Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Right to the City

by Tarryn de Kock, 2012

The city exists as a space and place of multiple meanings that are performed by those concerned with it on a daily basis. It is a place of work and play, home and holiday, prayer and education, relaxation and activity, and as such forms part of the way people perceive themselves and who they aspire to be. David Harvey adapts the idea of the right to the city from Henri Lefebvre, and asserts that it should be both a working slogan for urban change, as well as the political ideal backing it (Harvey 2008:40). However, how do these ideas translate into action for people living on the margins? The right to the city is not a simplistic concept, as will be elaborated on in this response, and the action taken to address it thus cannot be simplistic either. The city is a constantly changing space, and its meanings are contested on a daily basis because of that change and complexity (Adebayo 2010:2). Harvey’s ideas on the right to the city have sustainable merit, but arguably he fails to qualify how the democratisation of urban resources will in any manner relate to a change in the real value of urban life for marginalised people, and people outside urban spaces too. In this response, issues of group identity, the criminalisation of the urban poor and the way the city is conceptualised according to rights will be explored against the backdrop of the right to the city.

Henri Lefebvre conceptualised the right to the city as a right to life in the urban space (Lefebvre 1996:158). This is more than the right to exist in the city, but to enjoy what it offers, to have an impact on its daily processes, and to benefit from and add benefit to its existence. Harvey adopts this idea, emphasising its need to come from a collective approach towards changing people by changing the city (Harvey 2008:23). He argues that the kind of life we want to lead – including things like religion, relationships, and lifestyle – is directly dependent on the kind of city we want to live in (Harvey 2008:23). No two cities are the same, and self-identification can be impacted on by the space in which people locate themselves.

But cities are contested spaces. In a South African context, cities are not the melting-pots they are painted to be in tourist brochures. They are places of struggle for legitimacy between people who have historically experienced exceptionally diverse ways of living – so diverse, in fact, that they could come from completely separate worlds (Fanon 1963:38). Historicisation of urban life is necessary to understand the depth of difference in people’s experiences. In the South African situation, the struggle for legitimacy in the contemporary city arises out of, among others, the lag between the expectations of life in the post-apartheid state and the reality that has become apparent, and the fact that much of the control of urban centres is not in the hands of the masses or those who purport to represent them (Adebayo 2010:2). Increasingly, those lacking the economic and social power to assert their expectations are criminalised for diverging from the narrative of democracy and urban privilege, as illustrated by the experiences of members of Abahlali baseMdonjolo, a prominent South African shack-dwellers’ movement (Selmeczi 2012:500). The right to housing seems to have escaped being inalienable and is now subject to issues of private property and zoning, effectively cutting off the poor from channels of economic prosperity. This creates a psychological condition including feelings of defeatism, hopelessness, resentment and anger towards those in power: depoliticised and removed from public concern, members of movements such as Abahlali come to find that attempts are made to silence them from above (Selmeczi 2012:500). In denying them a voice, those in power deny people legitimacy in their grievances. Their exclusion is a denial of that right to the city because they are not given the scope to be a part of the city’s configuration. Harvey asserts that it would be damaging to accept this situation as normal – that the centres of wealth survive because they exclude people just enough to keep them as a labour force while restricting them from engaging with the many resources theoretically at their disposal within the city (Harvey 2012:12).

Several things can be seen here. Firstly, the right to the city affects social organisation and the treatment of people in cities. Those without resources are not given legitimacy because their status as citizens seems to be synonymous with their status as consumers under the neoliberal gaze (Harvey 2008:26). Also, their lives and experiences are not afforded historical weight, and the absence of this historicisation denies them an entitlement to demand better because their positions as poor are established as natural (Selmeczi 2012:499). One finds from nature that what is natural is usually left alone, unless it can be harnessed as a resource to an end: these are two states which the urban masses experience in somewhat equal measure, where the fact of their poverty is so naturalised that little is done to really alleviate it, and the fact that they still – and only – have their bodies to offer as a resource does not go unnoticed.

Harvey’s ideas about group identity become problematic when used to understand the various social movements that crop up as a response to and demand for the right to the city. The urban poor may be markedly excluded from access to urban resources but they are still people with agency and can find ways to circumvent this lack of access (Bayat 1997:54). Abahlali’s experiences of government treatment stimulates its aim to break away from lumping people together, emphasising that while people share common grievances and situations, their experiences naturally differ, and the impact this has varies from person to person (Selmeczi 2012:508).

Bayat’s writing on Iran during and after the revolution tells the story of an urban poor that mobilised itself to provide what the government denied, creating an autonomous community that found alternative ways of sustaining itself. This included job creation where jobs were inaccessible or denied; creating infrastructure where it was refused by the state for fear of legitimating the unsanctioned occupation of urban land; and supplementing the community with libraries, clinics and mosques (Bayat 1997:54). This all took place quite subtly, encroaching on the urban space in a way that challenged the established idea of civil society and the kinds of behaviours associated with good citizens. As Bayat argues, the actions of the disempowered do not represent deviation or lawlessness, but can be viewed as a normal attempt to maintain survival in a space which makes it hard for them to do so (Bayat 1997:55). This represents an alternative form of civil society as well – an attempt to carve out a space in society for oneself in a civil, subtle manner, and the good citizen as someone who creatively engages with the resources at their disposal to become an active member of urban life.

Thus Harvey’s ideas also become problematic in the way in which his work creates a separation between the revolutionary and the passive urban poor. The urban poor are not a homogeneous group and should not be studied as such, and their avenues for exercising agency are not limited to full-blown revolution, as Bayat has illustrated. The idea of ‘everyday resistance’ (Bayat 1997:56) holds true with this as resistance is not rooted in party politics but rather in the necessity of achieving a humane standard of living. The fact that the marginalised people in cities are exhaustively treated as a common group requiring a common solution speaks to the failure of authorities to recognise the complexity of individual aspirations and livelihoods (Adebayo 2012:5). Adebayo writes with focus on the establishment of the Reconstruction and Development Program’s low-income housing initiative; she finds that the lack of integration of the urban poor into city life has to do with their being housed in locations separate from economic and social activity, with little regard for the individual needs people have – for example, that one person’s place of work might be deep in the city and the cost of the daily commute tightens the monthly budget (Adebayo 2012:5). Resistance to this often comes in the form of people renting out their RDP houses to others and moving closer to the city to live in informal settlements.

Harvey thus does not fairly justify why urban revolt is the only means to achieve the right to the city, especially as revolt, if crushed, could have devastating consequences for those involved and lead to regressive behaviour by authorities. In the case of Dubai, Mike Davis writes of the dehumanising conditions of barracks for migrant construction workers outside the grossly opulent city, and the harsh punishment they receive in trying to achieve better treatment in the workplace (Davis 2006:65-68). This includes arrest and deportation. Coupled with that, workers are effectively banned from accessing the pseudo-public, privatised spaces in the city like shopping centres and restaurants, are kept invisible from tourists, and would sooner be dismissed and replaced than afforded higher wages or better conditions (Davis 2005:67). Seen here, revolt has little impact if the disempowered lack popular support and bargaining power, and in the case of workers, can easily be replaced. They also lose popular support because media coverage of these events – if there is any – tends to once again homogenise the demands of the poor under blanket terms like service delivery protests, as is used in South Africa (Selmeczi 2012:505). What this homogenisation does is paint the urban poor as irrational and criminal in constantly demanding things, even though at closer inspection these things form part of the basic urban resources – adequate housing, electricity, sanitation, education. It is questionable that media coverage is usually directed at these protests and rarely at the experiences of everyday life in the township – reports on these may certainly clue other citizens in on the harsh nature of life on the periphery, and garner support, rather than division.

Urban revolt is too simplistic a concept because it assumes a certain level of group identity among the poor that may not always be true. In order to consolidate personal claims to the city, people are prepared to do what they have to as individuals, even if it means excluding others in similar situations as them (Bayat 1997:58).

Perhaps the problem lies in assessing the right to the city as exactly that – a right. Can one not reconceptualise the city in terms of the way people develop meaning and purpose? By conceptualising it in terms of rights, we may also be exercising limits; rights can easily be stripped as a means of social control, or denied to certain people under the guise of particular rationales, as history has taught us. Rights also come with ambiguous meanings; the housing provided by the state is often not the kind of housing needed or wanted by the beneficiaries (Harvey 2008:35). Perhaps the problem lies in the use of the term ‘city’, and Harvey’s interpretation of it narrows the scope of understanding. The attempted development of eMacambini on Kwa-Zulu-Natal’s North Coast was met with fierce resistance from the community which has called eMacambini home for centuries (Machen 2008). The people refused to be moved to a small township, refused to give up their cultural and ancestral homestead in its beautiful location, asserting that their wealth lay in their ownership of land (Machen 2008). This is the same kind of rationale used by the wealthy elite in urban spaces when refusing to relinquish their hold on valuable assets (Harvey 2007:36). However, used in this vein, the people of eMacambini were viewed as being resistant to development, even when development itself was not geared towards any significant improvement of their lives.

eMacambini is not in a major city, but this example serves to show that the right to self-determination may not solely rest on access to city life, to modernity in the capitalist sense or democracy in the representative way that it is found in most countries today. Even outside the urban centres the effects of capitalism and urbanisation can still be felt. Importantly, the community leaders challenged the fact that the South African ‘people’s government’ (Machen 2008), led by the African National Congress, would allow their land to be seized after they had successfully held it throughout the apartheid regime (Machen 2008). This echoes the sentiments of Abahlali members who problematize the fact that prior to liberation in 1994, the ANC would have fought with them to achieve better housing opportunities, yet as the government in power it actively criminalises their poverty and places of living (Selmeczi 2012:502). On the one hand one finds a rural community fighting to retain its way of life against the threat of development – on the other an urban population that has been excluded from development itself. How does one reconcile the right to the city to these differing accounts of life in the same province?

The right to the city is the right to its life-force – its resources, playgrounds, and social mythology. As contributors to the survival of the city, all citizens should have a right to engineer the way it serves its purpose, even and especially those who comprise the majority of the workforce. Movements such as Abahlali certainly have adopted the right to the city as a set of ideas useful in reclaiming their  members’ right to space based on historical marginalisation and their importance to the economy (Selmeczi 2012:511). Deeper than that, they have asserted the humanity of the marginalised in rejection of the dominant discourses which paint them as deviant, reclaimed the value of their experiences by defining them as knowledge, and actively exercised citizenship by denying voter support to a government that criminalises their very existence. In this sense, Harvey’s call for the right to the city to be a seminal – if not the seminal – way forward in constructing social organisation is apt in the sense that it is an attempt at reshaping urban life to suit the needs of the masses that are a part of it. By recreating the city people can recreate themselves, redefine their aspirations and shape a different world (Harvey 2012:4). However, one could argue that a sense of common humanity precludes the right to the city as Harvey interprets it, and as such the need to adopt the right to the city may even be unnecessary if that common humanity prevailed.

The right to the city as a political ideal is problematic in some senses because it seems to contend that the only contentious spaces are urban, when development threatens the livelihoods of many rural communities as well (Machen 2008). What good is the right to a city when that city’s construction includes displacement of its original inhabitants? Where do those people go? Harvey illustrates this with reference to places like Seoul, where people were forcibly removed from prime locations in the city to make way for development (Harvey 2008:34). He notes the Haussmann effect, named after the man who designed Paris as it is today: that the removal of people from one area by the elite simply reproduces the problem elsewhere, as they are forced to move without provision for an improvement in living standard (Harvey 2008:33). This constant circular state does nothing to alleviate the problem, and often makes it worse.

It can be argued, then, that the idea of the right to the city needs to be reconfigured: that it needs to become a rallying point for the achievement of a common humanity that surpasses place and space. Harvey asserts that adoption of this principle is a step towards unifying the struggle movements in cities across the world, and he is not incorrect in saying so; however, his emphasis on the economics of urban exclusion bypasses the socio-political causes thereof (Harvey 2008:39). The political and economic aspects weigh in on each other, and should be treated as such. Instead of calling for the democratisation of the right to the city as a means to constructing new experiments of urbanisation, the very essence of urban life and democracy needs to be evaluated if cities are ever to become spaces for people to live freely and humanely. What kind of democratisation does Harvey mean to be put into effect if democracy the way it is interpreted today has proven to be a smokescreen for a damaging neoliberal agenda (Souza 2010:317)? As a working slogan the right to the city has been seminal in the growth of movements such as Abahlali, and for that it carries significance; but the varying interpretations of Lefebvre’s original idea has led to a loss in the radical re-imagining of space which he argued for, which does not merely make concessions to stimulate inclusivity but actively aims to create an alternative, vastly different future that those accustomed to capitalism cannot imagine (Souza 2010:317). As such, the right to the city should be re-imagined as the right to a common humanity which transcends space, place, and economics; a drive for humanity which becomes that working slogan stimulating change, and a political ideal which allows people to create themselves by recreating and reimagining the spaces in which they find themselves – regardless of whether these are cities or not.


Adebayo, P. 2010. ‘Still No Room at the Inn: Post-Apartheid Housing Policy and the Challenge of Integrating the Poor in South African Cities’. Unpublished paper presented at the Housing Studies Association Conference: Housing in an Era of Change, 16 April 2010.
Bayat, A. 1997. ‘Un-Civil Society: The Politics of the ‘Informal People’’ in Third World Quarterly, 18(1):53-72.
Davis, M. 2006. ‘Fear and Money in Dubai’ in New Left Review, 41:47-68.
Harvey, D. 2008. ‘The Right to the City’ in New Left Review, 53:23-40.
Harvey, D. 2012. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. London: Verso.
Lefebvre, H. 1996. Writings on Cities. Translated from French and edited by E. Kofman and E. Lebas. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Selmeczi, A. 2012. ‘Abahlali's Vocal Politics of Proximity: Speaking, Suffering and Political Subjectivization’ in Journal of Asian and African Studies, 47:498-515.
Souza, ML. 2010. ‘Which right to which city? In defence of political-strategic clarity’ in Interface, 2(1):315-333.

Internet sites
Machen, P. 2008. ‘eMacambini: Holding onto Paradise’. First published in The Weekender, 13 December. Available from Abahlali baseMjondolo at [Date accessed: 18 October 2012].