Oli Mould is an urban geographer at Royal Holloway, University of London, and writes regularly about cities, creativity, and activism. He is the author of Urban Subversion and the Creative City (Routledge, 2015) and Against Creativity (Verso, 2018).
Graffitied sofas, 20-foot-high murals, upturned wooden crates, old pianos, oil drums filled with flowers: the Nomadic Community Gardens in London’s Shoreditch neighborhood, which opened in May 2015, oozes the DIY culture that is synonymous with grassroots urban anarchist squatting movements.
Similar in look and feel to long-term squatter communities such as Christiania in Copenhagen, Can Masdeu in Barcelona, Grow Heathrow outside of London, and many others in Europe and beyond, the site is open to all, an outdoor space where locals can grow their own food, hang out, and generally enjoy themselves.
At least, it was open to all. At the end of September, the site will be closed and dismantled, suffering the same fate as many other squats around the world.
But is it really a squat at all? The land is actually owned by the high-end property developer Londonewcastle, which worked with locals and campaigners to allow the site to be pre-developed in this way. So it has official opening hours and coffee shops, and has hosted corporate gigs (the latest of which was a Smirnoff “pick your own” summer party in July).
Scratch beneath the surface and it becomes clear that there is a distinct difference between the aesthetics and intent of this place.
On one level, it is the latest example of the trend of “meanwhile” or temporary space that has been used by developers to obtain some kind of rent from undeveloped land while it accrues in value (a process that has been dubbed the “cult of the temporary” by geographers Ella Harris and Mel Nowicki). And so it has proved, as the Nomadic Gardens prepares to shut its doors for the very last time, with people being invited to “get it ready for the next occupants.” (It is unclear who those occupants will be.)
Undoubtedly, these temporary spaces can benefit to certain areas. But some have cautioned against them as a gimmick of developers to squeeze as much profit from their land as they can, all the while increasing precarity and insecurity among the communities they inhabit. And the use of the squatting aesthetic could exacerbate this, by masking that precarity with a “cool,” environmentally-conscious and community-focused outward image. It could be the beginning of what I would call “squat-washing.”
Take the controversial development of the Balfron Tower in East London, which many consider to be a classic example of artwashing. The developer involved? Londonewcastle. The practice of giving a local area (or in this case, a social-housing block) an artistic makeover to make it more desirable, and therefore sellable, to the incoming professional class has received scorn. What the Nomadic Community Gardens represents, then, is instead of using art to “wash” the place of “undesirability,” using the “look” of squatting.
Squatting has a long and resistive history with mainstream urban development. As geographer Alex Vasudevan has noted, squatting offers “the potential reorganisation of our cities along more collective, socially just and ecologically sustainable lines.” He goes on to argue that certainly within London, squats developed in the ’60s and ’70s as a response to some boroughs undergoing comprehensive redevelopment plans—hundreds of houses lay derelict for many years while the large-scale plans secured funds and permissions. Many of these squats became housing co-ops and were given leave to remain and transform into more official housing, while many others were violently evicted.
Other squats across Europe that have resisted attempts to destroy them have done so by staying steadfast to their beliefs in shunning private property (even Lenny Kravitz wasn’t allowed to buy property in Christiania), and have fought off attempts to commercialize them in anyway (albeit with varying success rates). And their use of temporary, re- or upcycled materials is not just about them being cheap—it’s a deliberate rejection of consumerism and embracing of sustainable and equitable practices.
The politics of squatting are complex, but at their heart is an attempt to claim the right of citizens to shape the city as they see it, not as dictated by a developer or the government.
On the surface, the Nomadic Community Gardens had all this. It was a space that allowed for countercultural practices, at times. It welcomed people who might have been shunned elsewhere in Shoreditch—people on the margins of a hyper-gentrifying East London, including the homeless and drug users. The Gardens accepted them for who they are without judgement.
But beneath this layer of anarchist tendencies was a much more traditional capitalist city. Hence it is the latest attempt by property developers to appease their critics by offering a site that conveys a community ethos. Developers are constantly reaching for new styles, atmospheres, and experiences that will help them make places more attractive to the professional and creative classes. First it was artwashing; this is a new angle.
Squatting is an inherently anti-capitalist creative practice, one that counts decades of historical struggle against city governance. The opening and then closure of the Nomadic Community Gardens (and the many sites that will inevitably try to copy it) represent an attempt by developers to seize the aesthetics of a countercultural tradition divorced from the ethos that gave rise to it.