A chapter from Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles
Squatting in Europe
* This is a reprint of the article published in Pruijt (2012, The Logic of Urban
Squatting. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research DOI:10.1111/
j.1468-2427.2012.01116.x ) which is based on previous research and publi-
cations (Pruijt 2004a and Pruijt 2009)
Urban squatting is living in – or otherwise using – a dwelling
without the consent of the owner. Squatters take buildings intending
relatively long-term use. Urban squatting can be distinguished from
squatting on vacant land. Occupancy without legal title has always ex-
isted, but this article focuses on squatting that is organized by, or at
least supported and/or inspired by, a social movement. This kind of
inspiration comes from an activist-promoted master framework that
is based on empowerment and enables ‘cognitive liberation’ (Nepstad,
1997: 471) inasmuch as it lets people see empty buildings as opportu-
nities and imagine that collective support for occupying those buildings
can be organized.
In Amsterdam in 1966 activists from the anarchist Provo Movement
launched such a framework in the form of a ‘White Houses Plan’. A
‘working group’ announced that they would distribute lists of empty
houses and would paint the doors and doorjambs of empty homes
white. The ‘Woningbureau (Housing Bureau) de Kraker’ was estab-
lished in 1969. The name reflects the fact that Dutch squatters started
to use the special term ‘krakers’ to designate people who aim to turn
their squats into long-term homes (Van Tijen, 2008). In Berlin, the
term instandbesetzen, a conflation of instandsetzen (renovate) and beset-
zen (occupy) was coined.
Contemporary urban squatting in Europe can be seen as flowing
from organized squatting in the 1960s, but squatting is not dependent
on a climate of countercultural upheaval. The fact that squatting took
place on a large scale shortly after the second world war (Friend, 1980;
Johnstone, 2000) testifies to this.
The literature offers widely divergent interpretations, conveying the
impression that the squatters’ movement is an elusive one. Various au-
thors portray the movement as a collective actor pursuing a particular
goal. For Corr (1999: 3), its goal is ‘to redistribute economic resources
according to a more egalitarian and efficient pattern’, for Wates (1980)
it is to address housing issues, while Mamadouh (1992) sees it as a
means to assert a romantic small-is-beautiful vision against the domi-
nant functionalistic practice of city planning. Kallenberg (2001) clas-
sifies squatting among the utopian struggles, which would imply that
the goal of the squatters’ movement is a better society. Katz and Mayer
(1985) suggest that the goal is to enable and further self-help. Adding
to the variety, there are authors who see squatting not as goal-directed
but as a movement driven by a need for countercultural and/or political
expression (Lowe, 1986; Van Noort, 1988). Assessments diverge too in
this strand of the literature. Clarke et al. (1976: 58) see squatting as an
example of a middle-class counterculture and Wietsma et al. (1982: 4)
as a ‘way to shape one’s life and one’s living environment in a way that
breaks with imposed norms and laws’. For McKay (1998) it represents a
manifestation of Do-it-Yourself culture. Della Porta and Rucht (1995:
121-123) classify the squatters’ movement as a ‘left-libertarian’ move-
ment, while, in sharp contrast, Katsiaficas (1997: 115) pictures squat-
ters as progenitors, and later a wing of the ‘international Autonomen’,
a more or less Leninist strand of political activism. Martínez (2007:
381) views them as a ‘rhizomatic’ or ‘immediatist’ movement, while
Adilkno (1994) sees them as postmodern, post-ideological and mass-
media-influenced. And some emphasize that people squat to lead an
‘extreme way of life’ (Anon, 1998: 20).
None of these assessments is completely incorrect; overviews of
squatting show a great variety of squatting projects within countries
and also within cities (Wates and Wolmar, 1980; Wakefield and Grrrt,
1995; Birke and Holmsted, 2007; Birke, 2009; Kaulingfreks et al.,
2009; van Gemert et al., 2009) and any of these interpretations will fit
somewhere, some time, to some extent and in some way.
This article is an attempt to contribute to a comparative analysis of
squatting that takes diversity as the starting point, rather than setting
off from one particular interpretation that would be spot-on in some
cases, but that would appear to be a very artificial model in others. The
core of the article is the development of a typology of urban squatting,
specifically designed as an alternative for the often-made distinction be-
tween squatting as a way of meeting a housing need and squatting as a
way of satisfying a need for countercultural and/or political expression
(Lowe, 1986) that has already been shown to be incorrect by Kinghan
(1977) and Van der Pennen et al. (1983). The latter found that meeting
unmet housing needs was an important motive for all squatters.
The theoretical and conceptual base is as follows. For the general
framework, I have drawn on contingency theory. McAdam and Scott
(2005) introduced contingency theory in the context of social move-
ment studies, but so far it has seen little use in social movement research.
Contingency theory explains diversity as the result of adaptation to op-
timize efficiency and effectiveness. In the case of squatting, awarding
an important role to efficiency and effectiveness is appropriate because
squatting hinges on a transformational process: unused buildings are
transformed into safe, acceptable or comfortable homes, or spaces that
are used in other ways and infused with life. Mintzberg (1983) concep-
tualized adaptation as congruence, i.e. achieving a fit with the environ-
ment, and configuration, achieving internal consistency. In Mintzberg’s
(1983) terminology, which I adopt, configurations are internally con-
sistent combinations of features that correspond logically to specific
In selecting the dimensions of description I have drawn on New
Social Movement theory, because this approach is inherently compara-
tive and because the squatters’ movement has been counted among
the New Social Movements (van Loo et al., 1984; Ziere, 1992). The
concept of New Social Movements implies a comparison with old or
classic movements. New Social Movements are said to have a network
structure and an informal, unstable and enthusiastic model of organi-
zation (Calhoun, 1993) which offers participants the flexibility to be
active without a fixed commitment (Tarrow, 1994). Participants are
primarily middle class (Pichardo, 1997). Kriesi (1989) identifies the
key actors in a New Social Movement as belonging to a specific section
of the middle class: cultural and social service providers. These actors
oppose threats to their autonomy posed by technocrats and bureaucrats
and would like to see a society with little managerial control. We can
infer that when such activists apply their idea of an ideal society to
their own movement this will result in attempts to build network struc-
tures with horizontal decision making. In terms of goals, New Social
Movements are said to differ from other movements because they focus
not just on political goals but also on cultural objectives, on enacting
a cultural identity (Melucci, 1989; Polletta and Jasper, 2001). Finally,
the literature on New Social Movements suggests that activists tend to
be active in more than one of the movements that make up this move-
ment family (Kriesi et al., 1995). These various characteristics, which
are said to set New Social Movements apart from other movements, can
be translated into dimensions of description: activists’ goal, class, form
of organization and cultural and political embedding.
A contrasting literature exists that emphasizes demands and the
agency of activists who design frames to organize experience by simpli-
fying and condensing aspects of ‘the world out there’, to find resonance
and to guide action (Benford, 2000). Therefore, I include demands and
framing among the dimensions of description.
Beyond these dimensions derived from social movement theory, I
include the type of buildings as a dimension that is highly specific to
The empirical base is squatting experience in the Netherlands, the
UK, Germany and Italy. The Netherlands can be seen as a real-life
laboratory that offered activists ample opportunities to explore what
is possible in squatting. This is because affordable housing shortages
were persistent, while between 1971 and 2010 it was possible to squat
without breaking the law. All types of squatting are present in the 45
years of Dutch squatting history, but some possibilities were less de-
veloped in the Netherlands than in other countries. For this reason,
I have included the UK, Italy and Germany. The UK was the scene
of systematic campaigns to organize squatting for poor people (Bailey,
1973; Wates 1980), and the practice of creating and running large-
scale squatted social centres was well developed in Italy (Mudu, 2004).
Germany (Geronimo, 1995) and Italy (Welschen, 1996) offered cases
in which activists involved themselves in squatting for ulterior political
motives. Together with a similar case in the Netherlands, this provided
a base for analysing political squatting.
I studied squatting in the Netherlands by using the extensive de-
scriptive literature and through interviews, examination of the archives
and systematic collection of documentation produced by the move-
ment. An important source of information was the complete set of is-
sues of the main squatters’ periodical (Kraakkrant, 1976-81) and its
successors (Laatste Waarschuwing, 1981, Bluf!, 1981-88, NN, 1988-95
and Ravage, 1996-2002). Direct observations at meetings, parties and
actions including lobbying and other events were made from 1977-85
and 2003-10. Squatting in the UK, Germany and Italy was mainly
studied using the available literature, although visits to squats in these
countries were made.
The resulting typology consists of 5 basic configurations of squat-
ting. Configurations are combinations of features that are logically con-
sistent and fit to the environment, and can therefore be expected to be
efficient and effective.
