Urban Citizenship: A Right to the City?

Christian Sowa, SOAS, University of London

 

The concept of urban citizenship is widely discussed at the moment. Debates are not limited to the sphere of academia; they are also present in many social movements such as Sanctuary Cities in the US or Solidarity Cities in Germany. The main subject of discussion focuses on citizenship having emancipatory potential on the urban level instead of the national one. In this way, it can challenge (national) border regimes, forms of discrimination and can lead to more just societies.

A tendency of mainstreaming urban citizenship is visible, especially when it comes to government initiatives. Many cities emphasize diversity and migrant life, but disregard discussing their precarious situation, that prevents them from actively participating in the city. More and more cities declare themselves as solidarity cities, but without addressing issues such as racial profiling and deportations, prevailing in these cities. For example, the city government of Berlin decided to join the European network “Solidarity Cities” in January 2019. Such initiatives are often framed as a way of counter-acting restrictive national policies, and creating alliances for more inclusive forms of belonging. However, since these initiatives do not often focus on structural issues of repression and exclusion, many attempts seem to be hardly more than a symbolical gesture to fancy up the image of city governments. Especially during times of entrepreneurial cities, 11Harvey, David (2001): “From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism. The Transformation of Urban Governance in Late Capitalism”, in: Spaces of Capital. Towards and Critical Geography, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 345-368. urban citizenship can be (mis-)used as a marketing slogan of a cosmopolitan city. As a consequence, the radical and emancipatory potential of urban citizenship is increasingly blurred and at risk of getting lost.

What is needed is a radical enactment of urban citizenship; not a formal implementation but a process towards it. A radical practice that would simultaneously challenge the border regime as well as neoliberal developments and forms of exploitation present in cities. In this essay, I will argue that understanding urban citizenship as a Right to the City can be a useful for emphasizing this radical enactment, and providing an answer to tendencies of mainstreaming that concept.

The essay starts by focusing on the concept of the Right to the City developed by Henri Lefebvre. Secondly, I discuss the implications of understanding urban citizenship as a Right to the City. On the one hand, both concepts share overlaps in their ideal vision of the city – but on the other hand, using Right to the City ideas pushes urban citizenship to a more radical and materialist critique of the status quo. A brief look at an empirical example and political practice shows that the combination of these debates is already practiced, yet it needs to be further developed for creating a radical enactment of urban citizenship.

The Right to the City

Shelter for refugees in Hellersdorf (Berlin) © Christian Sowa 2018

The urban is the central field of emancipation. This was a credo of the French philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991). Lefebvre considers the urban, which extends the administrative territory of the city and impacts the society as a whole, as possessing an ideal of coming together and of participating in urban life. He stated that, pre-capitalist cities partly enabled these forms of social life by being a place to meet and exchange. But with the emergence of capitalism this ideal vanished. Even if Lefebvre’s historical perspective has a slight tendency to romanticize the pre-capitalist order, his analysis of how capitalism shaped and continues to shape cities is very useful. It explains how a double process of urbanization and industrialization 22Lefebvre, Henri (1996): Writings on Cities, Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 70. created urban sprawls, suburbs and cities that were dominated by exchange rather than use value. The production and reproduction of capitalism became the maxim of cities. The needs and uses of city inhabitants were increasingly ignored, leading to alienation and ultimately to segregation. The high-rise buildings at the outskirts of French cities, the banlieues, are Lefebvre’s central empirical example of this process. Mostly working class people are housed in these huge apartment blocks as a way of reproducing themselves and the capitalist mode of production – instead of actively producing their city as inhabitants. 33Lefebvre, Henri (2003): The Urban Revolution, Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 156.

Nevertheless, based on dialectical thinking, Lefebvre did not see this process as absolute and total. Rather, it is always conflictual and contested: the city is a central space for the re-/production of capitalism and people are pushed out of the urban centers. However, at the same time, the city has the potential for change, for reclaiming the urban and for developing a new political subjectivity. Lefebvre describes this with the slogan of the Right to the City. The Right to the City is a radical answer to the misery in cities. It is not a romantic turn back to a pre-capitalist time, but a call to develop new forms of the urban. Additionally, it goes beyond a formal implementation of a legal right: the Right to the City is a “superior form of rights,” 44Lefebvre, Henri (1996): Writings on Cities, Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 173. a much larger social transformation. It means a life in the city not dominated by segregation and alienation, a practice based on access to and participation in the city, a practice of autogestion – possibly translated as radical self-governance, not in a neoliberal way of self-maximization but as a self-managed practice of solidarity and emancipation based on use value. These ideas, as Daniel Mullis has shown in the last edition of this magazine, have close ties to ideas of radical democracy. 55Mullis, Daniel (2018): “Vom Recht auf Stadt zur radikalen Demokratie“, in: engagée, #6/7, 28-33.

