The Right to the City

Please post here your reading response for the extract from David Harvey’s latest book, Rebel Cities, by the morning of Sep 13, that is 24 hours in advance of the class meeting time.

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17 thoughts on “The Right to the City

  1. Newsha Ghaeli:
    I found Harvey’s illustration that urbanization is a function of capitalism quite interesting. How capitalism rests on producing surplus product, and urbanization depends on this surplus. This concept shows that ‘the right to the city’ – through current examples in New York, Mexico City, etc. – belongs in most cases to a small political and economic elite, put in power through this capitalist society. I find this issue interesting as it begs the question, what is the role of the architect? Aside from being hired by those who can ‘afford’ to shape our cities to design for their particular needs and desires, when are architects truly able to exercise what they’re no doubt equipped to do? This discrepancy is highlighted when we look at our architectural education. We go through most of architecture school designing with no budgetary constraints and following no zoning regulations (which is a problem in itself). We learn to design buildings exemplifying philosophical and theoretical ideologies, told the social wellbeing of communities, for example, is of great importance. Upon entering the workforce, our priorities as architects shift. In order to win competitions and be selected by developers/government bodies for projects we must learn how to generate the highest possible financial rate of return on a given project. Minimum requirements become the maximum allowable – the goal quickly becomes to meet building regulations and zoning requirements and no more. Practices become successful by learning how to manipulate these regulations to provide less space, smaller windows, lower ceiling heights, etc. Building envelopes are pushed right out to the setback limits and design becomes a cladding exercise. This poses another question: how can designers in particular take back their right to the city?

  2. Harvey comprehensively presents the issue behind urbanization: the increase in employment and the ‘creative destruction’ of the space allows the sanitation and beautification of the city. However, it ultimately dispossesses indisposed social groups from any rights to the city and increases the polarization of wealth in urban spaces. The demand for a more democratic right to the city through the involvement of all citizen masses to decisions regarding the reinvestment of surplus certainly appears as a valuable solution. It remains quite utopian as elites wish to maintain authority and are reluctant at the idea of redistributing the power. Hence, dispossessed masses are invited to ‘rebel’ and reclaim their right to the city.

    ‘But we have yet to see a coherent oppositional movement to all of this in the twenty-first century. (…) But 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). One step, though by no means final, towards unification of these struggles is to focus sharply on those moments of creative destruction where the economy of wealth-accumulation piggy-backs violently on the economy of dispossession, and there proclaim on behalf of the dispossessed their right to the city-their right to change the world, to change life, and to reinvent the city more after their hearts’ desire.’ (Harvey)

    Such movements of protestation typically refer to ‘collective massings’ such as Occupy Wallstreet. I was wondering though if as an individual, through philanthropy, there could be a re-appropriation of the city. Ideally, architects, urban planners, developers, investors, as individuals could invest in the beautification of the city by giving means to the more dispossessed without being compelled to do, or not to do by a higher authority. Not all member of the elites groups are willing to commonly give tools to the lesser but some of them do. Instead of awaiting for a massive cohesive force of action, the less romantic efforts of a few offer possible solutions to urban issues.

  3. Tanya Southcott Week 2 Reading Response:
    In “The Right to the City” Harvey lays out his goal for the text as follows: to examine the collective right to the city in the context of a revival of interest in Lefebvre’s ideas and the emergence of social movements around the world that demand it. To this end he traces the relationship between parallel movements of capitalism and urbanization from Louis Bonaparte and the Second Empire Paris to the 2008 recession in the USA. He uses this history to demonstrate that the power to influence the process of urbanization has been monopolized by a small political and economic elite, while an increasing population not involved in capitalism are prohibited from exercising this most neglected right – the right to change and reinvent the city in their own image. Further, the violence inherent in this capitalist form of urbanization often not only destroys urban fabric, but fragments and displaces communities and marginalized populations, inhibiting their potential for any collective opposition. Inevitably, small social movements are emerging everywhere around the world. The challenge remains how to mobilize collective action on a scale large enough to overthrow the capitalist system, in order to afford more democratic access to this ability to shape one’s environment. If the spatial forms of our cities reflect an increasing polarization of wealth and power, how can space be created and used to instead to support a collective revolution.

