Right to the city?

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It was Henry Lefebvre who, in 1968, first wrote about the concept in his book Le droit a la ville. He problematized the way in which cities, in his case Paris, were being re-engineered in the 60s and 70s. For Lefebvre, the Right to the City was both a cry and a demand for a transformed and renewed access to urban life for those who actually lived in the city. In the 60s, he already referred to the practice of people being pushed out of the city center and forced to live in peripheral ghettos, the “tragedy of the banlieusards” he called it. These excluded working class people had to reconquer the city as a collective and break their restricted access to the city center. His critique mainly pointed at the capitalist and market-led transformation of cities that was being concealed underneath a discourse of “development” and “progress”. What has changed in the contemporary world? Well… it’s disappointing.  

Lefebvre’s critique and line of thought never lost its relevance in the current struggles against the (still dominant) capitalist meaning and approach on urban space. The concept and slogan was revitalized in the 90s, mainly after the crisis of 2008 when many people were displaced and pushed out of the city, by social movements, academics and progressive policy makers through their attempts to reclaim the city as a co-created space rather than a dull commodified area that is sold to the highest bidder. It embraces an alternative, less alienated, vision and practice of what the city actually is, or should be.

As (property) capital seizes hold of the city, underneath it’s façade of prosperity there is something hidden in plain sight: dispossession, expulsion and alienation of common city dwellers (often the working poor) who have to make room for the sake of financial capital. This practice, through which capital reshapes the city to its liking, is something we have all encountered in our own daily lives. It has become almost impossible for lower and middle income families to live anywhere close to the city center in any major city in the world. The Right to the city is about reclaiming that possibility.

The Right to the City is not a single practice or idea. Just as the participants of this session will illustrate, it’s strength resides in its multiplicity and diversity. The joint focus under the banner of The Right to the City is communality and the need to exceed liberal institutions such as private property and the need for profit through introducing alternative notions of shared access. In opposition to guaranteeing individualistic notions over resources and opportunities, the mosaic of struggles, organizations and activists is rooted together in a validation of collective self-determination of everyday life in the city.

In essence we can summarize the essence of The Right to the City paradigm with the following question(s): Who dictates and controls the quality and organization of daily life and the access to urban resources; is it the developers and financiers or should it be the people? Why is “the city” conceptualized as speculative economic zone rather than a social space where people actually live? (AS)

Session 4 – Right to the City takes place on the 9th of November, 20.00 h – 22.00 h at ABVV (Fernandezzaal).

Photo by Evy Menschaert