Civic Space. The Reappropriation of Vacant Buildings in Four European Cities

Doctoral Defense
Open to the Public
Nador u. 9, Monument Building
Senate room
Thursday, May 4, 2017 - 3:00pm
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Thursday, May 4, 2017 - 3:00pm to 6:00pm

Defense Committee

Chair: Andrew Cartwright, Center for Policy Studies
Supervisor: Daniel Monterescu, Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, CEU Second supervisor: Prem Kumar Rajaram, Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, CEU
External examiner: Philipp Misselwitz Chair of International Urbanism and Design Habitat Unit, Technical University Berlin.

In the past years, analyses of urban real estate systems have come to the foreground not only in academic research but also in urban activism. The millennium’s real estate crisis made its appearance at diverse segments of the cities across the world, touching housing, office buildings, retail spaces, community venues and public buildings, and strongly affected municipal and national budgets as well as welfare services. While in many countries, the economic crisis culminated in a devastating foreclosure crisis, the corresponding escalation of non-residential property vacancy created possibilities in many European cities for an alternative model of user-generated, community-led urban development processes through the adaptive reuse of empty buildings, spaces or land. In cities where a strong alliance of various actors created the right conditions and assurances, long-lasting structures and opportunities were created. In others, user-generated regeneration projects were instrumentalised and incorporated in institutional or for-profit development processes. Yet in others, in the absence of credible public actors, the non-profit private and civic sectors became guardians of public values, functions and services.

While there has been significant research conducted into the housing crisis (Madden and Marcuse 2016), lending procedures (Fujita 2013), gentrification processes (Lees et al 2010) and foreclosures (Bergdoll and Martin 2012), other foundational institutions of urban life like civic spaces – accessible and affordable community and work spaces produced by squatters, architects, artist collectives or NGOs – have been largely neglected by this research. Most accounts of civic spaces represent particular viewpoints, present best or worst practices and ignore the broader social, legal, professional and discursive context in which these initiatives are rooted. Furthermore, limited to investigating single city cases, much of the existing research fails to recognise the different variations of multi-stakeholder cooperation and the ways these models are transferred between cities and replicated,adopted or fail to be adjusted to local circumstances.

By bringing together resources from urban studies, sociology, planning, policy and architecture as well as my professional and activist work, original action research and footage consisting of over 50 interviews, event documentations and reports, this research aims at bridging this gap. Looking into the processes in which non-institutional actors, inspired by the opportunities offered by abandoned spaces, enter the urban planning, design and development field, and learn how to work with vacant buildings, regulations, restoration procedures, finance and management, this dissertation explores actor networks that have emerged in the past years in four urban regions that reflect the diversity of cooperation frameworks between citizen initiatives, public administrations and the private sector. While Budapest has rigid institutions and isolated civic initiatives, Rome witnesses the unfolding of a parallel welfare infrastructure confronting the public administration, the Dutch cities have created consensual structures to accommodate citizen innovation, and in Berlin, civic spaces established forms of complete autonomy through accessing the ownership of formerly empty buildings.

Juxtaposing these networks in a comparative analysis with the help of the actor-network theory (Latour 2005), the following chapters investigate the cooperations and conflicts that emerge around discourses, interventions, mechanisms and policies related to the reuse of vacant spaces. Addressing the growing debate about the role of public, private and civic actors in the governance of public assets, the dissertation forms the theses that the latitudes of civic initiatives are defined by actor networks that are deeply embedded in social tissues and structures of cooperation and that civic innovation in urban development almost always relies on public resources and facilitating structures, but forming a critical mass, citizen initiatives can bypass existing frameworks and rewrite the rules of cooperation.