Rent control and public housing for artists will breathe new life into European cities


Picture of Una Mullally
Una Mullally

Writer, LGTBQ activist and 2019 European Young Leader (EYL40)

Photo of This article is a part of our EYL40 Working Group on Arts and Culture series.
This article is a part of our EYL40 Working Group on Arts and Culture series.

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Show more information on This article is a part of our EYL40 Working Group on Arts and Culture series.

The European Young Leaders (EYL40) Working Group on Arts and Culture was established to share and brainstorm ideas for collaborating on pan-European projects related to arts and culture. It draws on the wide range of artists, musicians, writers and cultural practitioners in our EYL40 network.

Brexit, the rise of populism and the pandemic have threatened a sense of ‘European-ness’ among the citizens of Europe. The Working Group places a particular importance on how arts and culture – a core European industry contributing to 4.4% of European GDP – can be used as tools to help build that spirit while relaunching economies. The EU’s motto is: united in diversity. Our job will be to promote that diversity while responding to common challenges.

This series of articles complements the Working Group’s three meetings this year. The Working Group will produce a policy briefing to be launched in November 2021 and to be brought to the attention of high-level policymakers at the European and national level. Recommendations will also be handled over to EYLs, EU Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Mariya Gabriel and French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Clément Beaune, ahead of France taking over the EU rotating presidency in 2021.

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As our cities across Europe ‘re-open’ with a focus on outdoor socialising, conversations and debates around planning, public space and urbanism more generally are taking place in urban areas where life has been significantly altered since the outset of the pandemic.

The pandemic has revealed many underlying ailments within society, particularly in urban areas. The vital need for public spaces, more parks, public seating, public toilets and outdoor culture that can be enjoyed safely has become amplified.

What has also been evident is how desolate many city centres become when they are geared primarily towards consumerism and tourism. Nobody is arguing against the need for thriving commercial districts, but that is also not solely what cities are in totality. We are at a crucial moment now for urban planning, including pedestrianisation and better cycling infrastructure, and must bring forth new ideas that better equip cities for those who live in them.

We now need to have a continent-wide conversation on rent control and affordability

An overarching aspect of this relates to affordability: who gets to buy, own, occupy and enjoy cities across housing, hospitality, recreation and public space. Many cities will have experienced a ‘tumbleweed’ factor in 2020 and early 2021, where an over-concentration of shopping districts and tourist hotels meant that without consumers and visitors, streetscapes were devoid of life. So how do we reintroduce and support diverse urban life in a sustainable way that makes our cities exciting again?

Corporate gentrification in cities is an EU-wide issue. A lack of affordability in housing does not just have an impact on the city itself and its surrounding areas, but also in our neighbouring cities across the European Union. We now need to have a continent-wide conversation on rent control and affordability.

Keeping young people in cities where they can rent affordably, and supporting those on lower incomes so that they can thrive in and participate in urban cultural life, is vital to the creative vibrancy of Europe.

In Dublin, where I am from and where I live, a fierce debate has been ongoing – well before the pandemic – about the demolition of cultural spaces including nightclubs and theatres, overtaken by commercial office and hotel development. We are in an amenity crisis in Ireland’s capital, where land speculation has driven a wave of homogenous, short-sighted development that was already instigating a new wave of outward migration of artists and young people to our neighbouring cities across the EU.

In a connected Europe, where movement is both a freedom and a privilege, what happens in one city in one country doesn’t just impact that country’s social fabric, but it also has a knock-on effect in other European cities.

Discomfort regarding cities becoming overly touristic is no longer limited to the ‘snow globe’ style of European city

When there is a perspective that other cities are ‘cheaper’ to live in, allow for people to have a better quality of life, where rent is lower, where there is a thriving creative culture – day and night – those cities become attractive to people priced out of their own, who move and instigate another process of gentrification in the place they move to.

This cycle has seen countless people priced out of cities such as Dublin, moving to cities such as Berlin, Barcelona and Lisbon. These are all great cities, yet they are now also being impacted by rising rents and corporate development driven by global capital that has no attachment to the existing cultural fabric of the city in question.

We already know and understand the impact of cities disproportionately focusing on tourism has. Discomfort regarding cities becoming overly touristic is no longer limited to the ‘snow globe’ style of European city, where the city becomes an outdoor museum. The contemporary era of tourism, driven by cheap air travel, Airbnb and an experience-economy, has instigated a different kind of change. Where previously tourists were separate to the fabric of cities, now the fabric of cities is often pulled, threadbare, with rental housing stock made available to tourists and those seeking to rent pushed out.

Rent control and an increase in public housing stock is the best way to ensure a diversity of people from all socio-economic backgrounds can exist within a city. Cheap and affordable rent means those who are not driven solely by big salaries can stay and contribute to a city’s cultural landscape. We need artists and creative people who exist on the fringes, who are drawn to a city’s creative underground and edge and who birth alternative scenes, to be able to choose to stay in the city they grow up in and have an impact on that city’s life and future.

City councils, local governments and cultural organisations should come together to envisage and develop key principles by which we can be guided at a time when local and national power is often superseded by global capital and development detached from the character of cities. Only by facilitating those whose value is rooted in creative contributions can we begin to imagine what a vibrant Roaring Twenties of the 21st century may look like.

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