The five configurations are:
1. Deprivation-based squatting
2. Squatting as an alternative housing strategy
3. Entrepreneurial squatting
4. Conservational squatting
5. Political squatting.
Below I will derive the various squatting configurations, placing an
emphasis on developing the logic of each configuration. A complete,
systematic overview of the dimensions of the configurations is given in
Note that the restrictive definition of squatting as relatively long-
term occupation excludes the use of buildings as crash pads, as well as
demonstrative occupations. Conceptually, squatting projects are the
units of analysis. A squatting project can only belong to a single con-
figuration, but it is possible for squatting projects belonging to different
configurations to share the same building.
The oldest configuration may be called deprivation-based squat-
ting. This configuration involves poor, working-class people who are
suffering severe housing deprivation. Severe housing deprivation means
more than having a need for housing; it implies that such people have
virtually no other options than living in a shelter for the homeless. A
further restriction is that such individuals have a specific status that
allows them to be seen as deserving accommodation. Generally, there
is a broadly shared opinion about who does and who does not deserve
to be housed. The norms that govern this are time- and place-specific.
In England in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, only married people
with children tended to be eligible to be defined as homeless (Wates,
1980). In the 1960s in the Netherlands, being a homeless married
couple without children was sufficient to be classified as deserving
A key aspect of this configuration is that it is tightly organized. A pro-
totypical example of deprivation-based squatting is the ‘family squatters
movement’ in the UK in the late 1960s. Activists determined to orga-
nize housing for homeless families started the movement in 1969. They
did this by squatting and then distributing housing that local authori-
ties, put under pressure by squatting actions, had turned over to them.
These were houses that had been removed from the regular rental stock.
A Family Squatting Advisory Service was established to organize this
distribution, which had one paid staff member (Bailey, 1973).
A different form of this configuration is mass squatting. The 1945-
46 wave of squatting in ex-military camps in the UK, initiated by a
committee of ex-servicemen (Friend, 1980) is an example.** Large-scale
deprivation-based squatting was not confined to the 1940s. Groups of
home-seekers occupied flats in Italy in the late 1960s (Welschen, 1996:
Starting in the early 1970s, the specific housing predicaments of
newly arrived migrants gave rise to deprivation-based squatting. For
example, in 1974 a Surinamese action committee in Amsterdam led
squatting in around 100 apartments in the Bijlmermeer by newly ar-
rived immigrants from Surinam (Van Diepen and Bruijn – Muller,
1977), and in Frankfurt, in the early 1970s, there were also activists
who occupied buildings in order to provide housing for immigrants
(Grundmann et al., 1981: 48). In 1998 in Bologna, the ‘The Committee
without Frontiers’ and Rifondazione Comunista organized squatting for
North African immigrants (Fekete, 1998). Contemporary examples of
deprivation-based squatting projects exist. In 2010, the squatters’ as-
sociation Zwart-Rode Vrijheid (Black-Red Freedom), set up to provide
housing for people with various personal troubles, was thriving in the
Dutch town of Etten-Leur.
An organizational pattern that makes a clear distinction between
activists and squatters fits the configuration of deprivation-based squat-
ting. The activists open up buildings for the squatters and support
them. This division of roles fits the overall logic of the configuration,
because it clearly puts the squatters in the position of people who need
to be helped. It also implies some protection against possible accusa-
tions of queue jumping: the activists do not take the initiative and or-
ganize squatting for selfish motives; they do it to help others. A social
distinction between the squatters and the activists, when the activists
are of middle-class origin, is functional here.
In deprivation-based squatting, it is possible to take advantage of
the perception that the squatters are needy and deserving by choosing
empty buildings belonging to owners who have a (moral) obligation to
house the needy and would therefore be embarrassed to be seen evicting
squatters. Among such owners are the state and the Church. Ideally, the
target for squatting is regular housing stock, left empty for inexplicable
or inexcusable reasons. The better the condition of the buildings, the
more embarrassing it is that the owners have left them empty.
The central demand in this configuration does not involve structural
change, but instead focuses on helping the squatters to obtain (tempo-
rary) leases or alternative accommodation. This type of squatting can
be variously embedded in socialist, humanitarian and/or religious activ-
ism; one may say that it constitutes a protest against government inef-
ficiency and insensitivity.
Careful framing can help win supporters and put pressure on the
authorities. In this configuration, the framing is straightforward. The
needs of homeless families, who ideally have become distressed for rea-
sons beyond their control, i.e. the working poor, are pitted against the
insensitivity of bureaucrats and politicians. Squatters claim respectabil-
ity, which enables the public to identify with them. When evictions
take place, a shock effect is produced by the uncivilized or insensitive
behaviour of the authorities or their agents. Bailey (1973) describes
how bailiffs, by violently evicting families from squatted council-owned
houses in London, created a public relations disaster for the city offi-
cials who had hired them.
A more radical political demand that is sometimes made is to requi-
sition unused private property. An example is the campaign undertaken
by a Brighton group who called themselves the ‘Vigilantes’. In 1945
they occupied houses that were only rented during the holiday season.
This resulted in a new law that made requisitioning possible. It was only
implemented in Labour-run cities (Friend, 1980).
In the UK, the limitations of this configuration in terms of the de-
mands that can be raised became apparent when, in 1946, 1,500 peo-
ple squatted investor-owned apartments in London, with Communists
playing an organizing and supporting role. In contrast to the generally
positive coverage of the government-owned ex-military camp occupa-
tions, much of the press reporting was hostile as the right of individ-
ual owners to do with their property what they pleased was attacked.
Evictions and punishment ensued (Friend, 1980: 116; Johnstone,
Deprivation-based squatting is susceptible to cooptation, i.e. trans-
formation into a form that is useful to state officials (Pruijt, 2003). A
salient example of cooptation can be found in the history of squatting
in the UK. There, some squatters’ organizations were transformed into
management offices that rented out short-life public sector accommo-
dation. This was called ‘licensed squatting’ (Bailey, 1973; Pettitt, 1980).
The deals with local authorities that made this possible required squat-
ters’ organizations to give up organizing squatting. Lowe (1986: 148)
called licensing ‘a classic example of the cooptation of a critical social
A specific problem of this configuration of squatting is that it has
little to offer to people whom the authorities or the public do not recog-
nize as having a genuine housing need (ASS, 1996: 31). Home-seekers
who have problems beyond homelessness, or people whose lifestyle os-
tensibly deviates from the mainstream, will have difficulty meeting the
A further problem, to the extent that there is a division of roles
between activists and squatters, is that the continuity of squatting de-
pends on a small core of activists who may shift interest or burn out.
It is also very important that squatters in this configuration have no
other serious problems beyond homelessness, such as substance abuse,
dealing drugs or stealing, sexual or domestic violence. If they do, ad-
ditional risks of repression loom, and activists supporting squatters who
have multiple problems run the risk of turning into unpaid social work-
ers (Grundmann et al., 1981: 49).
Squatting as an alternative housing strategy
A newer configuration might be called squatting as an alternative
housing strategy, i.e. squatting as a more or less viable alternative to
(sub)renting. Compared to the previous configuration, it is less restric-
tive. Squatting as an alternative housing strategy opened up squatting
to people of middle-class origin. Examples are students or downwardly
mobile individuals who have chosen to dedicate themselves to activi-
ties that bring few financial rewards, e.g. visual artists and musicians.
Squatting as an alternative housing strategy is wide open to home-seek-
ers outside the category of people seen, at that specific time, as urgently
in need of housing – for example, people who are unmarried, have no
children, are young or are well-trained.
Coming from a desperate situation is not required, this configura-
tion is open to squatters who were not previously homeless but lived in
a rented room or a student dormitory and want to move into an apart-
ment. Squatting as an alternative housing strategy can be attractive for
people who want to live in a group and cannot find legal accommo-
dation that makes this possible and for radical DIY enthusiasts, who
would rather create housing for themselves by investing a lot of time in
it than working long hours in a job to pay a high rent (Moan, 1980).
Simply living rent-free without investing a lot of time is also possible,
if one is either lucky enough to find a place that does not need much
work or willing to put up with primitive circumstances.
Although it opened up squatting for people of middle-class origin,
squatting as an alternative housing strategy is available to the poor and
vulnerable. For the latter, it has advantages over deprivation-based
squatting, because it involves less or no stigmatization.
That we are dealing with a configuration that is distinct from depri-
vation-based squatting is illustrated by the reflections of Pettitt (1980:
122) who decided to move into a squat herself, after a period of time
during which she had dedicated herself to the London Family Squatting
Movement and helped others to squat:
Somehow we accepted the reasoning which implied that if one
wasn’t in a ‘family’, then one didn’t need a permanent home of one’s
own. My own train of thought went something like this: ‘Me? But I’ve
got a degree! How can I justify needing to squat? I don’t look deserving
enough. It’ll make squatting look silly if people like me do it, with no
cockney accents and no children.