  4. Camille Bédard

    In “Henri Lefebvre’s Vision,” David Harvey examines the dichotomy between the real and imagined city, developed by Henri Lefebvre in The Right to the City (1967). In the original essay, Lefebvre demands a radical shift in response to the crisis of everyday life in the city and the desire for a more meaningful urban experience. The publication of Lefebvre’s text not only coincides with the centennial celebrations of the publication of Marx’s Volume I of Capital, but more importantly precedes the political revolts of May 1968. Similarly to Lefebvre, Harvey critiques the nostalgic vision of the city. In my opinion, the pragmatic approach of Lefebvre and Harvey is right : this urban unity which people lament is something that has not quite happened yet.

    Harvey sheds light on the relationship between collective rights, capitalism and urbanization. Quoting urban sociologist Robert Park, Harvey argues that the freedom to change and reinvent ourselves and the city is a much neglected but one of the fundamental human rights. The right to the city, in such context, corresponds to a collective effort over the processes of urbanization. According to Harvey, capitalism is fed by urbanization, as exemplified by the Haussmanization of Paris after the crisis of 1848 and Robert Moses’s rebuilding of New York after World War II. These two cities, reborn on a much grander scale, now attract massive tourism and developers, which is profitable for private investors. Harvey suggests that the exertion of the right to the city could resolve numerous problems such as property speculation. If suburbanization was initially conceived as a healthy alternative to the city, it hollowed cities throughout the United States and resulted in the global crash of 2008. Harvey concludes his text by agreeing with Lefebvre : today’s revolution has to be urban.

  5. Nicki Reckziegel

    Rebel Cities aims to illustrate that Lefebvre’s general concept of “the right to the city” is still relevant in today’s society. Harvey intends to explain how capitalist society and the uneven distribution of wealth and power globally have mired the claiming of this right, both in the past and present. He questions the current lack of pressing convergence to reclaim the city.
    Harvey is successful in illuminating the fundamental connection of the global financial structure to urbanism. Through examples, he effectively demonstrates the unsuitableness of past attempts to “reorganize” cities in an effort to promote consumerism (to consume the surplus), thus creating overextended financial systems that inevitably crash.
    Harvey causes us to call into question today’s validity of Lefebvre’s theory of “right to the city”. He proves that, in fact, what Lefebvre wrote about the city in 1968, for example the dissolution of the barrier between urban and rural, has proven to be eerily premonitory.
    Harvey questions why – considering the notable uprisings following most great financial and urban crises – there have been so few social movements emerging in recent times to defend the collective right to the city. The widespread Occupy Movement has attempted to claim the city in small parts (though its primary goal is make the economic structure and power relations in society more fair), but is mostly composed of students or young employed people rather than the dispossessed. Occupy has not sustained the power to effect the same changes that other such movements have in the past.
    Finally, Harvey does not present a hard solution to the greater issue. He states that we must gain greater control of the use of surpluses while referring us back to the question of who it is that commands the inner connection between urbanization and surplus production and use. Is there a way in which urban design can aid rather than hinder this struggle?

  6. David Harvey’s chapter titled Right to the city expresses the realities produced by capitalism in terms of past, present and future city development. While economically speaking, modern capitalist societies function only if the premises of growth and surplus value (profit) are respected, this phenomenon puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the structure of cities that have to constantly adapt to the changing market conditions. One of the major topics tackled by Harvey is the process of urbanization and its resulting effects on the city’s physical and social fabric. When the economy is profitable, urbanization moves forward absorbing the surplus capital: slums are cleared to make way for the “public good”, revitalization, not to say gentrification, occurs to benefit the upper middle class. Cities are built, they grow, are remodeled, destroyed, restructured and for what? To follow an economy of constant growth and excess that is based fundamentally on the fact that in order to succeed it must grow and exceed. To keep the wheel of consumerism turning so that the rich can get richer and the poor can stay forever poor. Here, Harvey’s explanation of the capitalist society is strangely close to Debord’s interpretation of the spectacle:

    “The society based on modern industry in not accidently or superficially spectacular, it is fundamentally spectaclist. In the spectacle – the visual reflection of the ruling order – goals are nothing, development is everything. The spectacle aims at nothing other than itself.”

