Toward a World Charter for the Right to the City, by Enrique Ortiz


The process that sparked this initiative began within the preparatory activities leading to the II United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, known as the “Earth Summit,” held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. The National Forum for Urban Reform (FNRU, for its initials in Portuguese), Habitat International Coalition (HIC), and the Continental Front of Communal Organizations (FCOC, for its initials in Spanish) joined forces to draft and sign the treaty on urbanization titled “For Just, Democratic and Sustainable Cities, Towns and Villages.”

As part of the preparatory process toward the Earth Summit, that same year HIC organized the International Forum on Environment, Poverty, and the Right to the City, held in Tunis. That event would mark the first time the theme was debated among members of our Coalition from diverse regions of the world.

A few years later, in October 1995, several HIC members participated in the event titled “Toward the City of Solidarity and Citizenship” convoked by UNESCO. That occasion inaugurated the participation of UNESCO in the theme of urban rights. That same year, Brazilian organizations promoted the Charter of Human Rights in the City, civilian precursor of the City Statute promulgated several years later by the Brazilian government.

Another important milestone in the path leading to the initiative to formulate a World Charter for the Right to the City was constituted by the First World Assembly of Urban Inhabitants, held in Mexico in the year 2000, with the participation of some 300 delegates from social organizations and movements from 35 countries. Within the theme of “rethinking the city from the people,” participants debated the conceptualization of a collective ideal that would provide the foundation for proposals oriented to construction of democratic, inclusive, educative, livable, sustainable, productive, and safe cities.

One year later, now in the framework of the First World Social Forum, the Charter formulation process was opened. Since then, and in conjunction with the annual World Social Forums and the regional Social Forums, work has been ongoing on specific contents and dissemination and promotion strategies of the Charter.
Within the Charter process driven by civil society networks and organizations, two events in particular included thorough review of the original text and the dissemination and negotiation process.

The first took place in Quito, Ecuador, in conjunction with the First Social Forum of the Americas. Representatives from diverse social movements joined the Charter promotion group to debate regarding the need for two instruments: one basic human rights tool, and a distinct political tool through which to broaden and activate social mobilization around this new right.

Participants in the second event, held in Barcelona in September 2005, critically addressed the structure, contents, reaches and contradictions posed by a Charter that leaves aside rural habitat issues, and employs terms originating from the Latin American and European contexts that fail to reflect priority concepts and issues for Asian, African, and Middle Eastern countries.

Parallel to these civil society initiatives, some governments, at the regional, national and local levels, have been generating legal instruments seeking to legislate human rights in the urban context. The most advanced of these include, at the international level, the European Charter to Safeguard Human Rights in the City, signed to date by more than 400 cities, and the already-mentioned City Statute of Brazil decreed in July 2001, and at the local scale, the Montreal Charter.

Foundations and motivations

The high potential of human development characteristic of life in cities — as spaces of encounter, exchange and complementation, of enormous economic, environmental and political diversity, as well as important concentration of production, service, distribution and educational activities — is today faced with multiple and complex processes which pose immense challenges and problems for social coexistence.
“ … the development models implemented in the majority of impoverished countries are characterized by the tendency to concentrate income and power, generating poverty and exclusion, contributing to environmental degradation, and accelerating migration and urbanization processes, social and spatial segregation, and privatization of common goods and public spaces. These processes favor proliferation of vast urban areas marked by poverty, precarious conditions, and vulnerability to natural disasters.
Today’s cities are far from offering equitable conditions and opportunities to their inhabitants. The majority of the urban population is deprived or limited – in virtue of their economic, social, cultural, ethnic, gender or age characteristics – in the satisfaction of their most elemental needs and rights. Public policies that contribute to this by ignoring the contributions of popular inhabiting processes to the construction of the city and citizenship, are only detrimental to urban life.”

The concrete problems faced by city inhabitants are multifold, especially in the case of those whose economic or migratory condition or vulnerability or minority status relegate them to bear the greatest burden of insecurity and discrimination: difficult access to land and dignified housing, massive and aggressive forced evictions, planned urban segregation, real estate speculation pressures, privatization of social housing, real estate violence (mobbing) against poor tenants, and even criminalization of the self-managed housing and popular urbanization production processes, among other assaults and obstacles of all types.

The initiative to formulate this Charter is oriented, first of all, to fight against all the causes and manifestations of exclusion: economic, social, territorial, cultural, political, and psychological. It is proposed as a social response, as counterpoint to city-as-merchandise, and as expression of collective interest.

