The Right to the City: Shaping the City that Makes Us

Lefebvre described the right to the city as “the summation of other crucial rights” including the “right not to be alienated from the spaces of every day life” or deprived from the city’s “social, economic, and political goods” (Mitchell & Villanueva, 667). The struggle for the right to the city seeks to increase the autonomy of those who are currently disempowered by a hierarchy of rights where “the right to private property and the profit rate trump any other conception of inalienable rights” (Harvey 2003, 940). The need for a prioritization stems from the inherent “contradictions within the capitalist package of rights” (Harvey 2003, 941)1, and obliges the legal system to chose between favoring either the current derivative rights (such as the “right to be treated with dignity” and to “a secure job [and] reasonable living standards”) and the right to private property and the profit rate. As of now the overall global agenda is clear: private property trumps the so-called derivative rights, it trumps the right to employment, to shelter, and to incomes that meet living standards. In the minds of many this prioritization has to indeed be switched.

Ironically, those working towards protecting long-held privileges and those working towards empowering the traditionally disempowered are using the same word in their slogan: Freedom. One side is speaking of freedom to the endless accumulation of capital, and the other, of freedom from the domination that results from such a polarized concentration of capital, of power. I choose the later. As stated in Leroi Jones’ words, “the acquisition of wealth has, at least in my mind, only very slightly to do with self-determination or freedom” (Leroi Jones 1966, 79)2, self-determination being “the right to choose one’s own path. The right to become exactly what one thinks himself capable of” (Leroi Jones 1966, 70)2. Although in theory self-determination may be independent from one’s wealth the forces presently at play are doing exactly that: the poor are forced to be overworked and underpaid, to give their time and energy to receive in return the most basic levels of subsistence, which obliges them to give up the time and the energy to build their own creations.

The greater political program found in the right to the city has economic implications that stem from the “critique of a world in which exchange value of urban space comes to dominate use value” (Mitchell & Villanueva, 670). This comes to disenfranchise the poor, striping them from autonomy, from their right to influence the processes that come to shape their lives, or, to borrow Escobar’s words, “their right to exist outside the neoliberal system” (Escobar 2001). Furthermore, their condition is met by political agendas of contained marginalization and criminalization of the outcome (capitalism’s negative externalities: homelessness, unemployment…) that the prioritizations taking place lead to –that is, favoring capitalism’s need for scarcity and facilitating the endless accumulation of capital (Harvey 2003, 941)1. The right to the city demands changes at both levels: The structural processes literally producing an impoverished and disenfranchised population, and those that shape physical public spaces.

Public Space: The Gift of Conflict

If one is to understand the processes through which the struggle for the right to the city are being fought, it is essential to understand the key role that physical public spaces play in the development of social change. Put simply, what makes public forums so precious is that they are not private. Owners of private spaces have the right to be ‘the kings of their own kingdom’ per se, as they are entitled to exclude and implement fairly tyrannical rules if they so wish. This does not mean to undermine the right to private places since they certainly are the places where so often the polity is formed, organized, and allowed to reflect and hold political debates free from harassment. However, juxtaposed to these are public forums constructed on the grounds that they serve all constituents equally which makes them the sole spaces where tyranny cannot, in theory, be enforced. That is, the sole spaces with the potential to become truly democratic -where citizens and non-represented parts of the public can make collective claims over their use, shape, and regulation; claims which, if legitimized, may serve as bridges leading to the further democratization of private spaces.

Public spaces serve as an experiment ground where society can, and at times has no choice but to confront its internal divisions. The conflicts that arise in them are a gift through which society as a whole is forced to acknowledge the physical, cultural, and ideological differences that lay within it. Obscuring these conflicts, and demanding order and comfort in public spaces has become a prominent and powerful tool in preventing social ills from being addressed and maintaining structures that reinforce injustice –as they render the conflicts invisible and facilitate the greater public’s ignorance of their existence.

