Barcelona: The Squatting Movement

There is a lively and vibrant squatting movement in Barcelona.  Divided between two primary types, with a small cross over between, there are the social centres, which primarily which run political and cultural programmes, and the residential squats which house people.

With over 200 squatted properties in Barcelona, approximately 15 of them social centres, it is the stronghold of squatting in Spain, until recently it was largely tolerated, however a recent clampdown has seen an increasing number of eviction notices being issued as well as stronger attempts to reclaim squatted buildings.   The law in Catalonia is very similar to the situation in England: squatting is a civil not a criminal offence.  In order to evict someone, the owner must apply for a court order and then pay for private bailiffs to evict the squatted tenants.  Until recently there was little support from the authorities for such actions which was seen as a private matter, however since the recent elections the municipal government has shown greater interest in evicting squatters, setting up a working group on the issue.  Since then the rate of eviction notices has accelerated as owners are encouraged by the authorities to pursue civil action.  With over 200, 000 empty properties in the Barcelona area however, as many new squats are opened as are evicted.

The majority of the squats have a very young feel.  Most of the residents are under 30 as are the people who frequent them.  I was told that the majority of the residential squats had been opened up within the last five years, as squats were closed down and then others were re-opened.  The majority of those living in the squats, at least in the town centre were young, single and childless and I was told that while there were a few children living in squats it was not common as only a few squats were equipped for them, consequently those wanting to start a family moved out in anticipation.  The way the issue was responded to made it sound like a rational choice, yet I couldn’t help wonder how much pregnant women found themselves subtly edged out and encouraged to leave the squat, rather than have the squat adapt to the needs of their new resident.

Venturing up to Casa Can Masdeu, a former leper hospital, found a much more mature squat where children were not only present, but central to the squat.  Opened over ten years ago by a group of international activists, it is an established part of the local community with extensive community gardens, tended to not only by the residents but also by the people of the surrounding Nou Barris area who come to help and participate in the activities.  One of those was a really fascinating guy from Scotland, who maintains his Scottish heritage by tending to the extensive gardens and vegetable field in the most practical kilt I have ever seen – its coarse folds bulging with gardening equipment and DIY tools stuffed into its many pockets.

Visiting on a Sunday, when the squat opens itself up to visitors for educational and entertainment events, found not only the residents but also the local community there in force, eager to show off their work.   Ecology and sustainability is central to the life of the squat ; the well tended and fertile gardens had been extended year after year as Can Masdeu claimed more and more of the wild scrubland surrounding, cultivating it to make it their own using the principles of permaculture. growing food both for the residents and for trade with other communities.   The building used for dining and recreation had a well established distribution, cleaning and returns system while a substantial collection of toys and games was complimented by a library, the books all carefully classified under the Dewy Decimal System.  Through the back a free clothes shop allowed people to exchange unwanted clothes for new ones, while information on various political and environmental developments adorned the walls.

The day I visited had been given over to child development.  A project called “The Pineapple” had been established to look at child rearing methods which valued child autonomy, based on a belief that children had needs, interests and activities which were individually determined, rather than adult led, and that the role of the adults of the community was to support them as they explored and developed.  Incorporating not only the members of the squat, parents and children from the surrounding area were also involved in developing and leading the project.

Can Masdeu gives an insight into what can be developed when a community firmly establishes itself, which is less possible in an environment where the threat of eviction hangs over a young community, which then needs to find a new building to occupy and reestablish its working methods and systems.  An eviction attempt in 2002 was unsuccessful, and despite a court order giving the building back to the owners which abandoned it, they have shown no appetite to enforce it.  The community is however clearly valued not only by its residents, but also by the surrounding community and its many visitors who come to see what kind of world is possible once it is freed from some of the traditional confines of a capitalist economy.


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