Right to the city

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Leszek Kolakowski and Henri Lefebvre in 1971
Poor children from a demolished construction workers' slum look at their well-to-do neighbours in Hyderabad

The Right to the City is a concept and slogan that emphasizes the need for inclusivity, accessibility, and democracy in urban spaces. The idea was first articulated by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre in his 1968 book Le Droit à la Ville,[1][2] in which he argued that urban space should not be solely controlled by market forces, such as commodification and capitalism but should be shaped and governed by the citizens who inhabit it.

The concept of the Right to the City has been taken up by a variety of social movements and urban activists around the world, who use it as a rallying cry for greater social justice and democracy in the urban environment. The Right to the City can encompass a variety of demands, including demands for government subsidized housing, access to public space, participation in urban governance, and laws against displacement and gentrification, all of which aim to address spatial inequalities in urban areas.[3]


Makeshift house in Tokyo

In his first inception of the concept, Lefebvre paid specific emphasis on the effects that capitalism had over “the city”, whereby urban life was downgraded into a commodity, social interaction became increasingly uprooted and urban space and governance were turned into exclusive goods.[4] In opposition to this trend, Lefebvre raised a call to “rescue the citizen as main element and protagonist of the city that he himself had built” and to transform urban space into “a meeting point for building collective life”.[4]

Due to the inequalities produced by the rapid increase of the world urban population in most regions of the world, the concept of the right to the city has been recalled on several occasions since the publication of Lefebvre’s book as a call to action by social movements and grassroots organizations. In their appeal for “their right to the city”, local mobilizations around the world usually refer to their struggle for social justice and dignified access to urban life to face growing urban inequalities (especially in large metropolitan areas). The right to the city has had a particular influence in Latin America and Europe, where social movements have particularly appealed to the concept in their actions and promoted local instruments for advancing its concrete understanding in terms of policy-making at the local and even national level.[5][6] An example of how the notion of right to the city has gained international recognition in the last years could be seen in the United NationsHabitat III process, and how the New Urban Agenda (2016) recognized the concept as the vision of “cities for all”.[7]

Lefebvre summarizes the idea as a "demand...[for] a transformed and renewed access to urban life".[8][9] David Harvey described it 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. 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.[10]

Recent popular movements[edit]

Abahlali baseMjondolo assembly
The Poor People's Alliance outside the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg in 2009

A number of popular movements, such as the shack dwellers' movement Abahlali baseMjondolo in South Africa,[11] the Right to the City Alliance in the United States,[12] Recht auf Stadt,[13] a network of squatters, tenants and artists in Hamburg, and various movements in Asia and Latin America,[14] have incorporated the idea of the right to the city into their struggles.

In Brazil the 2001 City Statute wrote the Right to the City into federal law.[15]

More recently, scholars have proposed a 'Digital Right to the City',[16][17] which involves thinking about the city as not just bricks and mortar, but also digital code and information.[18]

Migrants' and refugees' right to the city[edit]

Last year, inspired by the migrants' and refugees' squats in the center of the cities (like Athens refugee squats and other european cities) created a renewed interest on the right to the city. According to Tsavdaroglou and Kaika (2021) in the case of Athens "the refugees’ practices for collective production of alternative housing (e.g. clandestine squats) share many characteristics in common with what Lefebvre identified as claiming the right to the city: namely, freedom and socialisation, appropriation against private property, habitation. Claiming freedom, many of the refugees refuse to accept the spaces allocated to them in state-run camps at the city’s outskirts as their living spaces and relocate to the city centre. In search of alternative forms of habitation, they enact appropriation against private property institutions and practices, which often take the form of squats of abandoned buildings in the city centre in collaboration with local solidarity groups. Once occupied, these buildings become novel forms of habitation with strong elements of commoning and cohabitation. Hundreds of newcomers experiment with these forms of co-living and togetherness, often together with local and European activists. Apart from meeting housing needs, these housing forms become significant tools for refugees to participate in the urban social and political life. Therefore, though precarious, vulnerable and ephemeral, these new forms of cohabitation produced by refugees claim a right to the city; they act, ‘cry and demand’ (Lefebvre, 1996 [1968]: 173) freedom of movement, appropriation of housing, cohabitation and collective participation in a ‘renewed urban life’ (Lefebvre, 1996 [1968]: 158). Given these characteristics, we argue that the Lefebvrian concept of the right to the city is most appropriate for understanding and explaining the refugees’ self-organised housing practices."[19]