In this configuration, the basic desire is not to get help but to be
left alone and in peace. Demands are mainly tactical tools toward the
goal of being left alone. Because demands are not very important, in
contrast to deprivation-based squatting, in this configuration there are
no strict requirements on framing, although explaining the action to
neighbours and to the public may be helpful. Squatters do not present
themselves as unlucky souls who require assistance. The disempowering
effect of being (self-)labeled as deprived is avoided. Squatters do not
stigmatize themselves as losers, instead they derive pride from a self-
created housing solution.
The fact that squatters do not claim to be among the deprived and
needy, and are not presented as such, gives rise to potential moral and
legitimacy problems when they squat homes that are intended to be let to
low-income people. In the Netherlands, this applies to social housing that
is distributed under state control. Moral and legitimacy problems do not
occur, however, with types of buildings that allow squatting to be seen as
adding to the affordable housing stock, rather than fighting for a share of
it. Suitable buildings include commercial spaces that were never intended
to be used for housing. Large buildings that do not contain apartments
but are suitable for communal living also fit into this configuration well.
The same holds true for rental units that have been taken off the market
because of demolition plans. Housing which is (far) below rentable stan-
dard is suitable, as are empty homes that are so expensive that they can
never be counted as being part of the affordable housing stock.
When spaces that meet the criteria outlined above are chosen, squat-
ting becomes a two-edged sword: squatters help themselves outside the
perimeter of the existing affordable housing stock and at the same time,
by removing themselves from the waiting queues for authority-allocat-
ed housing, indirectly help other low-income home-seekers.
Compared to deprivation-based squatting, squatting as an alterna-
tive housing strategy involves less division between activists/organizers
on the one hand and squatters on the other. There is more self-orga-
nization in autonomous teams, and less top-down organizing. ‘Less’ is
not ‘none’ – the phenomenon of informal leadership exists, although
it is sometimes contested; in the Netherlands, for instance, there was
a longstanding debate about ‘union bosses’ in which the rise of leaders
was criticized. Logically, self-organization is an appropriate concept in
a configuration in which squatters are not defined as needy.
Some authors, for example Lowe (1986), see this type of squatting
as a way of satisfying a need for countercultural and/or political ex-
pression. This, however, obscures the fact that meeting housing needs
tends to be an important motive for all squatters regardless of whether
they are subculturally oriented (Kinghan, 1977; Van der Pennen et al.,
1983). Indeed, many squatters live in a squat just as they would in a
rented place, at least in the Netherlands. Thus, it seems more accurate
to note that squatting as an alternative housing strategy can be embed-
ded in counterculture and politics. This entails the following.
Apart from accommodation, squatting offers the opportunity to
adapt the housing situation to a chosen lifestyle. Punks may, for exam-
ple, choose to live together with punks, feminists may start a women’s
squat. Experimenting with communal living is easy. Squatted com-
mercial spaces can be converted in creative ways. In Amsterdam, for
example, an artist built a small wooden house inside a large space in
the former Handelsblad building (also known as the NRC building).
Squatting offers ample possibilities for creative interior and exterior
Empowerment is an element in counterculture and countercultural
politics. It results from the act of establishing squats. Squatters break
free from a dependent attitude toward both the state and the market, at
least in the area of housing, and distance themselves from the bureau-
cratically regulated way of home making. They gain self-confidence be-
cause they take care of their own housing needs, by occupying a build-
ing and making it inhabitable. They break the power exerted over them
by city planning, waiting lists and the norms of private property rights,
which require that homeless people remain quietly homeless while
around them houses stand empty.
One of the appeals of squatting is that it promises an immediate tan-
gible result in the form of a realized squat. This is different from politi-
cal participation through formal channels in which a division of labour,
hierarchy and inevitable compromise make it difficult for participants
to trace the result of the energies they have invested.
Some squatters involve themselves deeper in squatting. They form
a network or squatter scene. Spending time in the company of other
squatters is rewarding because of the shared experience and because it
offers the relaxation of not having to defend the principles of squatting.
The non-squatting environment tends to label squatters as different,
which in itself helps forge a group identity. Know-how on technical
matters, such as dealing with owners, locks, windows, broken floors,
plumbing, heating, electricity and how to obtain relevant supplies is
Ideology is only loosely coupled to practice. All squatting is highly
practical, but, in contrast to deprivation-based squatting, demands to
authorities are relatively unimportant when squatting is an alternative
housing strategy, obviating the need for a clear consistent explanation
of actions. This allows for considerable freedom when creating an ide-
ology around squatting such as instant anarchism, i.e. suddenly dis-
covered with little influence from the anarchist tradition, or ideologies
with an anti-capitalist or anti-property-rights theme. Another possibil-
ity is to emphasize continuity with mainstream values such as self-reli-
ance, community and liveability. The non-centralized structure further
promotes ideological diversity.
Within the squatter scene, movement building can take place. We can
distinguish different forms of organization in the squatting movement:
• General cooperation and mutual assistance. This means that squat-
ters make themselves available to other squatters or potential squatters
to provide advice, help them out with problems or organize a group
that assists when a new building is squatted. Neighbours help each
other and cooperate.
• Internal organization in large buildings. In large buildings a lot has
to be arranged collectively, for example the energy supply. Commonly,
there will be regular house meetings.
• Associations. The establishment of squatter groups is very im-
portant, especially in districts in which mainly separate apartments or
small apartment buildings are squatted. Squatter groups have meetings
and some collective money. Squatter groups and collectives that oc-
cupy large buildings can start to work together, thereby forming a wider
• Structured networks without division of labour. For example, a
telephone tree for mobilizing support in case of an eviction threat.
• Organization based on a voluntary division of labour. This entails
the creation of small institutions that provide services to squatters or
those interested in squatting. Examples include information services for
potential squatters that sometimes maintain lists of empty properties
and provide advice to make squatting accessible and more likely to be
successful; collectives that write squatting manuals; and squatters’ me-
dia such as newsletters, magazines, radio and television stations, web-
sites, online forums and mailing lists. In Amsterdam, a bureau exists
that investigates property speculators: the SPOK, Speculatie Onderzoeks
Collectief (Speculation Investigation Collective). Art centres such as
Tacheles in Berlin, described by Holm and Kuhn (2011: 7) as spaces cre-
ated to ‘help squatters achieve self-realization’, book shops and public
kitchens have a function as part of the infrastructure of the movement.
• Organized campaigns. A goal can be, for example, to squat a
large property. Squatters develop a strategy, mobilize people, as-
sign tasks, cooperate during the action and evaluate afterwards.
• Overarching citywide, regional or national organizing.
Collective threats, such as proposed anti-squatting legislation,
stimulate squatters to call overarching meetings and organize
protests in their cities, to coordinate national protests and set
• Coalitions with tenants. For example, to improve living condi-
tions in the neighbourhood.
Squatters’ movements can overlap with other movements in pro-
test waves. Squatters’ movements are part of a ‘left-libertarian social
movement family’ (della Porta and Rucht, 1995: 121-3), including,
for example, the ecology movement and the new peace movement. The
movements within this family have organizational overlaps. Squatters
can take the notion of applying direct action, and their experience
with it, to sundry troubled spots in society. Historic examples from the
Netherlands in the 1980s of squatters branching out into other fields
• A blockade of the road leading to the nuclear power plant in
Dodewaard and blockade actions against the transportation of
nuclear waste on its way to be dumped in the sea; as well as
blockading the entrances to the Shell laboratory complex in
Amsterdam as part of anti-apartheid protests.
• Direct action tactics, pioneered in the squatters’ movement,
have also been transferred to anti-militaristic protest. Military
command bunkers and one military office were raided and
documents detailing contingency plans in a State of National
Emergency were stolen, displayed and published. A similar ac-
tion occurred at a building used by a covert police observation
• A raid to disrupt an extreme rightwing party meeting in a hotel
ended in a devastating fire caused by a smoke-bomb.
• Squatters have also played a major role in urban protests, for
example against the construction of the new town hall in
Amsterdam, occupying the site with an ‘Anti-City Circus’, or
derailing Amsterdam’s campaign to attract the Olympic Games
by harassing the International Olympic Committee members
assembled in Lausanne. In 1999, squatters were active in the
logistics part of a tour, the ‘Inter-Continental Caravan’, of
500 Indian peasants though Europe who wanted to show how
Western policies affect their lives.
