The Right to the City

The Right to the City is irrevocably connected to the ideas described in this website. Most especially, to a contestation of the capitalist order of spatial production.

“ It was the French sociologist and philosopher Henri Lefebvre who in 1968 coined the phrase Le droit à la Ville , ‘the right to the city’ (Lefebvre, 1968, 1996). This right, to Lefebvre, has both a more abstract and a more real or concrete dimension. The abstract dimension is the right to be part of the city as an oeuvre , i.e. the right to belong to and the right to co-produce the urban spaces that are created by city dwellers, or, in other words: ‘the right not  to be alienated from the spaces of everyday life’ (Mitchell & Villanueva, 2010, p. 667). The real dimension is a concrete claim to integrated social, political and economic rights, the right to education, work, health, leisure and accommodation in an urban context that contributes to developing people and space rather than destroying or exploiting people and space _ the right to the city is ‘like a cry and a demand’ and ‘can only be formulated as a transformed and renewed right to urban life ’ (Lefebvre, 1996, p. 158, emphasis in original).”(Aalbers & Gibb, 2014)

Later, Harvey redefined the right to the city as the power to shape people’s living environment to their wishes and desires:

“To claim the right to the city in the sense I mean it here is to claim some kind of shaping power over the processes of urbanisation, over the ways in which our cities are made and re-made and to do so in a fundamental and radical way” (Harvey, 2008).

Harvey continues:

“From their very inception, cities have arisen through the geographical and social concentrations of a surplus product. Urbanization has always been, therefore, a class phenomena of some sort, since surpluses have been extracted from somewhere and from somebody (usually an oppressed peasantry) while the control over the disbursement of the surplus typically lies in a few hands. This general situation persists under capitalism, of course, but in this case there is an intimate connection with the perpetual search for surplus value (profit) that drives the capitalist dynamic. To produce surplus value, capitalists have to produce a surplus product. Since urbanization depends on the mobilization of a surplus product an inner connection emerges between the development of capitalism and urbanization” . 

(…) “We have, however, yet to see a coherent oppositional movement to all of this in the twenty-first century. There are, of course, multitudes of diverse social movements focusing on the urban question already in existence – from India and Brazil to China, Spain, Argentina and the United States – including a nascent right to the city movement. The problem is that they have yet to converge on the singular aim of gaining greater control over the uses of the surplus (let alone over the conditions of its production). At this point in history this has to be a global struggle predominantly with finance capital for that is the scale at which urbanization processes are now working. To be sure, the political task of organizing such a confrontation is difficult if not daunting. But the opportunities are multiple in part because, as this brief history of capitalist urbanization shows, again and again crises erupt either locally (as in land and property markets in Japan in 1989 or as in the Savings and Loan crisis in the United States of 1987-90) or globally (as in 1973 or now) around the urbanization process, and in part because the urban is now the point of massive collision – dare we call it class struggle? – between the accumulation by dispossession being visited upon the slums and the developmental drive that seeks to colonize more and more urban space for the affluent to take their urbane and cosmopolitan pleasures. 

One step towards unification of these struggles is to focus on the right to the city as both a working slogan and a political ideal, precisely because it focuses on who it is that commands the inner connection that has prevailed from time immemorial between urbanization and surplus production and use. The democratization of the right to the city and the construction of a broad social movement to enforce its will is imperative, if the dispossessed are to take back control of the city from which they have for so long been excluded and if new modes of controlling capital surpluses as they work through urbanization processes are to be instituted. Lefebvre was right to insist that the revolution has to be urban, in the broadest sense of that term, or nothing at all” (Harvey, 2008)