Right to the City

Please post your reading response for David Harvey, due Sep 19, 24 hours before class, here by replying. Thanks!


2 thoughts on “Right to the City

  1. Recent uprisings in Istanbul, Turkey and mass eviction operations in slums of Zimbabwe have raised questions and brought interesting reflections on who and why citizens claim the ” right to the city.” Four decades ago, French philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre conceptualized the initial discourse of the “right to the city”, a denunciation of the politics and processes of globalization and privatization of urban spaces. Coined during May 68 social movements, the concept of “the right to the city” emerged as a “cry and demand” for the rights of all urban citizens and dwellers” regardless of ethnicity, economic situation, gender etc…”. “Participation” and “appropriation”, the main concepts of H. Lefebvre urban politics would allow urban inhabitants “to access urban space and influence decisions that produce urban space” as well as“ the right to access, occupy, use space and create new space that meet people needs” (STICKELLS, 2011).

    In his book Rebel cities (2008), David Harvey aimed to explain how capitalism plays a crucial role in the development of urban spaces. Profits and private interests give shape to urbanization and cities as we saw with the Haussmannian revitalization of Paris and R. Moses rebuilding of New York City. Therefore, urban spaces are created by a “surplus of products that is invested in urban properties” (HARVEY, 2008). Specific historical moments throughout the world were marked by construction booms, mainly in housing and infrastructures that have participated to generate these surpluses. These big reforms have ousted out poor people outside of the city and we have seen neighborhoods transformed and occupied by luxury skyscrapers, shopping malls… Inspired by Lefebvre urban theory, David Harvey gives us a convincing view and a reformist interpretation of “the right to the city” that goes beyond Lefebvre concept of “accessing urban resources.” It would confer to marginalized and working -class citizens “the right to change and re-create the city with the highest values of equality and social justice” (HARVEY, 2008).

    In his book A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America (2013), Vishaan Chakrabarti proposes new solutions to US social, economic and environmental crisis where the key concept would lie on well-designed cities. He brings us a well-known concept, “urban densification” a model already implemented in worldwide cities that had positive results on urban spaces, housing shortage and urban sprawl. In this fashion, “accessing the city” for Harvey means to establish and consolidates strategies to reintroduce “marginalized” and “poor” people in the city and allow them to occupy or inhabit a physical space.

    Moreover, the concept of Transit-oriented development system (TOD), “a mixed-use residential and commercial area designed to maximize access to public transport” (CMHC, 2013) is now more and more introduces in North American cities (Montreal, Vancouver and San Francisco) and South American countries (Brazil, Guatemala). Seen as an answer to cities densification by introducing affordable solutions in housing and transports, this concept also aimed to redevelop abandoned areas left outside the global system. It also plays a critical role to fight suburbanization by contributing to environmental solutions as well as community and housing developments. These concepts challenge the way cities foresees their urbanization processes and by involving in the same battle, professionals as us architects and citizens, it will actively contribute in developing cities common weal that might ensure a brighter future. Harvey’s conclusion follows the same line of thoughts as Lefebvre did forty years ago with words that are still accurate in today’s society: “the revolution in our times should be urban-or nothing” (HARVEY, 2008).

  2. In his text, David Harvey is highly critical of urbanization as a product of capitalism. Therefore, he exposes two historical precedents, focusing on Second Empire Paris and post-war New York City. In both cases, he argues that the planner “understood that his mission was to help solve the surplus capital and unemployment problem by way of urbanization.” [1] Shedding light on Haussmann’s strategy for Paris in 1853 and Robert Moses’ urban plan for New York City in the 1940s and 50s, it is unmistakable that they were charged with stabilizing the western economy with their interventions. These examples of ‘creative destruction’ are an economic strategy aimed at renewing the city by absorbing the capital gain of our society. He goes on to explain how the ‘urban process’ under capitalism has pushed a small economic elite to control most of the wealth, which then empowers them to build and ultimately shape the city as they wish.

    “The actually existing right to the city, as it is now constituted, is far too narrowly confined, in most cases in the hands of a small political and economic elite who are in a position to shape the city more and more after their own particular hearts’ desire.” [1]

    For this reason, I prefer to define the right to the city as a right to shape it as we see fit. It is our collective right to take part in the decision-making: an urban revolution. However, a democratic ‘right to the city’ requires a common interest in creating a better world. While Harvey holds nameless developers and city planners accountable for the current state of our cities (essentially proclaiming their disregard of basic human rights) he acknowledges Lefebvre in saying that claiming the right to the city is a step in the right direction, but not an end in itself. His intentions become clear as he then urges us to overthrow the current capitalist system.

    The Occupy Movement has been a clear effort to reduce social inequalities. As predicted, “the idea of the right to the city […] primarily rises up from the streets, out from the neighbourhoods, as a cry for help and sustenance by oppressed people in desperate times.” [1] The surplus production of capitalism now controlled by the few must be guided towards creating a smaller gap between social classes. Therefore, in order to take control of the city, it is essential to oversee the correct use of capital gain. This surplus is not bad, as it has been made out to be. It remains an essential tool for urban growth. However, the control over the production and use of the surplus creates problems in unequal distribution of the wealth. The trouble with our current model is that it stresses economic growth above everything else, which then continues the tradition of urbanization aimed at spending the surplus capital. Is there a way clever urban design can alternatively prevent this cycle?

    1 Harvey, David, “Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution”, 1-25, Verso, 2012.

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