“The Right to the City”: Participatory Cooperatives, Housing and Budgets

The world has become increasingly urbanized due to the demands of capital. Capital has at once made place incredibly important for accumulation purposes, while at the same time, creating a perpetual sense of insecurity among inhabitants of cities. Due to this compression of time and space, cities around the world are left competing for capital, which has been termed the “race to the bottom.” Numerous groups have resisted capital’s attempt to commodify space and its tendency towards “creative destruction,” some with more success than others. However, if we are to thwart capital’s power, how are we to go about it? A unified vision of a more just society is needed, and we should use several broad policies to apply to individual localities. In general terms, we can think of this vision as the “right to the city,” which is a collective right to redefine ourselves and how we relate to one another and the places we live. More specifically, a “right to the city” agenda should focus on three essential policy areas to create more inclusive spaces that are democratically created and maintained where the marginalized and oppressed can actively participate and shape political discourse.

Worker Self-Directed Enterprises

Cities have always been heavily shaped and influenced by the process of capital. However, as cities increasingly become subjected to the forces of capital accumulation, the notion that cities are places to live all but gets lost. It is no secret that that the hyper-flexibility of capital has been disastrous for many communities, especially among “rustbelt” cities in the US. The devastating impacts of neoliberal state policies have revealed themselves while providing meager benefits to the working class. The failure of capitalism and neoliberalism to provide for the masses demonstrates that a new “development” discourse should and needs to be considered.

Policies encouraging Worker Self-Directed Enterprises (WSDEs) are essential to this new development paradigm. WSDEs are worker-owned entities that operate and democratically make decisions and distribute profits. The intersection of WSDEs and place have significant implications for broader policy areas. WSDEs would prevent the exodus of jobs from places like the “rustbelt” and allow workers and citizens to gain control over their communities. As capitalist cities have segregated different social strata from one another through suburbanization and the amplification of privatized space, WSDEs would bring people together by jettisoning the worker-boss relationship. The inclusiveness of WSDEs could lead to more progressive policies regarding workplace safety, education reform, parental leave and more walkable and compact cities. Though WSDEs are necessary for a new kind of city and establishing the “right to the city,” they are not sufficient mechanisms on their own. Other struggles and policies are to be executed to fully exercise our right to the city.

The “Right to the City” Calls for the Right to a Home

In a capitalist society, we have the right to buy a home, but not the right to a home. A wide range of policies could be advocated to ensure the latter. For example, a functional public housing program which is well funded and democratic could be implemented. Similar to WSDEs, tenants and communities at large could democratically control the housing; a drastic departure from the way housing authorities currently operate public housing. Secondly, housing cooperatives could be incentivized, and programs like DC’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act could be expanded to provide greater financial and legal assistance to tenants seeking to buy properties from their landlords. The speculative practices of the built environment and housing industry could be undermined if housing were democratized, creating a more spatially just society.

Participatory Budgeting

If cities are to be shaped and influenced by the people who live there, participatory budgeting is an essential policy. The basic premise of participatory budgeting is simple: constituents democratically decide the allocation of governmental resources. Participatory budgeting started in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989 and has expanded to thousands of cities worldwide. There is a myriad of ways to construct a participatory budgeting framework, but they often revolve around “public learning and active citizenship, social justice, and administrative reform.” The research has shown promising results from several cities, but this practice is not without its limitations. If faux-participatory systems are established, which limit and impede the most marginalized in society from participating, then this structure achieves little. Participatory budgeting frameworks are susceptible to bourgeois control; thus illustrating that the reconfiguration of society on multiple levels and in a multitude of arenas are all dependent on each other to exercise the right to the city.

A New Way Ahead

All of these policies are highly contentious, especially in a capitalist system. However, progress is never achieved without struggle, and setbacks should not be conceived as failures. If the goal of any society is to become a more just, equitable, inclusive place that values the full development of human beings, then these policies can provide a broad – albeit limited – vision of a better tomorrow. These policies should not be thought of as isolated to one another, and their parallels should be exemplified and fought for simultaneously. Neither should advocates purport these policies as the panacea to capitalism, but they provide a path forward. For these and other policies to be successful, many dynamics – race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc. – need to be taken into account and woven into the policies outlined here. Nevertheless, the establishment of WSDEs, cooperative and democratic housing and participatory budgeting are a crucial step to realizing a truly democratic society- the right to the city, where the city becomes a place to be inhabited rather than consumed.