    The ultimate question raised by the author is finally revealed asking how can we prevent this vicious circle from happening over and over again. In other words, how can we prevent capitalism from widening the societal gap? A simplistic, perhaps naïve answer is provided opting for a greater democratic control over the production and use of the surplus in order to truly obtain people’s right to the city. Certainly optimistic, Harvey’s ideals seem hard to achieve. Nonetheless, the text raises prime questions about our modern day society and the role citizens, politicians and architects have to play in the world of tomorrow.

    – Alexandre Hamel –

  7. Noémie Despland-Lichtert

    Week 2: The Right to the City
    Harvey, David. “Henri Lefebvre’s Vision.“ P Chap. Preface in Rebel Cities: From the City to the Urban Revolution. Ix-xviii. London, New York: Verso, 2012.

    Le texte de Harvey retrace l’histoire de l’accès à l’espace urbain auprès par les différentes couches de la société en contexte de grands travaux urbains, de mouvement social, de révolution industrielle puis de mondialisation. Il propose une analyse critique, économique et sociale de l’urbanisation des sociétés. Il illustre que la ville est un espace privilégié où s’incarnent les tensions entre différentes classes sociales au travers de l’accès aux espaces publics. La forme de la ville est en ce sens le reflet de nos choix de société et, son accès est un droit collectif et non individuel. Le texte me semble réussir à illustrer ceci, au travers des différents exemples que l’auteur utilise.
    Ce texte me rappelle les projets récents qu’a subis le centre-ville de Montréal, particulièrement le quartier des spectacles et les intersections de la rue St-Laurent et Sainte-Catherine (autrefois le Red Light). Ces lieux étaient occupés entre autres par des populations marginales (jeunes, contre-cultures, prostitution, minorités sexuelles, etc.). Le désire d’assainissement derrière les grands travaux de la Place des Festivals, la construction de la vitrine culturelle ainsi qu’Art Actuel 2-22 et la fermeture de nombreux établissement ‘douteux’ dans le Red Light est visible. Le centre-ville de Montréal s’embourgeoise, se gentrifie; et les populations marginales ne sont plus les bienvenues, repoussées vers d’autres espaces moins prestigieux. Les sans-abris, travailleurs du sexe, minorité sexuelle et population pauvre sont marginalisés au sein de la société, mais aussi spatialement, car repoussés à l’extérieure du centre. Ce changement s’est fait au profit des touristes, et d’une classe moyenne aisée et cultivée (nombreuses activités culturelles payantes, restaurant de plus en plus cher, etc.).

  8. Brittany Marshall:

    The text identifies the way society has evolved, in such a way that with globalization and increased populations, a divide on a larger than ever scale has emerged between the classes. The author poses the problem that in such a case, when identifying who holds the right to the city, it goes to the minority of the political and economic elite, who he believes make decisions based on personal needs and interest, rather than that which may be beneficial to the masses. The author notes that the distribution of the “surplus” should be a more collective and democratic decision, and that urban growth in the hands of the wrong people results in cities that do not into account the needs of the people on social, environmental and political levels.

    I think the text was written in a very interesting way and it’s made its point about capitalism and a need for balance, however I’m curious to see the structuring of a collective initiative in terms of resolving the problem of who controls the right to the city. The resulting effect described of alienation and a lack of control over the development of the city for the general population, so the collective initiative makes sense in terms of including public needs. One element that could have been more highlighted was the dramatic evolution of society and technology over the past few decades, and the effect it’s had on consumerism and globalization, which makes our situation more unique, without direct precedent of past examples. With a form of a society with rankings generally always emerging, within the exaggerated scale of today’s world, it will be interesting to see how a collective urban strategy could take into account all these new factors.

