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De Nieuwe Meent: How it All Started

Written by Reinilde Jonkhout / Photo of Selçuk Balamir by Wietse Pottjewijd

On December 13th de Nieuwe Meent started their crowdfunding campaign to realize housing in Watergraafsmeer. But how did de Nieuwe Meent get started, how does one come up with the idea to build an independent housing cooperative? An interview with initiator Selçuk Balamir.

To Selçuk, sweet dreams are made of self-built housing coops. How does one get to that point?

‘I have to give a shoutout to my parents here. One is a city planner, the other an architect. So the imagination of building something was there.’

Knowing what to dream about is great, but there’s a lot involved in trying to get a living coop built from the ground up, this Selçuk knows from his direct surroundings. He lives in the NieuwLand building at Pieter Nieuwlandstraat 93-95 in Amsterdam Oost in self-produced social cohousing as part of a 11-member ‘woongroep’. NieuwLand is more than co-organised housing, there is also a volunteer-run event space. 

While I initially thought NieuwLand was a squatted building, maybe because of their logo that resembles the symbol of the squatting movement, it is actually not. I wondered when they would all be kicked out of their building. Thankfully they won’t be, as they are a much-needed exception to ongoing evictions of important cultural hubs such as De Slang. The NieuwLand building was actually acquired by social housing association Soweto – founded by housing activists. This required a lot of legal, financial and bureaucratic work. Where to start?

Five years ago Selçuk had ‘absolutely no idea’ how a housing coop would work, but by living in NieuwLand he learned all about it. ‘It gave me a realistic sense about what commoning is on a daily basis: the sweat, blood, and tears, that gave me a sense of its potential. Not only that, I experienced firsthand what difference it can make in someone’s life’. (What is commoning? Read here).

With commoning, rather than having everything decided for by markets or governments, it is possible to take matters in one’s own hands, according to a shared vision. For example, should there be an empty lot in a city, a group of people could decide to develop a project there, such as a community garden.

The Difference Commoning Can Make

What is that difference commoning can make in someone’s life? ‘Living at NieuwLand, I enjoyed the benefits of income adjusted rent. The rent is adjusted to each living group member’s work situation. I had no mental stress around rent, and it gave me the possibility to dedicate myself to social activism and social projects.’ One of those became de Nieuwe Meent. ‘This was in part because I benefited from the commitment and work of the people who started Soweto- and therefore NieuwLand. Since I can’t pay them back, I aim to pay it forward -that is how commoning works- by creating the same opportunities for other people.’ 

However, Selçuk didn’t want to repeat a project of the same scale as NieuwLand, which was to try and acquire an old, vacant building and renovate it with a community. With the sheer amount of work and combined effort that requires, Selçuk wanted to have a bigger impact, to aim even higher for a next project. ‘In my mind, repeating a NieuwLand wouldn’t have the necessary speed, pace to really be a strong enough force against gentrification. My thought was, it is only by delivering a project that is 5, or even 10 times bigger that we can have the sense that we are winning – that we are experimenting on an even bolder and larger scale’.

‘I think in order to reinvent ourselves, it was time to try a different approach, with the idea of later being able to support other initiatives. In the way that we were meeting at Joe’s Garage to organise ourselves for NieuwLand, and de Nieuwe Meent congregated at NieuwLand, soon de Nieuwe Meent can offer space to the project of the future’.

How did de Nieuwe Meent benefit from Soweto and NieuwLand in its launching phase?

‘Soweto supported the beginnings of de Nieuwe Meent on multiple levels, which at first was called Nieuw[er]land as a pilot name. Working together with them earlier gave me an invaluable network and the necessary experience. NieuwLand also provided the use of the public space for meetings, workshops, benefit dinners and more. Living in NieuwLand gave me the time to really commit. Otherwise it would have been nearly impossible to get started.’

What Strange Hobbies Can Lead To

It is clear that Selçuk was sitting on fertile ground in which to plant housing coop seeds. In 2017, Selçuk learned about the tender that de Nieuwe Meent ended up applying for. Winning the tender would mean that de Nieuwe Meent got the rights to build a housing complex at Archimedesplantsoen in Watergraafsmeer, Amsterdam. How did he come across this unique opportunity?

‘It was quite a coincidence. I love looking at maps online, and in 2018 I was browsing the Amsterdam municipality website when I stumbled upon a map of do-it-yourself building (zelfbouw) plots, and behold, there was a pin on the map very close to NieuwLand, well within the city’s ring road. I said, what is this thing?!’

When Selçuk looked into the DIY building plot specifications further, he noticed the municipality cited Soweto and NieuwLand as a good example for types of buildings for the location. ‘This to me was a surprise, to be listed as an example of good practice. But it did give me a sense of confidence that we were on the right track, that we could find common ground with the municipality, that maybe we can indeed collaborate.’ 

Around that same time, one of Selçuk’s housemates was moving out of NieuwLand to start a family, and he realized NieuwLand isn’t exactly a place to have an intergenerational family. ‘This also motivated me to iterate the next generation to be more inclusive and more diverse. Earlier at NieuwLand, we were fantasizing of a rural project, as a next step.’ But the possibility of a new family-friendly and diverse housing coop proved to be a more pressing need.

‘A housing project of a bigger scale, and making a building from scratch would provide us with the opportunity to build the family aspect and accessibility right into the design’.

Selçuk was counting on his network to seed this exciting new idea. Selçuk had a vision to bring together creatives, researchers, activists.. people who are dedicated to progressive urban politics and cultural practices and more. ‘Starting a housing coop requires a lot of free labor, with uncertain outcomes and no guarantees. It requires expertise, experience and a lot of availability which can all be put under the label -privilege-.’ 

