Urban Policies and the Right to the City


Discussion Paper for the Seminar: Urban Policies and the Right to the City, Paris, 18 March 2005.


French philosopher Henri Lefebvre dedicated seven years of intellectual inquiry to the study of the urban environment (1967-1974), resulting in seven different books relating to the city.[1] Among his innovations was the conception of a “right to the city” for all urban dwellers, a concept developed most fully in Le droit à la ville (1968). According to Lefebvre’s theory, the “Right to the City” would restructure the power relations which underlie urban space, transferring control from capital and the state over to urban inhabitants.[2] Lefebvre argued that the “Right to the City” is the right to “urban life, to renewed centrality, to places of encounter and exchange, to life rhythms and time uses, enabling the full and complete usage of … moments and places.”[3] Decades later, David Harvey would point out that Lefebvre’s concept is “not merely a right to access what already exists [in the city], but a right to change it after our heart’s desire.”[4]

The city has indeed changed since Lefebvre wrote Le droit à la ville. The year 1968 marked a moment when students across the globe, in cities such as Paris, Berkeley, New York, Prague, Berlin, London, Rome and Warsaw, demanded profound transformations in the conception of social relations and transformed the city into a theater of social and political upheaval. Lefebvre was undoubtedly influenced by the revolutionary socio-political movements of his time, and particularly by the student movement in Paris, known as Mai 68. Lefebvre’s original conception of Le droit à la ville should be understood in its particular historical context.

Without assuming that the current urban environment is identical to the one Lefebvre wrote about several decades ago, his concept can still be applied to today’s city, taking into account recent urban trends and social transformations. An increasing urban population, new information and communication technologies and the dynamics of globalization represent recent complications in the urban fabric which were not necessarily as pertinent in Lefebvre’s time. What is still relevant for today’s cities is Lefebvre’s belief that the decision-making processes in cities should be reframed so that ALL urban dwellers have a right to participate in urban politics and to be included in the decisions which shape their environment.

This fundamental basis of Lefebvre’s theory can be developed further to encompass more recent globalization and urban development trends and to substantiate and articulate specific approaches to the urban environment, such as governance and democratic management. In this sense, parallels can be drawn between world charters, municipal statutes and urban development campaigns as diverse as the City Statute of Brazil, the “right to housing” pioneered by HIC during Habitat II (Istanbul, 1996), and the proposed World Charter on the Right to the City: though not necessarily representative of separate moments of a direct evolutionary progression, they each seek to give power and authority back to urban inhabitants and are grounded with a common respect for the rights of urban dwellers. Most recent theoretical and practical implementations of Lefebvre’s “Right to the City” depart from this simplified interpretation of his theory, even though the details of Lefebvre’s original concept are considered by some researchers[5] to be far more radical than most “Right to the City” advocates suggest.


As globalization tendencies continue to spur concerns over the growing inequality and disenfranchisement among urban inhabitants, geographers and other social scientists have developed an important body of theoretical and empirical work examining the relationships between global restructuring and urban governance. Drawing from the ideals proposed by Lefebvre decades earlier, researchers have employed the concept of the “Right to the City” to describe some of the social movements manifesting in cities. These movements have been based on specific identities of difference (such as ethnicity, class, sexuality, gender, age, disability, homelessness, among other characteristics) and have sought claims to economic, environmental, social and spatial justice. In many cases, this research has influenced the implementation of the “Right to the City” tenants into urban policies, resulting in world charters, global coalitions of cities and municipal statutes, as well as in the development of numerous projects, programmes, conferences and seminars. [Please consult the bibliography at the end of this paper for complete bibliographical references relating to “The Right to the City,” as well as important French and Italian theoretical texts examining the relationships between the social sciences and the urban environment.]

