The right to the city as a citizen's practice

If the UN doesn't deal with the issue of the right to the city, it will not only have to face up to local governments, but also the 99%. Español

Bernardo Gutiérrez González
8 November 2016

Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General and Rafael Correa, President of Ecuador, during the opening of Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador. October 17 2016. Dolores Ochoa AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved

John Lennon wrote that "life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." In the twenty-first century, times in which citizens are seizing the initiative in almost all areas, the right to the city could be what happens in civil society while experts are busy agreeing on its definition. The global revolt of 2011 jolted to the fore an emphatic “right to the city”. Not theoretical redefinitions, but with an image (camping out in public spaces) and a method (collective action connecting the local and the global in real time). The occupations of the Arab Spring, the 15M / Indignados movement in Spain or Occupy Wall Street made citizenship practices, ways to organize, ways to build the city visible in an almost performative way. That captivating vision of occupied public squares ended up provoking an avalanche of academic reviews of this "right to the city". The practice, though, preceded the theory.

Henry Lefebvre, who formulated the right to the city in 1967, wrote that the city "is not a finished book, but the language of the people," poeticizing social opposition to the modern city. The publication of David Harvey's Rebel Cities, in the heat of Occupy Wall Street, turned the right to the city into the "right to modify the city collectively" not always following institutions' lead. For Harvey, the right to the city means "recovering the command and management of urban surplus for the working class, as it is they who produce the city." Geographers Selene Lopez and Natalia Lerena deny that the right to the city moves downwards from academia to social movements, “instead by contrary it crystallizes a back-and-forth between academic thinking and political action" and is also a "political slogan". On the other hand, the influential Global Platform for the Right to the City, born in São Paulo in 2014, broadens the horizon of the concept towards the commons, so present in the dilemmas of our time: "The right of all inhabitants, present and future, permanent and temporary, to use, occupy and produce fair, inclusive and sustainable cities, defined as an essential common good for a full and decent life."

The city "is not a finished book, but the language of the people.

The necessary debate regarding the concept of the right to the city is still going. In fact it tends to infinity, just as it risks becoming an "empty buzzword" that different interlocutors use to meet their own agendas. Meanwhile, the right to the city is also everything that is already happening thanks to the civil society. The spark that led to David Harvey to develop upon the right to the city was the fascinating vision of a global political subject that proclaims itself to be part of the 99%: a political subject created from the acts of sit-ins, occupation practices, networked spaces, cross subjectivities, free knowledge and shared, collective processes of reappropriation of public space, redefinition of cities. Tahrir to the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan to Augusta Park in São Paulo, the right to the city again became flesh, political action, public practice. The right to the city is what happens while the UN Habitat III plans the next twenty years for the world.

After the explosion of the Spanish 15M, the heterodox movement of the Indignados, the word 'prototype', limited until recently to the world of digital culture, began to be used in association with the social. The prototype is the "original copy or first mould in which a figure or otherwise is made". The prototype is a prior condition to the model, and it is characterized by being in a state of constant change, mutation and improvement. In the early years of web programming within the hacker ecosystem, the concept of permanent beta was coined to define a non-definitive prototype. In a Europe collapsed by austerity, more and more groups of urban planners embrace the concept of permanent beta, which claims the "process versus the object, the horizontality of work and network thinking, the development of citizen collective intelligence and the community ownership of projects." It is no coincidence that anthropologists Alberto Corsín and Adolfo Estalella named their blog Prototyping and made it into a real inventory of urban practices and prototypes, which gave life back to Spanish barrios during the times of the economic crisis.

The contemporary city, rather than a preconceived model, can also be understood as a network of collective practices. Practices that dramatize life forms that exist in empty plots, occupied public spaces or social centres. Practices based on collaboration, which challenge competition between individuals as the motor for life. Practices that precede theories or paradigms of the city. Practices that in many cases are insurgent, political, delinquent actions. Shifting the parameters of what's possible, citizenship practices redefine frameworks, strengthen common action codes and open gaps in strictured institutions. A volunteer-run theatre that gives cultural life to a neighbourhood (Ambros Theater, Athens), a collective that weaves a network of collaborative urban gardens in vacant spaces (Hortelões Urban, São Paulo), a community radio struggling against the gentrification of a popular market (Radio Little eagles, Mexico City), a community WIFI network in the La Loma neighbourhood of Medellin, are living metaphors of the concept of "public practice". Changing what is possible, some practices are part of local political agendas, but have a global echo, and anticipate desired or intuited visions of the future, that politicians do not dare to invoke. The local government of Hong Kong is reducing vehicle traffic in the city centre, directly inspired by the revolts of #OccupyCentral who organised activities in the the streets during the student occupations of 2014. Local governments, recognizing these practices and drawing on them, may be vital for seeing that the right to the city is the common ground of public policy in the cities of the future.

In a Europe collapsed by austerity, there are more and more groups of urban planners who embrace the concept of permanent beta.

Understanding the city as a network of collective practices, as a set of autonomous citizens, imperfect prototypes, simultaneously expands the definition of right to the city and public policy, and it helps to break the dichotomy of public-private, seeking common policies. Certainly, local governments should build urban public policies based on equity, justice, inclusion, sustainability and participation. They must legitimize, recognize and protect the practices of common citizenship practices that shape and recombine elements of the urban landscape that keeps a city alive. But it is not enough to recognize common practices: local governments have to encourage their existence, even if that entails not controlling the processes governed by public autonomy. Furthermore, urban management and technology that controls the cities must stop being the exclusive preserve of multinationals.

The World City Summit of the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), held between 12-15 October in Bogota, reinforced the commitment of local governments for the right to the city. In the Co-crear la cuidad (Co-create the City) collaborative sessions, the right to the city was expressed as participation, diversity, learning, justice, sustainability and neighbourhood life. And representatives and social movements drew up together documents with narrative horizon and political scalability.

Translated from Spanish by Katie Oliver, member of Democracia Abierta's Volunteer Program.

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