The concept has nonetheless received some criticism and concerns on how the original vision of Henri Lefevbre could be reduced to a “citizenship vision”, focused on the mere implementation of social and economic rights in the city leaving aside its transformatory nature and the concept of social conflict behind the original concept.[20][21] Marcelo Lopes de Souza has for instance argued that as the right to the city has become "fashionable these days", "the price of this has often been the trivialisation and corruption of Lefebvre's concept"[22] and called for fidelity to the original radical meaning of the idea.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Purcell, Mark (October 2002). "Excavating Lefebvre: The right to the city and its urban politics of the inhabitant". GeoJournal. 58 (2–3): 99–108. CiteSeerX doi:10.1023/B:GEJO.0000010829.62237.8f. JSTOR 41147756. S2CID 18096395. Pdf.
  2. ^ Unger, Knut (14 February 2009). ""Right to the City" as a response to the crisis: "Convergence" or divergence of urban social movements?". Reclaiming Spaces. Archived from the original on 10 March 2012.
  3. ^ "David Harvey: The Right to the City. New Left Review 53, September-October 2008". newleftreview.org. Retrieved 2018-06-14.
  4. ^ a b Swing, Capitán. "El derecho a la ciudad | Capitán Swing". capitanswing.com (in European Spanish). Retrieved 2018-06-14.
  5. ^ "Competitive Metropolises and the Prospects for Spatial Justice | CISDP". www.uclg-cisdp.org. Retrieved 2018-06-14.
  6. ^ "What Is The Right to the City? | RioOnWatch". www.rioonwatch.org. 16 October 2013. Retrieved 2018-06-14.
  7. ^ Colau, Ada (2016-10-20). "After Habitat III: a stronger urban future must be based on the right to the city". the Guardian. Retrieved 2018-06-14.
  8. ^ Lefebvre, Henri (1996), "The right to the city", in Kofman, Eleonore; Lebas, Elizabeth (eds.), Writings on cities, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell, p. 158, ISBN 9780631191889.
  9. ^ Attoh, Kafui (October 2011). "What kind of right is the right to the city?". Progress in Human Geography. 35 (5): 669–685. doi:10.1177/0309132510394706. S2CID 144977403.
  10. ^ Harvey, David (September–October 2008). "The right to the city". New Left Review. II (53): 23–40.
  11. ^ Abahlali_3 (17 January 2013). "S'bu Zikode & Richard Pithouse debating Pallo Jordan on the Record of the ANC – Oslo, 22 November 2012". abahlali.org. Abahlali baseMjondolo.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link) (Campaigns and Statements on The Right to the City.)
  12. ^ Leavitt, Jackie; Roshan Samara, Tony; Brady, Marnie (Fall 2009). "The Right to the City Alliance: time to democratize urban governance (blog)". Progressive Planning, Planners Network. Archived from the original on 2010-04-29.
  13. ^ Staff writer (2011). "Congress theses on The Right to the City". wiki.rechtaufstadt.net. Recht Auf Stadt.
  14. ^ Mayer, Margit (2012), "The "right to the city" in urban social movements", in Brenner, Neil; Marcuse, Peter; Mayer, Margit (eds.), Cities for people not for profit: critical urban theory & the right to the city, New York: Routledge, pp. 63–85, ISBN 9780415601771.
  15. ^ Staff writer (14 October 2011). "Implementing the Right to the City in Brazil". sustainablecitiescollective.com. Sustainable Cities Collective.
  16. ^ Joe Shaw and Mark Graham (15 February 2017). "Our Digital Rights to the City". meatspacepress.org. Meatspace Press.
  17. ^ Foth, Marcus; Brynskov, Martin; Ojala, Timo (2015). Citizen's Right to the Digital City: Urban Interfaces, Activism, and Placemaking. Singapore: Springer. ISBN 9789812879172.
  18. ^ Shaw, Joe; Graham, Mark (February 2017). "An Informational Right to the City? Code, Content, Control, and the Urbanization of Information". Antipode. 49 (4): 907–927. doi:10.1111/anti.12312.
  19. ^ Tsavdaroglou, Charalampos; Kaika, Maria (March 2021). "The refugees' right to the centre of the city: City branding versus city commoning in Athens". Urban Studies. 59 (6): 1130–1147. doi:10.1177/0042098021997009.
  20. ^ Delgado, Manuel (2018-03-19). "Elogio y rescate de Henri Lefebvre". El País (in Spanish). ISSN 1134-6582. Retrieved 2018-06-14.
  21. ^ Gorgens, Tristan; van Donk, Mirjam (2011). "From basic needs towards socio-spatial transformation: coming to grips with the 'Right to the City' for the urban poor in South Africa". isandla.org.za. The Isandla Institute. Pdf.
  22. ^ Lopes de Souza, Marcelo (May 2010). "Which right to which city? In defence of political-strategic clarity". Interface. 2 (1): 315–333. Pdf. Archived 2012-01-19 at the Wayback Machine

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]