Squatting as an alternative housing strategy can lead to various out-
comes. A key payoff of squatting is that it enables people to satisfy
their immediate housing needs by direct action, i.e. creating (often
temporary) homes. According to a 1981 study (Van der Raad, 1981)
Amsterdam housed around 9,000 squatters. Duivenvoorden (2000) es-
timated that in the Netherlands as a whole, between 1965 and 1999,
50,000 people lived in squats at one time or another. Also of interest
is the longevity of the squats. There is a relation with quality because
a longer life expectancy for a squat makes it possible to invest more
in repairs, construction and maintenance. Wates (1980) estimated an
average life span of several months, but less than one year, for squats
in the UK. I estimate an average squat life span of several years in the
1980s, strongly declining after 1994, for Amsterdam.
Some squats have become permanent homes through legalization.
The Municipality of Amsterdam bought 200 buildings that were occu-
pied by squatters (Duivenvoorden, 2000: 323), thereby legalizing them.
This fitted in with an already formulated government policy to supply
housing to young people. The role of pressure caused by resistance to
evictions cannot be discounted. Officials then turned most of these
buildings over to established housing associations that concluded lease
contracts with individual squatters (Draaisma and Hoogstraten, 1983).
This allowed squatters to consolidate what they had achieved. The flip-
side is that legalization takes away the alternative edge (Bussemaker,
1986). Because legalization entails repairs and sometimes conversion
to the level required by the building code, it tends to increase costs,
putting an end to the situation where money matters little. In this situ-
ation, some people with very low incomes have to leave, or they become
dependent on some arrangement by which they can substitute work for
‘rent’. Nevertheless, in the Netherlands few, if any, opportunities for
legalization have been missed. In Berlin, however, there were a sizeable
number of squatters who refused to negotiate for legalization.
Squatting can cause a housing shortage to gain prominence on the
political agenda. The media can play an independent role in this. This
occurred in the case of Vetterstraat in Amsterdam in 1965. The squat-
ters were just trying to help themselves, but a newspaper printed the
A big riot might be useful. We risk forgetting that in this country
there is a disgraceful housing shortage. The burden of this is passed
almost exclusively onto a varying group of young people. The housing
situation is a sick spot in our society. But we have almost made this ill-
ness invisible (Trouw, 7 January 1965).
In the Netherlands, a major effect of squatting is that it has put the
housing shortage on the political agenda. In 1978 in Amsterdam, a
twenty-year-old could expect to wait more than 7 years to be allocated
a distributiewoning (literally, ‘distribution apartment’, a social housing
unit). The minimum age to be put on the waiting list was twenty-five.
From that point, one had to wait a few years to get to the top of the
queue. In 2011, in Amsterdam it still takes years of patience to eventu-
ally obtain an apartment in the ‘social sector’, i.e. state-controlled hous-
ing for citizens with low and medium incomes.
Sometimes squatters explain their actions as a protest against a
shortage of affordable housing and refer to this when mobilizing public
support. An example is the ‘Groote Keijser’ in Amsterdam in 1979-80,
a case in which squatters refused to give up a row of occupied canal
houses (Keizersgracht 242-252). They explained their stand as a pro-
test against a housing shortage that affected 50,000 home-seekers in a
population of 600,000.
In the monumental inner city of Amsterdam, squatting led to the
establishment of new ‘weak’ functions, such as housing young people,
often living in groups – weak in the sense that these functions tend
to lose out in the competition for land because there is little financial
profit to be made from them. In some cases these functions are pro-
tected through legalization (Duivenvoorden, 2000: 323; Breek and de
A specific problem of squatting as an alternative housing strategy
is that two of the strengths of this configuration – that many people
can do it and that the organizational structure is decentralized – si-
multaneously represent weaknesses because they limit the possibilities
for squatters to exert social control over their fellow squatters. This is
relevant because of the precarious legitimacy of squatting. To illustrate
this: in a 2006/ 2007 survey (N = 2173) in the Netherlands, 36.8%
of respondents agreed with the statement ‘Squatting an empty build-
ing should always be forbidden’; 42.5% disagreed. Cases can occur
in which squatters damage the building and/or display behaviour that
disturbs the neighbours, contributing to a media backlash.
social centres, free spaces, breeding places
Squatting offers opportunities for setting up almost any kind of
establishment without the need for large resources or the risk of becom-
ing mired in bureaucracy. Examples of such projects are neighbourhood
centres, squatters’ bars that provide an infrastructure for squatting as
an alternative housing strategy and raise money for actions and char-
ity projects, artists’ work spaces, practice facilities for bands, women’s
houses, restaurants, print shops, theatres and movie houses, tool-lend-
ing services, alternative schools, daycare centres, party spaces, art gal-
leries, book and information shops, spiritual centres, give-away shops
(shops in which everything is free), food shops, saunas, workshops, e.g.
for bicycle repair or car or boat restoration, environmental or third-
world-oriented projects or social projects such as a shelter for people
in distress or an advisory service with language training for migrants.
In Italy entrepreneurial squatting projects tend to be routinely la-
belled as social centres. Activists in other countries such as Spain and
the UK have adopted this label. In 1998, 150 squatted self-managed
social centres in Italy offered opportunities to enjoy and develop social
life in a non-commodified environment (Maggio, 1998: 234). Mudu,
(2004) counted 200 social centres in Italy.
Ruggiero (2000: 170) states that social centres have important func-
tions in reducing loneliness and repairing the lack of opportunities for
identity building caused by the decline of large workplaces, unions and
political parties. They also allow unemployed people to engage in pro-
ductive activity such as organizing concerts and producing and selling
CDs, magazines and T-shirts. Social centres maintain strong links with
the alternative music scene. Some see this as meaningful work with a
welcome degree of self-control, for others it represents self-exploitation
(Wright, 2000: 128). The centres provide contacts, access to resources
and opportunities for acquiring skills that are relevant in the job market
(Ruggiero, 2000: 182-3).
Often social centres or free spaces are established together with
housing. In the Netherlands, squatters promoted the combination of
functions in one building as an asset in its own right (Duivenvoorden,
The scale and the type of buildings can vary. Examples range from
one small storefront to a large commercial centre, a military complex,
warehouse, shipyard or an entire village.
Because of the broad range of entrepreneurial squatting, it is hard to
make general statements about the class origin of participants. In the
Netherlands, there were many artists as well as others who have had
at least a few years of university training. Consorzio Aaster (1996: 29)
reports on a survey among 1,395 users of social centres in Milan that
includes the level of education as a variable. Of the respondents, 36.1%
had at least a few years in university, 20.1% had no more than the com-
pulsory 3 years of secondary education. Mudu (2004: 926) indicated
that visitors to social centres in the northern and central parts of Italy
also tend to be mixed in terms of social class, while social centres in the
south tend to involve ‘people living on the fringes of society’.
As far as organization is concerned, there is variation, if only because
the scale varies so much. A fairly common characteristic is informal
organization. The status as squats limits external obligations. Because
of this, there is relatively little need for formal organization, as long
as there is no legalization. Mudu (2004) observes that the informal
structure of squatting projects allows for continued progress even when
there is a high turnover of participants.
In terms of factors that promote mobilization, unemployment is im-
portant. When substantial youth unemployment exists, such as existed
in the Netherlands in the early 1980s and has existed in Spain since
2005, there are large numbers of resourceful young people looking for
opportunities to engage in meaningful activities. Initiatives often ap-
peal to specific age or ethnic groups. For example, an Italian survey of
social centre visitors (N = 1,395) showed that only 4.9% were older
than thirty-five (Consorzio Aaster, 1996: 23). However, some centres,
such as the Leoncavallo in Milan, have multiple spaces and activities
that attract different age groups. And in the UK the Exodus collective
in Luton started by organizing raves, branched out into squatting, and
became known for cutting across ethnic barriers (Malyon, 1998).
Entrepreneurial squatting projects are practical and are therefore
not very dependent on sophisticated ideological framing. At least at
the start, whipping up a lot of public support tends to be unnecessary.
This changes when there is an eviction threat, which can prompt activ-
ists to demand that city administrators and politicians act to help save
the project. When the need for framing arises, it is logical to advance
a functionalist frame, emphasizing the valuable role of the project in
the community, for example as a breeding place for the creative class
(Romano, 1998; Florida, 2002; Pruijt, 2004b; Uitermark, 2004).
As far as countercultural and political embeddedness in this con-
figuration are concerned, there are two issues that are regularly debated.
The first issue is whether legalization results in the loss of the oppo-
sitional edge. An in-depth study of squatted ‘free spaces’ in Amsterdam
describes the commonly occurring effects of legalization as a loss of links
to various societal structures, of ties with other free spaces, and a decline
in dynamism and political engagement (Breek and de Graad, 2001: 77).