  9. -Yousef Farasat

    In the chapter of the book the “Right to the City”, David Harvey argues that the processes of “creative destruction” and “forced displacement and dispossession” are at the core of the “urban process” under capitalism (p.16-18). To add to this point, I would argue that the process of gentrification that has taken place in the western hemisphere over the past few decades, has relied on even simpler mechanisms than that of destruction and forced displacement to break the long established urban structure of the older, central neighborhoods of the city. Negligent municipal policies with regards to commercial establishments, and the lack of, or the failure to enforce any effective rent control has completely altered the commercial and residential fabric of the these neighbourhoods.

    The case of the Plateau Mont-Royal in Montreal is a canonical example of this altered setting. Although the architectural landscape of the Plateau has not been significantly altered in the last twenty years, thanks in most part to historical conservation efforts, the socio-demographic make-up of the neighborhood has changed significantly. A predominantly working-class, mixed-use neighborhood until the 1990s, the Plateau experienced a 230% increase in property prices over the decade, due in most part to an uncontrolled hike in rent prices. The result was the displacements of many low-income families and small businesses that could no longer afford the rent or the hike in property and business taxes. Even more troublesome is the fact these custodians of the neighborhood streets were replaced by young, affluent and transient professionals and large corporate enterprises, who as Jane Jacobs remarks “do not have the remotest idea of how to take care of streets”. Interestingly according to police precincts 37 and 38 in charge of the area, the highly transient population of the Plateau, detrimental to the informal surveillance exercised by the residence (Jacobs’ notion of the “eye on the street”), is considered as one of the main factor affecting the higher than average crime rate in this area.

  10. Brian Muthaliff

    David Harvey does well to outline this current issue in our times; that of the limited choices citizens have in the wake of a capitalist society. I think his description of our current politic state as a hegemonic power to build cities according to its own desires and needs rather than to satisfy the needs of people is an accurate one. As well, the notion that the “precariat” groups that have emerged in the last century are too disorganized, fragmented and divided to achieve the strength of a voice in solidarity has truth, however I feel that while the suggestion to band together under the slogan “The Right to the City” is empowering, within a system of laws and regulations, he is suggesting that the people must step outside the power to be heard. This notion is troubling because if it is true, where does the role of the designer lie? Can one ever design a public space capable of hosting protest if in fact the voice of the people is only ever heard outside of those physical realms?

  11. David Harvey, in his essay “The Right to the City,” makes the claim that capitalism results in irresponsible urban expansion. Capitalism is depicted as a nefarious machine generating capital surplus, which must be absorbed through urbanization. Beginning as a western phenomenon, the situation is now worldwide, as Harvey traces a selective history of societal revolution. Harvey refers to an imminent rise of those people repressed, a cry that “rises up from the streets, out from the neighborhoods, as a cry for help and sustenance by oppressed people in desperate times.” These people would demand a right to the city – through democratic control over production and use of the surplus. However, Harvey’s rant against capitalism is plagued by generalities concerning “the whole neoliberal project over the last 30 years,” and he often resorts to petty arguments (when speaking about the “not bad rate” of Wall Street bonuses of 2008 awarded to those “messing up the world’s financial system). Rather than being a recounting of historical events this essay becomes a personal attack against capitalism.

    And what then is the solution? When even seemingly progressive policies create a market of dispossession that “seeks to suck value out of a moral economy based on mutual respect and reciprocity, to the advantage of capitalist institutions.” As much as nameless institutions can be blamed, the multiple historical examples provided demonstrate an abuse of power by the few at the expense of the many. The repetitive nature of history begs to question even human nature: that in order for a democratic “right to the city” to operate, it requires an interest in a common good. This is a difficult goal to achieve: even Harvey concedes that many slum dwellers would seize an opportunity to make a quick sale of their land, as their entire neighbourhoods are emptied. The instant gratification capitalism provides is an easy sell compared to a promised future that might never arrive. While Harvey accuses administrations, mayors and developers of not heeding public opinion, he offers no solution on how to reunite the thousands of individual, often conflicting voices. The selfish, greedy nature of human beings has consistently undercut plans for a better future. If the city is man’s attempt to remake the world after his heart’s desire, there is no implied concern the desires of his neighbour, only potential conflict.

