The Right to the City

By Richard Pithouse · 14 Jan 2009

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Picture credit: Kerry Chance
Picture credit: Kerry Chance

Governments around the world tend to force poor people off well located and therefore valuable urban land and into peripheral ghettoes. From New Orleans to Bombay and Johannesburg the story is the same.


One motivation for this is to transfer valuable land from the poor to the rich to create a subsidy for elite development at the direct expense of the poor.  A useful secondary consequence of this for many governments is that people living outside of state control can be forced to pay for housing and services in the peripheral relocation developments. Another common motivation for forcing the poor off well located urban land is to fragment and weaken popular movements by dispersing the classes that are potentially dangerous to elite interests into fragmented ghettos. Here people are isolated from each other, kept at a safe distance from the spaces of elite power and often housed in developments under strict state management. In many countries government housing projects have the feel of a carceral space and are closely monitored by the police, various kinds of government officials and local party structures. 


When governments have much more power than the people they rule the explusion of the poor from the cities is, as in Zimbabwe, unlawful and violent. When governments face some sort of popular counter-power, as in some cities in Brazil, the preferred tactic is to displace the poor more gradually by bringing their housing into the market. Once housing is brought into the market poor people living on well located land are inevitably displaced by the rich without the state having to send in the men with guns.


In South Africa, we all know that the regulation of space was central to apartheid. Certain places were reserved for certain kinds of people. This was part of the strategy for creating different kinds of people and it was enforced by a dedicated bureaucracy backed up by armed force. What is less well remembered is that the forced removals that created apartheid cities were often justified by the state in the name of  ‘hygiene’, ‘development’ and ‘eradicating slums’. It is also important to remember that apartheid spatial division was undone to a significant extent before the end of apartheid by the actions of ordinary people. Sometimes people had organised themselves politically to claim and hold land in or close to the cities and sometimes people were just trying to make their own individual way in the world. But in both cases apartheid was being undone from below.


In post-apartheid South Africa racism is proscribed and everyone enjoys freedom of movement in principle. But in practice the post-apartheid state has pursued a development agenda that is both elite and authoritarian with the result that violent forced removals have returned with a vengeance.  The state’s developmental agenda is an elite driven agenda because it is organised around the assumption that allowing the rich to become richer at the direct expense of the poor is ultimately in the interests of society as a whole. This is the assumption that lay behind the attempt to evict the poor from flats in inner city Johannesburg and attempts to evict shack dwellers from well located land in places like Joe Slovo in Cape Town, Lusaka in Durban and Makause in Johannesburg. This is the assumption that lies behind the Slums Act in KwaZulu-Natal, an act that is a full fledged assault on the right of poor people to hold urban land appropriated in the popular struggles against apartheid.


The state’s developmental agenda is authoritarian because there is very seldom anything remotely approaching open and honest discussion with poor communities before development projects are imposed on them. In many cases forced removals are carried out in violation of the law and with considerable state violence. 


The return to forced removals in post-apartheid South Africa has often been obscured in the elite public sphere, including much of civil society, by the preponderance of an overwhelmingly technocratic concept of development. This technocratic approach tends to assume that development is something that can be measured by an auditing firm when in fact it is something that should be negotiated between communities and the state. So the crisis of the post-apartheid city is reduced to a housing crisis and a service delivery crisis with the result that it is assumed that progress can be measured by counting the ‘delivery’ of ‘housing units’ and ‘service connections’ to ‘beneficiaries. 


But the fact is that while the ‘delivery’ of a government house can sometimes be a major step forward for the ‘beneficiary’ at other times it can be a disaster. If a person in a well located shack is moved to a house far out of the city and away from work, schools and friends and family she may experience this as a major and sometimes even catastrophic set back.


The idea of ‘The Right to the City’ is a useful concept that can help us to think outside of the technocratic logic of ‘delivery’. It is an idea that emerged from popular struggles in France in the late 1960s and has since been taken up with particular vigour and effectiveness by popular movements in South America.


The essential idea is that cities are places of opportunity and possibility which shape us and are shaped by us. The idea of the right to the city asserts a collective right to the city. This means that everyone has the right to live in the city, to access the city and to change the city. The right of everyone to an urban life means that the social value of land has to be prioritised over its commercial value if this right is to be realised for the poor. The right of women to be safe in the city, the right for safe, convenient and affordable transport, the right to public space with public toilets, drinking fountains and benches, the right to pursue a livelihood in the city and so on all need to be similarly protected. The right to shape the city means that ordinary people have the right to organise and to challenge the power that state and capital exercise over the development of cities.


The idea of the right to the city is a vision that replaces the always exclusionary and always brutal vision of the world class city competing with others to attract capital with a democratic vision of the city that fully belongs to all who live in it. It is an idea that could enrich our public conversation considerably.

Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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