On Januari 29th, in the middle of a Covid-lockdown, Louis Volont (Department of Sociology & Culture Commons Quest Office, University of Antwerp) defended his doctoral thesis ‘Shapeshifting: The Cultural Production of Common Space’. City in the Making in general, and Pension Almonde specifically, was one of the three main cases Louis used as ‘witnesses for the defense’. The other two being The Public Land Grab (London) and Montana Verde (Antwerp). The full thesis can be read online, but here is a foretaste.
In his introduction Louis states his basic ‘empirical’ research question thus: “This enquiry puts the concept of common space to the test. My guiding question, is this one: how is common space’ produced within the current conditions of urban development? Put differently: through which tactics do urban activists give a spatial expression to the concept of the commons?”
The study main ‘guide’ is Lefebvre’s ‘triad’ (from ‘The Production of Space’ and ‘Critique of Everyday Life’); ‘lived’ space (representational space), conceived space (representations of space), and perceived space (spatial practice). But Louis renames/redefines this Lefebvrean triad because of: “Lefebvre’s ‘woolly’ formulation of the triad’s three spheres. Representations of space as well as spaces of representation seem to figure in the triad as things, namely as visual, verbal or written projections in the context of the former, and as spaces endowed with a sense of multiple meaning in the context of the latter. Spatial practice, then, emerges not as a ‘thing’, but as a ‘process’: a process of putting space to use, be it for survival, societal reproduction or capitalist growth.” Instead, the triad is reformulated as “the expressions of representation (formerly known as representations of space), configuration (formerly known as spatial practice), and signification (formerly known as spaces of representation): altogether the three ‘force fields’ of the triad. These three force fields leave behind any distinction between ‘thing and process’ but imply merely ‘a mode of doing’. This is a linguistic, pragmatic operation in order to be able to point, without much confusion, to each of the three elements under consideration. Hence: within the field of representation, I ask: how do commoners ‘think’ common space? Within the field of configuration, I ask: how do commoners ‘build’ common space? And in the field of signification, I ask: how do commoners ‘live’ common space?”
From the beginning Stad in de Maak has been inspired by the German Mietshäuser Syndikat. This organisation, grounded in the German squatter movement of the 1980’s, at present consists of about 120 different autonomous co-housing (and mixed use -working and -cultural) projects. Each of the projects is self-organized and largely autonomous in its day to day decision making. The buildings are collectively self-managed and owned by the people living there. They pay rent to their own coop. The rents are kept low, and not having any money is never reason for not being admitted.
The ‘umbrella’ organisation Mietshauser Syndikat has a share in all the individual projects and can veto major systemic decisions, most notably the sale of the property. Because of this structure, the projects are in effect taken off the (speculative) market. Besides that, the Syndikat offers know-how to new co-housing projects. Know-how that was gathered over time in the more than 100 self-built and managed projects. Since the older projects have paid off their loans, but keep on paying rent, the Syndikat, or the individual members, can now also offer financial aid in starting new projects.
Thus the principles of self-organisation and management, of solidarity and of non-speculative, affordable housing for all have been firmly embedded in all the groups that together make up de Syndicat.
For a couple of years several groups in the Netherlands have talked about starting our own Syndicat. This has been achieved this year by starting de vereniging (union) VrijCoop. Stad in de Maak is one of the founding members. A direct copy of the German model proved not possible because of different legal systems. But we managed to stay very close to our inspiration. Several projects are about to start, EcoVillage Boekel probably being the first.
At Stad in de Maak we have been trying several times to bid on derelict buildings in order to escape the temporality of our current houses. Having been severely outbid by the ‘market’ on these occasions, we still have good hope that we will succeed soon.
See all about the Mietshauser Syndicat in this one hour movie ‘Das ist unser Haus’ (This is our House, German spoken, but subtitled in English or Nederlands, choose the CC button (chosen caption) in the Vimeo menu) http://das-ist-unser-haus.de/
Who controls access to land in the city, controls (much of) its urban future. This makes that in the urban economy, land plays a crucial role – so important actually, that its value is often far more relevant than all that what is built in stone, steel or concrete on top of it. When we speak about rising prices of real estate, we often forget that it is largely the price of the land underneath that is increasing. Not so strange if you consider that in most cities you evidently cannot ‘simply’ create new construction land, so the supply is limited.
Buy land, they’re not making it anymore
“Buy land, they’re not making it anymore,” Mark Twain famously said. Twain was obviously unaware of new land that was made in the Netherlands by impoldering large parts of the sea, but in general, he is right, of course. In times of surging real-estate prices (like today in Rotterdam) there is nothing to balance its demand – hence it gets an ‘unhealthy’ value. There is a substantial segment of economists that argue that land should therefore not be considered a commodity: its price-point cannot, because of its inherent scarcity, balance according to the ‘market’ rulebook of supply-and-demand. And precisely that now makes it such an easy prey in speculative development schemes.
