What urban Futures? (III) What Right to the City?

By João Morais Mourato

The 2019 annual conference of the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon focused on Urban Futures and a desirable transition from crisis to hope. Organized by the Urban Transitions Hub of ICS’s Environment, Territory and Society research group, the conference extended for 4 days mixing film screenings, guest lectures and debates. This post revisits some of the key ideas of one of these debates, where Melissa Garcia Lamarca, Jorge Malheiros and Pedro Magalhães, discussed the future of the right to the city.

Born out of the Situationist movement, Henri Lefebvre 1967’s le droit à la ville has grown into a global catchphrase, juggled by politicians, policymakers and activists alike. As David Harvey puts it, as a concept its appeal is intuitive its meaning elastic. It is an empty signifier, everything depends on who gets to fill it with meaning. The right to the city reads both as a cry and a demand, a working slogan and a political ideal in Lefebvre’s own words.

Fonte: Agência de Notícias da Prefeitura de Curitiba/Reprodução.

Lefebvre’s idea of the right to the city has since its publication crossed generations and hemispheres. It’s global echoes have been identified as one of the drivers of 1968’s Paris Student Riots and the New Social Movements, global urban policy debates, urban social movements, worldwide activist platforms, and in some cases, even if temporarily, inscribed in national constitutional frameworks.

However, as academia embraced the idea of the right to the city, alongside the discussion of a just city and spatial justice has evolved substantially against the backdrop of what Iris Marion Young called the five faces of oppression. Melissa and Jorge’s debate addressed this head on exploring how, civil rights of political representation, gender equality and identity or sexual orientation have coexisted and evolved through agonistic political conflict and social pressure shoulder to shoulder with property and housing rights in a wider discussion about what the right to the city should be and what it actually translates into. The question remains nonetheless about what distinctions political philosophers and legal scholars often draw between various kinds and forms of rights? How are these rights mobilized within scholarship on the right to the city, as well as the tensions and contradictions – with respect to rights – that arise therein?

This scenario is made all more complex if we factor in the current planetary Climate Emergency. The latter has reshaped and often deepened global inequality and environmental injustice landscapes. Against the backdrop of a growingly urbanized planet the question is therefore, how will this impact both existing and future rights to the city?

To this effect, Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright claim a new politics of rights is unavoidable. As outlined in their Climate Leviathan, these authors stress that while we struggle, as we must, to limit rapid climate change by mitigations great and small we also have to think carefully about its likely political consequences, because a world environment as radically changed as climate science suggests will have massive impacts on the way human life on earth is organized.

These authors state that political theorists have lagged behind on taking this discussion head on, just like climate scientists, etc. have done. The prospect of rapid environmental change has generally produced an insufficient theoretical response among mainstream “progressive” thinkers. Most of it is pious utopianism (ten simple ways to save the planet), an appeal to market solutions (cap and trade), the reach for the stars approach with no visible transition pathway (de-growth/well-being) or nihilism (we’re fucked) as Stephen Emmot’s 10 billion documentary portrays.

To make matters worse, there are no global political projects that seem even remotely able to trigger an awakening dynamic of change. Commenting on the debate Pedro Magalhães, set out to explore the notion that democracy itself seem to be experiencing a world wide challenge as the predominant political idea of the 20th century. In face of growing scenarios of polarized politics and disinformation populist strategies, the crisis-of-democracy literature offers little alternatives beyond what Jeddiah Purdy calls the normcore, a mere defense of the existing democratic and political norms.

Radical alternatives that make the case against democracy often focus on variations of Epistocracy, a system that concentrates political power in citizens according to their knowledge of public affairs. Joseph Stiglitz in his post-neoliberalism essay calls for the rise of a progressive left, which isn’t beholden to some form of the ideology that has (or should have) expired. In short, we seem to be stuck at a crossroads with no clear notion of where to head politically. However, what Hannah Arendt called the “awareness of the possibility of doomsday”, seems to make its first consistent local political impacts worldwide as climate change and the ecological crisis move closer to the center stage of politics often influencing polls.

“Młodzieżowy Strajk Klimatyczny Warszawa” by Greenpeace PLFonte: Creative Commons.

Nevertheless, despite widespread climate strikes in Europe, Extinction Rebellion-like movements and a slowly growing number of national parliaments declaring climate emergency and full decarbonization commitments by 2050, this climate momentum still seems hostage of an absent global political project. It’s somewhat disconcerting that, like Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright put it, despite our many political traditions we can fall back on none, and although we are saturated with experience and more competent at interpreting it than in any century before, we cannot use any of it. As Gramsci put it: the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born: in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

Although we need to understand the planet’s possible political-ecological futures without lapsing into environmental determinism, we can’t be shy to discuss forthcoming socio-ecological transformations and related political struggles. We must inquiry into how will climate politics affect different communities worldwide and what political-ecological futures may emerge in the face of a seemingly unstoppable planetary urbanization? In other words, what kind of politics and political mobilization may spring from or force the definition of the future right to the city?

This may well be one of the defining political questions of the 21st Century.

João Morais Mourato é investigador auxiliar no Instituto de Ciências Sociais da Universidade de Lisboa e vice-coordenador do Observa. joao.mourato@ics.ulisboa.pt



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