How squatted areas become ‘normalised’ city elements: place branding, place marketing, and the law

Photo source: News Øresund - Peter Mulvany ©
Christiania. Photo source: News Øresund – Peter Mulvany ©

by Jenny Kanellopoulou* & Nikos Ntounis**

“Squatting” in an urban context is more often than not associated with groups of people occupying a place in order to claim rights and liberties outside the realms of “mainstream” society. There is no doubt that the residents and occupiers of these places are operating outside the law, outside municipal or state regulation, and even outside the aesthetics prescribed by the “mainstream” they wish to avoid. What happens however, when the mainstream-disturbing squat acquires a “brand” of its own and moves beyond the borders of nuisance to become a well-known attraction?

The cases of Christiania in Copenhagen and Metelkova in Ljubljana serve as examples of illegally squatted areas that have attracted international fame. Branded as places where an alternative experience of space and time prevails and as “must-see” attractions, Christiania and Metelkova base their uniqueness on two conflicting elements: an element of illegality in the face of squatting the city’s buildings and engaging in unlawful activities in them, and an element of legality, mirrored in the rights and liberties that the squatters claim.

The squatters of Christiania have occupied the 84-acre area since 1971, and after turbulent periods of civil unrest and a lengthy court case with the government, Christianites were presented with an ultimatum to either purchase the land at a discounted price or it would be redeveloped by the state, who was awarded the full right of disposal of the Christiania area by the Supreme Court in 2011. Christianites accepted the deal, and Christiania continues to operate as a quasi-autonomous ‘village’ governed by a ‘consensus democracy’, whereas neither Danish nor EU law is recognised. However, both Christianites and Danish authorities have not fully addressed the uninhibited use and selling of soft drugs that still confers Christiania its ambiguous legal status and one of its prevailing place characteristics.

Similarly, albeit in a smaller scale, Metelkova occupies the buildings of the former headquarters of the Yugoslavian army in Ljubljana, and has been squatted since the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Dedicated to the promotion of arts and cultural life, Metelkova’s occupiers promote events, exhibitions and host concerts, forming a prime cultural and nightlife hub for the city’s citizens and visitors. Moreover, Metelkova’s buildings host NGOs offices and act as a hub for civil society engagement.

Metelkova. Photo source:
Metelkova. Photo source:

Contrary to Christiania, Metelkova has been “embraced” by the local authorities, as even the Mayor of Ljubljana extended his wishes to the squat’s anniversary: “Metelkova will continue to grow, develop, keep its autonomy and will care, here and far, for the promotion of the city of Ljubljana, in the future”. Its autonomous appeal notwithstanding, it remains a fact that Metelkova’s buildings are illegally occupied, and as a consequence, the bars and venues that operate in the squat lack the official licenses to sell alcohol.

It becomes evident that the relationship between these places and the relevant authorities remains in limbo: from one hand the illegal elements that prevail add to the places’ brand as generated by squatters and perceived by the public, and from the other hand the enforcement of state and municipal laws remains restricted for fear of forfeiting the places’ character as illegal yet culturally important areas. In addition, such dilemmas exemplify the political perspective of place branding that highlights power struggles between squatters and the state, and the clash between organic, bottom-up internal place branding processes and top-down pervasive place marketing policies initiated by governmental and municipal agents.

In both Christiania and Metelkova, the brand of the illegal squat where human rights are being promoted (the right to private and family life, the freedom to participate in cultural activities and the arts) is in direct clash with the legal framework as prescribed by the city and the state. The squatters appear to be appealing to universally recognised rights and liberties, whilst bypassing municipal and state laws and regulations (e.g. selling and using soft drugs, unlicensed alcohol sales, tax avoidance). Yet, unable to completely enforce laws and regulations, state and municipalities appear eager to embrace the situation that has been prevailing for decades and participate in the local place brand by “internalising” it and marketing it top – down to locals and visitors alike: “We can’t stop it, so let’s try to make some money out of it, let’s try to accept it and create a tourist attraction,” stated the Danish Conservative Party in 2012.

Henceforth, strategies that aim to boost tourism and commodify the place identity can be perceived as alternative gentrification strategies. For example, both Christiania and Metelkova have been introduced to wider circuits of capital via tourism, which has contributed to the normalisation of these areas, and subsequently in the inevitable collaboration with state authorities for the perseverance of these places’ unique identities. From a legal perspective, top-down place branding and marketing appear to contribute to the continuation and appreciation of the illegal activities, now part of the squats’ brand. Internalising and promoting the squatted place without eliminating the illegal elements leads to the paradox whereby illegality is simultaneously embraced and tackled by the authorities (e.g. intermitted clampdowns in Christiania).

Such cases pose critical questions on the relationship between place branding, place marketing, and the legal space. It can be argued that place branding and place marketing strategies (both bottom-up and top-down) have the ability to afford the perception of a de facto legality to such squatted areas. However, do we risk condoning illegal activity by normalising it through these official channels? And what about the rights and liberties advocated by the squatters of many years? It is argued that they get nullified of their original meaning, as the squat is no longer seen as opposition to the “mainstream”, but as an extension of its boundaries.

*Jenny Kanellopoulou is an Associate Member of the IPM, a Lecturer in Law at the University of Salford, and a PhD Candidate at the University of Edinburgh. She has worked in legal practice as an Advocate with the Athens Bar, as well as in Festival and Events Promotion in Greece. Her research interests include Competition Law with a focus on relevant market definition, and legal geography focusing on the legal “space” as perceived by both the relevant authorities’ and a place’s stakeholders. As a recent member of the IPM, she aims to achieve a crossover between law and place management.

**Nikos Ntounis is a research assistant and PhD student at the Institute of Place Management, Manchester Metropolitan University. Most recently, he has worked at IPM’s High Street UK 2020 project, and has co-authored numerous articles and reports on high street performance, place management, markets and retailing. He is currently writing up his PhD thesis on small town place management and marketing.


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