Who Owns the ‘Right to the City’? Moving Towards Urban Inclusivity

Who Owns the ‘Right to the City’? Moving Towards Urban Inclusivity

Henri Lefebvre’s famous idea, Right to the City, has stirred up numerous discussions as preparations for the Habitat III conference is in full swing. Right to the City has been interpreted and used in many different ways, often in the sense of human rights and access to urban resources. In his 1968 book Le Droit à la ville, Lefebvre proposed the novel definition of Right to the City as a “demand…[for] a transformed and renewed access to urban life”. David Harvey, Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the City University of New York further explains Right to the City  as follows:

“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…the freedom to make and remake our cities.”(Harvey, 2008)

The original definition of the right to the city goes beyond basic human rights and access to resources. It is a “renewed access to urban life,” one that empowers city dwellers’ to shape the city as they see fit through rights to participation and active civil engagement. Habitat III stress urban inclusivity through by commitments to address inequalities, but how does the right to the city contribute to urban inclusivity? What are some of the challenges faced by cities around the world to move towards inclusivity and rights to the city for their residents?

nail house

A “nail house” in Shanghai, China. A “nail house” refers to private housings belonging to “stubborn” private residents who refuse make space for development. This “nail house” was plastered with hundreds of portraits of Xi Jinping – China’s incumbent President — to protest against demolition of the house. It lasted only temporarily before being bulldozed to the ground. It was only temporarily spared from bulldozers. (Shanghaiist/Dominic Jackson)

In Chinese cities, giving access to a socioeconomically diverse population faces many challenges. They include: growing income gaps, massive rural-urban migration, rapid urbanization and poor urban planning. THe existence of urban villages and exclusive gated communities further complicate the process to promote equal access to resource. An urban village occurs when a rural community is “swallowed” by a nearby city’s expansion. A local city government purchases farmlands by force and converts them for urban use. To avoid the high cost of housing and employment arrangements, the government leaves the rural villagers a small patch of land to live. Despite skyscrapers blossoming in the surrounding area, villagers hold officially rural identities under the municipal administration system. Even though urban villagers hold residential rights “within the city”, their official identities belong to the Municipal Administration System, which excludes them from enjoying public services provided by the city. This means that they do not share the same basic access to resources, such as education, housing, and healthcare, as their urban neighbors. Urban villagers cannot seek help from the city when they are in trouble. Their garbage will not be collected by the central city service and their sewage stays rotten, isolated from the city’s sewer system. Their children would find little means to go to school given the lack of public transportation, let alone getting accepted by any school in the city.  

The hustle and bustle of the urban glory is irrelevant to urban villagers, whose identities do not belong and homes unrecognized by urban planning, infrastructure construction, administrative regulations or public policy. However, urban villages can also be a place of opportunities and transition. They are home to a growing number of rural-urban migrants searching for economic opportunities. As of 2011, 9 out of the 23 million residents in Shanghai are long-term migrants, almost 3 times the number in 2010.

On the other end of the social ladder is gated community, a type of residential community or housing estate deliberately fenced or walled off from the surrounding areas. Gated community is a microcosm in itself. They contain various amenities for their residents, including green space, gyms, spas (medicinal bath service with mineral-rich spring water) and saunas. These amenities are sufficient for residents to stay within the fences for most of their daily routines. They often have designated entrances for pedestrians, cars, and motorcycles.

In China, only affluent residents can afford apartments in gated communities. Critics of the gated community regard it as a brewer of  discrimination. However, to those who live there, the gated community symbolizes a hiding place, away from governmental control and  the city’s environment at large. The exclusiveness and sense of enclosure of these communities give residents a feeling of enhanced safety and autonomy. China is now hoping to restrict the creation of more gated communities  to improve city land use integration and ease traffic congestion. This proposal, however, has faced strong opposition from the public. Seventy-five percent of respondents in a 20,000 person poll were strongly against China’s plan to restrict gated communities, 65 percent citing safety as A major concern.

gated community

A typical gated community (Natalia/Always Frekking)

Residents in urban villages and gated communities differ vastly in their access to urban resource, but do they  possesses the right to the city that Lefebvre originally intended? Rural-urban migrants residing in urban villages are given the opportunities by cities to change themselves by climbing up the social ladder, yet are unrecognized as city residents and devoid of right to change and reshape the city. For affluent residents in gated communities, the heightened freedom and sense of security are contained only within the exclusive microcosms fenced off from the rest of the city network. If life within gate is desirable, it is limited in unconnected microhabitats divorced from the larger city environment, ultimately hurting a city’s effort for inclusion.

The Chinese government has prioritized the redevelopment of urban villages, often in the form of massive demolition. Interestingly enough, the theme of harmonious society in China has justified massive demolition of existing buildings in urban areas, including that of many urban villages, giving rise to “nail houses.” In developer’s term, a nail house is one that is rooted deeply into the ground like a nail and cannot be easily demolished. This term is applied, as a metaphor, to private housings that belong to “stubborn” private residents who refuse make space for development. In a harmonious society, any unfitting elements must be homogenized, or “harmonized”. “Nail houses”emerge as a form of resistance against the mandatory demolition by the local government. In an attempt to bring harmony to the society, governmental intervention unchecked by the protection of private property rights inevitably becomes a driver of inequality.

Gated communities can “shrink the notion of civic engagement and allow residents to retreat from civic responsibility” given that engagement in the larger city environment is no longer needed. Growth of these disconnected enclaves can gradually erode away communal urban experience. While rural migrants who lack power and capital are made dispensable in the making of harmonious Chinese cities, affluent city dwellers are only empowered as far as the gates extend. While residents in gated communities around the world have the latitude of fitting everything they desire for a well-off life into a microhabitat of enclaves, is power in their hands to influence the city as a whole? How do we envision inclusivity in cities when the physical space demonstrates a pattern of exclusion?