There are projects where oppositional identity did not wither away,
but rather died abruptly with legalization, such as the Groote Keijser,
the already mentioned canal houses Keizersgracht 242-252. In other le-
galized squats it eroded gradually, for example in the NRC-complex,
Tetterode in Amsterdam. Sometimes a role in alternative culture has
remained, such as in the case of the Poortgebouw in Rotterdam, which
has remained a venue for alternative music. An important factor is the
level of control that occupants retain after legalization. Often legaliza-
tion involves a non-profit housing organization taking control of the
building and turning the squatters into individual tenants. In other
cases, the ex-squatters remain in control as a collective (Breek and de
Graad, 2001: 50).
Legalization is not the only explanation for the erosion of the Dutch
squatter scene’s political edge. There has been a general decline in
left-wing protest in the Netherlands since 1980, which was the apex
of a protest wave. After 1980 resources for social movements in the
Netherlands also declined, as it became both easier and more necessary
for young people to find paid employment. The state also began to put
pressure on students to complete their studies swiftly.
Some projects did retain an oppositional edge after legalization, such
as the Mehringhof in Berlin and Vrankrijk in Amsterdam. Vrankrijk was
bought by its squatters. It is worth noting too that various legalized
projects, such as Kulturzentrum Lagerhaus in Bremen or the Fabrik in
Berlin never had an oppositional identity; from the beginning they fo-
cused on (alternative) culture.
The second discussion is whether it is possible to escape the trade-
off between, on the one hand, choosing to assume a countercultural/
political identity and thus only attracting members of a highly exclusive
‘scene’, for instance vegan anarchists, or, on the other hand, choosing
to attract a wide range of people at the expense of becoming culturally
mainstream and non-political.
Marco (2000: 14), who was active in the Eurodusnie collective in
Leiden in the Netherlands, criticized the Dutch squatter scene for be-
ing exclusive, and contrasted it to the large number of social centres
in Italy, which he describes as central gathering places for the ‘anti-
capitalistic part of the population’ while also appealing to a wide variety
of people. Many social centres solve the dilemma by offering space for
a broad range of activities. Attracting a large audience – the Leoncavallo
in Milan, for example, gets 100,000 visitors per year – places a burden
on activists. They may see their ideologically inspired engagement slide
into cleaning up the mess after a consumerist crowd.
Managing the social centres entails walking a narrow line between
a ‘ghetto mentality’ and ‘possible normalization as social enterprises’
(Wright, 2000: 132). Perhaps predictably, some have criticized the
social centres for having become commercial enterprises. Several so-
cial centres got together to draw up a plan, the Charter of Milan, to
leave behind self-chosen isolation, confrontations with the police and
‘prejudice-ridden, anti-institutional discourse’ and instead to develop a
‘more subtle infiltration of local institutions, a dialog that is not subser-
vient but attains a new quality of antagonistic practice’ (Klein, 2001;
Maffeis, 2002: 134). Membretti (2007) speaks of flexible institution-
alization. Some representatives of social centres tried to counter the
threat posed by the Berlusconi ascendancy by running, successfully, for
local office (Klein, 2001).
Most of the visitors come to the centres for their social contacts and
for concerts and art (Ruggiero, 2000). However, the social centres are
also ‘social and cultural hubs’ in a network that supports mobilization
against, for instance, capitalist globalization (Klein, 2001). The Italian
social centres have spawned an innovation in the protest repertoire,
the ‘Tute Bianche’: a block of demonstrators dressed in white overalls
symbolizing invisibility or ghostliness as a result of post-Fordist restruc-
turing (Azzellini, 2002), later called ‘Disobbedienti’, ‘the disobedient’
(Mudu, 2004). Some centres are more politically oriented and some
are more oriented toward (counter)culture. Tensions along this distinc-
tion also exist within centres. In addition to this, there are differences
between autonomist and anarchistic centres (Wright, 2000).
Entrepreneurial squatting has a wide array of possible outcomes.
Projects can develop into institutions that have a long life span. As
an example, the Vrijplaats Koppenhingsteeg in Leiden, the Netherlands
lasted 40 years as a squat before it was evicted in 2010, and plans for
its resurrection in another location exist. Most long-lasting initia-
tives acquired a legal status, such as the squatters’ bar Molli Chaoot in
Amsterdam that has been in existence since 1979, and Amsterdam’s
anarchist bookshop Fort van Sjakoo, that was squatted in 1977.
In the Dutch town of Utrecht, the main venue for pop concerts,
Tivoli, with 300,000 visitors per year, was opened up in 1980 by punk-
music-loving squatters. In Amsterdam, the Paradiso pop music club
was started by a squatting action in 1967. In Italy, major elements
of the cultural landscape, such as the Forte Prenestino in Rome and
the Leoncavallo in Milan are the products of entrepreneurial squat-
ting. Leoncavallo, which started in the 1970s, obtained a long life by
adopting the strategy of squatting another building after eviction but
continuing to use the same name. Leoncavallo has been evicted and
reopened in other buildings several times.
A few firms got started in squatted premises. In 1981, the collective
De Spruitjes (The Sprouts) started selling vegetables in de Paleisstraat
in Amsterdam, close to the Royal Palace. By establishing their shop
in a freshly legalized squat they could defy the economic logic that
bans greengrocers from central locations, and continued to do so for 18
years. Bier & Co, a specialty beer importer with more than 35 employ-
ees in 2011, started in the early 1980s in several squatted buildings. It
was a cooperative before it was changed into a regular private company.
In 1983 the brewery ’t IJ, producer of biological beers, started in a squat
on the bank of the IJ river in Amsterdam.
That the many artists’ workspaces created in squatted buildings
contributed to the favourable climate for the arts in Amsterdam was
acknowledged by the municipal authorities: the City set up a bureau
dedicated to the preservation and creation of ‘breeding grounds’ to en-
sure the continuous supply of affordable space for artists. An outcome
of entrepreneurial squatting is the build-up of experience that can be
used in a different context. In Amsterdam, for instance, an organization,
Urban Resort, was created to make unused office and commercial build-
ings available at low cost to people starting out in the cultural or creative
sector. One of their projects was the building that was left behind by the
newspaper Volkskrant. Urban Resort’s managing director Jaap Draaisma
drew on experience gained in the large Weijers squat, which was opened
in 1981 and included housing, a restaurant, an evening shop, a squatters’
bar and an espresso café, and concert facilities, and was in the process of
acquiring many more initiatives when it was evicted in 1984.
The fourth configuration, conservational squatting, involves squat-
ting as a tactic used in the preservation of a cityscape or landscape. The
goal is to prevent a transformation, in many cases a planned transfor-
mation, and to promote development in a different direction. Such op-
portunities arise because impending changes in land use result in vacant
buildings. Squatting can increase resistance to land use change because
the hot spots of the change – those places where the original inhabit-
ants and users have already been displaced – become populated again.
Historic buildings that are standing empty awaiting demolition offer
opportunities. Entire neighbourhoods that are scheduled for clearance,
or at least partial clearance, have also invited conservational squatting
alongside other types of squatting. Examples are:
• The Tolmers Square neighbourhood in Camden, London, in the
early 1970s, where houses were to be replaced by office blocks.
• The Nieuwmarkt neighbourhood in Amsterdam, also in the ear-
ly 1970s, that was planned to be cut through by an urban mo-
torway, built in a corridor cleared for subway construction and
lined by office blocks, as well as to be the site for a new hotel.
• Kreuzberg in Berlin. In Kreuzberg in 1979, the community ac-
tion group ‘SO 36’ occupied an empty fire station to prevent its
demolition. The activists proceeded to occupy houses that were
slated for razing, because they wanted to preserve both useable
housing stock and the structure of the neighbourhood.
• Friedrichshain in Berlin, 1990. Activists exhorted people to
squat empty houses in the Mainzer Straße to prevent destruc-
tion. This project involved 11 houses and 250 occupants (Holm
and Kuhn, 2011).
Conservational squatting can also be undertaken to preserve the so-
cial function of a given building in the face of gentrification, for exam-
ple low-income housing that the owner wants to convert to market-rate
condominiums, in other words to gentrify.
For a movement aiming to preserve a cityscape from being destroyed
by the construction of infrastructure, squatting buildings in critical lo-
cations is one of the tactics that can be employed. Here, the buildings
themselves are not very important, the objective is to get in the way
of the planned infrastructure. Examples are the No M11 Link Road
campaign in the UK in the 1990s and the Betuwe Railway (1998-99)
in the Netherlands. In such cases, squatters have the advantage of being
immune to the standard NIMBY reproach, because they move into the
area precisely because of the opportunity to contribute to the protec-
tion of the environment or the neighbourhood.
