Month: February 2015

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Claiming the right to the city

This article was published in the YO!Mag //

Paris 1968, Madrid 2011, Los Angeles 1992, Cairo 2012, Istanbul 2013. Different times, different places, but still with a common image: youth protests against the established system in symbolic urban spaces. Cities are icons of power struggles over space, politics and economy.

In his book “Rebel Cities” (2013), the urban geographer David Harvey explores these processes and analyses how to claim a right to the city is to claim some kind of power over shaping the processes of urbanisation and the ways in which our cities are made and remade. The issue of the right to the city is key to understand the current financial and economic system, especially in the light of the current economic crisis.

In the current global landscape, the important and expanding labour of making and sustaining urban life is increasingly carried out by insecure, often part-time and disorganised low-paid labour, mostly composed of young people. The so-called “precariat” has displaced the traditional “proletariat”. The mass of humanity is concentrated in cities with an ever-increasing process of urbanization. It is not the case however, that youth unemployment is mostly concentrated in the city in the same way.

Who can therefore, claim the right to the city? According to Harvey, Financiers and developers can claim it and have every right to do so. By this logic, so can the homeless, the sans-papiers and young people. This has been the case in several confrontations that have happened so far, as evoked earlier in the still-images opening the article.

In the realm of ideas, a key resource and touchstone is “Le droit à la ville” (Right to the City) a book published in 1968 by French intellectual and philosopher Henri Lefebvre. In the sphere of human rights, this powerful idea was adopted by the World Urban Forum and elaborated into the World Charter of the Right to the City in 2004.

The right to the city therefore, becomes not only a theoretical speculation but also a committed movement. Out of desire to have a stronger movement for urban justice, civil society mobilise on the issue. Young activists and youth organisations are often at the forefront.

In the USA, for example, the right to the City alliance (www.rightstothecity.org) emerged in 2007 as a unified response to gentrification and a call to halt the displacement of low-income people, marginalised LGBTQ communities, and young people of colour from their historic urban neighborhoods. They seek to create regional and national impacts in the fields of housing, human rights, urban land, community development, civic engagement, criminal justice, environmental justice and more.

In the realm of political action therefore, the right to the city claims a new kind of urban politics that asserts that everyone, particularly the disenfranchised, not only has a right to the city but as inhabitants, have a right to shape it, design it, and operationalise an urban human rights agenda.

The right to the city has to therefore be a claim by all citizens, without distinction. In particular, young people have to claim it. Cities must be built for them and they are the key to adapt cities for future generations. Today, young people have to mobilise for their future, as it is currently happening for example in Spain.

Spain is one of the places where the real-estate bubble has sat at the roots of the current economic crisis. The impact on young people has been dramatic with more than 50% of Spain’s youth unemployed. A report published by the Spanish Youth Council showed that a young person needs more than the 80% of his/her salary to opt to live autonomously, without parental support. In a country where the unemployment rate for people aged less than 25 years was in July 2013 more than 56%, the role of youth organisations’ is more important than ever. Bearing in mind that Spanish Constitution includes the ´right to adequate housing´ and the only way to enjoy it is to be able to be fully autonomous, young people are in danger in Spain.

According to Fernando Encinar, chief of the studies department at the real estate company idealista.com, “the housing market has been displacing the demand from ownership to rent in the last period with a high rise in rent costs. Many young people are finding the only resort in shared apartments. This option is traditionally linked to the student period but now the average age in shared apartments in Spain is 29 years old, a figure that has been slowly growing in the past 5 years”.

In this situation there is also a general threat to the democratic institutions that allowed youth movements to take part to urban policies. Spain used to be a flagship of youth participation through strong and well-established local youth councils. Nowadays, the current government is systematically shutting down the local youth councils. A policy culminated with a fatal threat to the National Youth Council with the announcement of its winding up in recent months. The Spanish Youth Movements are facing a huge challenge to claim back the right to the city though, as well as, more widely, the right to participate.