It is in public forums that one develops a sense of the greater public beyond one’s social bubble, beyond the notions already created by sources that can be chosen. Some, however, believe that there is a right to be protected from unsought experiences even when in public, implying that social collisions should always be fairly voluntary (Mitchell 2005, 78). Such arguments legitimize the expansion of “attitudes that are appropriate in private life” -such as demanding the right to be left alone- to public spaces, and sustain that freedoms from disturbance serve as a strong enough basis to thwart the unwanted communication of others (Kohn 2004, 42)3. In an outrageous court ruling the United States Supreme Court upheld a state statute that made it a crime to ‘knowingly approach another person within eight feet of such other person, unless such other person consents, for the purpose of passing a leaflet or handbill to, displaying a sign to, or engaging in oral protest, education, counseling with such person in the public way or sidewalk area’”(Paul Schenck v. Pro·Choice Network 1997; Judy Madsen v. Women’s Health Center 1994 as referenced in Kohn 2004, 42)4. This makes it so that political outreach to strangers must be previously approved by the stranger, and will likely be prevented through regulations on volume that can easily determine that yelling across an 8 feet distance is of ‘public disturbance’.

When Rudolph Giuliani claimed that there was a right “not to be disturbed [and] agitated … by others” in public space (Miller 2007, 1)5, and increased regulation of public spaces with the intention of removing these sources of ‘disturbance and agitation’, he was indeed working against the very aspects of public space that make it so special: access, lack of choice, and in so many ways, misuse. The three of these together are what allow public forums to shed light on social, and structural problems that otherwise, would not be manifested in public. It simply is not the same to see a homeless individual peeing on a patch of grass where one was just sitting, than to see a protest concerning homelessness, much less, to read about it. It is in public space that unaddressed social ills become visible to the greater public, where through intended or unintended ‘misuse’, or intentional address, the broader public has no choice but to see what is in front of their eyes and in turn respond: the most passive reaction is a simulation of unawareness.

Regulations on activity constructs the segregated city where homeless individuals, and others who desire (versus need, in the case of the homeless) to use public spaces beyond a means of transit, will not go to city-spaces where laws concerning side-walk obstruction, public sleeping, and loitering are more strictly enforced –which overlap with the areas that are protagonists in the lives of the wealthy. What these processes reflect is a clear prioritization of the rights for transit, “order, comfort … recreation and unfettered shopping” (Mitchell 1997, 321)6 to the right to use public spaces for sociability, political protest and engagement, or simply, as the common resource that they are supposed to be.

Traditional Public Forum Doctrine: Silencing Dissenting Voices

The effectiveness and practice of organized public address is threatened by the traditional public forum doctrine that sustains the permit system allowing the government to regulate the time, place, and manner of public address, granting it the power to easily prevent voices from being heard, and at times, prevent the exercise of the right to public address altogether. It has done so by assigning places that are hardly frequented, times when they are less frequented, and obscuring the real number of supporters by limiting the number of people who can attend an event (Miller 2007, 14)5. By doing so they deny the city’s resource as a venue for communication, strip it from its ability to reflect social ills, and indeed strip the individuals from their right to make demands to the greater public.

The traditional public forum doctrine that is supposed to protect freedom of speech is inherently flawed, as the court ruling itself that set it forth refers to the right of freedom of speech as a privilege, which undermines its status of right as such. It even states that it must be “exercised in subordination to the general comfort and convenience… in peace and good order” (Staeheli & Mitchell 2008, 5)8, bluntly disregarding the fact that messages of liberation that fight oppression, by nature disturb ‘the general comfort and convenience’ of the already ‘pleased’ majority. Furthermore it grants the government the power to prohibit speech “in cases where the principal function of the property would be disrupted by expressive activity”, which leaves ample room for prohibition simply by designating a purpose to a space and could extend to streets and parks since “parks are designated for recreation and streets are…meant to facilitate the circulation of pedestrians and automobiles” (Kohn 2004, 50)4.

It indeed has resulted in precisely this. In response to the 1999 World Trade Organization protests, the City of Seattle instituted a “25 block no-protest zone in downtown” that allowed shoppers and workers to enter freely in the area but barred those carrying protest signs or wearing anti-WTO slogans” and in 2001 Quebec City actually “erected a 3.8 meter high, 4 kilometer long chain link fence to prevent the estimated 30,000 protesters from entering the downtown area” (Kohn 2004, 38)3. In New York City, the prohibition of events taking place in City Hall Plaza is only limited to a list of exceptions that include that the event be of “extraordinary public interest” and “uniquely appropriate to City Hall” (Miller 2007, 15)5 -whatever that means. Turns out that the same people instituting the policies that are protested are those who are deciding what is the ‘public’s interest’ -who that public is and what they want to hear is apparently a question that they can answer on their own.

