Right to the city: can this growing social movement win over city officials?
From the Taksim Square and Nuit Debout protests to bank takeovers in Barcelona and women’s workshops in Delhi, the pressure for more inclusive cities is mounting. As the UN gears up for Habitat III, will governments listen?
On a grey and drizzly April morning just steps away from the University of Barcelona, dozens of men and women, holding protest banners and wearing slogan-emblazoned T-shirts, stormed into a branch of CatalunyaCaixa bank, chanting “We will never be defeated!”
Within a matter of minutes, the floor was scattered with paper, the walls plastered in posters and stickers. The room was charged with the anger and joy of protest. Bank employees sat sheepishly in a corner, as the protesters continued to sing and shout; police stood across the street, watching.
The protesters were part of La PAH (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, or “Mortgage Victims Platform”), a grassroots movement made famous when its former spokeswoman, Ada Colau, was elected Barcelona mayor. PAH campaigns against the tenant evictions and mortgage repossessions that have swept Spain following the financial crisis.
The group has claimed to have stopped thousands of evictions, and their “action” on 5 April was part of their latest campaign, against the investment banking firm Blackstone Group, which according to PAH bought 90,000 mortgage assets from CatalunyaCaixa and began trying to evict people. “We occupy banks very often, maybe once a week,” said PAH member Santi Mas de Xaxàs. “In Barcelona, private interests and speculators – both national and international – are pushing people out. The banks are being protected while people’s rights are being violated. We fight against all this, and for the right to decent housing.”
These evictions – largely done in the name of private sector-led “regeneration” – are merely one part of a wider whole, in which cities are becoming ever more exclusive. The group’s protest at the bank deliberately coincided with the latest United Nations’ Habitat III “thematic meeting” held at the University of Barcelona, which discussed the future of public space and housing. It’s all building to October’s main, high-profile summit in Quito, the first Habitat summit in 20 years. Much has changed since the last iteration, Habitat II, in 1996, and this year’s event – tasked with putting forward a “new urban agenda” – seeks to align urban policies worldwide with the major challenges facing cities and their inhabitants.
It comes at a critical time. Spanish grassroots groups such as PAH and the “corrala” movement of people living in abandoned buildings are being joined by countless more around the world, such as the Focus E15 mothers fighting their evictions by occupying the Carpenter’s Estate in Stratford, east London, all demanding more or less the same thing: a fairer, more democratic city in the face of rampant property speculation and privatised public space.
The call to arms at the Habitat III meeting reflected this desire for inclusivity: all people should have equal access to public services, to housing, to public space; all should be able to participate in shaping places that include everyone. “Speculation is turning public spaces into contested spaces and generating inequalities,” Barcelona mayor Ada Colau told the Habitat III meeting. “Gaps between citizens are being widened. Public spaces should be for the public good.”
As the conversation continues at the level of UN-Habitat meetings, so the actions continue on the ground in cities across the world. What the protesters want is their “right to the city”, as notably championed by British geographer David Harvey, who called it “the exercise of a collective power to reshape the process of urbanisation”. Now, as Harvey explains, that “right” is mostly restricted to a small political and economic elite who shape cities after their own desires.
Some city governments are waking up to the idea, though. São Paulo has a Right to the City Coordination, established as part of their relatively new Municipal Secretariat for Human Rights and Citizenship (SMDHC), which aims to create public policies for a more inclusive, participative city. This is perhaps unsurprising in Brazil, a country in which the City Statute law, passed in 2001, enshrines the right to the city in the form of a new legal-urban order to provide land access and equity in Brazil’s large metropolitan centres. The law seeks to prioritise the social, rather than commercial, function of urban land.
“We know that society is demanding new forms of participation,” says Esther Madeline LeBlanc, the deputy coordinator of the initiative in São Paulo. “The right to the city is important in assuring human rights, and must be realised with more social participation, ensuring a democratic administration of the city. We want a city in which public space is central in social interaction among all citizens: a city made for people.”
It is in public space – the street, the square, the park – that this right to the city is most often voiced and demanded. The protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York, the umbrella revolution in the streets of Hong Kong and now the Nuit Debout protests in Paris’ Place de la République: public space is the threatened sphere in which citizens can demand change. And these movements have in turn given the issue of public space more visibility.
A key concern is giving all groups a say in shaping the kind of city they want to see. The Because I am a Girl urban programme, for example, aims to improve safety for adolescent girls in cities, by involving them in workshops and activities where they can voice and map how their public spaces and transport networks make them feel unsafe, and what improvements could be made. At the same time, it builds their capacity for meaningful participation in urban development and governance: girls are encouraged to review existing city policies and discuss how to amend them. The programme is currently active in five cities: Delhi, Hanoi, Kampala, Cairo and Lima.
“We need a multitude of perspectives in participation to ensure we are building inclusive, resilient cities with social cohesion,” says Kathryn Travers, director of Women in Cities International, who have partnered with Plan International and UN-Habitat on the programme. Enabling these girls to have a say in shaping better public spaces is critical in a context where women around the world continue to face harassment and violence in the urban realm: of the girls that the programme have worked with, 24% of them said that they never feel safe in public places. “It’s crucial that women and girls are consulted,” Travers adds. “Gender gaps in cities lead to exclusion in public spaces. In some cities, upwards of 90% of women experience daily sexual harassment in public space.”
While the Because I am a Girl urban programme can only make policy recommendations, other governing bodies are moving towards greater public involvement in urban change. Pla Estel, a Barcelona-based initiative, is working with the city government on a “youth participatory process” that works to understand young people’s needs in public space and feed this back into the city’s plans. In Madrid, the council is undertaking 109 neighbourhood regeneration projects in participation with local residents.
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As Raquel del Rio, part of Madrid’s sustainable urban development team, explains when we meet in Barcelona, the city council has been helping people in investment-starved places to make improvements to their housing and public space, by providing them with access to funds and other resources. Larger assembly meetings are also held with all of Madrid’s neighbourhood districts to establish what improvements people want to see locally. And there has been massive public involvement in the revitalisation of the Plaza de España in the city centre: more than 30,000 ideas from citizens have been gathered, and later this year the public will vote on which scheme they want to be taken forward. It’s the biggest participation project ever in Madrid.
The goal, in other words, is for trashing bank branches to become a thing of the past. Again and again, better involvement of citizens in urban development was recommended at the Habitat III meeting as the key to achieving more inclusive cities. “We need meaningful, transparent, participatory processes,” said Puvendra Akkiah, a planner for the city of Durban. “There are no viable public spaces without communities, and no viable communities without public space: public space is a generator of democratic cities.” But until those public spaces are more accessible, housing more inclusive and cities more democratically managed, these occupations and protests are likely to continue unabated.
Photo: People gather in Istanbul’s Taksim Square to protest the development of Gezi Park, 2013. Source: ZUMA / Rex Features.