polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

The Right to the City: Reflections on Theory and Practice

by Melissa García Lamarca

Recent Polis posts on slums in Zimbabwe and in Spain have stimulated some interesting reflections on deeper meanings of the Right to the City, this 40+ year-old concept that has in the past decade flooded into academic and social movement discourses. It has even been embraced by UN-Habitat and UNESCO in recent years, actions that raise some fundamental questions about de-politicising what is, in essence, a radical call to change existing social, political and economic systems – systems that existing institutions and international organisations such as the UN are profoundly rooted in.

But before entering this discussion, first, what exactly is the right to the city? This concept was coined by Henri Lefebvre, a radical French Marxist sociologist and philosopher, in 1968 and is about the rights of all urban dwellers, regardless of citizenship, ethnicity, ability, gender and so forth, to participate in shaping the city. It is about the rights of the excluded and marginalised to be part of the production of the city, for their needs and aspirations, rather than exclusively those of capital as occurs in most urban development, to be met in the process. The right to the city thus fundamentally challenges existing power relations and the deep roots of the capitalist system that drive urban development and the production of urban space, including social, political and economic relations.

When I think about how this radical conception of the right to the city is manifested in practice, the actions that come to mind are always rooted in struggle – my next blog post will explore just a fraction of such examples, from Montreal, Barcelona and Mumbai, with deeper reflections. Overall, these examples directly challenge top-down, externally driven development processes in the city, actively taking back and either preserving or creating spaces in the city that meet needs and aspirations of local residents, usually living in marginalised and impoverished areas of the city that are slated for redevelopment, who are not engaged in or even taken into account in the process.

At the same time as these grassroots, bottom-up claims are being staked, the concept of right to the city is being explored at an institutional level, by various municipalities around the world, enshrined in the European Charter for Human Rights in the City and most explicitly in Brasil’s 2001 City Statute. UN-Habitat and UNESCO have held conferences and organised forums to discuss and debate the concept of the right to the city in practice. It has also been engaged by non-governmental and non-profit organisations and alliances through civil society spaces such as the World Urban Forum and the World Social Forum. At the latter, in 2004, the World Charter for the Right to the City was developed by a set of international, national and local civil society organisations.

While these charters and tools express many of Lefebvre’s ideals on the right to the city – such as expanded notions of substantive citizenship and promoting the use value of urban space over its exchange value, for example – all fall short on explicitly addressing the structural change implicit in the concept i.e. how the right to the city fundamentally uproots existing capitalist social relations and what this means for cities today. The one legislated ‘tool-box’ for local urban policy capturing the right to the city, Brasil’s 2001 City Statute, may mean that urban dwellers are engaged in the production of space; however it remains both a state-driven and controlled process, not addressing fundamental structural changes the right to the city proposes in theory.

Such attempts to institutionalise the right to the city raise deep questions around the oxymoronic nature of this action. In other words: can a concept based in fundamentally changing current social, political and economic relations in the city actually become part of existing institutions such as municipalities and UN agencies? This feeds into a larger debate on the relationship between structure and agency, or individuals' ability to change existing frameworks; what is clear, however, is that the need for continued struggle and demands by all urban dwellers within invited spaces of power (such as public forums related to urban development, planning, budgeting and so forth) and the need to continuously use created and/or claimed spaces to challenge and transform power relations, to push for these deeper rights to the city. Above all we need to stay critical of this concept and never stop questioning, as Peter Marcuse notes, whose right, what right and to what city?

Credits: Image of Henri Lefebvre from The New Humanist. Montage of Montreal, Barcelona and Mumbai from No One is Illegal, Salvem Can Ricart and Kelvin Naidoo respectively. Image of the Bulletin on Housing Rights and the Right to the City in Latin America from COHRE via Habitat International Coalition website. Photo of la calle es de todos by Melissa García Lamarca.