The ‘Right to the City’: from Paris 1968 to Rio 2010


In the last decade,
the right
to the city 
has evolved as a powerful rallying cry in the call
for social action and struggle against the exclusionary processes of
globalization, a banner which has unified a global struggle to roll back the
commodification and privatization of urban space, and sparked conflicts over
who has claim to the city and what kind of city it should be.

Since riots in
Paris 1968, which adopted the banner of the right to the city based on the work of French sociologist, Henri
Lefebvre, the ideal has inspired a powerful global social movement, fundamental
legislative reform in Latin America, and a myriad of local struggles.
Multilateral agencies and international coalitions are also now exploring the
potential of the right to the city to break the cycle of urban poverty.

Yet despite popular
acclaim, the content of a right to the city remains elusive and its implementation fraught with
challenges. Critical problems of interpretation remain—rights for whom, what
rights and how can they be implemented in apparent opposition to the powerful,
global economic paradigm? The problems of definition and realization are

This paper
contributes to the debate, focusing first on the genesis of the idea, emerging
themes in academia, and the increasing social exclusion of legitimate social
actors amongst the urban poor, before examining the contribution of global and
local social movements and initiatives to implement the right to the city in national and urban policy. Finally the paper
argues that in the dialectic between social movements, NGOs and the economic
state so far identified, the relationship between urban governments and social
actors is relatively unexplored domain.

Conceptualising the Right to the City

Henri Lefebvre was
perhaps the first to use the term ‘right to the city’. Doyen of the French
Left, Lefebvre’s credentials included his role as a leading philosopher and
activist in the French resistance during World War II. The discussion here
refers mainly to Lefebvre’s 1967 publication Le droit à la ville, and the 1976-78 volumes, De l’état,and then explores three core debates in the
literature—the link between capitalism and urbanization, concepts of
citizenship, and debates on the nature of public space.

Henri Lefebvre and the Paris Left

The outbreak of
violent protests in Paris in the early part of 1968 stemmed student uprisings
in the Sorbonne University and University of Paris at Nanterres (Le Monde
archive, 2010). Heavy police repression sparked national protest and by early
May 1968 unrest had spread to Paris’s Latin Quarter and other cities. On 13 May
1968 unions called a national strike in which an estimated 10 million workers
or almost two thirds of the country’s workforce took part. By the end of May,
President de Gaulle was forced to announce new elections and the strike was
called off.

Henri Lefebvre’s
1967 publication, Le droit à la ville, became something of a cause célèbre for the strikers, creating a radical new paradigm
that challenged the emerging social and political structures of the capitalism.
His analysis revolved round the contradiction between the destruction of the
city and ‘intensification of the urban’ (Mitchell, 2003). He argued that the
traditional city is the focus of social and political life, wealth, knowledge
and arts,an oeuvre in its own right, but the use value of cities as centres of cultural, political and
social life are being undermined by processes of industrialization and
commercialization, creating exchange value and the commodification of urban assets (Lefebvre,
1968: 67 and 101; Lefebvre, 2001; Kofman and Lebas, 1996: 19).

Two central rights
are conferred, the right to participation and to appropriation. Participation allows citizens (urban inhabitants)
to access all decisions that produce urban space (Mitchell, 2003).
Appropriation includes the right to access, occupy and use urban space, and to
create new space that meets people’s needs. Lefebvre argues that:

The right to the city manifests itself as a superior form of rights:
right to freedom, to individualization in socialization, to habit and to
inhabit. The right to the 
oeuvre,to participation and appropriation (clearly distinct from the right to property), are
implied in the right to the city 
1968 in Kofman and Lebas, 1996: 174).

The right to the city, according to Lefebvre, enfranchises all citizens to participate in the use and production
of all urban space; control over the production of urban space means control
over urban social and spatial relations, thus the social value of urban space
weighs equally with its monetary value. When economic systems value urban space
mainly for its exchange value, Lefebvre argues, the ‘city as oeuvre’ is
suppressed (Purcell, 2003).

The state, Lefebvre
theorized, had entered a new ‘state mode of production’, playing a central role
in the development and legal regulation of ‘capitalist spaces’—be it ports,
housing or infrastructure. Brenner (2001) argues that in recent years states
have acquired ‘unprecedented supremacy’ in urban development because of the
resources they command, resulting in massive deepening of geographical
inequalities as nations, regions and cities become ‘globally competitive
development areas’.

