HIC Publication on the Right to the City in preparation for the WUF V



 Group objective:

The publication is aimed at social organizations, stakeholders, professionals and academics from civil society who are working and struggling within or alongside social and popular movements and who will be following developments at the WUF V in Brazil or will be in Rio de Janeiro in March 2010, and who have had little opportunity to become informed about the right to the city. It is specifically aimed at organizations and stakeholders from Africa (Anglophone and Francophone), Asia and countries from the North. It is also aimed at progressive officials from all over the world, especially Latin America, due to the progress made so far in these areas and because of the possibilities which exist in Latin America to negotiate with local authorities. 

 General objective of the “right to the city” within HIC’s strategy:

To make the right to the city a political proposal for change and an alternative to the urban living conditions generated by neoliberal policies. These conditions are evident in the role played by the state which, by favouring property development companies, neglects Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR), allowing the practice of forced evictions, dismantling social interest policies and programs, privatizing public spaces and urban services, and supporting urban megaprojects rather than promoting the common good.

 General objective of the publication:

To carry the banner of the right to the city, developed in Latin America, to other parts of the world, by highlighting its struggles –successes, failures and reformulations—in order to apply the model elsewhere. To connect Latin America –where the greatest progress has been made in the right to the city on many levels, both in theory and in practice– to other regions of the world where it is also being developed; hence a publication in three languages (English, Spanish and French) so that people all over the world can share and benefit from others’ experiences of the right to the city.


The World Urban Forum (WUF V) will be held in Rio de Janeiro from 22 to 26 March. In Brazil, urban social movements for land and housing rights have, through a broad alliance between popular, professional and academic organizations, managed to place the right to the city on the national political agenda and make it the central theme at the WUF V. Based on the theme of the right to the city, proposed by the National Forum for Urban Reform (FNRU[1],), UN-Habitat has clarified the call, using the slogan “The right to the city – bridging the urban divide.” 


 Specific objectives of the publication:

The publication acts as an introduction to the concept of the right to the city from a practical point of view and attempts to explain the proposed political challenge. It seeks to provide facts regarding development of the right to the city and avoid the vague interpretations used to describe concepts of social cohesion and inclusion which are widely used in official circles.

It is a publication to demonstrate the political dimension of the collective right of each and every inhabitant of the city to live well.  


What is the right to the city?

The city is a political sphere which facilitates the expression of collective desires: it is a space for solidarity as well as conflict. The right to the city is an opportunity to call for the reconstruction of a city so that its inhabitants may live comfortably and feel part of it, and to create a place where tangible resources (income, health, education and housing) and symbolic resources (participation, access to information, etc.) are equally distributed.


One of the central themes of the right to the city is participation, the right to be a part of decisions related to the exercise of rights; in other words, full citizenship. According to Borja, “we find ourselves at an historic moment in which the basis of the redefinition of rights can be found both in the history of confusing but widespread social movements and in the intellectual development and inherent values of democratic culture; that is to say, a moment with the promise of overcoming an abstract and ethnocentric vision of human rights in order to promote their incorporation into both political institutions (international, state and local) and positive right.”[2]

The development of the concept of the right to the city in Latin America over the past 20 years may be understood through the formulation process for the “World Charter for the Right to the City.”[3] This is a document written with the collaboration of many people from popular, professional and academic organizations linked by various networks.[4] It seeks to bring about equitable usufruct of cities in accordance with the principles of sustainability and social justice. The charter does not imply the summation of all internationally recognized laws but “assumes the interdependence between population, resources, environment, economic relations and quality of life for past and future generations. It calls for deep structural changes in production and consumption standards and in methods of acquiring land and natural resources. It refers to the search for solutions to the negative effects of globalization, privatization, the shortage of natural resources, the increase in world poverty and environmental fragility, and their consequences for the survival of humanity and the planet.

 The World Charter for the Right to the City bases its proposal on three main principles:

   full exercise of citizenship. In practice, this means the exercise of all human rights and basic liberties to assure the collective well-being of the city’s inhabitants in conditions of equality and justice as well as respect for the production and social management of the surroundings.

  democratic management of the city, through direct and representative participation and control over city planning and governance, strengthening public administration and grassroots organizations at the local level.

   the social function of property and the city, which is the preeminence of the common and collective good above individual property rights. This involves the socially equitable and ecologically sustainable use of urban space and a balance between urban and rural areas.

 According to Borja, the development and legitimization of citizens’ rights depends on a triple process:

   cultural, that of hegemony of the values which form the basis of these rights and their expression.

  social, that of civic mobilization to achieve its legalization and the creation of mechanisms and procedures which make them effective.

   political-institutional, to form and consolidate them and to develop policies to make them effective.

Borja states that the main and emerging stakeholders in this process are not the traditional political power structures (state and political parties) but rather social groups, which are sometimes very heterogeneous.

 HIC has been involved in this triple process for the past 20 years, working alongside a wide range of social movements and groups. This publication, therefore, takes into account the diversity of these stakeholders in the development of the right to the city, through successes, failures and reformulations (in other words: achievements, errors and reorganization of forces); it aims to document political strategies which emanate from this diversity of stakeholders seeking to include this collective right in the decision-making process.

 The right to the city, an alternative for development another kind of city

By definition, cities normally undergo expansion processes; all are constantly changing. They are places with high population densities but also concentrations of political, economic and social power; “cities are centres of social and political life where not only wealth but also knowledge, techniques and works (works of art, public works and monuments) are concentrated”[5]. In this same space conflicts develop which culminate in political, economic and social crises, leading to a decline in the quality of life for most of the city’s inhabitants and therefore a reduction in well-being and happiness.

 According to Harvey, the city, a space in which power is concentrated, is the main character in the current crisis and has been so during many other crises in the past.[6] Harvey views this crisis as intrinsic to capitalism, which has already generated many similar crises. He therefore considers it necessary to seek alternatives to the capitalist model which has caused the crisis and hence the loss of communal well-being.

 There are indeed alternatives to neoliberalism (as an economic and political system but also as a representation of the world, a system of values, an ideology). One of these alternatives may be found in the right to the city, as stated by Harvey: “We live in an age in which the ideals of human rights have been placed centre-stage both politically and ethically. A great deal of energy has been spent on promoting its significance in the building of a better world, although most current concepts fail to fundamentally challenge the logic of liberal and neoliberal markets or the dominant methods of legality and state action.  We live, after all, in a world in which private property rights and profit crush all other notions of rights. Here I would like to explore another kind of human right, the right to the city.”[7]


This right to the city, beyond being a theoretical concept developed by academics and a legally necessary right, is a theme, a call for action and political strategies; it is a slogan which various social movements have already used in order to organize and advance their struggles and demands for well-being and the ability to live comfortably in the urban space. This theme has quite rightly been taken up as a battle flag for the same people who have suffered the most in these crises: people in debt who have lost their homes, displaced people, those living in temporary settlements and those living on the peripheries of large cities. Organized people who, in asserting the right to the city, report abuses, demand justice and develop alternative proposals, based on their own experiences of success, failure and reformulation throughout the world. 

In this context, the fact that UN Habitat has proposed “The right to the city-Bridging the urban divide” as the theme for the fifth World Urban Forum in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in 2010, makes this event an opportunity to raise the visibility of the right to the city and the movements supporting it and appeal to a wider international audience.  

Brazil is, in fact, the country where the right to the city has been most developed on various levels, with social movements and networks of organizations such as the National Forum of Urban Reform (NFUR) advocating its cause. The World Urban Forum, with its international audience, is a space to share and demand actions around the right to the city; a space for governments and companies, in which civil society can demand and find openings for negotiating implementation of the right to the city.  

To achieve this, a publication about right to the city experiences from around the world could be an interesting tool for the WUF in order to establish networks of social movements related to the right to the city. It would also be useful as a way to share actual experiences that deepen the understanding of alternatives to the set of values and the political, economic and social system created by neoliberalism.

The right to the city: progress in Latin America

a. The World Charter for the Right to the City. There are many concrete problems faced by urban inhabitants, mainly those who, because of their economic, migrant, vulnerable or minority situations, suffer the most insecurity and discrimination: difficulties in obtaining land and decent housing, forced evictions (large-scale and extremely violent), planned urban segregation, speculative pressure, privatization of public housing, all kinds of obstacles including criminalization of processes of housing self-production and grassroots urbanization and property mobbing aimed at low-income tenants, among others.

The initiative to create this Charter was primarily guided by the need to fight against all causes and manifestations of exclusion: economic, social, territorial, cultural, political and psychological. It emerged as a social response, a counterpoint to the city-property and as an expression of collective interest. It is a complex approach which involves linking the issue of human rights as a whole (civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights) with that of democracy in its various dimensions (representative, distributive and participative).

Thus, the Charter defines this right as “the equitable usufruct of cities within the principles of sustainability, democracy, equity, and social justice.” That is why our proposal is not limited to a charter of human rights in the city but rather is conceived of as an instrument for promoting and guaranteeing the rights of all inhabitants of a city, in their many dimensions and components.

Although we are aware of the viewpoints that deny the existence of collective human rights, we nevertheless affirm that this is a question of a new collective human right, similar to the right to a healthy environment.

b. The gathering of forces in Brazil: the NFUR

The National Forum for Urban Reform is a coalition of Brazilian organizations which fights for the construction of better cities for all. It is made up of popular movements, associations, civil society organizations and research institutions that share a common goal of urban reform. Its work focuses on mobilizing people and organizations to change the context of injustice in Brazil’s cities. The NFUR is founded on three principles: – the right to the city: All inhabitants of cities have the right to decent housing, sanitation, health and education, public transport and administration, work, leisure and information; -democratic management of cities: inhabitants must participate in the decision-making process; – the social function of the city and property: cities must serve the common interest of the majority. Since its creation in 1987, NFUR’s most significant achievement is the Statute of the City, a law which languished in Congress for 12 years and passed only as a result of public pressure and which “recognizes and views the right to the city as a fundamental human right.”[8]

c. The Charter for the right to the city-Mexico

In January 2008, a wide range of stakeholders, with support from the Federal District government, began a project to promote a Charter for the Right to the City in Mexico City.  The Charter aims to lay the foundations of a democratic culture, recognizing and guaranteeing respect for human rights (related to the city and housing) of the residents of Mexico’s capital, using as a model the World Charter for the right to the city.

In terms of the achievements of the right to the city in Latin America, it must be emphasized that this struggle is carried out by means of forming alliances between various organizations, social movements and governmental organisms in a dynamic process that includes both progress and setbacks.


The right to the city in the rest of the world

The first version of the World Charter for the Right to the City[9] was drawn up in 2003, and by means of decrees and guidelines it sought to define the right to the city and its various components and principles and develop this right on an international scale.

Although some theoretical progress on the right to the city has certainly been made with this Charter, it does not take into account progress made in the diverse struggles that have taken place globally in an effort to achieve the right to the city. While the right to the city has been widely developed in Latin American countries (Brazil, Mexico and Ecuador), other regions of the world have developed their own efforts to claim the right to the city in a myriad of ways, and there have been instances of both success and defeat in Africa, Europe and North America. Based on these specific experiences, which are a reality and reflection of this complex right to the city, we seek to develop this publication as a survey of the activities and strategies focused on the right to the city. Our aim is to promote a convergence of social movements that demand, all over the world, the need to conceive and other kinds of cities, to achieve “the right to transform the city into something radically different.”[10]                      


 Publication production

Paperback book format in three languages (English, French and Spanish), with many illustrations (photos and drawings) for each article and case study.


Prologue explaining the background of the publication

Article (Charlotte Mathivet and Ana Sugranyes , HIC-GS): The cultural, social and political dimensions of the right to the city (a more polished and extended version of the introduction in this document).

Article (Giuseppe Caruso): Social movements and the right to the city. An approach from the standpoint of the WUF and India.

Article (Enrique Ortiz): The process of developing the right to the city in Latin America and the world.

Article (Bola Fajemirokun): Building bridges: the right to the city in Anglophone Africa.

The Construction of the right to the city, or a compilation of case studies and experiences, in a section of pages of different colors, made up of existing documents (18 DPH fact sheets plus others already on the HIC website), or what we manage to put together quickly; in a free presentation style (long, short, more case-study based, more theoretical, from anywhere in the world, in a neighbourhood, a city, a country); the case studies arranged in three sections, corresponding to the processes mentioned by Borja:





Debate on the challenges of the right to the city, or a compilation of comments, quotes, critiques and praise arranged by topic, with graffiti-type illustrations for example.



. World Charter for the right to the city


 Development and deadlines:


1.       Agreement on structure and contents of the various parts; July 2009

2.       Approval by HIC Executive Committee

3.       Call for presentation of case studies; July 2009

4.       Fundraising for editing, translation, layout, printing and distribution of the book (depending on availability funding, the publication could be online with a simple introductory brochure rather than a book); July to October 2009

5.       Compilation of the articles and debate section; August and September 2009

6.       Translation and editing of the articles and debate section; October 2009

7.       Translation and editing of the case studies; November 2009

8.       Layout and correction of proofs; December 2009

9.       Printing, January 2010

10.     Distribution; February and March 2010


[1] The National Forum for Urban Reform (FNRU) is a Brazilian strategic alliance created in the 1990s to bring together popular, social, professional and academic organizations and movements for the development of the right to the city.


[2] Borja, Jordi. “Los derechos en la globalización y el derecho a la ciudad” (Rights in globalization and the right to the city), Revista Mientras Tanto, Barcelona, 2004.

[3] World Charter for the Right to the City, http://www.hicnet.org/document.php?pid=2422

[4] Habitat International Coalition-HIC, SELVIP-Secretaria Latino Americana de la Vivienda Popular, IRGLUS-International Research Group on Law and Urban Space, UN Urban Management Programme, COHRE-Center on Housing Rights and Evictions, UN Habitat-United Nations Human Settlements Programme, Rede Latinoamericana de Megacidades, Comisión Huairou, Red Mujer y Hábitat/Lac, Rede Mundial de Artistas em Aliança, Instituto de Investigación de la Vivienda and Hábitat de la Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, Argentina.

[5] Lefebvre, Henri, Le Droit à la ville, Ed.Economica, 3ième édit, Paris, 2009.

[6] Harvey, David, The Right to the City as an alternative to neoliberalism,  World Social Forum, Belem, 2009, http://www.hicnet.org/news.php?pid=2953


[8] Charter for the implementation of the Statute of the City, http://www.forumreformaurbana.org.br/_reforma/pagina.php?id=723.

[9] World Charter for the Right to the City, http://www.hicnet.org/document.php?pid=2663.

[10] Harvey, David,  The Right to the City as an alternative to neoliberalism,  World Social Forum, Belem, 2009  http://hic-net.org/articles.php?pid=3107.