Critical Urban Theory and the Right to the City: A Conversation with Peter Marcuse

by Melissa García Lamarca

Known throughout the world as a leading scholar and practitioner of progressive planning, Peter Marcuse needs little introduction. Currently Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning at Columbia University in New York City, Peter is a lawyer, urban planner and activist with hundreds of professional and scholarly publications on dozens of topics including social housing, housing policies, the history and ethics of planning, the legal and social aspects of property rights and privatisation, as well as on questions of globalisation and space.

Polis is honoured to post an e-interview with Professor Marcuse on one of his current projects: the formulation of a theory of critical planning, and the attempt to make critical urban theory useful to the U.S. Right to the City Alliance.

Please give us a brief overview of your work in formulating a theory of critical planning.

After 20 years of practicing law, defending civil rights cases, unions, tenants, as well as better-paying clients, I decided to quit law and get a PhD in urban planning because its seemed to me that urban planning represented a combination of my two main concerns: understanding how the system we were living in actually functioned, and doing something about the injustices and inequalities it created. It is where the rubber of theory hits the ground of reality, notably in cities. But much of urban planning, I found, did not deal with issues of justice and equality, but rather with technical arrangements to facilitate the functioning of the system as it was, injustices and all. So I’ve tried, over almost 50 years, to focus on those problems of urban policy that involve the difficult issues of social justice, such as rent control, homelessness, global competitiveness, gentrification and displacement, mortgage foreclosures, racial discrimination, social movements, feminist critiques, planning education, on most of which I’ve been active and published extensively. The work on Critical Planning is, in a sense, my attempt to put it all together.

Gender is an issue that has gradually been gaining importance in urban planning theory, public policy and urban development projects. Today, equal gender relations are widely considered as an intrinsic component of social justice and the right to the city, as evidenced by research, practical and policy activities at various scales. How are you planning to integrate gender in your theory of critical planning?

Gender relates to urban planning in two related but separate ways. One is in obvious (if thought about) real discrimination, the burdens imposed unfairly and to the benefit overwhelmingly of men, with limited access to professional positions (one early dissertation I supervised at Columbia (Jacqueline Leavitt, 1976) dealt with then astonishingly small number of women in planning). Housing is geared to maintaining women as housewives; transportation and suburban development generally limits women’s access to jobs, education, recreation; credit is more difficult for women to obtain than men, etc.

Gender issues also relate to planning through their contribution to the symbolic linking of ascribed characteristics (in this case gender) with relations of power, domination, inclusion and exclusion. Resistance to gender discrimination thus is parallel to resistance to other forms of discrimination, based on race, ethnicity, sexual preference, disability and immigration status.

Both aspects need to be combated wherever they appear.

What sort of process are you using in attempting to make critical urban theory useful to the US Right to the City (RTTC) Alliance? How and why did this collaboration begin?

It began by working with groups that belonged to the Alliance, and knowing personally some of the academics that were already involved. We had an informal academic group of left urbanists going for a while in New York City devoted to reading and discussing Lefebvre, and some members of the Alliance were also attracted to that. But we’ve also worked together in various settings, from fund raising to educational programs to panels together at various conferences, such the Left Forum. David Harvey’s Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the City University of New York has provided a meeting place and home for a number of joint programs. The Brecht Forum, in New York, a place where left political groups find common ground to explore ideas and strategies, has also been a site for common discussions. There is as yet no formal educational process underway in which theory and practice is explicitly discussed, although the right to the city concept comes up as a framework in much of the training material the Alliance uses.

In your 2009 article in the journal CITY, you define the right to the city as “an exigent demand by those deprived of basic material and existing legal rights, and an aspiration for the future by those discontented with life as they see it around them, perceived as limiting their own potentials for growth and creativity.” In terms of ‘whose rights’, the RTTC Alliance Charter homogenises class and racial difference into a single category, that of "working class communities of color." Do you see this category as self-imposed by urban communities with stakes? What challenges do you see with this sort of categorisation in terms of conflict among different urban communities?

