Who is the City For?

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This extract is taken from The Right to the City – an ebook collection of essays responding to Lefebvre's iconic text 50 years on from publication. Download for free here.

Some years ago, before I had heard of Henri Lefebvre’s 1968 book La Droit a la Ville, I was approached by Ben Tunstall, a London based activist, to help set up a ‘Right to the City’ campaign. He had successfully fought the demolition of Brixton’s indoor market that gained listed status and was aware of Lefebvre’s ideas and the dissemination of the Right to the City concept into NGO/UN-type circles. The plan was to bring together activists, journalists and academics in an umbrella group to tackle the range of issues related to gentrification. It was an ambitious project in the shadow of the Occupy movement—at one point standing candidates at elections was discussed and an engaging logo of little tents in the city was created.

At the first big meeting of activists and academics it quickly became clear we had stumbled into a minefield. Was the Right to the City a rights-based discourse? Was it too academic to mean anything to activists fighting battles on the ground? How would we organise ourselves? Who would fund us? As with many well-intentioned initiatives it soon fell apart, with no funding or paid employee to run it.

Even though I wasn’t then fully aware of the intellectual heritage of the term, it immediately appealed to me; as David Harvey wrote in 2008 in the wake of the financial crisis, it acts as ‘both working slogan and political ideal’. Harvey also referred to the relevance of the idea to the multiple, repeating global struggles with finance capital, pointing to cycles of dispossession from the nineteenth century to the present day; the slum clearance, demolition and displacement of communities in Haussman’s Paris in the 19th century, Robert Moses in 20th century New York and contemporary development in cities like Seoul, Delhi and Mumbai. The flood of global capital into London and the destruction of hundreds of housing estates to make way for luxury apartments in their place is the latest—and for us in London particularly extreme—evocation of that struggle with finance capital. As capital floods into property in London—and other British, North American and European cities—property values are losing all connection with local needs, breaking the link between supply and demand in the housing market. Because property is now the global investment of choice, prices are so skewed to the demands of foreign investors that this could be termed a ‘super prime’ crisis. The sub-prime crisis in the US, which triggered the 2008 financial crash, saw the frenzied trading of credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations in very high risk mortgages break the relationship with people on the ground who were in no position to afford those mortgages.

Today, what economists call the ‘exchange value’ of housing in London, and other cities, has entirely broken the connection with its ‘use value’; exchange value is the price of a commodity sold on the market while its use value is its usefulness to people. When it comes to housing, prices are failing to respond to the needs of most people, allowing the influx of global capital, often from highly dubious sources, to utterly distort the market and creating a crisis of affordability affecting all layers of society.

Lefebvre’s conception of the Right to the City was based around the everyday experience of people inhabiting the city, emphasising use value over exchange value. He believed that city space is contested and the struggle for social, political and economic rights is played out in urban space. Today, in almost every city in the world, the property rights of owners trump the use rights of inhabitants and exchange value, which views the spaces of the city primarily as places for investment, is dominant. In this context, the Right to the City becomes a struggle to increase the rights of the inhabitants the city against the property rights of owners and this is undoubtedly why so many politicians are wary of the term.

Currently, there are a plethora of Right to the City groups around the world, who have more far successfully pulled together what we were trying to do with our fledgling campaign. Among the best known is the Right to the City Alliance in the US, which focuses on gentrification, aiming to halt the displacement of people on lower incomes and marginalised communities. In Brazil, organisations in the favelas of large cities advocated for a Right to the City for slum dwellers and the Right to the City is now codified in a national law in Brazil and Ecuador. In recent years UN-HABITAT and UNESCO have led an effort to include the right to the city as part of a broader agenda for human rights.

In 2016, the concept was included for the first time in the UN’s New Urban Agenda, the UN’s new 20-year urbanisation strategy agreed in Quito, in Ecuador. This has enshrined the ‘Right to the City’ vision in the legislation, political declarations and charters of national and local governments. This was far from easy to achieve and followed very lengthy wrangling between national governments and civil society groups which came together under an advocacy platform called ‘Global Platform for the Right to the City’. Although the final wording was not considered perfect it was still seen as a significant victory for groups battling against gentrification, repossessions, the privatisation of public space and the criminalisation of homelessness.

It’s not the first time the concept has found favour with international forums with the World Social Forum producing a 2004 World Charter on the Right to the City, while ‘Right to the City’ was also the theme of the 2010 UN World Urban Forum in Rio de Janeiro. While it’s not yet taken on the ubiquity of terms such as sustainability— rendered meaningless through co-opting and overuse—academics fear that the frequency with which it’s being used is creating “conceptual bloating”.

Returning to Lefebvre’s original conception of contestation and emphasising the connection with use value over exchange value is one way of guarding against this. His intended definition was that the Right to the City be a contested term which takes on established property rights which means it will always tread a fine line between being ignored or thrown out by governments, gaining institutional legitimacy or finally being co-opted. Placing the term in the legislative frameworks of local and national governments is not going to solve the crises around the Right to the City agenda but it does at least add a legislative lever for civil society groups to work with at a time when they need all the help they can get.

When Lefebvre published La Droit a la Ville in 1967 most of the West was in the throes of transition from an industrial to post industrial economy and industrial production was still of paramount impor-tance. Today, in the post-industrial west the new economy of financial services industries has merged in unholy alliance with a property economy based on speculation and debt and the canvas for this real estate casino economy is urban space. In this context this is an idea whose time has come, with the Right to the City standing for democratic citizenship against the steamroller of private property in the city. As such it is arguably even more important than when Lefebvre coined it.

Anna Minton is a writer, journalist and Reader in Architecture at UEL. She has written two books, Ground Control in 2009 and Big Capital in 2017.

This essay is taken from The Right to the City: a FREE ebook response to Lefebvre's iconic text, debating what his ideas might mean in todays neoliberal urban world.

Download the ebook by clicking above or read more here.

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