Friday, April 22, 2011

The right to the city...

A couple of weeks ago, I went along to the Right to the City conference organised by Lee Stickells and Zanny Begg at Sydney Uni. The conference brought together a bunch of thinkers and practitioners to explore the possibilities and promises of emergent forms of do-it-yourself and 'micro-spatial' activism in cities.

The keynote speech on the Friday night by Margaret Crawford from UC Berkeley, who talked about her 'Everyday Urbanism' research, was well attended and generated a lively discussion. The good numbers and energy carried on nicely into the conference the next day. I certainly got heaps out of it. As one of the presenters said, it was great to be attending a conference on this theme here in Sydney, rather than reading about one taking place in some other city ... nice one Lee and Zanny!

Of the discussions I was involved in during the day, there were some interesting common themes to emerge....

First, there was some debate about whether the right to the city was a useful frame through which to think about urban politics. Some worried that assertions of rights to the city were a kind of zero-sum game, in which the achievement of rights for some is inevitably at the expense of others. So, for example, is community gardeners or artists achieve a 'right to the city', will this be at the expense of the homeless or those needing affordable housing? 

I think I understand where this concern is coming from, but I wonder if it reflects a pretty narrow interpretation of the 'right to the city'? For me, the right to the city is not just about who gets the right to occupy space. Rather, it's about how decisions about the uses of urban space are made, and how 'authority of the authorities' is constructed. This is the kind of question that Jacques Rancière suggests we explore, when he talks about the different 'titles to govern' that hold in a given society: what gives someone the right to govern the city? Is the right to the city founded on private property rights? Is the right to the city best conferred on those who have acquired technical and/or professional expertise in architecture or planning? Should those folks who can prove they are 'creative' have special rights to the city? Or, as Henri Lefebvre and his followers such as Mark Purcell suggest, should rights to the city ultimately have no other foundation than inhabitance of the city?

Second, there was plenty of debate about the merits of grassroots, 'micro-spatial' practices for forging a new kind of radical urban politics. There were those people who were really optimistic about various things they see going on around them ... ‘we turned a parking spot into a garden!’, ‘we made art out of dumpsters!’, ‘we had this temporary installation of a disaster hut that dramatised our ability to respond to climate change!’, ‘we used billboards to write back to the city!’ (I take responsibility for the last one, as my paper included a discussion of BUGA UP as a kind of grassroots urban politics...!).

And then you had the critics - ‘this is all just bourgeois art projects!’, ‘this doesn’t really challenge ‘the system’!’, ‘this doesn’t fix inequality’, ‘this isn’t the revolution!’, etc.

This is obviously a bit of a caricature. But both the uncritical celebration and the critical dismissal at either end of this spectrum seem to me to be dead ends. This was dramatised for me in a chat I got into with a guy who was involved in the green bans back in the day. At the conference, when people wanted to talk critically about the limits of the ‘micro-politics’ of the city, some of them offered the green bans as a contrasting example of something that was ‘truly’ or ‘properly’ radical. And I think they're right, actually. But as he pointed out to me afterwards, when he used to turn up to these kinds of conferences in the 1970s while the bans were on, there was always a bunch of people on hand to say that the green bans themselves were just bourgeois environmentalism, didn’t really bring down capitalism, etc. (... and he even recalled being told contemptuously by an academic: ‘you obviously haven’t read Althusser!’!!!).
The critics who want to consider the limitations of contemporary urban interventions are absolutely right to want to do so – we should be asking the question about whether they constitute an effective form of urban politics. But at their worst, these criticisms really lack a framework which actually provides an account of what that politics might look like ... and they have absolutely nothing to offer on how a more radical/transformative urban politics might actually be constituted/enacted.
I think we do need a framework for thinking past both of the 'celebratory' and 'critical' positions, to help us reflect on how interventions at a variety of scales can actually perform an urban politics of equality which confronts the ‘authority of the authorities’ with another kind of authority — the authority of anyone and everyone based on their inhabitance of the city. I've been working with Mark Davidson at Clark Uni thinking about the usefulness of Jacque Rancière's work on politics and democracy in this context ... he presented a first version of a paper we're writing on this at the American Association of Geographers conference last week. So, there'll be more on that soon hopefully...

1 comment:

  1. Hi Kurt--great post, thanks for sharing that run-down of the conference. The kind of debates you describe sound like a lot of the ones I hear. I do think we need to get away from the liberal-democratic rights talk, but that was never how HL framed the idea anyway, so simply going back to his formulation should help with that problem. I am working on a piece that makes that argument less necessary to rehearse...maybe. Best, Mark