The right to the city – A never-ending story

In times when urban space is becoming a rarity and at risk of being sold to the highest bidder, it is ever more important to emphasise the value of non-profit, civic-driven spaces. They enable grassroot activities, which contribute to a healthy living environment and a socially sustainable city.

The contested space of a city

More than half of the world’s population currently lives in cities, and as the UN predicts, this number is expected to reach 68% by 2050. This trend of rapid urbanisation turns cities into highly contested spaces, struggling to balance and satisfy the needs of the different parties involved.

When more people move to a place than the place can accommodate, it is obvious that this will cause some problems. Gentrification and its’ consequences is one of the challenges global cities face, with whole districts being renovated and turned into flagship areas, driving out established residents and small businesses that cannot afford staying there any longer.

‘Pockets of chaos’ for a healthy city

It is the same development that is to blame for the disappearance ofpockets of chaos’, dis- or unused spaces like Helsinki’s lost Makasiinit, in which a certain free atmosphere allowed diverse grassroot activities to bloom. Unfortunately, grassroot activities and projects seldomly lead to big profits – and profit is what matters when cities increasingly compete with each other for the recognition by investors and – well, everyone who will bring money in.

In times when urban space is a rarity and at risk of being sold to the highest bidder, it is ever more important to emphasise the value of non-profit, civic-driven spaces. After all, it is the people who make and shape the place they live in – but they need to have spaces to do so!

Inaccessible city life?

Uninstitutional do-it-yourself-spaces gain even more importance when discussing the accessibility of urban space. In my research on grassroot initiatives in Helsinki, I encounteredLoukko, a group of young adults that works on establishing an open, inclusive (sub-)cultural centre. What motivates them is an elaborate criticism on society as such, and the mainstream cultural institutions in particular.

Meme saying "Accessibility means more than ramps"

Accessibility does not only refer to the physical accessibility of a place, but is as much connected to the principles of social accessibility. According to Loukko, much of the urban space lack this social accessibility. For people who experience discrimination because of their social and educational background, their gender identities or sexual orientation, their social abilities or mental health issues, the threshold of going to public places or prestigious cultural institutions is high.

The project of Loukko is a DiY-solution to this perceived issue. In their activities, they try to create a safer space that responds to the needs of people who are at risk of being marginalised due to the reasons above. For them, the reasons behind their grassroot approach is clear:

“You can’t fake diversity, if you want to have more minorities in, you can’t really do that unless you reach out to them in a way that would include them in the operations. I feel that the group working with Loukko is also the people we are doing it for. It comes from us, because we are part of the people we would want to reach out to anyway.”  Vilja, active member of Loukko

Institutions don’t have all the answers – they might not even know about the problems in the first place

Vilja’s words make clear why we need spaces for self-governed activities: they have the potential to accomplish what municipalities, policy-makers, city-planners, or institutions often fail to do.

One reason for this is that institutions might not even be aware of certain issues, because those are not part of the experience realms of the people working there. In addition, even if they take notice of an issue, their possibilities to find a solution are often limited by institutional constraints or disciplinary boundaries.

Diversity over profit

Urban spaces that are not institutionalised are opportunities for grassroot activities and creative spaces made by people for people. Examples from all over the world show that such spaces, even if just a meanwhile-space in the transition of one use to the next, enrich the local city culture and enhances social inclusion and community well-being. By providing, protecting or supporting such non-profit spaces, the municipality, city-planners and investors could contribute to a healthier and socially more sustainable city – that kind of place that is urgently needed!

Cover photo: View from Helsinki’s rapidly developing Kalasatama-area to Suvilahti, the disused gas factory hosting diverse subcultural activities. Photo credits: City of Helsinki / Riku Pihlanto

Dorothea Breier (@MsDoctoro) is a PostDoc at the University of Helsinki, doing research on urban activism, (social) sustainability, and urban space. 

Further reading:

Douglas, Gordon C. C. 2018. The Help-Yourself City : Legitimacy and Inequality in DIY Urbanism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Lehtovuori, Panu. 2010. Experience and Conflict : The Production of Urban Space. Farnham: Ashgate.

Smith, Adrian, Mariano Fressoli, Dinesh Abrol, Elisa Arond, and Adrian Ely. 2016. Grassroots Innovation Movements. Pathways to Sustainability. London: Routledge.