Not everyone has this privilege, Selçuk realized, and felt a certain responsibility that came along with this privilege. ‘I knew that if I wanted to follow my political ideals, we would have to be the ones to take on that first initiator role to make this project happen, so that other people who don’t have those particular advantages, would be able to do the same in the future.’ 

Selçuk had the privilege to have a certain education that helped in finding the right language to get all the different necessary parties involved in growing de Nieuwe Meent, from the municipality to activists.

The Language that Won Them Over

What part of Selçuk’s personal background helped in the mission to start housing coop de Nieuwe Meent? He wrote his PhD thesis in cultural analysis. ‘I pay extra attention to language and discourse. I am careful and responsible in my use of language. We hoped to find a common ground using the language of the commons. We were aware that this emerging notion of commoning spoke to both organisations as well as activists, municipalist movements and civil servants alike.’

‘The language of the commons gave us the confidence: this sums up the process of our de Nieuwe Meent project: how we operate on a daily basis, how we will live there in the future, what economic relations would be deployed to actualize this, what social techniques we would employ, what kind of urban politics we proposed, what the ownership model looks like. Commoning is a concept that crosses all of these different areas.’ 

‘Commoning means we are a democratic horizontal organization, it indicates a way to organize, at the de Nieuwe Meent decision-making is done via consensus. It is an ownership model that is neither private nor public, where we take responsibility to self-manage and self-organize, the building we are planning will be commonly managed. It is an economic model that doesn’t generate profit.’ 

A more tongue-in-cheek (architectural) reference is the children playing on the rooftop of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, which won the hearts of the architects

Connections All Over Europe

After learning about the DIY building plot in Watergraafsmeer, in March 2018 Selçuk created a Facebook post in which he called for help with a ‘post-capitalist urban commune’. While this may leave certain people with ‘question face’, friends of Selçuk were aware he was knee-deep in theory about the political economy of commoning in design, doing a PhD on post-capitalist design. So people in Selçuk’s network understood the tongue-in-cheek reference and soon enough the core team of de Nieuwe Meent was brought together.

‘People seem to appreciate my ability to hype things, my post got a lot of likes and shares. People I knew, but also people I didn’t know responded with enthusiasm.’

The architects who are now working on de Nieuwe Meent got in touch through that Facebook post. Selçuk was on the road at this point and interestingly ended up first meeting the architects in Barcelona, which coincided beautifully with a visit to La Borda, ‘a very comparable housing cooperative which was in its finishing stages’. Selçuk knew the initiators. ‘It couldn’t have been a more inspiring moment, to both meet my collaborators and to get inspiration and energy from an actual standing building. Without even discussing much, we knew right away -this is what we want-’.

More than a building to be inspired by, Selçuk was inspired by the example that was citizen-led platform Barcelona en Comú, translated ‘Barcelona in common’. ‘They won the municipal elections and got into the local government and so it came to be that Ada Colau, a housing activist became the mayor. We live in a different context, politically, economically, not everything translates to Amsterdam. The grassroots movements to put actions to words are weaker here. That’s where we thought we could have a role to play.’

This illustrates the potential connections that can be made in the city of Amsterdam on a grander scale, that Selçuk has in mind. 

‘We have a shared vision of how the city could look like, how it could function, in terms of its power relations and how to overcome the democratic deficiency around it. And since in Barcelona they were so much at the frontline of urban struggles at large like gentrification and displacement, we could see a common cause, and the problems Amsterdam faces have their answers in these kinds of experiments. And in the case of Barcelona, more than experiments: Ada Colau are in their second term running the city so there is a relative position of strength in commoning the city.’

La ZAD in France And The Blossoming of Commoning Ideals 

Before Selçuk met the architects and was applying to the tender to gain the building rights to the plot in Amsterdam, he travelled to a self-organized autonomous zone near Nantes, France to visit a ‘lab of commoning’, commonly known as the ZAD (Zone à Défendre, or “Zone to Defend”).

Selçuk got inspired by the success of the community of La ZAD, which resisted the construction of an airport for over 40 years, these development plans ultimately got cancelled in 2018, taking away that it is possible to fight for one’s ideals and to then win. 

‘Seeing that scale and diversity of that struggle, duty and responsibility, there are no excuses left to not realize our goals, we have the duty to be cutting edge.’ 

Back in Amsterdam, Back to Work, And Then… a First Victory

‘Once we had the architects and a core group together, we met every Sunday, with brunch, meetings and work-time. We were open and inclusive (note: now most work is done online). We aimed to strike a balance between getting shit done and being radically welcoming, this took us to the first application round of the building plot in 2018 and then we got shortlisted. There was no time for a break, but now we had more confidence and knew we had a chance, but still didn’t fully expect to get it.’

But get it de Nieuwe Meent did, the rights to build on the plot of Archimedesplantsoen 100. After that news, more and more people got involved to work on the legal, financial and design aspects involved, and now there’s a media team as well to get the crowdfunding campaign on the road. The crowd funding campaign is a requirement to be able to get loans to start building. 

Any final words from Selçuk? Support us, we intend this project as some sort of guinea pig, to be a blueprint for future projects. We have the responsibility to document our process and make it replicable. And so we have a long road ahead, we want to disseminate the knowledge we create, if not written, then by building connections to transfer knowledge.’

In Conclusion

Selçuk is well aware of how his activist roots grew well in the fertile earth that are his surroundings of NieuwLand. A housing coop isn’t started alone, but de Nieuwe Meent is paving the way to grow the network of information and people as a shared resource. A lot of work is still to be done, we aren’t there yet, support our crowdfunding campaign and spread the word! There are bonds for sale and it is possible to donate.

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