Inspiring though
Lefebvre’s ideas are, many unanswered questions remain. There is little
guidance on how the right to the city might be implemented, how the notion of citizenship
based on residency could be applied, or how notions of participation and
self-management could operate. There are also unanswered questions about the
nature of governance, in particular the role of local government which has a
crucial and decentralized role in mediating local power relations.

Capitalism – the Parasite

The academic
debates that followed Lefebvre’s work see the right to the city as challenging the nature of capitalism and
globalization—whereby economic production is run privately for profit under a
freemarket system which encourages cross border flows. For example, David
Harvey sees urbanization as a set of social relationships reflecting prevailing
ideologies of the relationship between society and basic modes of production
(Harvey, 1973: 303-307). He argues that capitalism always produces a surplus
product which has largely been invested in urban property. Thus, cities have
arisen through geographical and social concentrations of a capital surplus
(Harvey, 2003; 2008).

Consensus indicates
that capitalist-based economic growth facilitates poverty reduction, but the
relationship between growth and poverty varies wildly in different economic and
political contexts. The openness to trade inherent in globalization is linked to increased
market volatility, creating unpredictable outcomes for the urban poor and
threatening poverty reduction (Nissanke and Thorbecke, 2006; Harriss-White,
2003; Lyons and Brown 2010).

Marcuse (2009)
identifies specific periods of financial collapse linked to social upheaval
including: the civil rights movements of 1968; the collapse of Eastern Europe
and the Soviet Union in the 1990s, and the global economic crisis of 2008-2009,
although recent protest has been subdued with little questioning of the
fundamental system. Kaplinsky (2005: 208-249) agrees that persistent poverty
amongst the dispossessed breeds resentment and underpins religious and other
dissident, while an increasingly educated labour force questions the value of
free trade.

At its core, right to the city challenges the role of urban property as the basis
of capitalism, and lays claim to a completely different kind of city and
society, variously termed ‘democratic’ or ‘just’, implying a fundamental
rethink of freemarket capitalism and rights claimed through struggle (Marcuse,
2009, Mayer, 2009). The collective right of the right to the city may embrace individual rights—such as the right to
shelter, or right to work—but is not defined by these. This new right is
defined through continual struggle which allows a reframing of rights and redefinition
of citizenship.

Citizenship and Whose Right to the City?

A second core
debate is the nature of citizenship and who claims the right to the city.
Lefebvre’s idea is that citizenship pertains to all urban inhabitants, not
confined to national citizenship but held by all who inhabit the city, but
applying this notion poses considerable challenges.

Citizenship is
usually accorded to individuals in relation to a social and spatial entity—a
country or city. Citizenship confers on individuals certain rights and
obligations, including the right to have a voice in the exercise of state power
and obligation to pay taxes and submit to state control (Brownet al,
2010; Purcell, 2003). Parnell and Pietersee (2010) identify four tiers of
rights: individual rights of voting, freedom and health etc; collective rights
to basic services including shelter and water; city-scale entitlements such as
safety and social amenities, and freedom from human-induced threats such as
economic volatility or climate change. As yet only the first two tiers are
widely recognized within current human rights regimes.

Cities have now
become the salient sites for citizenship as governments confront the political
status of non-resident citizens, although urban citizenship does not necessarily
negate national citizenship (Dikeç and Gilbert, 2002). Such new citizenships
‘can only be achieved through sustained political struggle’ (Purcell, 2003).
The right
to the city
, Marcuse (2009) argues, is claimed
as both a cry from the oppressed (as a result of race, ethnicity, gender or
lifestyle) and a demand from the alienated (including young people, artists,
and idealists decrying the dominant economic system).

The concept of
residency as a basis for citizenship widens the definition of who has a right to the city. However, it entails major difficulties and omits
key constituencies of the urban poor, such as undocumented migrants and workers
in the informal economy for whom temporary status or insecurity make
enumeration difficult. It also ignores the numerous commuters that swell city
centre populations during the day, but live elsewhere. As Lefebvre argues, to
frame citizenship in formal and territorial terms fails to recognize the city
as a political community, and the social relations of power (Dikeç and Gilbert,
2002; Brown, 2009).

Claiming Rights to Public Space

‘Se Tomaron Las
John Friedman wrote after visiting the fiesta of
Santiago and Santa Ana in Tudela, Spain, where the whole population celebrates
– wearing white, waving red banners, and racing round the bandstand (1992). He
suggested that there are only two occasions when people claim the streets, to
protest against an oppressive state, or to celebrate (Friedman, 1992).