The actors in conservational squatting tend to be ‘middle class in-
terventionists’ (Wates, 1976: 127) such as students or professionals
who move into the area (cf. Bosma et al., 1984). The ‘middle class
interventionists’ tend to be young people with a special interest along
with a housing need. In the Tolmers Square neighbourhood, the first
‘proper’ squatters were three architecture students (Wates, 1976: 160).
They learned about the neighbourhood and its problems when they did
a case study as part of their degree program. The students discovered
that there had been no inhabitant participation in the planning pro-
cess and that the Council was only interested in the land, not in the
inhabitants and their fate following redevelopment (ibid.: 120). Their
recommendations amounted to a plea for piecemeal redevelopment
and renovation of as many buildings as possible instead of demolition.
In a meeting that they set up with inhabitants, the Tolmers Village
Association was created, in the daily management of which the student
squatters played an important role. In the Nieuwmarkt neighbourhood
in Amsterdam, at least two of the initiators and central activists in the
resistance against the planned transformation had prior activist involve-
ment in spatial planning issues (Bosma et al., 1984). In 2000, environ-
mentalists were among the activists who squatted the military fortress
Pannerden in the Netherlands, which had fallen into disrepair after its
last use in 1940. Their idea was to prevent further decay, and move
against possible redevelopment of the building as a hotel. The squat-
ters created homes, a museum, a visual artists’ workspace and cultural
activities and conducted monthly tours of the fortress.
Conservational squatting can also develop from squatting as an al-
ternative housing strategy, when the squatted building is threatened to
be demolished and when the occupants see opportunities for restora-
tion. An example is a row of six houses in the Nieuwelaan in Delft, built
in 1912, that was squatted in 1981. In 1995 the squatters presented a
plan for a complete renovation.
Another possible starting point for conservational squatting is to take
over the baton from tenants who are resisting a planned transformation.
An example is the resistance that started in 1975 against a planned park-
ing garage in Piersonstraat in the Dutch town of Nijmegen. In 1980 the
tenants had exhausted all possibilities to thwart the scheme by legal ac-
tion, and the city had been successful in removing tenants by offering
rehousing and financial compensation. One of the leaders of the tenants’
protests approached the Nijmegen squatters’ group, requesting that they
start taking over houses directly after they were vacated (van Wakeren,
1998; Bruls, 2006). The squatters called a mass protest and built street
barricades in an attempt to prevent eviction and demolition.
Because conservational squatting is dependent on support from reg-
ular inhabitants, and can involve cooperation with tenants and other
interested parties, it is logical that activists try to control who will squat
available empty houses. In the Tolmers Square Neighbourhood, there
was an ‘informal screening system’ for prospective squatters (Wates,
1976: 161). In Amsterdam’s Nieuwmarkt neighbourhood, activists set
up a group that distributed houses that were to be squatted. To be ac-
cepted, prospective squatters had to meet criteria such as being pre-
pared to stay to the end, i.e. the eviction, and being ready to fight. The
activists backed this up by establishing a scheme in which the squat-
ters would collectively pay for necessary repairs, which made squatting
houses that were in an exceptionally bad condition a more reasonable
proposal, and by running a technical service centre where various con-
struction tools could be borrowed. They also made a commitment to
arrange for rehousing after a possible eviction.
Core activists exercised control in the neighbourhood. Drug addicts
were asked to leave. Bosma et al. (1984) quotes a squatter who recalled
that one of the leaders did not allow him to paint the outside woodwork of
his house in ‘hippie colours’, he had to use a traditional canal house green.
Activists using conservational squatting in a neighbourhood plan-
ning struggle are likely to be faced with two types of conflict, as both
the Tolmers Square and the Nieuwmarkt cases bear out. One is a con-
flict of interest between the preservationists and inhabitants who want
to move out of the neighbourhood anyhow and are planning to benefit
from a rehousing scheme when their home is demolished. The second
conflict is one of lifestyle; squatters can antagonize longstanding resi-
dents. Noise disturbances can exacerbate this.
A key ingredient of conservational squatting is the demand that
planners change course. For this reason, careful framing is important.
It involves making planners, investors, developers, municipal decision
makers, etc. accountable and showing that the building or neighbour-
hood is worth preserving. If applicable, squatters can seek to demon-
strate the historic value of their squat. A classic example is a house at
Achter Clarenburg 2, in Utrecht. The City bought it in 1969, plan-
ning to demolish it to make way for a new road. Students squatted it
in 1971. One of them, a history student, discovered features hidden
behind a modern facade and clutter that showed that the house was
built around 1330. Alerted by this discovery, the central government’s
Monument Preservation Service scrambled to get it listed (Van den
Berg, 2007). In Rotterdam, one of the city’s last farmhouses was ready
for demolition when it was squatted in 2005. The squatters presented
plans that combined preserving the farmhouse as a historic building
(van Ooststroom, 2010), celebrating Dutch rural traditions, farming
ecologically and hosting cultural activities.
The fact that squatting is sometimes seen as destructive – and build-
ings have sometimes been trashed by squatters – can be a reason for
squatters to explain that their actions can contribute to conservation
efforts. Activists in the Nieuwmarkt neighbourhood reported in a news-
letter about the squatter conversion of commercial buildings on the
Zwanenburgwal as follows:
The block has been squatted and converted by the occupants them-
selves at their own expense, with an enormous effort. Gas, electricity
and water have been installed; toilets, heating, walls etc. constructed.
While the municipality has not done anything here in decades, this is
the first complex in the Nieuwmarkt where existing buildings have been
converted into affordable housing. At this moment around 100 people
live in 55 apartments. In the complex, four children have already been
born (Aktiegroep Nieuwmarkt, 1977: 11, 13).
In an architecture, housing and urban planning magazine, Bijlsma
et al. (1974: 13) promoted squatting as an important tool for citizens
who want to help conserve their city and neighbourhood. They argued
that squatting is a way of preventing property developers, investors or
the state getting rid of unwanted houses by tricks – such as making
holes in the roof or letting the door stand open to attract drug users or
‘sleeping bag tourists’ in the hope that they will destroy it or cause it
to burn down. The authors add that a neighbourhood that looks run-
down attracts investors, which is a reason for activists to make sure that
squatted houses look good. The squatters who lived in Fort Pannerden
made it clear to the public that they had a rule not to apply paint or
drill holes in the structure.
In terms of outcomes, squatting can be a successful means of sav-
ing buildings. The already mentioned medieval house in Utrecht was
restored, and one couple from the original squatters was still living in
the house 40 years later. In Delft, the renovation of the Nieuwelaan
houses that were squatted in 1981 finally began in 2004. In 2006, Fort
Pannerden’s squatters were summoned to leave. The squatters refused
because there was not yet a definitive plan for renovation and because
they suspected that the fortress would remain empty. It took the po-
lice, aided by the army who sent men and equipment including three
bridge-laying tanks, two days to carry out the eviction (Visser, 2006).
Three weeks later, squatters retook the fortress. This time, instead of
an eviction an agreement was concluded that allowed the squatters a
role as managers of the fortress until renovation started in 2008. After
the renovation, former squatters were involved in the foundation that
assumed responsibility for the fortress. Other conservational squatting
projects failed, or partly failed. The houses in Piersonstraat in Nijmegen
were cleared, which caused a riot, although the parking garage was
Conservational squatting also made an impact on neighbourhood-
wide planning conflicts. Wates, writing about the Tolmers Square neigh-
bourhood (1976: 81), concludes that ‘the only effective way of preventing
the physical fabric from deteriorating proved to be the squatting of empty
buildings’. The buildings on Tolmers Square itself did not survive, but
surrounding Georgian streets escaped demolition and office construction
in the area was less extensive than originally planned.
In the Nieuwmarkt neighbourhood, squatters were able to hang on
to their buildings on Zwanenburgwal and Ververstraat, preserving them
from demolition. The struggle against a planned motorway through the
Nieuwmarkt neighbourhood, in conjunction with a subway line under-
neath, and surrounded by office blocks involved a coalition between
elitist conservationists, who were mainly interested in preserving mon-
uments, and anarchist activists who wanted a mixed-use, affordable
vibrant neighbourhood in which the human scale predominated. The
subway line was built as planned but the motorway project was stopped
after an activist campaign, which caused prospective developers of of-
fice buildings to lose interest. Furthermore, the City made two changes
to the plans that were in accordance with the activists’ demands that
entailed restoring the original street plan. One decision was to place a
new housing block at the south side of the Anthoniesbreestraat in such
a way, that only a space wide enough for a narrow street remained,
precluding its eventual later development as a major traffic artery. This
decision was made after a violent confrontation during an attempted
demolition in 1974 and following a recommendation made by officials
to give in to the demands as a way to prevent further deterioration of
relations (Hoekema, 1978). The second decision was to construct new
housing on top of the subway tunnel, a considerable extra outlay, which
was put on the subway construction budget (Mamadouh, 1992).
In 1975, while the squatters were preparing the defence of the squats
on the Rechtboomsloot, which included a hanging and covered bridge
across the canal, the City Council revoked an earlier decision to create
new subway lines after the one that cut though the Nieuwmarkt.
In the case of Kreuzberg, the project overview of the Internationale
Bauaustellung Berlin 1987 (Feye, 1987) lists various buildings, that were
slated for demolition, squatted and finally renovated. Feye (ibid.: 198)
notes that the squatting actions in Kreuzberg prepared the climate for
the policy change that occurred in 1981. This change entailed buildings
no longer being stripped from tenants; a switch was made to a more
careful method of urban renewal. Instead of the originally planned de-
molition of 2,200 apartments, only 14 side wings and backhouses were
Successful use of squatting to prevent the conversion of afford-
able rental properties into condominiums occurred in Rotterdam, the
Netherlands (Kaulingfreks et al., 2009: 12, 94). When the owner of the
block Zwaerdecoonstraat/Snellinckstraat had managed to induce half of
the tenants to move out and had the insides of the empty apartments
demolished, the remaining tenants organized squatting by students and
artists in an attempt to block gentrification. Squatters who caused a
disturbance were told to change their behaviour or leave. Policymakers
found the creative community that developed attractive, which led to
the decision to renovate the buildings as affordable rentals. The ten-
ants were able to stay while the squatters had to move on to another
neighbourhood. Although, as in this case, squatters can clearly fight
gentrification, at least since 1981 (Mier and Jansen, 1981), the issue has
been raised as to whether squatters may inadvertently be spearheading
gentrification (Pruijt, 2003). Perhaps it would be more correct to say
that squatters may spearhead preservation, which may be a precondi-
tion for gentrification.
Squatting can be a promising field of action for those who are en-
gaged in anti-systemic politics and who identify themselves with
revolutionary or ‘autonomous’ ideas. For them, power – in this con-
figuration counterpower vis-à-vis the state – is important. Squatting is
not a goal in its own right; it is attractive because of its high potential
for confrontations with the state. The label ‘political squatting’ does
not imply that I see other forms of squatting projects as apolitical, in-
deed, as Wates (1976: 160) suggested, squatting is generically politi-
cal. I have chosen this label because here the involvement in squatting
is driven by an ulterior anti-systemic political motive. The reason for
considering political squatting as a separate configuration is that it has
its own logic, which deviates sharply from the logic of the other con-
figurations. A case in point is the Amsterdam squatting group called the
‘Woongroep Staatsliedenbuurt’, which had a strategy that was coherent
in itself but that did not fit in logically with squatting as an alternative
housing strategy, deprivation-based squatting, entrepreneurial squat-
ting or conservational squatting. The most salient way in which this
group was different was in organizing large-scale squatting of social
(low-income) housing allocated by the municipal housing authority.
For the other squatters in Amsterdam, this type of housing was off
limits because they felt that squatting was all about adding to the low-
income housing stock, not competing for a share of it. Disapproving of
the squatting of distributed social housing is consistent with what I de-
scribed as ‘squatting as an alternative housing strategy’. The ‘Woongroep
Staatsliedenbuurt’ also did not fit into the configuration of deprivation-
based squatting: many participants squatted for themselves, it was not
their ideology to help a group that was being wrongfully ignored by
the authorities. The Woongroep Staatsliedenbuurt’s main justification for
squatting allocated low-income housing was that the municipal hous-
ing queue system functioned as a way of pacifying the tens of thousands
of home-seekers (Duivenvoorden, 2000: 151).
In line with this argument, the municipal housing distribution of-
fice was attacked several times; files were destroyed. The idea was that a
collapse of the housing queue system would set the scene for a revolt of
home-seekers. Thus, in this case, the driver was a political motivation.
Before this, in Germany in the early 1970s there had been a wave of
political squatting. Political groups that had part of their roots in the
student movement, such as the ‘K-Gruppen’, Leninists known for their
internal disputes about the ‘correct line’, and especially ‘Spontis’, repre-
senting a more anti-authoritarian strand, launched squatting projects in
various cities. This wave started after activists had become disillusioned
with an earlier strategy of trying to radicalize workers by taking up
blue-collar jobs and becoming active within firms. When it became
apparent that this strategy was not effective, they decided to focus their
attention on the sphere of reproduction, that is on working-class neigh-
bourhoods. Most activity was in Hamburg and Frankfurt, cities ruled
by social democrats (BesetzerInnenkongress, 1995). During a radio de-
bate, a Frankfurt activist explained:
It was about exposing speculation with buildings and land;
we wanted to show that the Frankfurt social democrats were
exceedingly reformist and to document that the so-called re-
formists tactically cooperate with financial capital (transcript
published in Grundmann et al., 1981: 49).
We really thought for some time that it should be possible
to widen the housing struggle cycles – the occupations, evic-
tions and mass organization in-between – beyond the, at most,
5,000 or 6,000 people that participated, and that this could
become an influential factor in changing the political land-
scape, at least in Frankfurt. I still recall how thrilled we were to
read headlines in the Frankfurter Neue Presse like ‘Dual Power
in Frankfurt’. And for a little while, we were prepared to be-
lieve this; that there was a dual structure of urban power: the
formally institutionalized one, and us (transcript published in
In 2003 political squatting made a very short comeback in the
Netherlands, albeit in a very moderate shape. ‘Rood’ (‘Red’), the youth
organization of the Socialist Party (SP), positioned on the left wing
of the social-democratic Partij van de Arbeid, started a campaign of
occupations to address the housing shortage for young people, which
involved actual squatting.
Especially when compared to squatting as an alternative housing
strategy, there is a relatively pronounced distinction in political squat-
ting between leaders and the rank and file. Together, political squat-
ters may view themselves as a vanguard, poised to lead a mass into a
wide-ranging struggle. They see the non-political squatters, i.e. squat-
ters whose projects fit in the other configurations, as potential recruits
for this mass that they will lead.
In Italy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, political groups such as
Lotta Continua latched onto the occupations that had started sponta-
neously (Rising Free, 1973; Welschen, 1996: 82-6). In a later phase,
Autonomen became involved, seeking confrontations ‘even if it contrib-
uted little or nothing to the preservation of occupied houses’ (Welschen,
1996: 86, my translation).
The Autonomen consisted of different groups that partly fought
against each other and partly complemented each other. They tended
to join other groups, for example in mass demonstrations, and then
take violent action. They refused to comply with the restraint on vio-
lent behaviour asked for by demonstration organizers. They also tried
to obtain hegemony over the entire countermovement (Welschen,
Welschen (1996: 129-30) points out that Autonomist ideology was
rooted in Leninist thought, adapted by Toni Negri and others to the
reality that young people were getting less inclined to participate in
top-down controlled movements; the ideological leaders thought that
concentrating on concrete action, instead of building an organization,
would lead to a cycle of increasingly severe confrontations with the
state. The idea was that such confrontations would, in turn, stimulate
the centralization of the movement.
In Amsterdam, political squatters developed the strategy of taking
over the defence of several buildings whose occupants had lost hope
of being able to stave off eviction, and turning these into fortified fo-
cal points for confrontations with the state. A high-profile example is
the Groote Keyser. The political squatters were especially interested in
mobilizing against the social democratic party that was in control of
city politics. They also worked hard to create stable structures in the
squatters’ movement, with the ideal of building a coherent, prepared
group of disciplined activists who were committed to confronting the
state. Many squatters who did not share the ideological background of
the political squatters went along with this, led by feelings of solidar-
ity. This course of action seemed attractive because it helped squatters
win concessions, and because of the empowerment brought about by
stronger organization and the experience of being taken seriously by the
local state and the media.
Nevertheless, a cleavage developed in the Amsterdam squatter scene.
Squatters who saw squatting primarily as an alternative housing strat-
egy or as a basis for entrepreneurial projects increasingly disliked the
centralized coordination and the almost paramilitary organization and
style that surfaced in confrontations. It started to dawn on them that
they had been manipulated by the political squatters.
The political squatters, in turn, became disappointed: they resented
the large number of squatters who, in their view, acted without a clear
political vision, i.e. squatting as an alternative housing strategy, or were
only interested in their own small enterprises, i.e. entrepreneurial squat-
ting. A conflict erupted, following a small internal uprising against the
leadership of the political squatters, and an attempt by the political
squatters’ leaders to reconstruct the movement that entailed branding
some squatters ‘traitors’.
In terms of framing, the theme of treason seems recurrent. It is a type
of accusation that can be directed both at social democrats in city govern-
ments as well as against squatters operating in other configurations.
