Let's take back the city!
Since summer 2009, Hamburg is on the move. From artists and allotment holders to the non-parliamentarian left, new activist groups formed, demanding a right to the city. Topics like urban restructuring and displacement of the poor from inner city districts are discussed by a broad public. Squatting became popular again. Some of these struggles were successful. In Hamburg, the city was forced to buy back the squatted Gängeviertel from a private investor. The Centro Sociale, a self-organized space for activist groups, continues to exist. Other conflicts are still open and may fail.
We, Avanti – Projekt undogmatische Linke, are active in the movement and its initiatives since summer 2009. Many of us live in inner city quarters themselves. We are directly affected by the ongoing processes of reconstruction. The following text explains our position in the movement. We address some pitfalls of the conflicts and outline perspectives.
1. What “right to the city” mean to us
The notion of “right to city” traces back to Marxist theorist Henri Lefèbvre. The term is used in different contexts. In Hamburg, it brings together a broad spectrum of initiatives, movements and activists. The common goal is to fight for our participation in all matters of our living, housing and working conditions in this city, and to resist a neoliberal policy of urban development that only serves the interests of the capital. The “right to city” movement challenges the capital's plans of city development. Ultimately, it challenges the powers that be – because today the urban developers, investors, companies and politicians decide how the urban space is used. The demand of a “right to the city” is the common ground of the different fields of conflict. Everybody living in the city has a right to the city! The “Right To The City Alliance” from New York writes: “We believe the right to the city is the right for all people to produce the living conditions that meet their needs.” That means the right to share the common wealth and to participate in all decisions that affect one's own life.
The concept of “right to the city” is diametrically opposed to the currently prevailing neoliberal agenda of urban development. It points beyond capitalism. A capitalist organized economy and society puts the logic of profit and private property first. Therefore it produces social inequality and “superfluous” people systematically. Ultimately, the capitalist model is incompatible with a city where the inhabitants decide equally and collectively on how to use urban spaces. The demand for a “right to the city” therefore should not be seen as a call for changing laws and regulations. It is antagonistic to the capitalist model of urban development. It is an essential element of movements challenging the powers that be from below. For this reason it is part of the worldwide struggles for global social rights. The right to the city is created by movements, on the streets, as an act of empowerment against the unjust status quo. “Right to the city” is not about petitioning politicians or parliaments. It is about taking back the space and the power to decide on urban development.
In this sense the geographer David Harvey describes “right to the city” both as a working slogan and a political ideal. As a right of the oppressed to resist it provides an umbrella idea – a working slogan – for struggles to take back the urban space. In many cases it stands against the laws which protects those with property and power. The political ideal of a fundamental right to the city for everybody stands for a juster society in which all people have the power to decide how they want to live; a city formed by its residents according to their needs and not according to the interests of the capital.
2. Reactions from municipality, media and political parties
The diversity of the conflicts and the social groups involved shows that the struggle for the right to the city will play an important role in Hamburg for the foreseeable future. The momentum of the movement is followed by an enormous resonance in the media. Even the conservative newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt discovered its heart for squatting artists and criticized a “policy that subordinates urban development under the interests of investors (and the budget of municipality)” (21.10.2009). The numerous activist groups succeeded in pushing the urban administration and investors in a defensive role. At panel discussions, state councillors had to defend themselves for the city's self-marketing. Investors were ridiculed in public. A shift in urban discourse was the result. In politics and media few were left proclaiming publicly: “Gentrification? Yes, please!” (Welt Online, 13.12.2009).
In spite of this, the behaviour of the municipality remains ambivalent. Large-scale projects like the re-structuring of the Hamburg-Altona district, including the opening a huge IKEA shop in the heard of the district, are pushed against all protests. “Lighthouse”-projects like the Elbphilharmonie (1), but also urban developent projects like the International Building Exhibition (IBA) in Hamburg-Wilhelmsburg are pushed forward. A fundamental change away from neoliberal politics is not in sight. This local urban development agenda is characterized by focusing on economic growth and global competition between locations in which cities market themselves like corporation. This policy was introduced to Hamburg by mayor Klaus von Dohnanyi (SPD, Social Democratic Party of Germany)who introduced the concept of “corporation Hamburg” in 1983. On a practical level this neoliberal shift in urban politics became manifest by the privatization of public goods, spaces and services. Concepts like “Metropolis Hamburg – Growing City” accompany this change on an ideological/programmatic level. Published in 2002, the leitmotif of “Metropolis Hamburg – Growing City” is urban development based on the global competition between locations. It defines Hamburg's role as that of an internationally well positioned business location – a “growing and vibrant metropolis with international reputation”. The new guiding vision “Sustainable Growing”, published in February of 2010, amendments this vision with “creative” and “ecological” elements.
