Rethinking the city from the people


Historically, cities were founded by communities and then transformed by experts on the one hand and the people themselves, immigrants and inhabitants. In many cities of the world, the majority of the housing has been produced by the people themselves without assistance from urban developers or architects. Cities are the creation of inhabitants, men and women. Nevertheless, they hove been distanced from the decision-making processes in all urban fields. The dominant economic model and the economic globalization process hove stripped society of its skills, deepened urban poverty, devastated the environment, and torn the social fibbers.

At the turn of the third millennium, populations are urbanizing to the point of encompassing as much as 70% of the total population in some countries. This phenomenon is accompanied by urban fragmentation, exclusion and segregation. While the middle and upper income groups concentrate in self-sufficient zones in terms of housing and services, the poorest sectors are concentrated in informal settlements, victims of inexistent housing policies and lacking adequate services and facilities.

In his closing address to the World Assembly, Superbarrio, Mexico City’s mythical urban hero, underlined the role of the inhabitants: “In the neighborhoods, villas, favelas, ghettos and other settlements, we build the city, day in and day out. We build it as we imagine it, respecting life, side-by-side and collectively with those of us who want our piece of the city, to make it better, from the ground up and between all of us. To care for it, dress it up, and enjoy it like we enjoy our children and our grandparents; a people who struggle are a free people, our struggle is for the free, tolerant, living city, ours, all of ours.”

In the Xalapa Declaration, the possibility to rethink the city from the people is proposed; “Cities have been built by their inhabitants themselves, but those inhabitants have been unable to enjoy the product of this effort. We reclaim the cities for those who live them. And we demand that the cities be rethought as democratic, safe, inclusive, equitable, educative, sustainable, healthy and productive cities.”

In Africa, the Dakar Declaration emphasizes the following points as a new way to “rethink the city from the people”:

  • Mutual recognition among local authorities and base organizations.
  • Organize local governments towards association.
  • Build collaboration among local governments and civil society.

In Berlin the participants in “Local Heroes 21” reiterated that governments have made no effort since the Habitat II Conference to install mechanisms to stimulate popular participation or to allow decision-making from the down-up, in accordance with citizen wishes. Strategies were established to return power to the communities as a form of struggle against exclusion.

In Belo Horizonte, Brazil, the organizations members of SELVIP proposed profound structural changes in public policies to achieve liveable cities and to redistribute wealth. The proposals revolve around popular participation at all levels with mechanisms for social management and control of public policy, through councils, democratic budgets, and fiscal and decision-making channels for the designation of the use of public resources that prioritize citizens and impede corruption.

Each region proposed it own strategies, different among themselves, but all pointing towards common objectives: social participation in decision-making. It appears that one voice emerged from the World Assembly, enough neo-liberalism, concentration of wealth, and exclusion of broad sectors of the population: land and the city for all!

II. Proposals and principles from the urban inhabitants organizations

1. Introduction

From 2 -6 October 2000, 300 participants from 35 countries came together in Mexico City to discuss action strategies towards the city we won”t and to formulate proposals directed towards local and national governments and international bodies (United Nations, World Bank, World Trade Organization, etc.). Each of the participants represented neighbourhood or social organizations and urban inhabitants.

Six general themes were addressed:

  • Building a collective ideal
  • Building the democratic city
  • Building the educative city
  • Building the inclusive city
  • The liveable, sustainable, productive and safe city
  • Organizational strengthening and international action strategies

Over the course of two days the participants met in 20 workshops. The proposals developed within each of the themes were collected and classified into four types’.



The values shared by the inhabitants for the building of a collective ideal are radically different from the market values and those implied by globalization.

While the inhabitants speak of inclusion, the market implies exclusion (of those who can’t pay). When the inhabitants speak of liberty and autonomy, globalization speaks of dependence (social and economic). When the inhabitants talk about social justice, dignity and mutual respect, the market speaks of injustice. When the inhabitants speak of building a united, solidary, and diverse world, globalization calls for one way of thinking (ex. I am thirsty: Coke).

The values shared by the inhabitants for the construction of the democratic city are opposed to the principles of an authoritative city. When the inhabitants refer to a democratic city, it is not only a city with a democratically elected government, but rather a city that embodies solidarity, trust, reciprocity, equity, the sense of community life, and the autonomy of the social organizations. The value of solidarity is found throughout all of the themes of the Assembly.

The inhabitants’ values for the construction of the educative city are opposed to those for a private and exclusive education, as is the trend today. Education can not be just a business. The inhabitants defend the respect for diversity, recognizing the principle of equality for all women and men, boys and girls, and respecting cultural identities. They defend public, lay, scientific and free education.

The inhabitants also defend the values of solidarity, equity and unity for the building of the inclusive city. The city of exclusion is precisely the city of the market and the transnationals that opposes these values.

For the livable, sustainable, productive and safe city, the inhabitants promote new human values and a distinct popular ethic from the dominant “liberal ethic”; an ethic of solidarity at all levels. We also must become aware that the safe city can not be based on discrimination of any kind.

