The Right to the City – an inspiration for a more participative shaping of the city?

by Jul 20, 2021News

Many local governments in the UK and globally have declared a climate emergency, and some are exploring ways for engaging citizens on just how these policies and measures should be implemented. In this blog, Deliana Renou takes us through a brief history of The Right to the City and how it is providing the basis for exciting innovations today in civic participation. As Jane Jacobs posed in her tome, Death and Life of Great American Cities, cities have the capabilities of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.

Cities are ‘man’s most consistent and on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself’1

The concept of ‘right to the city’ has been initially framed by Henri Lefebvre to capture this collective right to reinvent the city more after our hearts’ desire. Using Lefebvre’s conception of rights and citizenship, scholars have sought to reframe various urban struggles2. The beneficiaries of this right are usually marginalized groups of people: homeless people3, immigrants4, racial minorities, women, sexual minorities, political activists etc. These minority groups claim a voice in the shaping of the city to gain power in policy decision-making. Following this view, citizens are enabled to enjoy their right to the city through ‘bottom-up’ public policy processes and participatory democracy innovations. But this approach is controversial: for some, on the opposite, the right to the city lies in the right to stand against this democratic management. The city is a central place for such revolutionary actions, where disruptive social movements occupy the city as a sign of opposition to the “democratic majority”5. On this end, the right to the city would follow the civil disobedience rationale and would actually be the right to break the law6. Various discussions emanate from this concept, but in the next few paragraphs we will focus on the views of the right to the city’s initial theorists, according to whom citizen’s participation is key to enable marginalized groups to “shape the city”. 

The right to the city was largely popularized by the geographer and urban theorist David Harvey. Alongside with Lefebvre’s work, on much of which Harvey relies, Harvey’s writing demonstrates a structuralist vision of power and an assertive critique of the capitalist system. For Harvey, cities and urbanization have relied on the systemic capitalist exploitation of workers7. The underlying logic is that capitalism rests on the search for profit through the process of reinvestment of surplus8, and that cities have arisen from their inception through the “geographical and social concentration of a surplus product”9. Cities concentrate the surpluses extracted from workers, and only a few – capitalists- control the use of that surplus. In that sense, urbanization is, for Harvey, a class phenomenon of alienation of the working class. The right to the city can thus only be exercised by this dispossessed working class, as a claim of a shaping power over the use of the surplus value and thus the urbanization process10 11. According to this view, gentrification enables the dispossession of the marginalized communities of their home by forcing their displacement. It is, according to this view, the “mirror image of capital absorption through urban redevelopment”12. Harvey was by far not the first to criticize gentrification processes – back in the 19th century, Engels referred to Haussmann’s urban policies as “making breaches in the working-class quarters of our big towns, and particularly in areas which are centrally situated” is implemented to meet the demand “for big centrally situated business premises or traffic requirements”13

Nevertheless, if Harvey considers that citizens cannot fully enjoy their right to the city because of urban class inequalities, some methods are increasingly implemented in the urban sphere to enable people to shape the city. Harvey advocates for a democratization of the right to manage the surpluses and to “adopt the right to the city as both a working a slogan and a political idea” for social movements14. Citizens’ participation in decision making is perceived by many scholars as one of the foundations of the practical implementation of the right to the city. In that sense, the right to the city also defines a new urban citizenship, in which citizens claim the right “not to be marginalized in decision making”15. The idea according to which citizens should be more involved and empowered in the decision-making process within the cities is increasingly acknowledged. The bottom-up approach of policy making is gaining popularity and an increasing number of democratic innovations are developed. 

Living Lab methodology applied to urban change can be seen as one of many ways to enable people to enjoy their right to the city. Living Labs approach system change through the creation of a shared digital space where people’s ideas, experiences, knowledge and needs are the starting point of innovation. In this approach, the engagement of users – thus residents in the case of an urban Living Lab – is fundamental “in order to bring innovation processes in a desired direction, based on the humans’ needs and desires”16. By its process, Living Labs approach provides an arena for people to enjoy their right to shape the city. Embedded in this rationale, Resilience Brokers and Pivot Projects have established Exeter Living Lab – to create a cross-sector collaboration platform on green recovery in Exeter. Exeter Living Lab is, almost by definition, process driven and not linked to an outcome delivery. The mechanism itself of facilitating a collaboration between Exeter University professionals, specialists, researchers, students and other stakeholders is indeed proving a space for people to enjoy their right to the city. The right to the city, beyond being a topic of debate among scholars, is a core component of a new and progressive urban citizenship. 

1 Park, R., On Social Control and Collective Behavior, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1967

2Attoh, K.A., “What kind of right is the right to the city?”, Progress in Human Geography, 35(5), pp. 669-685, 2011

3Van Deusen, R., “Urban design and the production of public space in Syracuse”, Rights to the City, International Geographical Union, Home of Geography Publication Series Volume III, pp.87-103, 2005

4Dikec M., “(In)Justice and the ‘right to the city’: the case of French national urban policy”, Rights to the City, International Geographical Union, Home of Geography Publication Series Volume III, pp. 45-55 

5Dworkin, R., Taking Rights Seriously, Harvard University Press, 1977

6Attoh, K.A., “What kind of right is the right to the city?”, Progress in Human Geography, 35(5), p. 673, 2011

7Harvey, D., Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to Urban Revolution, New Left Books, 2012

8Marx, K., Le Capital, Folio Edition, 1867

9Harvey, D., Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to Urban Revolution, New Left Books, 2012

10Lefebvre, H., Le droit à la ville, Anthropos Editions, 1968 

11Harvey, D., Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to Urban Revolution, New Left Books, 2012

12Ibid p. 18

13Engels F., The Housing Question, New York: International Publishers, 1935 p.74

14Harvey, D., “The Right to the City”, The Left Review, NLR 53, Sept-Oct 2008 p. 40

15McCann, E., “Urban citizenship, public participation, and a critical geography and architecture”, Rights to the City, International Geographical Union, Home of Geography Publication Series Volume III, Rome, pp. 26

16Bergvall-Kareborn B., Holst M., Stahlbröst A., Concept Design with a Living Lab Approach, pp. 2, Proceedings of the 42nd Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, 2009 

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