Public Space Is Not the Public’s

It is naïve to believe that the government will cease their arbitrary prohibition of speech as long as it continues to own physical public forums, for it has persistently refused its management and use as communal space, and shows no signs of intending to do so. What government ownership implies is that it will act ‘as a landlord’ who will regulate its property in the interests of all, yet its ownership grants it the ability to easily resort to abstract notions of ‘the public’ and ‘the community’ that obscure difference and reinforce privilege (Staeheli & Mitchell 2008, 124-125)8. So far, this has allowed it the power to oblige the public “to be given permission even to appear (Staeheli & Mitchell 2008, 1)8, and to turn“’[f]ree speech” into what it is now, “‘permitted speech’” (Staeheli & Mitchell 2008, 7)8.

If the right to the city is truly to become a right rather than a privilege, if no one is to have the right to exclude –not even the government-, then traditional public spaces must become communal space where every individual conserves the right “not [to] be excluded from the uses or benefits of resources” (Blackmar 2006, 51, as quoted in Staeheli & Mitchell 2008, 129)8. For as long as the government conserves ownership of traditional public forums it will conserve its right to exclude –property having been described precisely as “the right to exclude” (Staeheli & Mitchell 2008, 128)8.

Real Choices: The Cry and Demand to Shape the City

More generally, the right to the city is about democratizing the process through which cities are shaped. It isn’t only that we would all take part in the creation of the city’s socio-economic and physical structures, but that we would do so through real choices. As Harvey points out, all of us, already “make the city” (Harvey 2003, 939)1, so then, what is that “cry and demand”, as Lefebvre referred to it, really calling for?

Surely cities come to be shaped by all, even the briefest and most passive of visitors. Say, for example, an unemployed woman traveling from one city to another for a job interview. Besides any influence her social interaction may have, she will influence market outcomes with her choice of transportation, food, and shelter and take part in a process that leads some businesses to succeed and others to bankruptcy. One could claim that her decisions express her desires and preferences, and say that she is effectively -to borrow Park’s phrase- shaping the city after her heart’s desire (Park as referenced in Harvey 2003, 939)1. Yet the physical transformation of the city triggered by the market’s outcome will not reflect whether her decisions constituted a real choice. What I mean to say by real is that she would have the ability to realize at least one alternative that falls within the law –that is, she would pay for all she uses. More specifically, what I mean to say is that if her choices constituted the only ones she could afford, they were not real choices at all.

Cities are indeed shaped by all of us, yet we each take part in the city’s creation and transformation within different socio-economic positions, and the amount of wealth we posses will take on a crucial role in determining whether we are influencing the city as we desire. Furthermore, it is not only that we make the city but also that “in return, the city makes us” (Harvey 2003, 939)1 and thus the claim to shape the city, the right to shape it, is a claim for the right to shape our selves. “To live under capitalism is to accept or submit to that bundle of rights necessary for endless capital accumulation” (Harvey 2003, 940)1. For the poor this means that they must accept a status of second class citizens, as their poverty heavily restricts the fulfillment of their civic and human rights, that they are subject to those who already hold power and capital, and that their success and road out of poverty, and thus their ability to meaningfully exercise their rights, depends on their ability to satisfy the demands of those who are in power, those, who possess the capital.

What that cry and demand for the right to the city then, is calling for is an end to dollars counting more than votes, real democracy and not this façade, and autonomy: real choices for all.

1. Harvey, David (2003), “The Right to the City” in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Volume 27.4 December 2003 939-41

2. Jones, Leroi (1966), “Tokenism: 300 Years for Five Cents,” in Social Essays by Leroi Jones (New York: William Morrow & CO., INC.)

3. Kohn, Margaret (2004),“Weapons of the Wobblies:The Street‐Speaking Fights,” in Brave New Neighborhoods: The Privatization of Public Space (New York: Routledge)pp. 23‐46.

4.Kohn, Margaret (2004), “The Public Forum Doctrine,” in Brave New Neighborhoods: The Privatization of Public Space (New York: Routledge), pp. 47‐68

5. Miller, Kristine (2007), “Designs on the Public: The Private Lives of New York’s Public Spaces,” (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press)

6. Mitchell, D. (1997), “The Annihilation of Space by Law: The Roots and Implications of Anti-Homeless Laws in the United States,” Antipode 29, 303-325

7. Paul Schenck v. Pro·Choice Network 34 F. 3rd 130 (1997); Judy Madsen v. Women’s Health Center 512 U.S. 753 (1994)

8. Staeheli, Lynn & Mitchell, Don (2008), “The People’s Property?: Power, Politics, and the Public,” (New York: Routledge)