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In March 2020, when Australia began shutting its borders and non-essential services were restricted due to COVID-19, I took to running outdoors when I could no longer go to the gym. Hitting the pavement at dusk, this ritual would mark the end of my workday. I would follow the same route that would take me past the local McDonald’s, where, without fail, there would be a steady stream of cars at the drive-through. I thought this peculiar given the pervasive fear of community transmission, the government mandate for people to stay at home unless absolutely necessary and tightened household spending in light of escalating unemployment rates and a possible recession. In the face of a pandemic that had left no part of society, and no country, untouched, the queue tellingly indicated daily exhaustion, as well as a desperate holding on to some semblance of normality in a world that had completely changed in a matter of weeks. The activity at the fast-food restaurant was a comic juxtaposition to the No. 212 bus that would, as if on cue on my evening runs, trundle by at that point, carrying no more than a handful of passengers. On some nights, there was only the bus driver.
Extraordinary images of cities appeared in news stories and online videos in the weeks following the start of the pandemic, which showed the impact of lockdowns and partial closures: the cleared skies over Delhi due to decreased air pollution; boars from the mountains roaming deserted roads in Barcelona; and the stillness of Siena’s dormant streets, interrupted by the fullness of voices singing in unison from apartments above.
In the conclusion, we reflect on what we can learn from the chapters in this book about working critically and productively with ruins and urban vacancy as a lens to interrogate wider urban challenges. The genesis for this collection started with a workshop held at Trinity College Dublin in March 2017. While seeking to draw together a wide range of voices and approaches on the topic, our starting point was the ways in which the 2008 global financial crisis had made vacancy more visible and politicised across a range of different contexts. That crisis constituted a juncture that was expressed in the ‘new ruins’ that represented the collapse of a particular manifestation of financialised capitalism. ‘New ruins’ provided a concept to grapple with the political, economic and cultural fallout of the crisis, and to expand our theoretical lexicon. In the post-crisis period, vacant spaces presented a set of possibilities for dealing with the legacies of the previous era of growth and decline, becoming a vehicle to narrate the crisis (O’Callaghan et al, 2014), while also proposing alternative urban futures based on the commons (Bresnihan and Byrne, 2015). Since that time, a number of changes have occurred: the reassertion of neoliberal policy responses; the rolling out of new forms of financialisation; the increased pressure on urban real estate markets due to tourism and platform capitalism; the foreclosure and aggressive eviction of alternative projects/spaces; and the emergence of a regime to govern vacancy. While the possibilities presented by vacancy in the post-crisis juncture have been eroded, as a conceptual category and a site of policy, market and grass-roots intervention, urban vacant spaces remain significant.
After German reunification, like many other cities in East Germany, Halle/Saale in the federal state of Saxony Anhalt underwent a period of urban decline. It lost a large share of jobs and around 25 per cent of its population1 between 1990 and 2010. Some people relocated elsewhere for jobs; others moved to a single-family house in the region (something previously impossible due to the German Democratic Republic’s [GDR’s] strict limitations on suburbanisation). As a consequence, the rate of vacant housing in Halle/Saale and many other East German towns and cities intensified. Urban vacancy eventually became one of the main fields of policy intervention on a local, regional and national level in Germany. In recent years, urban vacancy has received increasing scholarly attention in the field of urban studies. Two main points of reference can be distinguished: post-industrial and post-socialist urban decline and depopulation, often subsumed as ‘urban shrinkage’ (Haase et al, 2014); and the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2008, often explored as austerity urbanism (Tonkiss, 2013). It can be argued that despite some important differences, in both contexts, urban vacancy is considered as a symbolic marker of urban crises and change. On the one hand, research focuses on identifying causes for urban vacancy, such as exploring links between population change and vacancy (Couch and Cocks, 2013), or between political-economic change and vacancy (Kitchin et al, 2014). On the other hand, scholars examine how urban vacancy is governed in a variety of contexts.
De Silvey and Edensor (2013: 467) define ruins as ‘structures and places that have been classified (by someone, at some time) as residual or unproductive, but equally most of these sites remain open to appropriation and recuperation’. Urban ruins, therefore, are more than physical by-products of capitalist ‘creative destruction’ (Harvey, 1985); they may offer the touchstone for alternative imaginings of the city. As O’Callaghan et al (2018) argue, urban ‘remainders’ have the potential to create spaces of discursive and material struggle over questions of social and spatial justice, such as when alternative communities create urban commons during times of economic austerity. However, what happens when inhabitants are violently removed from a ‘productive’ place, which is made into a ruin by racist policies? Years later, what does it mean to ‘inherit’ ruins of spatial injustice – for groups and individuals that were traumatised, for bystanders, and for perpetrators?
This chapter contributes to discussions of the ‘dynamic and unsettled’ nature of ruins (DeSilvey and Edensor, 2013: 466) by considering their complex and shifting geopolitical temporal-spatial relations in cities marked by extreme forms of violence and spatial injustice, including forced removals and genocide. I focus on a rather mundane ‘ruin’, a former Jewish girls’ school in Central Berlin that was created by the virulent anti-Semitism of National Socialism. Located on Auguststrasse in the central residential district, Berlin-Mitte, the heart of Jewish Berlin, the school was closed in 1942 by the Nazis and later converted to a wartime hospital. It survived the bombings of the Second World War, and was reused by the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) as the ‘Bertolt Brecht’ grammar school until 1966.