To date, researchers have explored the concept of the “Right to the City,” notably as it relates to the struggle for access to public space and citizenship in the following cities and regions worldwide: Rome, Vatican City, Turin, Naples (Italy); Saint-Denis, Paris (France); New York City, Syracuse, East Harlem (U.S.A.); various Swiss and Latin American cities;[6] Sao Paolo (Brazil); Toronto (Canada); and Sydney (Australia).[7] In specific relation to the notion of citizenship, researchers have addressed, among others, Turks in Germany; women migrants in Istanbul (Turkey); and “Islamic yuppies” in Tehran (Iran).[8]

Theoretical and empirical research has touched on the following themes (a partial listing): public space; public transportation (creating accessible cities insofar as schools, jobs and leisure activities are made available to children and youth, women, the elderly and the disabled); water rights; immigration and urban regeneration; the “masculinization” of cities; community garden preservation; “moneyspace” and financial exclusion; urban citizenship; globalization and urban enfranchisement; justice; the spatial imagination; immigrants and political organizing; homelessness; and women’s right to the city.

IV. Inventory of documents relating to the concept

The various theoretical works, declarative initiatives and national laws described here correspond to different logics, methods and objectives and are thus not to be understood as a “package” of programmes stemming directly from Lefebvre’s theory. They each, however, represent different manifestations of an urban politics of the inhabitant, which on the most fundamental level corresponds to Lefebvre’s original “Right to the City.”

  • European Charter for Human Rights in the City(formalized charter approved in Saint-Denis, May 18, 2000; text drafted under the joint declaration of cities issued in Barcelona, October 1998, entitled “Commitment of Cities for Human Rights,” and unanimously agreed upon by 41 cities)

  • Proposed World Charter on the Right to the City (collaboration of HIC, COHRE, FNRU, ActionAid)

  • City Statute(Brazil)

  • The European Charter for Women in the City(Commission of the European Union, Equal Opportunities Unit: Brussels)

V. Who is included in The “Right to the City”?

The concept aims to protect all urban dwellers, and, as often specified in related charters and statutes, especially members of the following particularly threatened groups: poor or low-income groups, the homeless, women, victims of violence, senior citizens, persons with disabilities, youth, children, ethnic minorities, displaced persons, immigrant workers and refugees. It should be noted that though Lefebvre rooted his analysis in the inequalities among the classes, more recent researchers have expanded Lefebvre’s terms of “difference” to apply the “Right to the City” to a more contemporary conception of diversity in cities. A thus more comprehensive vision of the “Right to the City” includes the protection of individuals and groups who are diverse on the grounds of ethnicity, religion, race, gender, age, physical mobility, resident/citizen status and sexual orientation, in addition to class.

Lefebvre was also careful distinguish between citoyens (“citizens”) and citadins (“urban inhabitants”), explaining that those who inhabit the city have a right to the city, regardless of their legal, national status as citizens. Along with the proposed World Charter, other urban experts, such as the European Council of Town Planners, identify not only residents but users of the city (including commuters and visitors) as urban citizens and advocate the participation of these mobile and temporary urban residents in the planning, management and decision-making processes of the city.[9]

VI. What rights are encompassed?

The proposed World Charter on the Right to the City defines the “core element” of the right to the city as: “the equitable usufruct of the cities considering the principles of sustainability and social justice.” Broadly speaking, the “Right to the City” seeks to (1) promote equal access to the potential benefits of the city for all urban dwellers, (2) encourage the democratic participation of all urban dwellers in decision-making processes, notably on the municipal level, so that (3) urban inhabitants may fully realize their fundamental rights and liberties.

More particularly, its principles are susceptible to include the commitment to work toward:

  • the collective well-being and security of urban dwellers and the environment

  • the full exercise of citizenship for ALL urban dwellers

  • democratic management and community participation

  • sustainable and equitable urban development, as well as environmentally and socially balanced urban planning

  • an assurance of access to public information

  • collaboration between the government and the private sector

  • balanced maintenance and control of the land use

  • protection of the environment

  • regularization of land which is occupied by lower-income populations

  • an assurance of democratic political participation

  • an assurance of the right to association, assembly, expression and the democratic use of public space

  • the right to water and to the supply of resources

  • an assurance of the right to urban land, health, transport, habitat, education, public services, public space, work, culture, leisure and a long life[10]