It is a complex approach that requires articulation of the human rights theme in its integral conceptualization (civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights) to that of democracy in its diverse dimensions (representative, distributive, and participative).

The Charter defines this right as “the equitable usufruct of cities within the principles of sustainability, democracy, equity, and social justice.” Our proposal is therefore not limited to a charter of human rights in the city, but rather is conceived as an instrument capable of promoting and guaranteeing the right of all people to the city, in its multiple dimensions and components.

Aware of the postures denying the existence of collective human rights, we nevertheless affirm that this is a new human right of collective character, as is certainly the right to a healthy environment.

Nature and scope

Formulation and promotion of a World Charter for the Right to the City has the end purpose to build an instrument both universal and compact which may be adopted by the United Nations System, the regional human rights systems, and governments, as legal instrument or at least basic reference in the definition and adoption of the Right to the City as a new human right. The Charter is therefore conceived as a human rights instrument.

However, the world-wide promotion and dissemination of this initiative, initially originating from Latin American civil society, first conceived of the Charter as a political document which would serve to mobilize broad social sectors potentially interested in the theme. It was primarily oriented to civil organizations and social movements, and it has gradually expanded to incorporate local authorities, international bodies, and other public, private and social actors.

The broadening of the debate to other regions of the planet and broader social sectors has posed the need to develop different and complementary texts, which facilitate the consolidation of, on one hand, a consistent human rights document and, on the other, one or several documents designed to disseminate the initiative, advance broad social awareness-building on the relevance of the topic, and activate social and political participation in the formulation and promotion of the Charter and the positioning of the Right to the City within international bodies, governments, and public opinion. Work is currently being developed in both directions.


Although this topic is still subject to debate, based on the various proposals and arguments collected during the Charter formulation process, we may consider that it is founded on the principle of free determination: key element of the international legal system and guiding principle of the International Pacts on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
The Charter is also structured around the principles of nondiscrimination; interdependence and indivisibility of human rights; equality; priority attention to persons and groups in situation of vulnerability; no-regressivity; progressive implementation; subsidiarity; solidarity; cooperation, and responsible sustainability.

In the urban-specific, the Charter is sustained in the following principles:

• Full exercise of citizenship: the city as sphere of realization of all human rights.
• Social function of the city and of urban property: distributive equity and full usufruct by all inhabitants of the resources, goods and services offered by the city, with the collective good prevailing over individual property rights and speculative interests.
• Democratic management of the city: the decisive role of citizen participation in urban management through direct and representative forms.

Other themes which would sustain the determination of fundamental specific principles, but which remain in need of debate, refer to:

• Democratic production of the city and its livable spaces: the right of all persons to directly participate in planning and production of both public and private spaces in which daily life is developed, through mechanisms of participative planning and social production of habitat.
• Sustainable and responsible management of natural and energetic resources in the city and its surroundings: conditions which impede that the city’s development take place at the cost of other cities and the countryside.
• Democratic enjoyment of the city: the city as space open to exchange, encounter, leisure, recreation, and collective creativity.

All human rights and democracy in its diverse modalities and expressions are inextricably intertwined in the city as the most elevated, complex, and plural expression of human interaction in territory.

Democracy will not exist in its most profound sense while poverty, inequality, exclusion, and injustice prevail. There is no city without citizens capable of freely shaping the decisions that affect their lives.


The Right to the City is interdependent of all recognized rights, integrally conceived, and it is open to incorporate new rights. Among the first, it includes the right to work in equitable and satisfactory conditions, to form and belong to a union, and to social security. It implies the right to build and create city; the right to a place, to remain in it, and to mobility; the right to water, food, housing, public services, and democratic use of public spaces; the right to health, education and culture; to development and a healthy environment; to consumer protection, assistance to persons with special needs, and the right to physical security. Also the right to public information and political participation, including the right to gather, manifest, organize, and deliberate, directly and through representatives, and respect for minorities and ethnic, racial, sexual and cultural plurality.

In addition to these rights — recognized and regulated in the principle human rights pacts and conventions established and monitored by the United Nations System and regional human rights instances — the Charter also calls for recognition of other rights particularly relevant to urban life: the right to land, adequate sanitation, transportation, and energy.

