Book Review: The Autonomous City- A History of Urban Squatting by Alexander Vasudevan

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The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting by Alexander Vasudevan.

Alexander Vasudevan. The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting. London: Verso, 2017. RRP £16.99 paperback.

Squatting has been a feature of Western urban protest since the mid-twentieth century, although it has enjoyed varying levels of popularity. Alexander Vasudevan is an Associate Professor of Human Geography at the University of Oxford who has written extensively on the geographies of squatting in academic publications. The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting brings Vasudevan’s research to a popular audience. The book details the history of squatting in an impressive number of Western cities: New York, London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin, and Vancouver are all covered, as well as some Italian cities.

The Autonomous City is detailed and well-researched. The broad geographical range of the book is made even more impressive when you think about how many languages the research required a working knowledge of. Anglophone geographers are beginning to acknowledge the importance of researching other places, and acknowledging research from other cultures, but many of us lack the linguistic skills to put this into practice. As such, The Autonomous City‘s international outlook is a refreshing change.

Vasudevan convincingly argues that the history of squatting is about more than standing up to excessive rents and poor quality housing. It is also about creating an alternative city. Squatters imagine a way of life drastically different from how we live now, and bring it in to being by actually living it. In this way, they demonstrate that the way things are is not the only way that they can be, that an alternative way of life is possible.

Squatting is “a form of direct action that remained first and foremost a struggle over the right to be in the city and against the commodification of land and housing.”

Vasudevan, 2017: p.232

The Autonomous City is structured by city, which makes the narrative clear and easy to follow, but can get repetitive. In each case, Vasudevan traces the history of squatting in that city, highlighting key moments and individual squats. He dedicates two chapters to New York City, the first and the last, which brings a pleasing circularity to the book’s structure. There are clear links, similarities, and points of difference between the various cities that Vasudevan discusses, but he doesn’t make those links or draw comparisons, which feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. Another omission that I find odd is the lack of images–there are no pictures. I understand that this may have been the publisher’s decision rather than the author’s, but they are noticeable by their absence, particularly in a book that is aimed at a more popular audience.

The Autonomous City is a well-researched, well-written book that will appeal to anyone with an interest in squatting, urban resistance, or radicalism. It will also appeal to those with an interest in urban history more generally, as it looks at one way in which urban form is negotiated and contested.

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