VII. How might governments and civic groups practically approach the concept?

In “Practical Approaches to Urban Governance,” Edgar Pieterse and Jyri Juslén identify four ways in which municipalities can deliver effective, efficient, relevant services to urban dwellers by: (1) developing city-wide decision-making frameworks so that different city stakeholders can “express their interests and vision for the city”; (2) mobilizing programmes based on previously determined “flagship priorities”; (3) engaging in institutional reform, which entails a shift to a more demand-based orientation for municipal administration; and (4) monitoring projects and maintaining momentum, continually seeking to ameliorate existing programmes and innovate new projects.[11]

UN-HABITAT’s Global Campaign on Urban Governance offers a conceptual framework of principles of good urban governance. The Campaign demonstrates how these principles can be translated into practical measures, through national policy reform activities making use of toolkits focusing on issues such as participatory decision-making, transparency in local governance, and participatory budgeting.[12]

VIII. How this concept has been integrated into urban policies

The following is a partial catalog of programmes which reflect, in the opinion of UNESCO, urban policies which have been realized, either explicitly or implicitly, in accordance with the “Right to the City” tenants. Porto Alegre (Brazil) was the forerunner of a “participatory municipal budget programme,” initiated in the 1980s and now implemented in over 70 cities. Citizens examine the previous year’s expenditures, set collective priorities and allot funds for future projects. Bologna (Italy) sponsored a “digital democracy” in 1999: free e-mail and internet access was granted to citizens via a local public network, Iperbole. The European Science Foundation (ESF) has established the programme Towards Electronic Democracy (TED), with the aim of improving participative democracy through e-governance. In Colombo (Sri Lanka), the Colombo City Consultation was founded in order to improve urban governance through developing revenue mobilization, increasing community participation, and decentralizing municipal services.

Other projects have targeted specific populations of particularly threatened groups, such as the following programmes which are geared toward:

Women: In Montréal (Canada), the Women’s Urban Safety Action Committee (Comité d’Action Femmes et Sécurité Urbaine (CAFSU)) initiated a project in the 1990s that, nearly a decade later, completely revamped public services in order to ensure the safety of inhabitants, and notably women. A guide for auditing women’s safety in cities was published and translated into numerous languages for use in Europe and Africa.[13]

Children and youth: Youth Governments have been implemented in the Latin American and Caribbean Region, with the help of UN-HABITAT.[14]

Senior citizens: In Manila (Philippines), Coalition of Services to the Elderly (COSE) empowers the elderly poor by training representatives from a squatter’s area to become health workers for the elderly in their region; they are trained by doctors, dentists and nurses and supplied with health kits for prevention and hygiene.[15]

Refugees and displaced persons: The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) has worked to support housing rights to refugees in Eastern Nepal and has done research on displaced persons in Bhutan, East Timor, Georgia and Kosovo.

The poor: Non-governmental groups have sponsored workshops in which residents of low-income settlements work with trained professionals to identify key housing problems, brainstorm possible solutions, and formulate action plans.[16]

IX. Potential Limitations of the “Right to the City”

One of the most important potential limitations of the “Right to the City” concept, both in theory and in practice, is its singular focus on the local scale—a caveat that Mark Purcell has coined the “local trap.” Purcell argues: “As we discover, narrate and invent new ideas about democracy and citizenship in cities, it is critical to avoid…the local trap, in which the local scale is assumed to be inherently more democratic, just or sustainable than larger scales.”[17] According to Purcell, simply localizing government or decision-making doesn’t necessarily democratize it, so why prioritize the local population, the local environment, the local economy over larger scales?[18] With the understanding that all scales are socially produced, the local scale is no more naturally just or sustainable than a regional, national or international scale. Purcell continues: “With respect to the right to the city, avoiding the local trap means we must move beyond a right to the city and think more in terms of a right to inhabit space.”[19] These potential limitations should be further contemplated as collective efforts to pursue the “Right to the City” concept and its practical implementation evolve.