  12. The more I process the arguments delivered by Harvey in this article, the more I understand the piece as a manifesto. It is to me, a manifesto not only for urban struggles against the clearly unresolved capitalist system, but also one trying to push professionals as well as all other city inhabitants to take positive action towards aiding in this struggle.
    Throughout the writing, the reader is forced to question the relevance of the notions brought to light by Henri Lefebvre in his own essay, The Right to the City. The reader can undoubtedly agree that the ideas expressed by Lefebvre in 1968 remain elemental in today’s society. I believe that the demand to “create an alternative urban life that is less alienated, more meaningful and playful” truly has a global resonance; that is to say, speaks to citizens around the world. As Harvey has demonstrated, the need to reassess cities as living organism rather than to reorganize them with a financial goal in mind is critical in this fight (the right to the city). I agree with Harvey and assert that the problem has become a global one and that the flawed responses and past/present attempts to boost and promote consumerism are at the basis of the problem. Furthermore, I agree that urbanisation, in its current context, is feeding the global consumer-based responses of capitalism.
    Therefore, in light of the growing global issues expressed throughout Harvey’s article, I believe that the fight for the right to the city must also stem from a global effort. Professionals and citizens from all different paths of life must realize their common ground and come together in attempts to regain, or in fact assert for the first time, their right to the city. However, as urbanisation has been a major factor in feeding the negative global responses from capitalists around the world, I believe that an even greater responsibility is then placed in professional of this field. They, first, must join in an effort to reconstruct the stage on which other citizens may fight for their rights.

  13. Zamila Karimi

    Harvey, in The Right to the City, challenges the current state of urban environments guided by Capitalism and Surplus Economies as inadequate for the needs of the general public rather than the upper middle class and elites.
    Urban Developed modern cities of the West are looked upon as successful models to replicate, by the emerging new republics for the advancement of nationalistic goals; without any sensitivity to the existing cultural and social milieu. Harvey, brings about the current state of urbanism and land rights issues as problematic. BRIC countries like India and China are growing rapidly but its growth is not proportionately dispersed amongst all segments. Urban Development and Infrastructure expansion projects are executed rapidly at the cost of marginalized communities i.e. displacement of squatters to claim prime real estate for capitalist gains. This phenomenon is evident all around the world from new emerging republics of Central Asia – Tajikistan, Uzbekistan to oil rich economies of the Middle East – Dubai, Qatar to the new super powers of BRIC nations – China, Russia, Brazil to our own neighborhoods and communities in the North America – US and Canada.
    In this globalized inter-dependent economies, the divide between the rich and poor are getting more and more acute resulting in disgruntled communities. CNBC’s Primetime series America’s Greed, examines the current financial crisis in the US, which often involves multi-layered players nationally and internationally. The issues that Harvey raises about Capitalism and surplus are corroborated in real estate moguls like Solomon Dwek, “……he preyed on his own people and was the mastermind behind a $400 million investment scheme and a $50 million bank fraud. Dwek’s empire grew, but his luck began to run out. The feds caught on and to avoid a prison sentence Dwek agreed to become an informant in the biggest case of corruption and greed in New Jersey history.” (http://www.cnbc.com/id/48302726)
    Social Responsibility Design courses, are offered in academic institutions like Cambridge, Harvard, Columbia, MIT that are questioning the role of architect/planner/designer. Conferences such as “What is Social Urbanism,” are held to debate the state of affairs in our field. Rem Koolhaas, star architect is one of the proponent of such a discourse, Emergent Urbanism.
    In conclusion, Harvey raises a lot of issues with the current state of city, where the marginalized have no rights, who are constantly being pushed and sidelined. To grasp and bring such issues to limelight requires innovative thinking and approaches. To sum up I would like to quote following excerpt from TED,
    Stanford economist Paul Romer believes in the power of ideas. He first studied how to speed up the discovery and implementation of new technologies. But to address the big problems we’ll face this century — insecurity, harm to the environment, global poverty — new technologies will not be enough. We must also speed up the discovery and implementation of new rules, of new ideas about how people interact. (http://emergenturbanism.com/tag/rem-koolhaas)

  14. Chloé Blain
    David Harvey – The Right to the City

    Harvey dissects the roots of today’s social movements. He claims that the shaping processes of a city are directly tied to the system of governance, that is in the end governed by our financial system. The conclusion that is drawn from this reasoning is that the process that shapes cites is flawed because of how tightly it is tied to capitalism, and that we will be stuck in some kind of vicious circle until we somewhat depart from it.