The many references to the Right to the City in academia 66Among others: Derive (2015): Henri Lefebvre und das Recht auf Stadt, in: Derive, Zeitschrift für Stadtforschung, Vol. 60, 3/2015; Harvey, David (2001): “From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism. The Transformation of Urban Governance in Late Capitalism”, in: Spaces of Capital. Towards and Critical Geography, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 345-368; Mitchell, Don (2003): The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space, New York: Guilford Press; Verso Books (eds.) (2017): The Right to the City: A Verso Report, Verso: London. as well as its use as a slogan by several urban social movements 77See e.g. Holm, Andrej; Gebhardt, Dirk (eds.) (2011): Initiativen für ein Recht auf Stadt: Theorien und Praxis Städtischer Aneignung, Hamburg: VSA-Verlag. indicates that Lefebvre and the Right to the City continue to be relevant. Cities have changed over the last 50 years and neoliberal planning looks much different to the planning in the 1960s. Processes such as gentrification popped up as a rather new phenomenon in cities. Nonetheless, Lefebvre’s analysis of how cities are shaped by exchange value, speculation and segregation seems to have intensified in neoliberal times.

Understanding Urban Citizenship as a Right to the City – A Shared Vision

Shelter for refugees in Zehlendorf (Berlin) © Christian Sowa 2019

How does this concept of a Right to the City connect to urban citizenship? How can we read urban citizenship as a Right to the City? In general, urban citizenship debates focus on the re-scaling of citizenship, of belonging and participating in societies, from the national to the urban scale. 88e.g. Darling, Jonathan (2017): “Forced migration and the city: irregularity, informality, and the politics of presence”, in: Progress in Human Geography, Vol. 41, 2, 178-198; Hess, Sabine; Lebuhn, Henrik (2014): “Politiken der Bürgerschaft: Zur Forschungsdebatte um Migration, Stadt und Citizenship”, in: Suburban, Vol. 2, 3, 11-33; Isin, Engin (ed.) (2000): Democracy, Citizenship and the Global City, London; New York: Routledge; Nicholls, Walter (2016): “Politicizing Undocumented Immigrants One Corner at a Time: How Day Laborers Became a Politically Contentious Group”, in: International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol. 40, 2, 299–320. A central question of these debates is whether cities can oppose the rather exclusionary logic of state-citizenship, whether urban citizenship can create new communities inside cities, of participation among people with different status and backgrounds. To further understand (urban) citizenship as acts, 99Isin, Engin; Nielsen Greg Marc (eds.) (2008): Acts of Citizenship, London; New York: Zed Books. our attention must turn away from a formally given rights and move towards the enactment of urban citizenship as a process.

This emancipatory outlook has similarities to the Right to the City approach and is discussed by several scholars. Mark Purcell argues that urban citizenship has the potential to create a political community based on inhabitance what he comprehends as a Right to the City. 1010Purcell, Mark (2003): “Citizenship and the Right to the Global City: Reimagining the Capitalist World Order”, in: International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol. 27, 3, 564-590. This community would create new democratic forms of participation in the city in which national citizenship would not matter. Liette Gilbert and Mustafa Dikeç connected the work of Lefebvre and Balibar and understood the Right to the City as a right to difference, not a right on paper, not a right to vote, but the enactment of full participation in the city. 1111Gilbert, Liette; Dikeç, Mustafa (2008): “Right to the City: Politics of Citizenship”, in: Goonewardena, Kanishka; Kipfer, Stefan; Milgrom, Richard; Schmid, Christian (eds.): Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Reading Henri Lefebvre, New York: Routledge. This enactment includes that all people can participate and live in the city not simply as a passive dwellers but as inhabitants and users of the city – no matter what passport or status a person holds.

Both urban citizenship and the Right to the City aim to create a new political community and focus on the city as a central place for this process. If we see urban citizenship as this radical practice, our focus turns away from essentializing migration as a thing in itself; rather, we address questions of participation and democracy in the city. It’s not about highlighting diversity in the city or about implementing a program to enhance low-level participation of migrants, but about actively reclaiming the city. Connecting urban citizenship to Right to the City ideas contributes to challenging the tendencies of mainstreaming urban citizenship.

