The Right to the City: urban space today

Written by Olivia Arigho-Stiles on . Posted in Current features, Features

”Sous les pavés, la plage!”   (Under the pavement, the beach!)

Paris, 1968


From Walter Benjamin to Virginia Woolf, cities have captured the imagination of philosophers, artists and critics grappling with the condition of (post)modernity. Oscillating between depictions of the city as a realm of Dickensian slums, vice and deprivation on the one hand, and a utopian vision of ordered social progress on the other, in recent years the urban space has also loomed large in policy-centred debates about economic growth, devolved governance and transnational capitalism. Urbanisation is presented as an inevitable facet of 21st century life.

But behind these debates is the spectre of gentrification. Synonymous in popular consciousness with bobo coffee bars, artisanal homebrew and vintage shops, the term was coined in 1964 by urban sociologist Ruth Glass to describe the complex processes involved in the displacement of poorer communities by the more affluent. Recent decades have seen a surge in urban anti-gentrification movements, including the vandalism of the ‘cereal café’ in London’s Shoreditch earlier this year.

However for Stephane Van Damme, Professor in the EUI’s History and Civilisation Department, the city has always been ‘’a very disputed place’’ and gentrification its underbelly. Ideas of reclaiming urban space in the face of increasing privatisation have been central to the emancipatory political movements which emerged in the late 20th century. It was Henri Lefebvre who famously conceived of ‘the right to the city’ in his 1968 work The Urban Revolution. Urban geographer David Harvey argues that this right to the city is ‘one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights’.

Van Damme traces the gentrifying impulse back to notions of social segregation which emerged through the social and municipal reforms of the 19th century. “You have the development of liberal governance and the idea that urban political elites want to impose a form of social control on the population. The discourse was very clearly about eradicating the slum and the dangerosity of the poor. There was a form of sanitisation of the city. Very strongly evident was the idea to ‘police’. For instance, the big avenues in Paris were linked to vision of controlling protest, and to avoid barricades.’’

In the mid-19th century Napoléon III commissioned Haussmann to reconfigure and ultimately transform the urban scale of Paris, creating wide boulevards to recreate Paris as a ‘city of light’. In doing so, Paris’s narrow streets which had been longstanding cradles of revolutionary ferment, were swept away. Urban planning would emerge, therefore, as a civic process with deeply ideological implications.

Van Damme sees continuities between these 19th century reforming trends and contemporary relations with the city. ‘’If you take what happened in Brixton recently [anti-gentrification protests], this is interesting. In the Brixton protest what is striking is the convergence of all the tensions you find in the metropolis; racial, economic claims and so on. It seems new, it’s very eclectic, but we need to be cautious because it’s not just anti-capitalistic, it is far more complex. It’s a legacy of what happened in the 19th century with the urban trajectory and the multiplication of urban inequalities.’’

Yet while the social inequalities plaguing the city may be as old as the proverbial hills, the city as a space conceived apart from the nation is conversely rather new. It sometimes seems as if cities have eclipsed the nation state around them. To speak of Tokyo, London, Paris or New York is to enter into a new vision of a ‘global city’ which is culturally autonomous and possesses a remarkable degree of political independence.

As s14053261861_f86cda9796_kuch Van Damme believes that cities are the driving force of economic growth in the 21st century. ‘’More and more cities are disconnected from their national framework. They are the centre of global capitalism. You have more and more, big cities like London and Paris which are states in themselves in terms of budgets and functionalities.’’

However Nicholas Mithen, a PhD researcher of the early modern period in the History and Civilisation department, and organiser of an interdisciplinary working group on cities , is sceptical of the ‘global city’ label and its suitability in capturing people’s lived reality of urban life. ‘’It suggests that there is a process of homogenisation where cities are becoming an international experience. I don’t think that’s convincing. Even though you seem the same brands and architecture, it doesn’t define people’s social life. There is somehow the myth of the city… the interesting dynamic is how that ideal affects and defines your material experience within the city.’’

Mithen additionally sees European integration as a trend which has contributed to powerful and autonomous cities by decentring the nation state. He sees the urban space as a lens through which wider political processes and social change are articulated. Because much power has been transferred to the EU as a supranational body, nation states no longer seem as important as they once were. This in turn has opened up new opportunities for cities to innovate policies and build connections with cities beyond national borders. ‘’I think the EU can provide that ground to empower cities in so far as it gets away from the binary of nation and local government, and rather it presents a multi-layered system which is much more in keeping with how people experience the world,’’ Mithen tells EUI Times.

Many of these new initiatives concern sustainability and ‘green’ growth which has served to blur the distinction between urban and rural. Many elements of the rural experience have indeed been incorporated within the parameters of the city. As Van Damme points out, ‘’this divide between city and country is no more so active. In fact more and more the utopia is to reinstall nature within the city with city gardens, city farms and so on.’’ This month it was announced for example, that a new park in Paris has been planned to run along the right bank of the Seine, expanding the number of public green spaces in the French capital.

But ‘greening’ the city is as socially contested as any other aspect of urban planning. Historically the drive for publicly maintained parks has been tightly linked to support for common spaces, as opposed to the private and gated. But in recent years, green initiatives have also contributed to a process of ‘’eco-gentrification’’. Van Damme identifies an acute tension between the reintroduction of nature to cities and the potential for existing inequalities to be intensified. “There is a need not to use the environmental cause to expel people outside the metropolis, or to reinvent the ghettoes like in Paris’’ he warns. New York’s famous high-line presents an indication of this; having opened in 2009, it attracts over five million visitors annually. This has pushed up rents and led to the closure of many small, independent businesses, altering the cultural and economic landscape of the area. Many critics hence point out that introducing green spaces to communities can often entrench patterns of social segregation, rather than subverting them.

It is clear therefore, that the city in the 21st century remains unsettled and deeply contested terrain. Who owns the urban space and who controls it are central questions in today’s policy debates at national and supranational levels. The skylines of cities may have altered over centuries but the concerns of the inhabitants remain familiar.

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