One may also foresee subsequent incorporation of new rights developed in response to current urban challenges and the need to conform a political culture capable of more effectively responding to the new and more complex conditions in which social coexistence takes place in cities. To offer a few examples: in the large urban conglomerates it is no longer enough to recognize the right to availability of public transportation; one also needs to be able to move from place to place easily and quickly. The right to public spaces is not sufficient; rather, these spaces require symbolic elements which give them collective identity, and accessible and nearby facilities to give the different urban areas the value of centrality. These spaces should shelter uses destined for employment of free time and creative expression, and guarantee the right to enjoy walkable and beautiful urban spaces, free of visual and noise pollution. One could also envision the right to maintain and publicly express the cultural identity of the different communities that make up the city, guaranteeing respect for differences and equality of citizen rights for all residents, including migrants. Another expanded right might refer to the right not only to be consulted, but to decisively intervene in the planning, budgeting, design, operation, monitoring and evaluation of urban development policies and programs.

The right to the city, within this complex vision, is not limited to partially defend the human rights destined to improve the conditions in which we inhabit the city, but also implies rights to influence its production, development, management and enjoyment, and to participate in the determination of the public policies that foster their respect, protection, and implementation.

Issues under debate

The formulation and promotion of the Charter is a participative, complex, and long-term process, that poses for debate the conceptualization itself of the Charter as well as its structure, contents, and language.

Everything, from the title itself to the global scope of this instrument, is open to debate. Charter or manifest? The first term has been preferred considering that what is needed is an instrument of rights and obligations and not simply a manifestation of intentions, or a list of policies subject to the will of the government-in-turn. It is proposed as a Charter of defendable rights, independent of momentary political circumstances. At the political and educational level, other types of documents are evidently needed oriented to social mobilization in support of the Charter promotion and adoption process.

Why a World Charter? The diversity of cultures and specific situations between and within regions and countries pose the need for specific instruments. Nevertheless, beyond those and given the universal character of human rights, the need also exists to regulate the Right to the City at the global level.

The Charter initiative emerged through the framework of the World Social Forum, and its recognition and regulation as a new human right should take place within bodies of the United Nations organization.

Based on the universal contents of the Charter, the formulation of local, national and regional instruments will be not only possible but also necessary to address the specificities of the different cultural and territorial spheres.

Why focused only on the city? This is the question which has stimulated the greatest debate. In particular because the concept of city in some regions of the world refers to the formal territorial space in which the middle and upper classes live, but not the area inhabited by workers.

City, in several Asian countries, means rejection of popular settlements and massive eviction processes in the name of the ‘city,’ reason for which the social sectors in these areas toward which the Charter focuses its priorities reject the term. That is why those in some countries would prefer concepts such as the right to land or to community.

In completely urbanized European countries, the term city allows no distinctions. Alternative concepts emerge such as community and the right to a place to live. The first works in English to refer the same to a city or to a village, but it does not work in Spanish, in which community refers to a collective that shares common purposes, far removed from the complexity and diversity of cultures and interests that characterize cities. The second concept does not reflect the wealth of contents and reaches of the Right to the City, nor does it express its collective character or make any distinction between city and countryside. A third concept circulating in the debates is that of human rights habitat, but this term lacks symbolic and mobilizing force.

This leads us to the center of the debate: Why limit the Charter to the urban sphere, when there are countries, especially in Asia and Africa, in which the still-predominant form of habitat is rural? And when in many places the most grave habitat-related rights violations occur in the countryside?

Or, might we be playing into the hands of the large interests that command the economic globalization process in the world? These interests promote the city as “motor of development” and instigate competition between cities to their own benefit, ignoring rural communities and even obviating national governments.

The city, more than a factor of stimulation for the countryside, has been the center from which its devastation is orchestrated. In this sense, does limiting the Charter to the city imply continuing to strengthen those processes? Does it even contribute to fragment and confront the social movements of the poor from the countryside and the city?

This debate has led us to approach rural movements such as Vía Campesina, with the objective to find a way to articulate a shared strategy, without denying the need for specific instruments for each the rural and urban spheres. This will also foster enrichment and reinforcement of the social processes struggling against exclusion in both contexts.

There are principles and lines of action directed to respect human dignity in both the countryside and the city that guarantee this articulation, but there are also specificities that demand instruments adequate to each need and context.

Finally, it is clear that the Right to the City does not refer to the city as we know and suffer it today, but to the other possible city, inclusive in all aspects of life (economic, social, cultural, political, spatial); sustainable and responsible; space of diversity, solidarity, and peaceful coexistence; democratic, participative, vibrant and creative. A city that does not grow at the cost of its surroundings, the countryside, and other cities.