While the senate (2) sticks to its neoliberal agenda, defining the city as a growth machine and its inhabitants as human capital, the movements critical of the gentrification processes are growing. The senate was forced to pass “social preservation” edicts for the districts St. Pauli, St. Georg, Karoviertel and Schanzenviertel, limiting luxury refurbishments and conversions into owner-occupied flats in these districts. When public property is sold, the sale shall no longer be based on the highest bid only. In addition, the bidders' concepts of facilitating the property shall be taken into account, too. The city owned housing company SAGA plans to build 1230 new apartments until 2012. With the slogan “Hamburg for all”, SPD attempts to market itself as a social oppositional force by adopting some of the demands of the “right to the city”-movement.
In order to better understand the reactions of local politics to our protests, we have to analyse municipal politics. The municipality represents national politics on a local level. Its purpose is to administer a capitalist organized society – without questioning the conditions of power and property. Therefore on the one hand it is the agency of bourgeois power structures. On the other hand social struggles and protests influence these structures. Local politics are an expression of the power dynamics between social and political actors. Therefore we support the concrete struggles for a better living, even if these struggles are limited and do not challenge the system directly. On the other hand, we are aware that the black-green senate (3) is not our partner in the fight against the “evil investors”. As an agent of neoliberal urban policies it is our enemy. Our agenda opposes the senate's agenda. Our goal is to shift the balance of power in our favour. However, we acknowledge that there exist contradictions and factions in the administrative system (for example between competing political parties, or between the city administration and district administrations) which we should take advantage of.
3. Role and impact of the “creative class”
The “right to the city”-movement in Hamburg is versatile, but its predominant background of a left-alternative middle class milieu concentrated in the “scene-districts” cannot be ignored. One of the central themes in the public debate of the last months is the impact of the so called “creative class” on the city. Their role in the movement as well as the public debate (and the concessions by the municipality) point to new, postfordist forms of capitalistic production. It also indicates the growing importance of a creativity- and knowledge-based economy. This development influences the transformation of urban spaces, too. After long years of suburbanisation (migration from inner city living quarters to suburbs) the inner cities become attractive living quarters again. This is accompanied by processes of gentrification. The social structure of districts changes drastically when old inhabitants are replaced by new inhabitants with more financial power. The poor are displaced to the outer skirts of the city.
The role of artistic, “creative”, student and subcultural milieus in these processes is ambivalent. On the one hand they act as a vanguard and push the process of gentrification – whether they want it or not. The powers that be use them deliberately as “pioneers”. In regard to Hamburg-Wilhelmsburg, one of the poorest quarters in town, the head of Hamburg-Mitte's district administration explicated in daily newspaper taz: “The artists are coming first, the the quarter will be revaluated. Gentrified. They are the vanguard.” (24.9.2009) At least since the squatting of Gängeviertel in August of 2009, the black-green coalition in Hamburg realized the importance of the “creative class”. In the global competition between cities, the city officials try to sell the “brand Hamburg” as young, creative and culturally attractive. This explains the surprisingly positive resonance from media and politicians towards parts of the movements. Even the squatting of Gängeviertel was tolerated and legalized eventually, not least because it was primarily perceived as a squat of artists, not political activists. From the neoliberal city administration's point of view, cultural and creative workers are important human capital. Therefore the ruling coalition came up with their new guiding vision “Growing with foresight”. This vision is all about the promotion of “internal factors of growth”, the importance of “creativity” as a central resource in an economy forced permanently innovated itself and about creating an “environment” where “talents can be developed”. Creativity has become a central factor in the competition between Europe's metropolises. Richard Florida, inventor of the catchphrase of the “creative class”, is the neoliberal prophet of a corresponding urban restructuring policy. He stresses the importance of subcultural spaces for the economic development of metropolises like Hamburg: “Cities without gays and rock bands are losing the economic development race.” With the study “Creative milieus and open spaces in Hamburg”, presented at the beginning of 2010, the senate tries to adopt the guidelines of urban development gurus like Florida. Their goal is to “profile Hamburg as a creative city” and to prevent missing the boat in the “growth industry” of creativity.
As Florida's line of reasoning shows, a critique of urban restructuring focusing on the importance of “creative milieus” and subcultural spaces only is compatible with the neoliberal discourse. Therefore it is essential to address social issues and the ambivalent role of the creative class in the processes of gentrification. Artists and cultural works from Hamburg published the manifest “Not In Our Name, Brand Hamburg” in October 2009. The authors reject this neoliberal critique of gentrification and focus on the social issues of urban restructuration and development.
This is the other side of cultural and creative workers: their role as an initiator of a movement critically of gentrification. For those who live from selling their creativity and “innovativeness”, the city is their space of production. The economic conditions under which ideas, codes and symbols are produced are generally hidden in the discourse about “creative spaces and milieus”. In the shadow of the euphoria over a booming creative economy, unstable, precarious working conditions are spreading. The term “creative class” is misleading, because economic differences between creative workers are rife. The “creative class” is inhomogeneous. Compared to other parts of the working class, “creatives” are relatively privileged despite their precarious working and living conditions, because of their cultural capital and the chance of social advancement. Therefore the struggle for a “right to the city” should not be reduced to conquering cultural niches. It has to address social inequality and precarious working, housing and living conditions. It has to be in solidarity with those who are affected by processes of gentrification and precarity even more than the main protagonists of the movement.
4. Addressing the social question: Cheap housing for everyone!
If the movement really wants to radically question the current policy of urban development, we have to put social issues on top of our agenda. We have to address the social situation of those involved with the movement. We also have to connect to to marginalized social groups which are not (yet) part of the movement: unemployed people, migrants, workers threatened by the effects of the crisis. In the city, a connecting element of all these group is the issue of rents.
For many tenants, rents are prohibitive already. For a large number of households, the rent takes half of their income. For people who are looking for a place to live, the situation is also unbearable: Cheap housing is scarce and its availability is decreasing. Finding an affordable apartment in an inner city district has becomes nearly impossible. For example, on average there are 120 applicants for each apartment offered by the municipal housing company SAGA/GWG. Whole groups of people have little chances to find an apartment at all, in particular homeless people, disabled persons and the mentally ill. In inner-city locations the lack of housing space has led to an enormous rise of the rents. For example, from 2005 to 2009, rents in St. Pauli increased by 27.7 percent! Meanwhile, social housing was reduced more and more. The number of social housing units decreased from 150,172 (in 2000) to 105,873 (in 2009). The total number of newly build flats also decreased, from 6,502 (in 2000) to 3,173 (2007). Local politicians have not only done nothing against these developments, in contrary, senator Anja Hajduk (GAL/Green-Alternative List) warned against “ad hoc countermeasures”. The municipal housing company SAGA/GWG, in whose 130,000 flats 300,000 people are living, becomes more and more profit-oriented. In the last years, rents in SAGA flats rose faster (on average by 33 percent) than rents on the free housing market (17 percent). After the publication of the new “Mietenspiegel” (a rent index for the city based on the prices of new rentals) at the end of last year, SAGA increased rents in 23,000 flats. When the period of commitment for flats in the social housing program ends, SAGA does not hesitate to raise rents up to the legal limit of 20 percent. In general, refurbishments are welcome opportunities to increase rents. The profits of this policy (106 Million Euro in 2008) are wasted for projects like Elbphilharmonie instead of reinvesting them in a solidary housing policy.
However, the “right to the city” protests initiated an intense debate about political regulations in the last months. For example the senate passed “social preservation decrees” for specific quarters and SAGA plans to build new flats. These are the first partial successes of our movement, but the effects of these measures are extremely limited. No “preservation decrees“ limiting rents have been passed. Also, just increasing the social housing programs does not result in a new housing policy – but this is what we are fighting for! We have to fundamentally challenge the connection between housing space and profit-orientation. Ultimately, this connection is based on the “holy grail” of organizing urban spaces in a capitalist society: private property of land as a source of a specific form of income (ground rent) and housing space to a tradeable commodity which can be rented or sold. Therefore the majority of the employed population is object to a double exploitation: In factories, in offices and in freelancing, lower wages are paid for more and more workload. In the sphere of reproduction, living costs like fees for public transport and rents are increased systematically. While a small number of private property owners and real estate companies can decide about the use of spaces and buildings in this city, the vast majority of the population is excluded. In contrast, our goal is to create a society in which urban space becomes a common good. A society where the residents control their living spaces. That means, living spaces have to be removed from the market-logic of capitalism. Limiting rents to 4 Euro per square meter would be a first step.
The politics of SAGA/GWG show that municipalization of living space can only be a first step. Ultimately, the goal is to give control of living spaces to the tenants. Demands like “SAGA under tenants' control!” point in the right direction. We cannot leave the housing question in the hands of politicians – we have to take it in our own hands. Only a countervailing power from below can produce sufficient pressure to force entities like SAGA to change its politics. This does not only require concrete demands, but also the development of adequate forms of struggle and the creation of tenant-networks for mutual information and support.
5. Perspectives of the movement
The diversity of the “right to the city”-movement is a decisive strength which allows for alliances beyond the limits of a particular scene. Such alliances are also important to counter a possible “privatization” of the many heterogeneous individual struggles and a pacification by solving individual conflicts. The “right to the city”-movement has already been successful in creating a common ground beyond mere networking of individual initiatives. A common ground of continuous collective action pointing beyond the concrete particular interests of individual initiatives. Individual conflicts are no longer just about e.g. stopping IKEA or Moorburgtrasse (4), but about the general question how we want to live and how to collectively decide on city development.
Like all movements, the current dynamic of protest will not last forever. “Solutions” (however they may look like) of the big conflicts carry the risk that the whole movement will lose its momentum. For this reason it will be necessary not only to struggle for concrete autonomous spaces or against specific large-scale projects but also to build up and promote comprehensive and continuous projects. We also have to reach beyond “scene”-quarters and a specific milieu and expand the movement to other social groups and districts. For this, quarter- and tenant-meetings, as well as the creation of permanent meeting rooms and social centres in the districts, already proved successful. We need places and opportunities to get together and exchange our ideas – not only in the movement and with people who are already activists, but also in the our daily lives. Such spaces of information and collective discussion are of utter importance as first steps towards collective action – an essential precondition for getting people to fight for their right to the city. It does not suffice to defend our spaces of relative autonomy in our “scene districts” with the danger of isolating ourselves. We have to carry our movement in all quarters of the city and preserve an openness for new ideas and forms of activism.
We have to defend the independence of the network and focus on collective action of those who are objects of neoliberal politics in order to counter attempts of cooptation and integration by political parties and authorities. That does not mean to disregard the effects of our actions on the political institutions. It means to maintain a general distance to the realm of party politics. To struggle for a “right to the city” means to strengthen processes of self empowerment, of participation and creation from below. We should not restrict ourselves in the ways and means to achieve our goals – we should be open for “legalistic” ways but also for non-conventional forms of protest and social disobedience. Squatting of trees and other forms of civil disobedience, but also the exhausting detail work of residents and climate activists as well as judicial appeals (where judgements are not “objective” or neutral, but influenced by the powers that be), delayed the construction of the Moorburgtrasse by Vattenfall up to now.
Referendums – as an institutionalized form of citizen participation – were arrogantly dismissed by local authorities. This shows that we have to go beyond the representative bourgeois democracy and develop new forms of grass-root democracy from below. Here again the quarter meetings are a first step which can show the possible direction. In order to give struggles against urban restructuring processes a long-term perspective, in order not to get lost in the (albeit necessary) detail work of the concrete conflicts and specific spaces, in order to make our voices heard, we have to develop concrete utopias of a different city not based on capitalism, but on participation, democracy from below and social rights. Our models of an alternative society cannot be planned and fixed beforehand. A new society based on self-organization will emerge from our concrete struggles.
The autumn of 2009 was just the beginning – let´s take back the city!
Avanti – Projekt undogmatische Linke, April 2010
(1) Prestigious concert hall in upper class district „Hafen City“. Elbphilharmonie is still under construction. Project costs estimated at first at 77 million Euro are now at 575 millions and raising.
(2) Hamburg City Government
(3) At the time of writing, the city of Hamburg was ruled by a coalition of Green Party and conservative CDU (Christian-Democratic Union of Germany), whose party color is black.
(4) Planned long-distance heating pipeline from coal plant Moorburg (under construction) to Hamburg-Altona.