"Alternative ways of living in the city are needed to bring cities to life"

In 2016, Thomas Aguilera received three awards* for his PhD thesis** in which he analyses public policy on squats and slums in the regions of Paris and Madrid. It shows that illegality is not a by-product of capitalist and liberal societies but is in fact at the heart of the state-building process. Public authorities produce and exploit illegality in order to govern societies. Governments produce vulnerabilities as much as welfare. Interview.

Why did you choose to examine public policies on squats and slums in Paris and Madrid?

As a student, I had always been interested in housing issues as well as in the sociology of deviance, public policies and social movements. For my Master's thesis at the Sciences Po Urban School I decided to focus on an issue at the intersection of these interests and personal political concerns–urban policies on squats in Paris. And for my PhD, I compared policies on squats and slums in two European capitals.

Informal settlements are well known and documented in the Global South, but in the Global North they seem to be viewed as issues of the past–of the 1960s–even though thousands of people still live in squats and slums in European cities. On the one hand, local activists and NGOs have been calling for this situation to be acknowledged, and for states and the European Union to implement new policies to address it. On the other hand, politicians and the media always frame the problem as one of security and migration. In academic circles, many sociologists, geographers and anthropologists have studied squats and slums, but they have rarely looked at related public policies. Thus, there was a crucial need to produce knowledge about slum and squat policies to enable public policy changes and the development of fairer cities.

What was your research question?

My research began with an attempt to explain why these cities still have squatters if governments claim that policies made them disappear in the sixties. This question dovetails with a more general question: are large metropolises ungovernable? I addressed this question by studying squats and slums.

To explain the persistence of this kind of informal housing in Europe, I proposed three hypotheses drawing on the literature developed in the South. First: illegality is an obstacle to instituting autonomous public policies. Second: public policies produce illegality and precariousness. Third: squatters resist policies, which have limited effects. In the end, the research partly confirmed the second and the third hypotheses.

What was your methodological approach?

I conducted a comparative ethnography in squats, slums, squatter associations, and NGOs, as well as in public administrations at different levels of government (municipal, departmental, regional, national) and the police. I conducted 110 interviews that helped me understand the relationships between stakeholders and their motivations. I also collected documents and data to develop a quantitative database on squats, slums, policies and maps.

Then, as I was trying to explain the divergence of policy outputs between Paris and Madrid, I gradually realized that I needed a historical perspective in order to trace policy institutionalization and deinstitutionalization mechanisms. It was an important and difficult choice because it forced me to collect new data, and to map the evolution of the phenomena over 60 years. This historical background was crucial for identifying the mechanisms and conditions of institutionalization and how they combine.

What were your main research findings?

The first finding was that squats and slums are governable in the sense that, ultimately, their inhabitants are never totally disconnected from police, state and municipal agents, NGOs, etc. I did not find any places like “Zomia”, an ungoverned area described by James Scott in his famous book The Art of Not Being Governed. However, some squats and slums, and other kinds of occupation such as the Notre-Dame-des-Landes ZAD, or "Zone to Defend" (among many others), are “temporary autonomous zones”, that is, areas that temporarily escape political power and claim a kind of autonomy that is far removed from, and runs counter to, public policies. But in the end, the police are always able to evict them.

So why are there still so many squats and slums? Are public authorities incapable of managing these spaces or populations?

Un-governability is constructed by public authorities who want to justify their inaction in order to justify states of emergency. One of my main findings was that public authorities spend much more time seeking to avoid issues and blaming other levels of government than on solving problems. I call this agenda of collective and strategic denial “public inaction”. It explains, for example, why the French state has ignored slums since the 1990s, and why Madrid’s biggest slum (Cañada Real Galiana) has been tolerated and left in the shadows in order to facilitate the eviction of other slums in the city centre.

Still, there are some examples of public programmes that target squats and slums…

Sure. When politicians and public officials see a benefit in positioning themselves as leaders of competitive metropolitan governance, they may engage in institutionalisation processes. I found some highly institutionalised policies with autonomous administrations, budgets, instruments and agendas, and a high degree of statistical knowledge.

What are the outputs and the outcomes of these policies?

I showed that policies are always selective: they create beneficiaries who are integrated into projects, and losers who are evicted to the margins of metropolises and public services. Policy instruments always impose major constraints on beneficiaries, but the beneficiaries are able to resist and deviate the instruments. That is why policies never produce the expected effects.

My study yielded two additional findings. First, policies create as many forms of illegality and precariousness as they seek to resolve. Second, targeted groups are able to resist and to change policies under certain conditions, and most effectively when they combine disruptive modes of collective action (illegal squatting, protests, etc.) with conventional modes of action (alliance with bureaucrats and the media). Finally, I also drew a more general conclusion about the effects of social movements on public policies: the more social movements are fragmented, the greater their power to change policies.

To what extent do you think your research could serve to improve policies or help people organise in the face of repression and stigma?

In terms of public implications, I hoped the dissertation might assist in the struggles against aggressive policies targeting the urban poor, against inequalities and for better housing conditions. One policy recommendation is to avoid evicting slums and squats. I showed that evictions (besides the fact that an eviction costs 400,000 euros) destroy social, residential and family networks and impede social workers from helping inhabitants. National and local politicians must now recognize that slums (bidonvilles) are both a housing and a social issue.

Second, some activist squatters try to build alternative ways of living in the city while resisting illegitimate policies. I believe such places are needed to bring cities to life. I showed the large extent to which some groups of squatters have shaped urban policies in Paris and Madrid. Squatters involved in the housing movement have played a part in activating housing policies in Paris and pushing the municipality to build private buildings to transform into social housing. Next, cultural policies are deeply influenced by squatters who have shown their ability to develop an alternative culture outside museums, both in Paris and Madrid. Finally, social policies are also influenced by squatters who show that more flexible social work and tools can be more efficient: self-organization and collective life help people get back to a more stable life, from the street to a home.

So there is reason to be optimistic: we need to open more social and cultural centres and autonomous spaces where people can self-organize free from public authorities, and without public funds and norms, in order to promote social, political and cultural innovation.

What are your current projects?

After the defence of my PhD, as a postdoc researcher at Sciences Po’s Centre d’études européennes, I began new fieldwork on squatting, artist activists and the surveillance of vacant space in London. I also started new research on conflicts over the regulation of tourism in Paris and London, particularly municipal regulation of Airbnb.

I am now assistant professor of political science at Sciences Po Rennes, where I am director of the Master's programme in Territorial Public Policies. I will continue my research on the regulation of informal activities, and on the effects of social movements and participation on public policies, with a greater focus on environmental issues. I will also develop my research on the regulation of tourism and a new project on conflicts linked to sustainable development issues.

* Awards for the best PhD thesis from Dalloz (publisher), Fondation pour la recherche Caritas (FR) and the Prix spécial de thèse de la ville (FR)

** Gouverner les illégalismes urbains. Les politiques publiques face aux squats et aux bidonvilles dans les régions de Paris et de Madrid", under the supervision of Prof. Patrick Le Galès at Sciences Po, CEE and the Urban School, CNRS.

Interview with Thomas Aguilera (Sciences Po Rennes, CRAPE-Arènes and associate researcher at Sciences Po, CEE) by Katia Rio (Sciences Po, CEE), October 2016

Related links

Thinking of applying to the Sciences Po Urban School? On 3 November, a second year Master student at the Urban School - and Patrick Le Galès, dean of the Urban School, answered questions from prospective students during a live interview. Watch the replay.

Learn more about the Master's programme in Governing the Large Metropolis at the Sciences Po Urban School

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