From squats to hubs: What is the creative economy

'Ukrainska Pravda' (Culture) with the assistance of the EU-EaP 'Culture and Creativity Programme' shares the best European practices in the field of creative industries. Read on below to find out about squats, creative hubs and their contribution to the creative economy

Creative industries have for many years now been a profitable economic sector in EU countries. They contribute to the development of cities and countries as a whole and receive considerable support and investment from state, city and European programmes. In Ukraine, the creative sector is only beginning to emerge and hinges mainly on private investments. As early as 1998, roughly 5% of the population in Europe was working in the creative industries and the figure has been constantly growing ever since. However, three quarters of the total turnover of creative industries in Europe is generated in five EU countries: the UK, France, Spain, Germany and Italy. 

In 2012, the UK’s creative industries (which include the film industry, music business, cultural events, etc.) grew by 10%, outperforming all other sectors. This sphere of the economy accounts for 1.68 million jobs, which amounts to 5.6% of all jobs in the UK. In that same year, the UK’s creative industries were valued at £71.4 billion.

Between 2009 and 2011 the value of exports of creative industries services increased by 16.1% compared with an increase of 11.5% in the UK’s total exports of services.

In 2010, roughly 240,000 businesses in Germany were operating in the cultural sphere and creative industries. The total turnover from their activities reached about 137 billion euros with 720,000 permanent jobs. When the freelancers and private entrepreneurs working in the cultural field are added, the figure reaches one million.

For the sake of comparison, in Germany cultural and creative industries accounted for 2.6% of GDP in 2009, whereas the automotive industry accounted for 2.3% and engineering for 2.7%.

Creative activities carried out in art clusters, hubs and art incubators, often located in the revitalised spaces of former industrial zones or abandoned buildings, constitute a significant share of the creative economy. Some of these spaces were created in former squats.

So, the creative economy is integrated into the urban space and is linked to democratisation and rights and freedoms processes. But how? We’ll try to explore the answer to this question.

History: From squats to creative hubs

Social unrest and unfavourable economic conditions encourage the development of new social groups. The squatting movement has always been extremely diverse, multinational and often counter-cultural. At different times, hippies, punks, revolution-minded students, musicians and artists, urban activists and anti-globalists have all joined it.

Through the squatting movement, many of them have demonstrated their non-conformist and anti-system attitudes, even if it involved creating their own little illegal autonomy.

Squatting, a process of spontaneous moving into abandoned or empty premises by people who are not the tenants or legal owners of the property, was closely linked with industrialisation in the 20th century.

It developed in large industrial cities and in a few different directions. This process was partly caused by post-war times when a large number of residential premises were left destroyed, and not enough living spaces were available for the entire population. For instance, soldiers returning from the front had to reside in barracks and caserns.

By the 1960s and 70s, quite a few squats and counter-cultural communes had appeared in metropolises around the world: London, Barcelona, Paris, Berlin and some US cities. The Dutch sociologist Hans Pruijt identifies four types of unauthorised moving into premises that clearly structure the entire squatting process. In squatting as a housing need, people without homes and who do not have the patience to wait their turn on public housing lists move into unoccupied buildings. In entrepreneurial squatting, people take over buildings to create inexpensive bars and clubs and meet the needs of the local population. In conservational squatting premises are occupied in order to save them from demolition. In political squatting urban activists seize buildings by demanding the creation of public hotspots (art centre) inside them instead of them being passed into private ownership.

Squatters occupy not just buildings, but also barracks, abandoned warehouses, factories, derelict churches and industrial zones. In many of those places, a lively cultural life unfolds. Over time, some of them struggle to stand up to private owners and cease to exist. But it is interesting when squats grow into something bigger, for example, obtain legal status and become cultural centres or creative hubs. This is the route many squats have taken. Consider, for example, Christiania in Denmark, Paradiso, one of the top nightclubs in Amsterdam, rampArt in London, Leoncavallo in Milan that now hosts theatre performances and jazz concerts, Tacheles and Koepi in Berlin, or even the Uzupis Republic in Vilnius. 

Squats the size of a district

In the early 1990s, Uzupis was a gloomy and neglected district where the knitting factory Viliia and an electric power station operated at full speed. Crime flourished along with eccentric activities such as “rafting” on Kamaz tyres on the River Vilnia.

By that same river, a squat was established and has now been restored and transformed into an art incubator called “The House by the River”.

In the beginning, painters and artists would gather there. It could be said that the building became the centre for the local bohemians and the impetus for the development of the entire region. In addition, a number of art workshops were launched and the Uzupis cafe, where the idea for the future republic would be conceived, was opened.

On 1st April 1997, on carnival night, the district declared its independence. Since that day, the republic has its own president, prime minister, ministers and constitution.

With time, the unique social and cultural capital as well as the community’s goal-oriented activities transformed Uzupis into a centre of creative industries. Its impact on the cultural, economic and social life has reached far beyond Vilnius and even Lithuania.

Over the years, Uzupis naturally transformed itself into a platform for the creative industries. Thus, this way an entire district in the old city became one big creative cluster.

The annual revenue from the creative industries in Uzupis amounts to six million euros. Fifty different businesses operate here and over 300 creative professionals work here in an area of roughly 10,000 square metres of creative space.

The Uzupis art incubator was the first incubator of its kind in the Baltic countries and currently occupies an area of 1,200 square metres. There are private schools, the Vilnius Arts Academy, private schools, galleries and exhibition centres in Uzupis.

The Uzupis community continues to organise events that bring together members of different communities, to promote the creative potential and to help to commercialise their activities.