The Need for a Critique of Material Conditions

Shelter for refugees in Zehlendorf (Berlin) © Christian Sowa 2019

While the emancipatory project of urban citizenship overlaps with Right to the City ideas, the foundations of both ideas differ. As Henrik Lebuhn shows, debates on the concept of urban citizenship are mainly based on a rather liberal discourse of individual rights, whereas the Right to the City is based on a much more Marxist and materialist approach. 1212Lebuhn, Henrik (2018): “Urban Citizenship: Politiken der Bürgerschaft und das Recht auf Stadt”, in: Vogelpohl, Anne; Michel, Boris; Lebuhn, Henrik; Hoerning, Johanna; Belina, Berd (eds.): Raumproduktionen II, Münster: Dampfboot, 120-135. From my point of view, this does not imply an absolute opposition of these analytical concepts. Instead, it points to the need to push ideas of urban citizenship with Lefebvre and the Right to the City.

A central question, indicating the conceptual differences mentioned above, is how to approach the ideal of a new political community inside a city. Many debates of urban citizenship tend to discuss this emancipatory outlook without looking at social inequality. Some of them are focusing on formal rights, but are not discussing how these rights are unequally experienced. Based on an analysis of capitalism in cities, the concept of the Right to the City allows us to focus on material conditions: Gentrification, segregation and evictions are affecting people on a daily basis and impacting how they can participate in urban life. Aspects such as housing and healthcare are crucial to let people become inhabitants and users of the city. We need to ask: who can participate in the city? What material base do you need to participate in the city? These questions, I argue, need to be raised in order to understand urban citizenship as an emancipatory project and as a radical practice. In this way, urban citizenship as a Right to the City can address both, border regimes and the nation state – as well as capitalist orders in cities and the material conditions of their inhabitants. This latter, being the preconditions for creating more inclusive forms of participation and belonging.

Many social movements are already enacting this radical form of urban citizenship. In Berlin, a Solidarity City movement is pushing for implementing an anonymous healthcare-card that would provide more equal healthcare for everyone, especially for illegalized people. Here, the analysis of material conditions is combined with a perspective of creating a city of solidarity. This example shows that there are political practices that include ideas of both the Right to the City and urban citizenship. Similarly, the Wilcke/Jungwirth, in their contribution to this edition, demonstrate that we need to put this example in a context with other, ongoing restrictions in the healthcare system. We need to see the call for a healthcare-card as a process rather than an end in itself. All in all, it is a praxis that needs to be continued and extended to other fields, such as housing.

Berlin is a city that is heavily transforming due to speculation and gentrification. Housing is a central issue for many of the city’s residents. Among them are about 30.000 refugees who are living in mass shelters, many of them for several years. These places are known for their sub-standards of living and for being primarily located at the very periphery part of the city. Even though many refugees are allowed to look for apartments in Berlin, the extreme scarcity of affordable housing makes it almost impossible to leave these shelters. Decent housing is crucial for becoming an inhabitant and user of the city. But the material conditions of living in mass shelters exclude large numbers of the city’s residents and prevent the emergence of a new political community of urban citizens. Instead of highlighting and celebrating the diversity of cities like Berlin, there is a need to address more fundamental issues. The question of refugee accommodation becomes a question of housing. In this way, urban citizenship as a Right to the City needs to include a call for housing for everyone. It needs to address the material conditions that allow people to participate in the city. For this project, the numerous housing initiatives in Berlin could create a viable connection to No-Border and Solidarity City movements. This would combine struggles for reclaiming the city and for a city for everyone. In this practice, an urban citizenship as a Right to the City emerges and at the same time sets a clear counter-point to the mainstreaming of that concept.