X. Conclusion

Since the publication of Le droit à la ville, geographers, urban planners, social scientists, social action groups, NGOs and municipal and national governments who have drawn from Lefebvre’s work have reformulated the original theory of the “Right to the City,” not only with respect to its conception of the heterogeneity of urban dwellers, but also in regards to the specificity of the types of rights that urban policies should endeavor to protect. It is hoped that these various individuals and groups will continue to work in collaboration with UN-HABITAT and UNESCO to expand upon Lefebvre’s ideals and the existing research, city charters and policy practices through advocating and implementing rights-based polices and practices in cities worldwide. The public debate launched by UN-HABITAT and UNESCO on March 18, 2005, and drawing on the expertise of numerous researchers, municipal representatives and NGOs, should highlight the interest of this kind of inter-agency, interdisciplinary cooperation insofar as to promote social cohesion, urban cultural diversity, solidarity and education to urban citizenship, democratic urban governance and sustainable urban development for all dwellers.

Selective Bibliography

CONFERENCES and SEMINARS on the “Right to the City”

Home of Geography, Rome (Italy): international conference on “Rights to the City” (May 29 – June 1, 2002), which will be chronicled in a forthcoming publication. [for more information, consult www.homeofgeography.org]

International Symposium at York University, Toronto (Canada): conference on “Rights to the City: Citizenship, Democracy and Cities in a Global Age” (June, 1998).

Workshop on “The Right to the City,” held during the World Social Forum, Porto Alegre (Brazil), January, 2005.

Worldwide Conference on the Right to Cities Free from Discrimination and Inequality, Porto Alegre (Brazil), February, 2002.

BOOKS, ARTICLES and PAPERS on the “Right to the city”

Buroni, T. (“A Case for the Right to Habitat,” paper presented at the Seminar on Urban Poverty, Rio de Janeiro, May 1998)

Dikec, M. (“Justice and the Spatial Imagination,” Environment and Planning A, vol. 33, 2001)

Friedmann, J. (“The Right to the City,” Society and Nature, vol. 1)

Harvey, D. (“The Right to the City,” International Journal of Urban Regional Research, vol. 27.4, December 2003, pp. 939-941)

Holston, J. (Cities and Citizenship, Durham: Duke University Press, 1999)

Isin, E. (Democracy, Citizenship and the Global City, New York, Routledge, 2000)

Isin, E. and P. Wood (Citizenship and Identity, Thousand Oaks, Sage, 1999)

Lefebvre, H. (“The Right to the City” in Writings on Cities, Oxford, Blackwell, 1996. Originally published as Le droit à la ville, Paris, Anthropos, 1968)

Mitchell, D. (The Right to the City. Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space. New York: Guilford Press, 2003)

Pincetl, S. (“Challenges to Citizenship: Latino Immigrants and Political Organizing in the Los Angeles Area,” Environment and Planning A, vol. 26, 1994)

Purcell, M. (“Globalization, urban enfranchisement, and the right to the city: towards an urban politics of the inhabitant,” www.giub.unibe.ch/sg/Rom/purcell.pdf)

Purcell, M. (“Excavating Lefebvre: The Right to the City and its Urban Politics of the Inhabitant,” GeoJournal, 2002, vol. 58, no. 2-3, pp. 99-108)

Purcell, M. (“Citizenship and the Right to the Global City: Reimagining the Capitalist World Order,” Paper presented at the conference, “Towards a Political Economy of Scale,” February 3-5, 2004, York University, www.carleton.ca/polecon/scale/purcell.pdf)

Salmon, S. (“The Right to the City? Globalism, Citizenship, and the Struggle over Urban Space,” paper presented at the 97th annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers, New York, February, 2001)

Sandercock, L. (“The Death of Modernist Planning: Radical Praxis for a Postmodern Age,” in Friedmann and Douglass (eds.), Cities for Citizens: Planning and the Rise of Civil Society in a Global Age, New York, John Wiley and Sons, 1998)

Sassen, S. (“The Global City: Strategic Site/New Frontier,” in Isin, Democracy, Citizenship and the Global City)

Smith, N. (“Homeless/global: scaling places,” in J. Bird, ed., Mapping the Futures: Local Cultures Global Change, New York, Routledge, 1993)

Soja, E. (Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and other Real-and-Imagined Places, Cambridge, Blackwell, 1996; Postmetropolis, Malden, Blackwell, 2000)

Souza, M. (“The Brazilian Way of Conquering the ‘Right to the City,’” DISP, vol. 147, 2001)

Wekerle, G. (“Women’s Rights to the City: Gendered Spaces of a Pluralistic Citizenship,” in E. Isin (ed.), Democracy, Citizenship and the Global City, 2000)

Special issue of GeoJournal, vol. 58, iss. 2, 2002, “Social Transformation, Citizenship, and the Right to the City,” eds. Lynn A. Staeheli, Lorraine Dowler, and Doris Wastl-Walter.