Besides its fixed supply, there are other reasons why land is different than the usual commodities we buy on the market. The basic capitalist idea is that surplus value is created by labour on raw materials. But land value can increase by legislation (when a building permit is given on agricultural land for instance) or by changes in its surroundings (when a nice park is made in front of your house, the value of land and house rises, and this significant increase is hardly compensated by a bit more land tax you need to pay). You can sit back and increase your capital as a landowner by simply waiting (the value will rise anyway) or by leasing it out (which aristocratic families have done for ages). No need for any added labour.
Tuesday 24th October City in the Making celebrated the future. A gathering of about 40 inner circle City in the Making inhabitants and fellow-workers plus friends attended three presentations of projects that were made as a contribution to the yearlong festival Pioniersmeent De Stokerij (which loosely translates as: Pioneer Commons The Stokerij or Boilerhouse).
Architect/cartographer/draughtswoman Carlijn Kingma, and futurologist Edwin Gardner and Christiaan Fruneaux (both from Monnik, Studio for Futures & Fictions) were asked to reflect upon the near and distant future, both of society in general as well as of City in the Making as a network and Rotterdam Noord as our place of action. Our secret hope was that they would sketch us a clearly defined roadmap to our future. As usual with such questions we got more than we asked for, but also in a way we got less. Continue reading “An Evening of the Future at City in the Making”
Last month the book ‘Funding the Cooperative City‘ was published. The book promotes and assists experiments in community-led urban development in European cities. Through workshops (Rotterdam, Berlin and Paris in 2014 and Budapest, Madrid, Rome, Rotterdam, Bratislava, Prague and Warsaw in 2016) as well as investigative reports, video portraits and a publication, the project brings together protagonists from various cities to help shaping a new European culture of urban development based on community-driven initiatives, civic economic models and cooperative ownership.
City in the Making is one of the featured projects. The interview with Marc Neelen explains it all (well almost). Here it is: FCC_Stad_in_de_Maak (002)
The conference focuses on self-governance, cooperation, and institutional change through examples from all over the world, but also pays much attention on the significant current-day developments on common-pool resources and cooperatives within the Netherlands (such as knowledge commons, energy cooperatives, care cooperatives, urban commons, and other citizens’ initiatives), not only by inviting representatives of those Dutch initiatives to join as conference participants, but also by offering them an opportunity to draw attention to their initiatives, by organizing public events and field-trips.
The excursion we will witness recent developments in urban commons taking place in the city of Rotterdam – dealing with housing, food, and education. City in the Making is hosting it together with Food Garden (De Voedseltuin), a charitable organization that distributes food to low-income individuals to avoid hunger and Rotterdam Skillcity (Vakmanstad), a knowledge common, where primary school children are taught gardening, cooking, aikido or judo, technology and programming, and philosophy on a weekly basis.
Over the past few years of creating affordable living- and workspace in the city, we have come a long way from the very few initiatives we had found acting in this field, to the current pool of citizens that are about to (or in de midst of!) taking part of the cities’ space into collective use. And like us, most of them have found that it is urgent to take this effort beyond the often temporary access we have been able to achieve till now. How can we secure permanent access and control over the spaces so vital to our lives?
On 28th of May, an international group of city makers came together at the Stoking House of City in the Making, to discuss the current state of affairs. It is interesting to see new urban communities arising from these efforts, and observe how they build a new future on the often disregarded, outlived or scrapped resources that are available in the city. But in the increasingly market dominated sphere in which even citizens’ initiatives find themselves acting, this often means that we have to take ourselves to that same market of real-estate to buy up the remains we aim to give a new, collective future. For most of us, that means a tough puzzle of mobilising enough capital to “save” the buildings for our cause.
Hence, we have extended discussing that challenge during the rest of the day in the context of the Re:Kreators network (aka fellow city makers) which is currently forming in Europe. One of the challenges is to match the acquisition of real estate (buying it in order to bring it into common, anti-speculative ownership) with the mission of keeping spaces affordable.
Of course, the exchange of experiences and expertise among the initiatives is already proving crucial and inspiring when facing this challenge. But we could take it a step further: by forming networks that can set up a revolving investment fund together, so that at least the seed funding necessary to make a start can be quickly mobilised. It is an idea quickly gaining traction in several of the discussions we have been feeding into: from the upcoming Re:Kreators to the VrijCoop (the Dutch branch of the Mietshäuser Syndikat) currently set up. A crucial bit of urban economy being re-invented?