.undp.org/content/dam/lebanon/docs/Operations/LegalFramework/UNDP%20Lebanon%20PS%20Strategy.pdf

[10] https://www.apnews.com/d7faca02c8024f8da57ffa6987500e2d

[11] https://www.thenational.ae/world/shatila-s-population-unknown-as-palestinian-refugee-camp-bursts-at-seams-1.178993

[12] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-11-02/beirut-s-ghost-apartments-are-haunting-the-economy

[13] https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/reportsfeatures/the-refugee-effect-on-lebanese-rent­

[14] http://www.executive-magazine.com/opinion/comment/charting-a-path

[15] https://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10

[16] https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/BeyondIslamists-Lebanon-4.pdf

[17] https://www.acted.org/en/countries/lebanon/

[18] http://urda.org.lb/en/details.aspx?ID=1718

[19] https://www.anera.org/where-we-work/lebanon/

[20] https://drc.ngo/where-we-work/middle-east/lebanon

[21] http://joannachoukeir.com/List-of-NGOs-in-Lebanon#.XHKhsZMzaRs

[22] http://www.executive-magazine.com/business-finance/real-estate/renting-on-lebanons-black-market

The knot at the end of the rope: Violence, hope, and transformation in El Salvador and Mexico

ArianaMarkowitz11 December 2018

I spent an afternoon in August with a group of young men in a skate park on the outskirts of San Salvador, El Salvador. The park was part of a larger recreational complex and more people drifted in as the hours passed. The day was stifling and even if shade in the park was limited, at least sometimes there was a breeze in the air, unlike inside the low-income housing blocks that ringed the park and the shacks that climbed up the surrounding streets, splintering into a labyrinth of dead-end alleys.

The young men in the skate park told me story after story about police and gang brutality. At one point I asked them to draw a picture of a place or a situation in which they felt unsafe, uncomfortable, or anxious and another place or situation where they felt the opposite. One person stared at a blank piece of paper for 10 minutes, unable to think of any time or place where he had ever felt safe. Another drew an imaginary safe place where there were no abuses of power, people interacted as equals, homes were dignified, and greenery was abundant. After leaving the park later that day, a taxi driver told me about almost joining a gang some 15 years earlier, but changing his mind at the last minute based on the somber regrets of someone who had decided to go through with it. Later that night on my way home, I saw a body on the street. No one stopped and when I slowed down to get a closer look, my car was almost hit from behind.

A drawing produced by one of the young men in the skate park. In his words, “What makes me feel unsafe, uncomfortable, or anxious is the police, corruption, murders, and interpersonal violence.”

This situation is part of what is driving Central Americans, especially from the so-called ‘Northern Triangle’ countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, to flee, seeking a better life or, in some cases, a life at all in the United States. More and more the migrants and displaced people are traveling in mass because most of their journey is through Mexico and the Mexican state has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness or inability to protect asylum seekers’ human rights, leaving them vulnerable to opportunistic people and cartel violence while they travel, often with babies and children in tow. The poor treatment of migrants and displaced people is an extension of the Mexican state’s similar unwillingness or inability to protect Mexican citizens’ human rights. Nearly 250,000 Mexicans have been killed in the last 10 years and there are more disappearances now in Mexico than there were under the dictatorships in South America, including the still unresolved case of 43 students disappearing in 2014, apparently at the hands of state security agents with assistance from organized criminal groups under the protection of military forces. Just like I saw in El Salvador, poverty in Mexico is both a driver and a result of violence, and decades of repeated abuses have corroded Mexicans’ confidence in each other and in their government. Several years ago when I was documenting police reform in Mexico, I was struck by how government insiders and partners recalled processes that were difficult but ultimately successful while outsiders saw failures and suspected conspiracies.

Amidst so much darkness, DPU’s Étienne von Bertrab has opted to look for light. A few years ago he began developing what is now Albora, an initiative that traces Mexico’s “geographies of hope” through identifying, studying, documenting, and showcasing transformative projects throughout the country. Spotlighting this work demonstrates the that there are other ways to develop, progress, and grow, ones in which no one mistakes violence for a solution, where access to water and other natural resources is universal, where citizens are informed and engaged, and where everyone strives for the greater good.

Luis Domínguez, an engineer working for Agua para Siempre, has dedicated decades of his life to assisting communities fight soil erosion and restore river basins in the impoverished Mixteca region.

One such project is Agua para Siempre (‘water forever’), established 30 years ago by a then young couple, who decided that they would defend and support their poorest compatriots. They landed in the Sierra Mixteca in the Mexican state of Puebla, an arid and fast-eroding area that had been and continued to be hollowed out because of migration to large Mexican cities and the United States. With time, the couple understood that access to water was fundamental to addressing poverty and migration, so they began to study pre-Hispanic methods for soil retention and cultivation and advocate for their re-adoption in surrounding communities. Today, their organization, Alternativas y Procesos de Participación Social, AC (‘alternatives and social participation processes’), has 300 people and thousands of local partners who are seeing the fruits of their sustained efforts. Communities are beginning to have access to water all year for small-scale cultivation, animal husbandry, and human consumption, and hundreds of small cooperatives have begun to produce amaranth, a pre-Columbian pseudo-grain that, like quinoa, is high in protein, vitamins, and minerals. Reversing previous trends, migration is falling, as is child malnutrition, thanks to the inclusion of amaranth in local diets.

The search for transformative initiatives also brought the Albora team, which includes five DPU alumni, to Mexico City where a Mexican historian and novelist, his family, and a dozen others have formed the Brigada para Leer en Libertad (‘brigade to read in freedom’). The brigade has cultivated new readers through facilitating horizontal and informal access to authors, expanding the availability of books, and creating free places to read. So far, they have gifted or sold more than a million books at an affordable price to girls, boys, women, and men in a country where the high price of books makes bookstores elitist and inaccessible and public libraries are few. To that end, the brigade also establishes libraries, with a recent campaign resulting in the donation of nearly 70,000 books. These books have become the basis for carefully curated collections in formerly empty libraries in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. The brigade promotes reading for pleasure but also as a political act—an essential step towards the full exercise of conscious citizenship.

Free public gatherings are central to the Brigada’s book fairs in which women, men and children engage in dialogues with authors about their work and about the Mexican political conjuncture and ways out of the crises.

These projects and others are harnessing the power of hope to fuel alternative visions of their society. They demonstrate the fundamental importance of restoring and cultivating hope, necessary for active citizenship, and united, powerful communities, not just in Mexico or El Salvador but everywhere where injustice and inequality construct blocks for us to stumble over. The projects challenge us to look beyond our cynicism and apathy.

Before I left the skate park in August, one young man told me that he was glad I had come. “Most people don’t come looking for us, and the people who do don’t listen to what we have to say,” he said. “I hope you’ve been able to hear us and that the stories of our lives help you do your work.”

To learn more about Albora and contribute to its crowdfunding campaign, active until Tuesday, 18 December and only funded if it reaches 100% of its goal, go here.

Ariana Markowitz is a PhD student at DPU researching how fear and trauma manifest and become defining characteristics of urban landscapes. Taking cues from this damage, especially in marginalized communities, she looks for alternative ways of repairing frayed social fabric and healing.

Global/local learning exchange on contemporary housing struggles: Habitat International Coalition, and Experimentdays Berlin

ThomasDoughty27 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?

Spreefeld community garden tour

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.

Experimentdays, Berlin

Spreefeld workshop

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.

Teepeeland Map

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.

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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.
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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.