Collective ownership is a form of resistance against neoliberal, capitalist policies. Within the bigger picture, it can be understood as a form of prefigurative politics behind the slogan right to the city. This vast movement takes on various shapes and forms across the globe, including in the Netherlands under the name Recht op de stad (transl. “Right to the city”).
Recht op de stad
The ongoing housing crisis in the Netherlands is not unknown to anyone who has searched for housing in recent years. Gentrification, privatisation, landlords – the list of buzzwords is never-ending. Worsening the current housing situation still are the housing-related policies that different municipalities plan to enforce. An example of this is the Rotterdam municipality’s agenda to demolish 12 000 houses (catered mainly to lower-income residents), and to renovate another 10 000 by 2030 (numbers taken from Recht op de stad).
Activists from different neighbourhoods decided to cooperate together in March 2021 in order to protect Rotterdam citizens against the city council’s agenda to demolish affordable housing.
In response to this, activist group Recht op de stad was formed with the aim to improve the housing situation in Rotterdam. Activists from different neighbourhoods decided to cooperate together in March 2021 in order to protect Rotterdam citizens against the city council’s agenda to demolish affordable housing. In their official statement, the organisation underlines the various EU and UN treaties declaring housing to be a human right that the Netherlands has signed. Yet, this gesture on behalf of the Netherlands has turned out to be an empty one. Policies such as the one in Rotterdam not only withhold promised support from its residents, but further deepen the systemic issue of availability and affordability of housing. But Recht Op De Stad proposes a remedy: Het Betere Plan (A Better Plan).
Point 1: Housing is a Fundamental Right.
The first point of Het Betere Plan calls back to the international housing-as-a-right treaties that the Netherlands had signed, and calls for the municipality to adhere to them. Everyone should have access to affordable, good quality housing, regardless of background, income, and duration of residency in the city. Beyond the economic aspects of quality and affordability of housing in the city, the city environment itself should be safe, social and practical.
Point 2: Residents Get a Say
The next point of the plan highlights the importance of democracy in the city, in that it is the residents themselves who should make decisions regarding the city together. The role of the elected city council should not be that of governing, but rather of providing a means of support for the residents, who should also be included directly in the decision making process. On top of that, the council should support and encourage the formation of housing cooperatives.
Point 3: Preservation of Social Housing Stock
Recht op de stad calls for preserving the current social housing stock. Instead of demolitions – which Rotterdam has planned for 12 000 homes – existing social housing should be maintained in a sustainable way. If the demolition is truly inevitable, the residents need to be consulted, and the city needs to provide alternatives for the current inhabitants of the building. Such policies could also positively impact the cultural aspects of the city, as places of sociohistorical values to its residents would be preserved.
Point 4: City for Everyone
Highly international Dutch cities such as Rotterdam or Amsterdam praise themselves for their diversity. Even smaller, usually student-centred cities – such as Groningen, in which the housing crisis is as serious as in the vibrant Randstad – attract thousands of immigrants every year. But what the cities seem to undermine is the importance of inclusivity within such diversity. Thus, new housing (but also leisure- or culture related-) developments should be catered not only to the middle/upper class, but rather include everyone regardless of class or background.
Point 5: Protection of Residents
Currently, the housing market is mainly controlled by capitalistic “market forces,” this is to say: private investors and landlords. This results in sky-rocketing rent increases and widespread gentrification, which by definition lead to displacement of lower class residents. Recht op de stad asserts that new regulations need to be introduced. Through this, lower-income residents would be supported through ensured affordability, availability, and quality of housing.
Right to the City: Origins of the Movement
The organisation’s name links back to an urban studies term, “right to the city.” French philosopher Henri Lefebvre introduced the term in 1968, stating that the city should not be reduced to market, commodification, and capitalism. In other words, the city is not simply composed of its citizens, but the city is for its citizens, meaning that it should be inclusive, accessible, and democratic. Right to the city has become an umbrella term of sorts, which addresses various aspects of urban life.
Although the main issue that Lefebvre identifies is related to economic aspects of urban living (affordability of housing, gentrification), the term brings attention to more detailed aspects of daily life, such as equal access to public spaces. Policy-makers in the city tend to define the city through maps and numbers, but Lefebvre views the city as more than that. He is interested in the production of meaning in the urban space, with every aspect of it seen as a sign – whether that be the number of stores on a street, width of a sidewalk, or the extent of greening of the area – that together produces a daily reality for the city’s citizens.
David Harvey, a British Marxist economic geographer, reminds us that urbanisation is and always has been a class issue, due to the economic nature of urban growth. He warns against the privatisation of the right to the city such as in the case of New York, where private investors deliberately transform the city in order to suit narrow elites. Right to the city can only be emancipatory and truly democratic if the action comes directly from the masses.
Lefebvre’s theories inspired many to practically apply his ideas. There are numerous activist groups focusing on urban life, and some cite direct inspiration from Lefebvre’s ideas – Recht op de stad, but also Miami’s Right to the City Alliance, formed in 2007. For instance, protests in Poland in the 1970s under the name “Solidarność” (“Solidarity”) were concerned mainly with workers’ rights, but also advocated similar values as the Rotterdam or Miami groups.
Right to the city movements have spread across Germany; not only in economically dynamic cities, but also in those struggling financially. Besides organisations such as Berlin’s Deutsche Wohnen & Co. Enteignen or Hamburg’s Recht Auf Stadt, all which have their origins in a similar ethos to Recht op de stad, there are also activist groups in so-called “shrinking cities.” What differs the latter from organisations based in Berlin, Hamburg or Rotterdam are the reasons behind the housing crises. In such metropolises, the housing situation becomes difficult due to the city’s economic expansion. On the other hand, in shrinking cities such as Witten or Wuppertal, the reason behind unaffordability of housing paradoxically emerges from the cities’ debt. Councils close down public socio-cultural institutions due to lack of funds, and privatise housing in order to pay off their debts. These short-term solutions do more harm than good in the long run. Activists in shrinking cities oppose such policies, and call for implementing long-term solutions which do not place public spaces and social housing in precarity. Instead, these groups push towards actively stimulating the city’s growth in order to tackle the debt.
Rather than propagating neoliberal individualist ideas on inhabiting a city, urban citizenship enables collectivity and solidarity among all citizens.
Urban citizenship: A Way to Emancipation?
In conversations about the right to the city, it is important to also consider the issues of migration. For low-income migrants and refugees, it can be nearly impossible to find affordable housing. This sometimes results in forced stay in refugee camps, intensifying the degree of exclusion from the city and urban life. However, by understanding the right to the city as not only a theory, nor an abstract list of rights, but rather a practice to be implemented in the form of active participation in the city, a new concept of urban citizenship can emerge. It considers inhabiting the city beyond prescribed nationality and away from the idea of nation-states. This approach challenges essentialist views on migration, and steps away from the idea of urban diversity as a commercial strategy. Rather than propagating neoliberal individualist ideas on inhabiting a city, urban citizenship enables collectivity and solidarity among all citizens.
Squatting and collective ownership are also forms of right to the city movements. What distinguishes them from other groups organised towards this objective is in their particular way of creating alternative realities through active resistance. By creating microcosms in squats or collectives, such activists already bring to life what right to the city movement advocates for: accessibility, inclusivity, democracy.
Right to the city movements take on various forms. What brings tangible change is the solidarity between those movements. Although the term – especially in the case of the Netherlands – mainly concerns the economic issues of the housing crisis, the movement also considers other aspects of livability in the city, such as equal access to public spaces or public transport.