When valuable city land is left open and vacant by an absentee owner, enterprising individuals may enter and create functional living spaces, start-up businesses and entire self-governing communities on their own initiative. This process of emergent organization, derided as anarchic by detractors (see video), in fact is anything but.
In Caracas, an unfinished 45-story tower, planned for office use but now under nominal state ownership, has been occupied by squatters. Undeterred by the initial lack of plumbing and electric, not to mention lack of elevators, they have settled the building up to the 28th floor (apparently refuting the theory that people will refuse to walk up more than four to six storeys to an apartment), and, in the absence of zoning constraints and building codes, have added infrastructure and developed a mix of uses within the building:
“[S]quatters … have created a semblance of order within the skyscraper they now call their own. Sentries with walkie-talkies guard entrances. Each inhabited floor has electricity, jury-rigged to the grid, and water is transported up from the ground floor. … A beauty salon operates on one floor. On another, an unlicensed dentist applies the brightly colored braces that are the rage in Caracas street fashion. Almost every floor has a small bodega.”
Although the Times article chalks up the situation in part to the economic mismanagement of the Chavez government, such squatter communities are not unknown in the West. In the news recently was the Copenhagen neighborhood of Christiania, a former army barracks which was settled by various counterculture elements in the early 1970s following its abandonment by the military.
In the absence of any intervention by the municipal government, and ungoverned by city codes, the settlers created not anarchy but (surely unintentionally) what has become the second most popular tourist attraction in Copenhagen. While this is often attributed to the drug vending in the neighborhood, the remarkable architecture and emergent urbanism of the area are clearly major draws as well.
And although it’s not recent news, no mention of anarchic urbanism would be complete without a reference to the now-vanished Walled City of Kowloon, another extraordinary emergent transformation of a former military barracks.