    My recent stay in Copenhagen confirms his assumptions. Denmark has a relatively socialist government, and comparing the way that cities are planned there and in North America only confirms his thesis. The pace to which master plans are elaborated there is very far from the pace that Harvey describes as leading to ‘anxieties and excitements’. In fact, their rapidity and productivity standards is usually highly frustrating for foreigners working in Danish corporations, because design and planning strategies stagnate and are discussed for decades before being applied.

  15. Noémie Despland-Lichtert

    Harvey’s text deals with access to urban space by the different layers of society in the context of major urban works, social movement, the industrial revolution and globalization. It offers a critical, social and economical analysis of societies’ urbanization. It shows that the city is a privileged space where the tensions between different social classes are embodied through access to public spaces. The author explains that the shape of the city is in this sense a reflection of our choices as a society. In this sense, access to it is a collective right rather than an individual one. The text was convincing to me in illustrating this through the various examples.
    This text reminds me a lot of recent projects in Montreal, especially the Quartier des Spectacles and the intersection of St-Laurent and Ste-Catherine streets (Red Light). These places used to be a places of gathering for marginal populations (youth, underground movement, counterculture, prostitution, sexual minorities, etc.).. Wishes of sanitation behind theses great works of the Place des Festivals and the Red-light district seem to me visible. In the Red Light district the Vitrine culturelle as well as the Art Current 2-22’s building and the closure of many ‘doubtful’ establishment. The downtown city of Montreal is gentrifying and marginal populations are no longer welcome, pushed to other less prestigious areas. The homeless, sex workers and minorities are marginalized both in society and specially in the sense that there are pushed outside of the center. In my opinion, these changes were made for the benefit of tourists, as well as middle class and educated people.

  16. Mylène Carrière:

    Harvey’s goal in his text is to put forward the problem of urbanization, which works in symbiosis with capitalism. It then brings us to the question of the right to the city and the right to shape ourselves.

    Capitalism brings the idea of class and favoritism. Wealthier people have power [political contact] in the urbanization of the city and can easily manifest their will of shaping a city that would provide them surplus. While people from the working class, without any political [financial] power, tend to be left alone and isolated even if they are the one who are suffering from the decision of the fortunate. The people with lower income then tends to gather and form social groups with the desire to manifest their “heart’s desire” of what their city should be. Their protest are mainly fleeting since the do not have the power [money] to do more.

    But, how can we give the right to the city to every human being in a capitalist society when a couple of billionaire on the earth absorb all the surplus and power of urbanization? Can we really flip how the economy works [capitalism through creative destructiveness; urbanization] with a dynamic and fleeting intervention of the working class? How can the right to the city shift from individual to social, collective? I think the notions of time and urbanization have to be revisited.

  17. The Right to the City

    Charles Wong

    In the book Rebel Cities, author David Harvey criticizes the capitalistic structure of our society. Looking back at history, we see instances of urbanization and revitalization implemented as a economical strategy to absorb the excessive amount of capitals surplus. The consequence of these massive scale urbanizations were utopian but led to the exploitation of private sectors. Paris and New York became heavily touristic for the benefit of private developers and investors. The capitalistic ideals are distorted and urbanization became a tool for the private sectors to control the “rights to the city”.

    We see increasing demand to release the “right to the cities” from the closed social elites circles to the general public. For example, the Occupy movement is a collective outcry of the public to voice their conditions and dissatisfaction with their society. While Harvey provides no physical anti capitalist resistance solution in this chapter, he urges that surplus production and its usage must be carefully controlled to prevent the increasing inequality between different social classes.

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