Present ideologies
of urban production are based on inalienable rights to property (usually private)
as productive space (Harvey, 2003). Thus public space (as the space for representation) takes on an
exceptional importance, both as the

space for debate
and claim of democratic rights, but also for those excluded from the
commodified private domain (Mitchell, 2003:34, Brown, 2006:18). Public space is
the focus of an inherent and ongoing struggle over rights, as people compete
over the shape of the city, access to the public realm, or rights to
citizenship (Mitchell 2003: 18). Public space thus played a key part in
democratic debate and representation (Low and Smith, 2007: 5; Banerjee, 2001).

Public space is
also the site in which exclusion is played out. Mitchell (2003: 230-232) cites
examples of homeless people in the USA who are moved on from sleeping in public
parks, arguing that criminalization for rough sleeping is a testimony to
unequal power, and that order should be contingent upon social equality.
Cultural mores restrict women’s use of public space (Massey, 1994; McDowell and
Sharp, 1997), and the development of gated communities results in increasing erosion
of the public domain (Webster and Lai, 2003: 5).

Struggles against Exclusion

Since mid-1980s,
the call for the right to the city has crystallised a series of demands as urban
residents struggle against the continued erosion of rights. These have coalesced
around the demands of two broad groups, the deprived seeking access to basic
rights for secure shelter, clean water or dependable livelihoods, and
anti-globalization and global justice movements challenging the dominant
economic system (Marcuse, 2009; Mayer, 2009). In recent years, global and local
social movements, alliances of city governments and multinational
organizations, have adopted the right to the city as a slogan to renegotiate the contract between
state and citizen.

Global Social Movements

At a global level,
one of the most influential social initiatives is the World Charter on the
Right to the City. The world charter sprang from dialogues in the 1990s amongst
human rights activists, environmentalists and others at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit
and the 1996 UNCHS forum in Istanbul, Habitat II. More recently, the charter
was adopted as a theme in the World Social Forum (WSF), the annual meeting of
social movements opposed to neoliberal globalization first held in Porto Alegre
in 2001 in celebration of the city’s experimental forms of local governance.

The world charter
seeks to establish the right to the city as a new human right, to be adopted by the UN and
national and local governments (Saule Junior, 2008). The central conception in
the charter is the definition of collective rights so that:

Article 1: Everyone has a right to the city without
discrimination of gender, age, race, ethnicity, political and religious
orientation and preserving cultural memory….
(WSF, 2004)

Citizens are
defined as ‘all people who live in the city, either permanently or in transit’
(WSF, 2004).

The world charter
encapsulates many of the ideas in Lefebvre’s vision, seeing the right to the city as a collective right, and calling for a
recognition of the social function of property. Two key aspects appear
controversial – the inclusive definition of ‘citizen’ regardless of formal
residency status, and establishing the social function of property, so the
charter has not yet been taken forward by the international agencies.

Local Social Movements

Many local social
movements have adopted the rights-based agenda in the struggle for urban
resources with four waves of urban mobilization since the 1960s (Mayer 2009).
In the 1970s, struggles coalesced around housing, rent strikes and protests
again urban renewal; the 1980s saw reactions to austerity policies and
neoliberalism; 1990s protests focussed on government programmes for ‘local
economic development’, and since 2000 a global struggle has emerged against
integration of financial and property markets, and intensifying social
polarization between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.

For example, in
Brazil the increasing politicization of wastepickers led to the creation of
National Waste and Citizenship Forum, as a means to strengthen participatory
approaches to the management of urban waste (Dias 2009). The forum publication
of a UNICEF study which estimated that 45,000 children worked as wastepickers
in Brazil, up to a third without schooling. The forum aimed to eradicate child
labour at open dumps, eliminate unmanaged dumps, and achieve recognition of the
rights of wastepickers as legitimate urban service providers.

Legislative Reform

Some suggest that
the right
to the city 
can only be addressed through fundamental legal
reform. Most interesting, perhaps is the extraordinary experiment unravelling
in Latin America, where a number of states are enshrining the right to the city in modern legislation, including the approval of Law
10.257/2001 in Brazil, the City Statute.

In Brazil, informal
urban development has become the norm as a result of a speculative land market,
clientalist politics, and an exclusionary legal regime (Fernandes, 2007). The
City Statue was conceived in the mid-1980s during Brazil’s transition from
military to democratic rule. As a result of lobbying from a grouping of civil
society organisations, and establishment of the National Urban Reform Forum,
the new federal constitution of 1988 included two sections on urban issues
(Articles 182 and 183). After many years of struggle by the forum, the articles
were eventually passed into law as the 2001 City Statute (Cities Alliance,

The City Statute
explicitly recognises the right to the city as a collective right, based on three core

concept of the social function of property

distribution of the costs and benefits of urbanization, and

management of the city (Rodrigues and Barbosa, 2010).

