Social Authorship and The Right to the City


Via John Fekner. Presidential Candidate Ronald Reagan in South Bronx. AP/Photo Wide World Photos (c) 1980

In a previous post I mentioned that the “right to the city” was a recurring notion in urban studies. David Harvey popularized this, and one of the selected readings in my textbook is a 2003 version of his work from the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. Harvey is a very prominent urban geographer, social theorist, and leading advocate of the idea of fighting urban inequality by establishing a new right to the city. By ‘right’ he refers to claims made by people with unequal ability to shape the “processes of urbanization” in a city (specifically; capitalist accumulation and class struggle, as he explains in this earlier piece). Below is the beginning of a more extended version of his argument in New Left Review from the fall of 2008.

We live in an era when ideals of human rights have moved centre stage both politically and ethically. A great deal of energy is expended in promoting their significance for the construction of a better world. But for the most part the concepts circulating do not fundamentally challenge hegemonic liberal and neoliberal market logics, or the dominant modes of legality and state action. We live, after all, in a world in which the rights of private property and the profit rate trump all other notions of rights. I here want to explore another type of human right, that of the right to the city. Has the astonishing pace and scale of urbanization over the last hundred years contributed to human well-being? The city, in the words of urban sociologist Robert Park, is:

man’s most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself. [1]

The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from that of what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire. The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.

Crucial to Harvey’s argument is understanding that the history of this right to the city, and the ability to mold the urban process, has been enmeshed within property rights and the development of extreme capital accumulation. In modernity, then, this right has largely been exercised by those with the power and money to shape the spatial structure of the city. Harvey challenges the status quo, of course, and advocates (in my textbook copy, at least) for the disenfranchised to re-imagine it as a “right to remake ourselves by creating a qualitatively different kind of urban sociality.” The pathway to changing this paradigm is, unsurprisingly, some form of political and social organization towards a more egalitarian view of the city.

The concept, as conceived by Harvey, is a part of a broader critique of capitalism and ‘neo-liberal’ practices outside of (though certainly related to) the scope of my focus on space and social visibility. Yet these two aspects, that the right to the city entails access and agency, and that this is a common, collective, right to reshape the socio-spatial environment are relevant.

That is, they both speak to the problem of unequal recognition in the public realm and the struggle for marginalized segments of society to exercise meaningful influence on the social world. In a broader sense we see this divergence reflected in politics and policy. Policymakers tend to prioritize the concerns of the wealthy, while our politics panders to stereotypes of those in poverty rather than their material reality. The success of anti-poverty programs are largely ignored in the public consciousness, and sometimes even their existence is only acknowledged in the pursuit of delegitimizing their effectiveness. The micro-level component to this social estrangement is exactly what I’ve been studying; spatial exclusion on the basis of race, class, and gender; public places remade by those with the market power and privilege to regulate and control the presence and behavior of those they consider distasteful.

Harvey fastens this right to the city, and for good reason, but it could apply to any context where socioeconomic inequality is reproduced. What he and others advocate is more than simply claiming a right to place and having it remake us in return; it’s also a call to understand that nothing about the status quo is naturally ordained or inevitable. It’s an appeal to remember our own authorship of the social and spatial world, or as one of my professors once put it, a recognition that “the single most powerful argument for the legitimacy of the current social system is the mere fact of its existence.”


One response to “Social Authorship and The Right to the City

  1. Pingback: “It’s just extra people being in a place they don’t belong.” | Punditocracy·

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