The environs of Tangier, Morocco, are a patchwork of cleared lots and new construction, staggered in age and size. Walking through one of these neighbourhoods can feel disjointed: turn in one direction and a whole neighbourhood of rectangular apartment blocks are evenly spaced, separated by paved roads; turn in another direction and a rocky expanse of ground appears, often with further neighbourhoods of apartments at a distance.
Shortly after dark one evening during the summer of 2016, I was walking in one of these areas in the process of collecting data about housing and vacancy in the city. At the corner of one of the rectangular apartment buildings, I approached a man sitting in a chair positioned to see the surrounding streets – a guardian, watching over parked cars and street activity for the budding neighbourhood. We chatted about the expanding housing developments in Tangier, including the buildings he was guarding and another set visible in the distance across a cleared field (see Figure 9.1). To me, the distant buildings appeared oppressively dark, still-unfinished constructions, at most partially occupied by dwellers, but the guardian says all of those apartments, like all the ones near his position, are ‘full’.
This chapter explores how both of us, myself and the guardian, formulated an impression of what makes housing ‘full’ or ‘empty’. Our contradictory impressions bring into relief how vacancy can be partial or temporary, somewhere between housing that is owned, occupied and in use, and housing that is abandoned. Using the case of Tangier, I examine some of the ways that cyclical vacancy can be recognised and conceptualised by actors connected with it.
The city is still empty, few days since the eviction of Communia…. Many people involved in the project have come back to the city from their holidays, from their family homes, several meetings are being organised. People from the neighbourhood, other squats and groups are all giving their support towards a new occupation … the new location has been identified thanks to the deep knowledge of residents, the plan … to have a demonstration ending with the occupation of the building in the upcoming days…. I spoke to [name of person] about what is going on, we were both amazed by the response of so many people at such time. ‘We can do it, we are determined and organised’ [name of person] told me smiling at the end of our chat. (Cesare’s research diary, August 2013)
These diary notes concern the response of militants and neighbourhood residents to the eviction of Communia, a squatting initiative that emerged in the San Lorenzo neighbourhood in Rome in April 2013, by the police in mid-August, a time when most Italian cities get very quiet, people go away for summer holidays and political activism is usually on pause. Summer is often the preferred time for police to carry out evictions in order to avoid clashes. However, in recent years, several Italian squatting initiatives evicted during summer months have seen a strong response from activists and residents. The most dramatic occurred in central Rome in August 2017, when hundreds of squatters – mostly refugees – were violently evicted without a clear or coherent plan for their rehousing (Annunziata, 2020).
During the early months of 2020, cities appeared to stop working. The global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a wave of nationwide lockdowns as governments mandated restrictions on the movement of populations and the shuttering of all but essential services. Sublime images of familiar cities emptied and at a standstill reached socially distanced audiences via social media. Excepting the ghostly vigil of essential workers – bus drivers, food retail workers and Deliveroo cyclists, as well as medical staff – the pandemic had put our cities on pause.
The empty city became a key representation trope of the pandemic. This is unsurprising given the increasing centrality of urbanisation to contemporary social and economic life. Moreover, as Connolly et al (2020) argue, ‘extended urbanisation’ is itself a key factor in the spread and mitigation of infectious diseases, with interconnected supply chains and deeply unequal urban cores acting as conduits for the spread of COVID-19. However, the pandemic city was one of interconnection, and mobility collapsed. In this way, it bore some relation to the city in ruins: the sense of linear time suspended; the denuded folly of progress visible in streets aggregating windswept litter; and the return of flora and fauna to landscapes usually dominated by humans. If the images were sublime, the experience on the ground was one of the uncanny (Freud, 2003), with familiar urban environments abruptly rendered strange.
This book provides an innovative perspective to consider contemporary urban challenges through the lens of urban vacancy.
Centering urban vacancy as a core feature of urbanization, the contributors coalesce new empirical insights on the impacts of recent contestations over the re-use of vacant spaces in post-crisis cities across the globe.
Using international case studies from the Global North and Global South, it sheds important new light on the complexity of forces and processes shaping urban vacancy and its re-use, exploring these areas as both lived spaces and sites of political antagonism. It explores what has and hasn’t worked in re-purposing vacant sites and provides sustainable blueprints for future development.
Among the brick warehouses and new-build condos of Montreal’s hip Mile-Ex neighbourhood, a group of musicians leads a parade a few dozen strong. The intergenerational crowd comes to a stop and circles together in a gravel-covered vacant lot, chattering happily and bouncing in time to the bass drum and snare, while the band’s clarinets, accordion, cello and tuba crank out a lively tune. A mother flanked by her two young children scrapes away some of the gravel and begins digging holes in the clay beneath. Another woman places a basil plant in one of the holes and pats some soil back around its base. Someone else empties a basketful of ‘seed bombs’ on the ground and calls out for people to come and grab some. A young girl picks up one of the small balls of clay packed with herb and wildflower seeds, walks a few feet, cranks her arm back, and hurls it as if it were a Molotov cocktail, the first of many thrown in this battle, in the words of the event’s organisers, to approprier la ville (‘reclaim the city’).
In Montreal, as in cities across North America, it is often not long before some group or other replaces the gravel, asphalt or weeds of a vacant lot with something more verdant: beds of rich soil and compost giving life to leafy vegetables, vines, fruits and flowers. Indeed, the relationship between vacancy and urban agriculture is arguably as old as urban food production itself; city dwellers have always opportunistically gardened or grazed animals on the grass and weeds growing in the ‘wastelands’, those interstitial spaces between and within residential and commercial lots, markets, streets and sidewalks (Vitiello and Brinkley, 2014).