Global/local learning exchange on contemporary housing struggles: Habitat International Coalition, and Experimentdays Berlin

Spreefeld community garden tour

International Coalition

These questions are particularly pertinent to a global
civil society network such as Habitat International Coalition (HIC).
Undertaking a dissertation fellowship with HIC as part of my MSc, I
collaborated with HIC and its members – including urbaMonde, BSHF and Habitat
en Mouvement – to research the implications of these questions.

From its origins as a Europe-based council in the
1970s, HIC has evolved into a more diverse, southern-focused coalition. Today,
its membership covers five continents, forming “the global network for rights
related to habitat”. Yet as HIC’s locus has shifted southwards, its European
role and identity has become uncertain.

While cities have always been shaped by global flows,
neoliberal globalization has pushed the scale and speed with which money,
ideas, people and commodities traverse the world to unprecedented levels. The
financialization of land and housing – housing’s exchange value as a commodity
outranking its use value as a social good – now drives displacement in diverse
cities worldwide as cities increasingly clamour to attract global capital.

Added to this is the increasing blurriness and
contestation of the world’s categorization into the global north and south.
2010s Europe, shaped by austerity and quantitative easing, bears striking
similarities to 1980s/90s Latin America, shaped by the Washington Consensus, with
the casualization of labour and withdrawal of state support for low income
housing and other social security pillars. Meanwhile, radical shifts in urban
theory reject colonial notions of planning ideas travelling solely from north
to south in a linear cut-and-paste process. There is growing acknowledgement of
urban learning as iterative and multidirectional: all planning ideas are
reshaped locally when applied somewhere new. This can be part of the process,
creating greater potential for civil society to learn both ways across the
north-south “divide”.

So, what is HIC’s actual and potential role in uniting
global struggles for equitable, sustainable alternatives between Europe and

It is well placed to facilitate global exchange
between diverse members. Rather than seeing the growth of other networks
operating in HIC’s thematic space as competition, there is potential for much
greater collaboration, to which it can bring its uniquely global and
longitudinal perspective. HIC is an integral part of global platforms such as
the Right to the City, and the Social Production of Habitat (hosted by
urbaMonde, one of its European members) which helps to build such

Since HIC’s origins, the digitalisation of global
networks has reshaped the nature of peer-to-peer exchange. Many organisations –
including HIC and members – house rich digital platforms online, yet these
remain siloed, with potential for far greater interconnectivity. This brings
additional challenges of overcoming multifaceted language barriers – from the
avoidance of technical jargon, to translation (HIC’s strongest, most cohesive
region globally is Latin America, in no small part to the shared language of
most of its nations). It also requires more equitable access to communication
infrastructures, to ensure all regions can benefit and contribute.

Yet technology cannot replace physical, face-to-face
meetings. The value of sharing ideas and experiences in person is invaluable:
from building the visibility and legitimacy of small scale projects and
struggles, to facilitating the exchange of knowledge, skills and ideas.

Experimentdays, Berlin

Spreefeld workshop

Attending the Experimentdays European
Collaborative Housing Hub in Berlin on behalf of HIC and UCL, I discovered the
benefits of this first-hand. I presented my research, and collaborated in
workshops with participants from over 20 European countries: activists,
cohousing residents, academics and professionals, united by the pursuit of
non-market, non-state provision and management of housing.

Communities in Berlin have long taken advantage of its
vacant land and building surpluses, following the fall of the Wall, to pioneer
alternative housing projects. Today around 10% of the city’s housing stock is
cooperative. This relatively unique context is exemplified in Spreefeld, the
housing cooperative where Experimentdays began. Home to over 140 people,
together with coworking, social and community spaces, it occupies a central
riverside site – something difficult to imagine in today’s London for example.
And yet encouragingly, London was represented at Experimentdays by several
exciting projects at different stages.

It was difficult to choose from the inspiring range of
workshops being held across the weekend. Exploring approaches to engaging with
policymakers with people from a variety of political contexts – from Slovenia
to France, UK to Italy – our discussions raised the “chicken and egg” nature of
policy change and societal change. Oftentimes policy is catching up with how
society is changing, yet policy can also be used to trigger experimentation to
mainstream housing practices.

Another workshop raised the challenge of ensuring
diversity and inclusivity in collaborative housing movements, and working
towards securing affordable housing for everyone. In Berlin as in Europe,
cohousing is often pursued by a middle-class educated population – yet greater
engagement with minorities, outsiders, and increasingly, refugees is essential
to realise common good goals. In Spreefeld, the incorporation of two flats for
refugee families as integral to the community, works towards this wider social
benefit. Spreefeld also supports the wider community. For example, it provides
its “Teepeeland” neighbours – a collective habitat of teepees on city-owned
land – with power, water and advocacy, arguing that there is little difference
between the two settlements, both developed on the basis of sharing and

Teepeeland map

Tours on the final day of ufa fabrik and
Schwarzwohnerhaus, which originated as squats in former West and East Berlin
respectively, reiterated the unique enabling factors of Berlin’s recent
history. Yet also apparent was the universal need to establish ways for
cooperatives to transition to new generations, while retaining their initial
objectives. And, as was raised several times throughout the weekend, global
market forces are steadily catching up with Berlin as elsewhere, and its many
activists, movements and cooperatives face a challenge to try to retain their
non-market driven approach.

At the end of the final day, I chatted with one of
Spreefeld’s refugee residents from Syria, who told me “In Syria, we have always
shared our food, our cooking, our childcare and our homes with other families
in our community”. Indeed, returning to the question of what Europe can learn
from elsewhere – the answer is a lot. What is often seen as pioneering, already
has precedence in other places.

am grateful to my dissertation supervisor, Alexandre Aspan Frediani, and to HIC
and its members who supported my research. I also wish to thank the organisers
of Experimentdays, for facilitating such an interesting and inspiring event.
Thomas Doughty is a recent graduate of the MSc in Environment and Sustainable
Development. Coming from an architectural background, he is interested in
innovative approaches to sustainable and equitable urban development.

* Original source.