    Footnotes

  • 1Harvey, David (2001): “From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism. The Transformation of Urban Governance in Late Capitalism”, in: Spaces of Capital. Towards and Critical Geography, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 345-368.
  • 2Lefebvre, Henri (1996): Writings on Cities, Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 70.
  • 3Lefebvre, Henri (2003): The Urban Revolution, Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 156.
  • 4Lefebvre, Henri (1996): Writings on Cities, Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 173.
  • 5Mullis, Daniel (2018): “Vom Recht auf Stadt zur radikalen Demokratie“, in: engagée, #6/7, 28-33.
  • 6Among others: Derive (2015): Henri Lefebvre und das Recht auf Stadt, in: Derive, Zeitschrift für Stadtforschung, Vol. 60, 3/2015; Harvey, David (2001): “From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism. The Transformation of Urban Governance in Late Capitalism”, in: Spaces of Capital. Towards and Critical Geography, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 345-368; Mitchell, Don (2003): The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space, New York: Guilford Press; Verso Books (eds.) (2017): The Right to the City: A Verso Report, Verso: London.
  • 7See e.g. Holm, Andrej; Gebhardt, Dirk (eds.) (2011): Initiativen für ein Recht auf Stadt: Theorien und Praxis Städtischer Aneignung, Hamburg: VSA-Verlag.
  • 8e.g. Darling, Jonathan (2017): “Forced migration and the city: irregularity, informality, and the politics of presence”, in: Progress in Human Geography, Vol. 41, 2, 178-198; Hess, Sabine; Lebuhn, Henrik (2014): “Politiken der Bürgerschaft: Zur Forschungsdebatte um Migration, Stadt und Citizenship”, in: Suburban, Vol. 2, 3, 11-33; Isin, Engin (ed.) (2000): Democracy, Citizenship and the Global City, London; New York: Routledge; Nicholls, Walter (2016): “Politicizing Undocumented Immigrants One Corner at a Time: How Day Laborers Became a Politically Contentious Group”, in: International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol. 40, 2, 299–320.
  • 9Isin, Engin; Nielsen Greg Marc (eds.) (2008): Acts of Citizenship, London; New York: Zed Books.
  • 10Purcell, Mark (2003): “Citizenship and the Right to the Global City: Reimagining the Capitalist World Order”, in: International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol. 27, 3, 564-590.
  • 11Gilbert, Liette; Dikeç, Mustafa (2008): “Right to the City: Politics of Citizenship”, in: Goonewardena, Kanishka; Kipfer, Stefan; Milgrom, Richard; Schmid, Christian (eds.): Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Reading Henri Lefebvre, New York: Routledge.
  • 12Lebuhn, Henrik (2018): “Urban Citizenship: Politiken der Bürgerschaft und das Recht auf Stadt”, in: Vogelpohl, Anne; Michel, Boris; Lebuhn, Henrik; Hoerning, Johanna; Belina, Berd (eds.): Raumproduktionen II, Münster: Dampfboot, 120-135.

Darling, Jonathan (2017): “Forced migration and the city: irregularity, informality, and the politics of presence”, in: Progress in Human Geography, Vol. 41, 2, 178-198.

Derive (2015): Henri Lefebvre und das Recht auf Stadt, in: Derive, Zeitschrift für Stadtforschung, Vol. 60, 3/2015.

Gilbert, Liette; Dikeç, Mustafa (2008): „Right to the City: Politics of Citizenship“, in: Goonewardena, Kanishka; Kipfer, Stefan; Milgrom, Richard; Schmid, Christian (eds.): Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Reading Henri Lefebvre, New York: Routledge.

Harvey, David (2001): “From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism. The Transformation of Urban Governance in Late Capitalism”, in: Spaces of Capital. Towards and Critical Geography, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 345-368.

Hess, Sabine; Lebuhn, Henrik (2014): “Politiken der Bürgerschaft: Zur Forschungsdebatte um Migration, Stadt und Citizenship”, in: Suburban, Vol. 2, 3, 11-33.

Holm, Andrej; Gebhardt, Dirk (eds.) (2011): Initiativen für ein Recht auf Stadt: Theorien und Praxis Städtischer Aneignung, Hamburg: VSA-Verlag.

Isin, Engin (ed.) (2000): Democracy, Citizenship and the Global City, London; New York: Routledge.

Isin, Engin; Nielsen Greg Marc (eds.) (2008): Acts of Citizenship, London; New York: Zed Books.

Lebuhn, Henrik (2018): “Urban Citizenship: Politiken der Bürgerschaft und das Recht auf Stadt”, in: Vogelpohl, Anne; Michel, Boris; Lebuhn, Henrik; Hoerning, Johanna; Belina, Berd (eds.): Raumproduktionen II, Münster: Dampfboot, 120-135.

Lefebvre, Henri (1996): Writings on Cities, Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell Publishers.

______ (2003): The Urban Revolution, Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press.

Mitchell, Don (2003): The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space, New York: Guilford Press.

Mullis, Daniel (2018): “Vom Recht auf Stadt zur radikalen Demokratie“, in: engagée, #6/7, 28-33.

Nicholls, Walter (2016): “Politicizing Undocumented Immigrants One Corner at a Time: How Day Laborers Became a Politically Contentious Group”, in: International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol. 40, 2, 299–320.

Purcell, Mark (2003): “Citizenship and the Right to the Global City: Reimagining the Capitalist World Order”, in: International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol. 27, 3, 564-590.

Verso Books (eds.) (2017): The Right to the City: A Verso Report, Verso: London.

Wilcke, Holger; Jungwirth, Michel (2018):“Illegalisierte und Urban Citizens? Kämpfe um medizinische Versorgung in Berlin“, in: engagée, #8, 50-54.

Sowa, Christian: Urban Citizenship: A Right to the City?, first published in: engagée Journal #8 Urban Citizenship, 2019.

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