Lithuanian Foreign Affairs Minister Thomas Chepaitis says:

In 2012, the intensive restoration of abandoned buildings and yards and the construction of new ones started. From 2014, the demolition of large industrial facilities has begun and new residential neighbourhoods have been built in their place. Basically, everyone can do their own thing. We don’t have elections; all offices are occupied on a self-appointed basis. If you can manage it, stay there. In my opinion, it’s the best principle.”

Activists and government

It’s a totally different story for the rampArt squat that operated in London for 5 years. Artists took over a building that was previously a Muslim school for girls, took down the interior walls and created a roof garden.

Its main principle was that it was collectively managed and each squatter could use the space as he or she wished. Thanks to that, rampART later became an exhibition space where concerts were held, film screenings organised every Tuesday, samba lessons given and even programming taught.

All the projects were implemented on a voluntary basis. In total, some one hundred cultural initiatives were in operation there. Although it was not a commercial project, it existed with the help of donations from visitors, concert ticket sales and the cafe.

In turn the city benefited from an increase in jobs and the flourishing of cultural initiatives and activities.

However, rampART squatters were evicted in 2009 the day following the G-20 summit protests in London. Police officers broke into the building using a chainsaw and evicted everyone by force.

Sooner or later, most illegally occupied buildings meet this fate. The police or the rightful owner recovers the property when agreement is not reached or when the owner has other plans for the property.

Final agreement is only possible if the squatters take their activities seriously. That is, if they commercialise the space and the property begins to bring profit to the owner. Or when the aim is to return the space to the public or conserve it from demolition, activists launch a wide public debate of the issue, at the same time searching for a legal solution that would suit everybody.

In Kyiv squats started appearing in abandoned historic buildings in the city centre. Having come into being from the communal living of artists and creative people under one roof, they, too, later underwent transformation. Thus, in the yard of the squat on Tereschenkivskii Street, the cafe Squat 17b yard café opened this summer and film screenings and other cultural activities were organised there. 

Legal” squatting

Like all great social movements, this model for transforming abandoned buildings has become big business and is now called “revitalisation”, or renewal.

In Ukraine, enthusiasts either lease part of a former factory and establish some type of business there, such as a club (like Closer and other spaces at the knitting mill in the Podil district of Kyiv) or the owner of a big enterprise invests and transforms it into a multifunctional hub (like the former silk mill on Kyiv’s left bank, the art-factory PLATFORMA, that hosts the street food festival and concerts, and serves as coworking.

Katerina Horina, head of the Platforma coworking:

We provide a full range of services. Clients pay once a month and use the coworking resources without restrictions. We focus on the IT sector. Our partners are Microsoft, Yandex as well as capital funds. However, the main difference is that we have our own investment committee and we invest ourselves in promising startups and projects.

The main value of coworking lies in the atmosphere that we have created here. When a person coming here to work finds useful contacts. We create networks and watch how our clients collaborate to implement new joint projects.”

Another model that is still unavailable in Ukraine is used in Poland. There, many former factory buildings are owned by the city council. Enthusiasts from various cultural organisations (theatre, music studios, designers, etc.) cooperate and submit joint applications for the revitalisation of buildings. Thus, for example, the organisation Fabryka Sztuki (Art Factory) situated in Lodz (Poland) obtained grants from the EU, the Polish government and city authorities to develop an art incubator. 

Today, in addition to the concerts and rehearsals held in this art factory, clothing and accessories manufacturers, designers, photographers and IT companies are based there. They pay several fold lower rents for their offices or manufacturing space.

Thus, the government, the local authorities and the EU support and stimulate the development of the economy’s creative sector. In 2012 revenue from the activities of the creative sector in Poland exceeded the revenue from the real estate and food sectors. The creative sector made up 2.7% of GDP. The work of designers, the fashion industry, architecture offices, visual arts, music photography and others all belong in Poland’s creative sector. They can often operate smoothly in one large space such as an art cluster or a creative hub.


Agata Etmanowicz, one of the organisers of the revitalisation process at the art factory, says:

The hardest thing that we had to do first was explain to bureaucrats and local authorities what the creative sector of the economy was in general. Why it should be present in the city and what its benefits are. The founder of Fabryka Sztuki spent quite a lot of time and effort explaining this to the local authorities in Lodz. It was, therefore, very important to find someone who would play on our side in the local administration itself. And when we found that person, everything became a little easier. Namely, our first problem was to convince everyone that a creative economy hub is not merely a need in the city but a necessity.”

In Ukraine, it can be said that such projects cannot be realised today without funding from private investors. And their interest appears, more than likely, when commercial profit or improving their public image become issues. Unfortunately, a city programme for the development of creative industries in Kyiv does not exist today, although the creative sector of the economy, which has great added value, is one of the factors for the city’s development.

The importance of municipal support is difficult to overestimate here. It is not about financial support, although transparent funding through grants can greatly help at the start of certain projects, but rather about facilitating the access of activists, artists and cultural managers to spaces where the creative sector of the economy can develop. It is about municipality-owned buildings and outdoor areas that are unoccupied or partly unoccupied.

Today, the only truly successful example of such collaboration between the authorities (though not municipal, but state authorities) and the cultural business is the Kyiv Expocentre. In the space of just a few months, several workshops, where designers can create furniture and elements of street infrastructure, Gogolfest, the installation of new street lamps with solar panels, were held. Nevertheless, the majority of initiatives encounter bureaucratic resistance that they are unable to overcome.


Yulia Saliy, Taras Kaidan / 'Ukrainska Pravda' (Culture)

The text was prepared by Ukrainska Pravda with the assistance of the EU-EaP Culture and Creativity Programme.


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