Special issue of Urban Geography, 1 Feb 2003, vol. 24, iss. 2, “Cities and Citizenship.”

THEORETICAL TEXTS on the links between social sciences and the urban environment

Ansay, P. and R. Schoonbrodt (Penser la ville. Choix de textes philosophiques, Brussels : Archives d’architecture moderne, 1989)

Bettin, G. (Sociologia e città, Padova, CEDAM, 1978)

Collection “Les débats sur la ville” (Editions Confluences, in four volumes)

Lassave, P. (Les sociologies et la recherche urbaine, Toulouse, Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 1997)

Lepetit, B. and C. Topalov (La ville des sciences sociales, Paris, Belin, 2001)

Ostrowetsky, S. (Sociologues en ville, Paris, l’Harmattan, 1996)

Roncayolo, M. and T. Pacquot. (Villes et civilisation urbaine, Paris, Larousse, 1992)


MOST programme at UNESCO: www.unesco.org/most/most2.htm

UN-HABITAT: www.unhabitat.org

Housing International Coalition–Housing and Land Rights Network (HIC-HLRN): www.hlrn.org

Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE): www.cohre.org

For more information on the Coalition of Services to the Elderly (COSE) programme: http://www.sgi.org/english/Features/quarterly/0107/feature.htm

AITEC Plate form for Brazil France experiences: http://www.reseau-ipam.org


[1] Hess, Remi, preface to Lefebvre’s Espace et politique : le droit à la ville II, Paris, Anthropos, 2nd edition, 2000.
[2] Purcell, Mark, “Globalization, urban enfranchisement, and the right to the city: towards an urban politics of the inhabitant,” p. 10.
[3] Lefebvre, H. “The Right to the City.”
[4] Harvey, David, “The Right to the City,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 27.4, December 2003, pp. 939-41.
[5] Notably, Mark Purcell.
[6] See, in particular, a special issue of GeoJournal, vol. 58, issue 2, 2002, “Social Transformation, Citizenship, and the Right to the City,” eds. Lynn A. Staeheli, Lorraine Dowler, and Doris Wastl-Walter.
[7] See the papers presented at the Home of Geography’s conference in Rome, Italy: “Rights to the City,” May 29-June 1, 2002.
[8] See a special issue of Urban Geography, 1 Feb 2003, vol. 24, issue 2, “Cities and Citizenship”
[9] The New Charter of Athens (2003), European Council of Town Planners.
[10] A portion of these tenants are drawn from the “City Statute” in Brazil, “The New General Law of the Urbanism of Cities” (“La nouvelle loi générale de l’urbanisme des villes”), approved by the Senate in 2001, as well as the proposed World Charter on the Right to the City.
[11] UN-HABITAT’s “Practical Approaches to Urban Governance,” Edgar Pieterse and Jyri Juslén. paper published by UN-HABITAT,
[12] UN-HABITAT, Global Campaign on Urban Governance.
[13] Cases identified in “Claiming the Night,” by Helen Drusine; paper published by UN-HABITAT, http://www.unhabitat.org/hd/hdv8n4/forum6.asp.
[14] “Towards Child-Friendly Cities,” André Dzikus.
[15] Example cited as one of UN-HABITAT’s “Best Practices” :
[16] Adapted from UNCHS, Habitat’s “An Urbanizing World: Global Report on Human Settlements,” Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 325.
[17] Purcell, Mark, “Urban Democracy and the Local Trap,” p. 1. Paper presented at the conference, “Towards a Political Economy of Scale,” February 3-5, 2004, York University.
[18] Ibid, p. 6.
[19] Ibid, p. 2.