The law established
a new Ministry for Cities, and a national charter to implement the City Statute
was approved in 2002.

A change in the
political culture of local institutions is critical for realizing the right to the city if a pro-poor rights-based agenda is to be achieved
and by grassroots organisations who must move from opposition to a more
positive role, as Parnell and Pietersee (2010) argue through their study of
Cape Town. Mayer (2009), dismisses the actions of local administrations as
simply reinforcing the status quo, but this paper argues that the power balance
between economic production, civil society and governance mechanisms must be

The Multilateral Agenda

international initiatives within global coalitions of local governments and the
multilateral agencies have opened space for debate, many of them drawing on the
framework of the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent
international human rights instrument. Of note is the European
Charter for the Safeguarding of on Human Rights in the City 
agreed at 2nd European Conference on Cities for
Human Rights in May 2000 attended by local authorities (IDHC, 2010).

The European
charter addresses the city as a collective space, to ensure rights of all
residents to political, social and ecological development with a commitment to
solidarity; municipal authorities are charged with respect for the dignity and
quality of life for residents. The charter has no legal standing but forms a
political commitment by the 350 city governments who are signatories. Other
international and city charters also seek to strengthen rights and define
responsibilities, such at the Global Charter-Agenda for Human Rights in the City now being developed by United Cities and Local
Governments, the global association of local governments.

multinational programmes most directly addressing the right to the city, are the projects by UNESCO and UN-HABITAT. From
2005-2008, a joint project entitled Urban Policies and the Right to the City: Rights,
responsibilities and citizenship, 
sought to identify good practice in law and urban
planning that strengthen rights and responsibilities, for example promoting
inter-faith tolerance and the participation of women, and a role for young
people and migrants in urban management. From the debates, five common policy
agendas were identified: liberty and freedom in city life for urban residents;
transparency, equity and efficiency of city administrations; participation in
local democratic decision-making; recognition of diversity in
economic,social and cultural life, and reduction poverty, social
exclusion and urban violence (Brown and Kristiansen, 2008).


The banner of the right to the city has inspired an extraordinary global protest that
challenges the dominant economic order. This protest is played out by global
social activists, numerous local campaigns, progressive international
associations and governments seeking a fairer contract between state and
citizen. There are, however, countries, cities and contexts which the debate
cannot reach where freedom of speech is inadvisable or the context for social
action is limited.

There are many
critics of multilaterals in their approach to poverty reduction. The
presumption is that benign governments supported by good information can
address critical problems of urban poverty. The approach of often normative,
assuming a common understanding of concepts such as ‘good governance’ and
‘social exclusion’, but with little real critique of the political, economic
and cultural context of urban growth (Jenkins et al,2007: 184).

A more specific
critique of the right to the city agenda is made by Mayer (2009) who suggests that
while institutionalizing rights may go some way to address exclusion, this is
nothing more than a claim to inclusion in the system as it exists which fails
to address the underlying economic processes from which such inequalities
spring. Whilst charters and guidelines may have limited value, they downplay
the core struggle for power at the heart of the right to the city (Mayer, 2009).

Enshrining the right to the city in legislation appears to be a crucial, if
difficult, driver of change. The City Statute in Brazil was the product of a
particular confluence of events, the change to democratic rule and widespread
acceptance of a role for social activisim and coalitions of the urban poor.
Nevertheless, the right to the city has also been adopted elsewhere in Latin America,
in Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico (COHRE Bulletins 2008-2010). How these
initiatives unfold will be crucial in taking forward the fundamental reform
that the right
to the city 

Perhaps, most
crucially, the approach presents a key role for the local state in introducing
a rights-based agenda, including the third and fourth tier of rights identified
by Parnell and Pietersee (2010)—rights to city-scale entitlements and freedom
from human-induced threats such as economic volatility or climate change. The
local state, represented by the institutions of city government and other
state-related organizations, has a crucial role in mediating power relations
between citizen and global and local system of production.

The right
to the city 
is a powerful
banner with broad appeal under which to address injustices of the modern city.
The use of new media in attempts to coopt existing power bases provides scope
for incremental change, which cumulatively will strengthen rights for the urban
poor. However, this paper argues that it is only by readdressing the power
balance in the triangle between economic production, civil society and
governance that real progress can be gained.


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* Original