THIS OCTOBER, IN QUITO, the most important group of thinkers in urbanism, sustainability, poverty activism and local politics will be coming together in a conference called Habitat III. That you have probably not heard of it is a big problem. It is a vitally important event.

Photo: cristian_ibarra_santillan

 

In the previous months the organisers have been putting together agendas and briefing documents that they hope to ratify during the proceedings. What has become clear is that there have been a conjuncture of policies concerning ‘the right to the city’. In the draft New Urban Agenda from 28 July 2016, there is a clear statement — in the opening sentence of the section ‘Our Shared Vision’:

We anchor our vision in the concept of cities for all, referring to the equal use and enjoyment of cities, towns, and villages, seeking to promote inclusivity and ensure that all inhabitants, of present and future generations, without discrimination of any kind, are about to inhabit and produce, just safe, healthy, accessible resilient and sustainable cities.

 

This is a complex and knotty statement. On the surface, it offers something that we can all agree on. But what exactly is it saying. Is the city a ‘human right’ in the same way that we all have a right to housing, or the freedom of speech? Is it about inclusivity — expanding the opportunity to be urban? Or just access: being able to get to the city by some means or other? Is it a numbers game: all, or nearly all?

In the last few weeks, it has become clearer that ‘the city for all’ means ‘the right to the city’. And this itself offers up a panoply of difficult questions that I fear the conference will not be able to answer. Here are just a few opening thoughts on the terrain that this issue offers up.

What is the origins of this idea? One of the most unexpected taxi drivers in history was the French Marxist philosopher, famed resistance fighter and radical writer on the city, Henri Lefebvre. In his essays, Existentialism, he looked back on the influence that his job had on formulating his ideas. Having come to an impasse in his life, he had stopped working, given up on his latest manuscript, and broken from his philosophical comrades.

David Harvey, one of the leading explicators of Lefebvre’s work, concludes that this period behind the wheel ‘deeply affected his thinking about the nature of space and urban life’. Some years later, in 1967, Lefebvre published his essay ‘La Droit de la Ville’, which proposed that while the city was the place where inequality, injustice and exploitation were most apparent, it was also the site of its transformation.

The city causes the crisis — the home of neo-liberalism, the banking community, hideous inequality — but also offers the best possible location for its salvation. Only the city could cure the city of its own ills, but this future could only come from the bottom up.

For Lefebvre, the ‘right of the city’ is ‘like a cry, and a demand’. In particular, the citizen has a right to participate in as well as to appropriate the city: that is to say, the people should be at the heart of any decision-making process about the creation and management of the city; as well as having the common right to use and occupy the spaces of the city without restriction.

The emphasis on the physical spaces of the city being the theatre for the everyday life, Lefebvre argues, changes our sense of belonging. Being part of the city is not determined by ownership or wealth but by participation, and in consequence our actions change and renew the city.

Fruit sellers on the streets of Quito. Photo: jfrenaud

Yet Lefebvre’s philosophical observations do not offer a map; rather they are an appeal to study and re evaluate everyday life and examine how inequality shows its face in many different ways. Rather than policy he offered the hopes of the city liberated from its shackles.

The idea of ‘the right to the city’ has remained a potent hope. The advantages of ‘La Droite de la Ville’ being a philosophical essay rather than a political road map has meant that the concept has been refreshed and re-ned by subsequent thinkers and campaigners.

Some cities have already adopted the idea of ‘the right to the city’ as an expressive part of their constitution. For example, the 2001 statute of São Paulo states that each citizen is guaranteed ‘the right to sustainable cities, understood as the right to urban land, to housing, to environmental sanitation, to urban infrastructure, to public transit and public services, to work and to leisure, for present and future generations’ (although this does not seem to have changed the everyday life of the city which is one of the most inequal in the world). Similarly, Argentina’s third city, Rosario, has declared itself a ‘Human Rights City’. In 2004 this idea was enshrined at the World Urban Forum in Barcelona in a World Charter of the Rights of the City that hoped to anatomise in articles and clauses the poetry of Lefebvre’s philosophical position.

Will Habitat III be true to the spirit of Lefebrve? Elsewhere, the housing campaigner Peter Marcuse sets out the many different ways this could be interpreted? Here, in this vital essay written in the afterglow of Occupy Wall Street, Marcuse gives six different interpretation of what the right might be. It is a call for revolution, or a strategic road map? Whichever strategy the conference adopts will have a profound consequence on the next moves, and the future direction of the urban project.

What is the clear is that the Conference, which by its nature works on discussion, compromise and the search for quantifiable results: percentage changes, KPI, targets, will find it hard to work out how to measure ‘the right to the city’ without reducing it to a bland slogan. I hope that they find a way for the idea to inspire and liberate their thinking.


Leo Hollis is an author and historian. His latest book is CITIES ARE GOOD FOR YOU (Bloomsbury Press, 2013). He tweets at @leohollis.
This article first appeared on Medium on September 17th 2016, and it is republished here with permission from the author.