The outcomes of political squatting tended to be disappointing for
the participants. The political squatting campaign of the early 1970s
in Frankfurt and other German cities ended in evictions, not in the
mass mobilization that activists had hoped for. German political squat-
ting did not even leave a legacy that inspired future squatters: the next
German squatting wave that started in 1979 followed the pattern of
squatting as an alternative housing strategy (Koopmans, 1995: 170).
In Amsterdam, a conflict with other squatters in 1988 forced the
political squatters to withdraw from the scene (Adilkno, 1994). This in-
fighting was not just about goals, or ideology or organization structure.
It involved various characteristics that together set the configuration of
political squatting apart from squatting as an alternative housing strat-
egy and entrepreneurial squatting. Therefore, this internal conflict can
be understood as interconfigurational conflict.
In the Berlin squatters’ movement, a fissure developed along the di-
viding line between squatting as an alternative housing strategy and
political squatting. Inspired by developments in Italy, some of the
squatters began to define themselves as ‘Autonomen’, the part of the
movement that refused to negotiate about legalization. The Autonomen
were especially enraged about the repression directed against squatters
and criticized the other squatters for only fighting to preserve their own
free spaces and not against the system:
Conquering ‘free spaces’ and making them secure . . . this is classical
reformism. That does not destabilize any system – the capitalist system
reacts very flexibly: free spaces can be integrated, resistance channelled
into ghettos without explosive power: playgrounds (Geronimo, 1995,
quoted in BetsetzerInnenkongress, 1995: 16).
In Amsterdam in 1982 a ‘Militant Autonomen Front’ claimed a
light bomb attack on the municipal housing distribution office. This
provoked a devastating attack from within the squatters’ scene, in
which the Autonomen were subtly ridiculed. The protagonists were the
editors of the squatters’ magazine Bluf! (‘Bluff!’). An involuntary acces-
sory was Ton van Dijk, a journalist of the mainstream magazine Haagse
Post, who was eager to produce a juicy story about emerging terrorism
in the Netherlands. The editors of Bluf! approached him and offered to
arrange, in return for money, an exclusive interview with the Militant
Autonomen Front. Ton van Dijk was blindfolded, taken to a ‘secret lo-
cation’, and given the opportunity to interview three masked ‘members
of the Militant Autonomen Front’. These roles were played by the Bluf!
editors themselves, who had prepared for the interview by memorizing
an extensive array of revolutionary clichés. The Haagse Post published
the nonsensical interview as its cover story, showing the photograph of
the brave journalist in the company of the three masked men, that was
supplied as part of the interview deal. Bluf!, in turn, published a picture
of the blindfolded journalist surrounded by the three grinning Bluf!
editors (Kommando GIRAF, 1982).
The root cause of diversity in squatting is that those who initiate
squatting projects have varying goals. In the typology developed in this
article, there is no type of squatting that has subcultural expression as
its goal. This is because of the importance of the need for space for all
squatters, including those engaged in subcultural expression. Instead,
there is the configuration ‘squatting as an alternative housing strategy’
where the goal is to house oneself, and in which there is a two-way
relation between squatting and countercultural expression: the oppor-
tunities for countercultural expression are a bonus that adds to the at-
tractiveness of squatting, and once someone is settled in a squat, she
or he will find an environment that is, to some extent, conducive to
countercultural development. Thus, I argue against making subculture
the central point in our understanding of squatting.
Neither does ideology seem to be a good starting point for an analysis
of squatting. In squatting, ideology is loosely coupled to practice. Seeing
it as loosely coupled is a way to avoid tripping over some paradoxes,
such as that between the belief espoused by squatters that ‘the squatters’
movement is dominated by a great revulsion against hierarchical order,
authority, planning and pressure’ (Wietsma et al., 1982: 134) and the
existence of hierarchical order, authority, planning and pressure within
the movement, several examples of which have been presented in the
For all configurations, there are solid examples that show that they
can be viable. Of the two configurations in which housing is most cen-
tral, deprivation-based squatting and squatting as an alternative hous-
ing strategy, the latter seems to have everything going for it. It is open
to everyone, regardless of social class, it is interesting for resourceful
activists but can simultaneously offer a haven for vulnerable people. It
allows a wide range of skills to be exercised, empowers and produces
fun instead of a display of misery.
This leads to the question: why does deprivation-based squatting
exist at all? The analysis presented above suggests that the reason is le-
gitimacy. Squatting is a breach of property rights, and thereby likely to
provoke negative reactions. The breach of property rights can be easier
to swallow when it involves housing needy people in buildings that
belong to owners who a have a moral obligation to house the needy.
Deprivation-based squatting offers this opportunity.
Helping oneself, as in squatting as an alternative housing strategy,
can be an extra tax on tolerance. This effect can, however, be mitigated
by targeting houses or buildings that are either too dilapidated or too
sumptuous to be let as affordable housing. This can deflect accusations
of queue-jumping. The extra tax on tolerance caused by self-help is
not present in deprivation-based squatting, at least in cases where it
is clearly organized to help other people. Thus, the level of tolerance
is a situational factor, to borrow a term from Mintzberg’s (1983) con-
tingency theory, with deprivation-based squatting fitting a low level
of tolerance. The UK squatting history suggests that deprivation-based
squatting paved the way for squatting as an alternative housing strategy.
Entrepreneurial squatting, in so far as it involves providing a service
to the community, can deflect attempts to portray squatters as usurp-
ers, in addition to the effect already produced by targeting unwanted
buildings or buildings that have at least been empty for a long time. A
deprivation- based squatting project can be incorporated as a separate
division in an entrepreneurial squatting operation.
Squatting as an alternative housing strategy and entrepreneurial
squatting, once some legitimacy has been established, could go on for-
ever, unless there is very efficient repression or all potential opportuni-
ties are destroyed by an effective ‘anti-squatting’ industry, i.e. specialized
firms that offer to prevent squatting by putting tenants into properties
that might be squatted, relying on those tenants to keep squatters out,
but offering them no security of tenure.
The fairly common idea that movements inevitably have a life cycle
does not seem to apply to squatting as an alternative housing strategy
and entrepreneurial squatting. Tarrow (1994) describes a life cycle dy-
namic that involves the increased use of violent means and militant
rhetoric to motivate core participants and continue to get public, media
and state attention, while this in turn causes supporters to walk away.
Such an escalation can occur in the resistance against evictions, but
this does not have to affect the squatting of new buildings. Van Noort
(1988) observes that squatters in Amsterdam had become trapped in
a dynamic of radicalization, causing them to lose all attractiveness.
However, in contrast to his assessment, squatting continued. In terms
of the configurations, it was political squatting that was subject to a
radicalization dynamic, leaving squatting as an alternative housing
strategy and entrepreneurial squatting unaffected.
Castells (1983: 328) suggests that the inevitable fate of urban move-
ments is institutionalization leading to identity loss, while Kriesi et al.
(1995) describe protest as occurring in waves, in which institutionaliza-
tion is the phase between protest and reform. Mamadouh (1992) shows
how city planners co-opted the views promoted by squatters; however
her conclusion that this was the end of the squatters’ era proved to be
unwarranted. Conservational squatting was affected, not squatting as
an alternative housing strategy nor entrepreneurial squatting. In addi-
tion, conservational squatting later resurfaced in the form of resistance
to gentrification. That squatting as an alternative housing strategy and
entrepreneurial squatting do not seem to have a life cycle dynamic can
help explain why squatting can be persistent over time.
Squatting is, along with rent strikes and the development of alter-
native spatial plans, one of the few action repertoire strategies that are
specific to urban movements. Urban movements can be seen as aimed
at realizing collective consumption demands within a framework of
promoting the city as a use value against commodification (Castells,
1983). Squatting has the unique property of combining self-help with
demonstrating an alternative and a potential for protest. The vari-
ous configurations point to different possibilities. Deprivation-based
squatting addresses problems in the provision of social housing, while
conservational squatting asserts a vision of a city in which citizens are
not spatially sorted according to income, functions are integrated and
a small-scale urban fabric is maintained. Squatting as an alternative
housing strategy can address exclusion from the housing market, for
example of young people, or a housing shortage in general, but it can
simultaneously demonstrate the use value of buildings, blocks or neigh-
bourhoods that planners have slated for demolition, or develop into a
protest against real estate speculation. In so far as promoting squatting
as an end in itself is part of the movement’s identity, it offers a barrier
against cooptation. Entrepreneurial squatting can be a means to ad-
vance cultural demands. Examples are venues for pop music that were
originally created by squatting. Finally, political squatting can increase
the level of disruptiveness that the other types of squatting already have
potentially, but it carries the risk of triggering internal conflict and a
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