Spotlight on Research: Squatters: Urban Pioneers in Sustainable Living?

Squatters: Urban Pioneers in Sustainable Living?

From do-it-yourself & pop-up events, to community gardens & communal living; we can learn a lot about sustainable urban living from studying squatting culture, says Dr Alexander Vasudevan.

In the United Kingdom the housing crisis is intensifying. House prices increase more rapidly than wages and homelessness rises.

Searching for unconventional solutions to the housing crisis is Alex Vasudevan, Associate Professor in Human Geography at the School of Geography and the Environment. He has spent years scouring 'alternative archives' and talking to squatters across Europe and North America, to bring light to this alternative, often overlooked and misunderstood way of living in a new book.

He suggests that, by shining a light on this hidden history of cities - creating a record of these radical autonomous spaces - we can learn from their successes and their challenges, and find inspiration for new city infrastructure and design.

"Squats are the prototypes of innovative sustainable city living, because they are spaces where communities are empowered to design and co-create their environment together; they are spaces where creativity and innovation may flourish."

When given the permission to remain, squat communities have thrived. In some squats that have been legalised, Vasudevan describes how whole autonomous community infrastructures have been created: "A few spaces in Germany that I spent time in had community services, a kingergarten, a canteen that served everyone, a bike repair workshop".

Of course, not all spaces are afforded the luxury of local authority cooperation. Vasudevan does not brush over the 'dark' side of squatting in his history: The precarity of living with the daily threat of eviction, along with the challenges of communal living, has in some cases led to violent clashes with the establishment and within the squatting communities themselves.

We are now living in an era where the impulse towards squatting is stigmatisation. However, instead of stigmatising squatters, Vasudevan sees them as co-creators, inventors, designers and "urban pioneers".

Is the squatter is an endangered species? Vasudevan thinks not. "We're moving into a moment of austerity across the global north but also a profound intensifying of the housing crisis, it is not surprising that squatting is re-emerging in many respects.

"Legal changes will provide new constraints but also provide new opportunities to think more creatively as well."


"We need to urgently rethink how we live and how we build cities."

Dr Alexander Vasudevan, Associate Professor in Human Geography
School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.