With “whose rights” the Right to the City is concerned is a matter that is still being explored. In general terms, I’ve used the formulation of the exploited and the dominated, or the materially deprived and the socially oppressed. The Right to the City Alliance has spoken of low-income communities of color, clearly fitting into both categories, highlighted because in political and organizing terms it defines a clearly recognized and conscious community of interest. Elsewhere in its programmatic formulations it speaks of “”the most vulnerable,” elsewhere of “public housing residents, the homeless, youths, LGBT people and communities of color.”

Legal and civil rights are determined and practiced within the scope of the sovereign nation state. As the Right to the City alternative offers another scale for this bundle of rights (i.e. the city) what do you think this means for the role of the sovereign national state in justice related matters?

I read “city” not as a definition of a scale but rather as shorthand for an urban society, the governance of which is clearly still largely developed at the scale of the state. The Alliance is organized both at the city and the national scale, although its strength is overwhelmingly at the city level. It recognizes the importance of the national, but has still a way to go before it becomes a force at that scale. It is also aware of the importance of global forces, but its organization to deal at the level is still locally based. And much can and needs to be done there.

As the right to the city enters into popular discourse, we have seen many instances of it being ‘watered down’. How effectively do you think the US RTTC Alliance is balancing the tricky bridge between theory and practice, that is challenging / creating an alternative to the capitalist system and working in/with/outside it towards change? What do you think are the most effective strategies to implement a radical right to the city approach in practice?

At the societal level, at which it is necessary (if not indeed at the global level -- a real alternative in only one country is not a very promising program), creating an alternative to the capitalist system is not on the immediate horizon. I would not worry about the watering down as a threat. It is certainly happening (see Marcuse, Peter, “Rights in Cities and the Right to the City?” in Ana Sugranyes and Charlotte Mathivet (editors), 2010, Cities for All:  Proposals and Experiences towards the Right to the City, Habitat International Coalition, Santiago, Chile, pp. 87-98) but it is being done, I believe, largely in good faith, and by people we should work with, although we need to keep pushing the shortcomings of the watered-down version. But it helps put the phrase on the agenda. After that, there's no magic formula to implement it; I would rather speak of pushing for programs that move in that direction. One possibility might be an organized sectoral approach: pushing for implementing the concept in, say housing production, distribution, and occupancy, or in health care, or in education, and using those examples to show what can and ought to be done. I think that approach has more potential than trying to implement it in one geographical enclave at a time, to in essence let a thousand flowers bloom.

How can a municipal planner use the RTTC Alliance Charter and critical urban theory in her/his daily work?

I’ve suggested the slogan: “Expose, Propose, Politicize” as an appropriate guide in day-to-day practice. [1]  Exposing means showing the roots of a given problem, for mortgage foreclosures or lack of affordable housing, key issues today in the U.S., it means addressing the provision of housing for profit and not for use, rather than the greed of bankers or dishonesty of developers. Critical theory is the best underpinning for such analyses. And it should illuminate proposing and politicizing, too. Proposing means developing concrete plans for doing what can be accomplished immediately, although with a view to the roots, so that planning is not only criticizing but also proposing, for instance community land trusts, mutual housing associations, ways of getting housing out of the private market that can be accomplished today. Politicizing means understanding that such proposals require political action, political organization, to be implemented; planning involves proposals for action as well as for policy.

[1] For more information please see Marcuse, Peter. 2010. “Changing Times, Changing Planning: Critical Planning Today.” Progressive Planning, Winter, No. 182, pp. 13-16, and in “An Interview with Peter Marcuse.” Critical Planning, University of California at Los Angeles, vol. 15, summer 2008, pp. 179-191.

Credits: Photo of Peter Marcuse from Columbia University webpage. Image of the Right to the City logo from Miami Indymedia website. SF Families Stand our Ground photograph from the Displacing the Dream report by the Youth Media Council.


  1. excellent interview. thank you very much for posting this.

  2. Very good.
    Planner-Network Montreal invited Marcuse to speak at Concordia University. Here is the video of the event:

  3. Thanks for both your comments, glad you enjoyed the interview. Yukat great that you shared this link to Marcuse's talk at Concordia, fantastic. I thought people also might be interested in checking out some audio recordings from Marcuse and others at an excellent Right to the City conference held at the Centre for Metropolitan Studies, Technical University of Berlin in November 2008.

  4. Thanks Melissa,
    Please forward as far as possible.
    Also, thanks for the link!