How to give power back to the commoners & the creatives – An anti-gentrification manifesto

Through my work with cultural and creative industries and urban commons, I end up having a lot of contact with homegrown initiatives. These are people who took the initiative to start something new. Sometimes it’s a project for their community, sometimes it starts as just a way to satisfy their creative drive. One way or the other, what these individuals and groups create is meaning and value for their neighborhoods.

This meaning and value translates to financial benefit – local actors create symbolic capital which creates demand which, in a capitalist real estate market, leads to rising rent prices. The pioneers get displaced by rising rents and settle a new neighborhood. Rinse and repeat, from Williamsburg to Kreuzberg.

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This is the cycle of gentrification which we are served up in the media every day, and which has begun to feel inevitable in its banality. The funny thing is, it’s not. It’s anything but inevitable; the movement against this trend starts with urban policy.

I argue that the preservation of bottom-up movements can be secured through two basic actions, which are transferrable to a large number of national and municipal contexts. If you read German, there is more of this argumentation in my forthcoming book, Städtewandel durch Kultur.

Projects which are not profit oriented need spaces which are not profit oriented in order to survive and thrive without the looming threat of displacement.

The preservation of local projects and the people who start them and keep them alive requires an integrated and cooperative approach. Projects which are not profit oriented need spaces which are not profit oriented in order to survive and thrive without the looming threat of displacement. Bottom-up projects create a tangible value for cities and regions (i.e. for tourism and marketing, as fodder for festivals and other events, as a sign of creativity and innovativeness which attracts other start-ups and businesses, etc.) – it’s critical that various administrative levels take meaningful steps to preserve them. There are several ways to locate or relocate creative and commons projects in spaces which are not profit oriented, for example:

  • Establish a temporary use agency to pair projects with vacant spaces.
  • Establish an administrative “real estate office” which helps pair projects with available municipally-owned spaces.
  • When it’s not possible to place projects in vacant spaces or municipal property, subventions (i.e. rent vouchers) can be a stopgap measure.

It’s important that initiatives are not only offered temporary spaces, but also long-term (re)location. If a vacant space is used as an incubator with high turnover, then it is equally important to offer long-term rent-controlled spaces which are centrally located for established initiatives. Administrative restructuring can play a key role in these changes.

This requires a cooperative stance on the part of the administration, which is predicated on a recognition of the tangible economic and symbolic value that commons and creative projects give cities and regions. We need a culture of open dialogue, not red tape, in order to create a truly co-created city.

Secondly, commons projects and creative industries need a seat at the table when it comes to policy-making that affects them. It’s not enough to find technocratic solutions based on expert opinions and financial planning; the focus needs to be widened beyond solely economic rationales and assessments. In particular in places where commons and creative projects have “discovered” a new neighborhood, and play or are playing a definitive role in its rehabilitation, these actors need a seat at the table and a voice in decision-making from the very beginning. Before appreciation, before rising rent prices, before gentrification and displacement, policy can be made to secure these groups’ long-term access to affordable spaces, the single most important resource for these projects after motivation and social capital.

Commons projects and creative industries need a seat at the table when it comes to policy-making that affects them.

Real estate profit maximization which kills off the source of it’s buildings’ symbolic value is inherently unsustainable in the long run. The same argumentation applies for cities. As urban real estate markets become more and more globalized, and investors look to urban housing portfolios for returns, city administrations must take up the reins to protect the initiatives which, with a wealth of creativity, innovation, and motivation, help to enrich and enliven their cities and create meaningful difference and symbolic value.

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