The values and principles for organizational strengthening characterize the social organizations that should be plural, collective, autonomous, democratic, self-managed and non-dogmatic.


Throughout all of the themes, the inhabitants demonstrated a will to transform not only society but also thought. Building a collective ideal implies valuing capacities and mobilizing their potentials. The potentials of the inhabitants are in fact little appreciated by a consumer and market society that considers the inhabitants only as potential consumers. The collective ideal is not for a consumer mentality but rather to evaluate-decide-transform through peoples’ own cultural heritage.

The inhabitants’ proposals for the transformation of today_s city into a democratic city revolve around the building of a democratic state, the reconstruction of popular power, and the strengthening of the local spaces, in the municipalities. The inhabitants emphasize the real collaboration among inhabitants and local governments, in Latin America as well as in Africa.

The transformation of a city into an educative city implies the promotion and application of various projects’, self-managed projects in different fields (housing, small businesses, self-employment, etc.) and the development of alternative educational proposals, whose goal is not financial gain but the education of all. Collective projects should be promoted for the reconstruction of the social fibers which have been destroyed by the neoliberal policies. Schools being created in the popular neighborhoods appear to be the beginning of an alternative education.

In order to transform an exclusive city into an inclusive city, the means should be provided so that people, independent of their origin, have access to work, education, health services, and housing. The proposal is to build the city from the bottom up and from the family.

The transformation proposals for the livable, sustainable and productive city revolve around urban agriculture, health, social-productive projects and cooperatives. Inhabitants organizations have developed and promoted very specific alternative proposals for environmental protection for more than 20 years. In reference to the safe city, the inhabitants’ proposals revolve around the promotion of organizational processes that include risk prevention and disaster mitigation with the broad participation of social organizations, academics, and civil and non-governmental organizations.

The transformation proposals for organizational strengthening and international strategies presented by the inhabitants call for the occupation of public policy decision-making spaces. Few spaces now exist in which the inhabitants organizations con express themselves and influence policies. Where these spaces exist, they are not occupied by the social organizations and the private sector groups take advantage of them in order to assume a relevant role. Another proposal is to participate in the international spaces opened by the UN such as ECOSC and Habitat II. and if not possible due to local or international conditions, participation in an alternative way is considered.


In reference to the collective ideal, information and conscience-building on the rights of the inhabitants is proposed. The authorities rarely forget to apply the law, but peoples’ rights are omitted especially if the people are not aware of them.

The construction of the democratic city should not overlook the defence and broadening of the rights already won. The inhabitants must continuously demand that the government guarantee the fulfilment of the constitutional rights of all the people (in relation to education, health, housing, work, etc.).

An educative city implies the promotion of the right to information and participation in decision-making on public issues.

The inclusive city implies respect for the rights of the disabled, indigenous peoples, as well as the right to life of all men and women who live there but who for one reason or another are excluded from the city.

The inhabitants’ proposals for the livable city that relate to rights revolve around the collectivization and socialization of this right: for example, the right to health can be rescued through community experiences developed by the inhabitants. A new legality must be sought for the activities within the informal economy that consider popular interests. New legislation is always being created to defend the interests of the financial markets and businesses, and the same is required for the popular economy. In regards to the environment, the application of national and international legislations by governments must be enforced.

As an international action strategy, the inhabitants agree to promote proposals for the transformation of the legal international frameworks and norms from a popular perspective. For example, the promotion of international agreements and conventions against forced evictions, that were signed by some 144 countries in ECOSOC in Geneva, or the struggle for the application of the Habitat Agenda since Habitat H. The African Inhabitants Charter and the Belo Horizonte Declaration are steps in this direction.


From the perspective of the collective ideal, community organization is prioritized with the promotion of development projects that fix concrete goals for the achievement of a greater objective.

The building of democratic organizations contributes to the construction of the democratic city. But we also must contribute to organizing local governments that link with peoples’ organizations.

The organizational proposals for the educative city call for the undertaking of cultural, social and leisure activities and the rescue of neighbourhood traditions by the social organizations, in order to value and care for the local history and surroundings. Proposals must also be organized for youth, for popular health education, and for participative education in general as a popular alternative.

The organizational proposals for the livable city include the creation of networks, the decentralization of public services, participative plans for emergency management, the linking of experiences and organizational strengthening.

The organizational proposals for international action begin by recognizing all the forms of the world’s organizations and struggles and call for strengthening the international links with existing inhabitants_ organizations such as the Continental Front of Community Organizations (FCOC), the Latin American Secretariat for Popular Housing (SELVIP), the Cry of the Excluded, etc. They also call for the implementation of a process to establish a global alliance based on the organizations of the World Assembly of Inhabitants. It is also proposed to broaden the alliances with labour organizations, peasant farmers, indigenous, ecologist and womens organizations, democratic governments and local powers, etc.

Full texts of the World’s Assembly available at: