Mexico City Creates Charter for the Right to the City

By Jill Wigle and Lorena Zárate

A new collective tool for social mobilization and democratic planning has been established in Mexico City. On July 13, 2010 Mayor Marcelo Ebrard of the Federal District of Mexico signed the Mexico City Charter for the Right to the City.

In a recent article in the New Left Review, Emir Sader argues that Latin America, once a “privileged territory for neoliberalism,” has now become “the leading arena not only for resistance but for the construction of alternatives” to neoliberalism. One of these alternatives includes the Right to the City, a rights-based approach to urban life with strong roots in the Latin American region in general and in urban social movements in particular. Although it has a long history, the first World Social Forum in 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, was a key moment in the articulation of and mobilization for the right to the city. A central component of the right to the city is the insistence on the social function of property to produce more inclusive and just cities, shifting away from the prevailing situation of cities as key sites for capital accumulation and deepening socio-spatial segregation and displacement through market-led development.

The Right to the City is a burgeoning political project, research agenda and policy initiative of international agencies (such as UN-HABITAT and UNESCO), non-governmental organizations and social networks (including the Habitat International Coalition, to which Planners Network belongs), activist alliances and even some governments (Brazil, for example).

In Mexico, the government of the Federal District joined this growing list of supporters with the signing of the Mexico City Charter for the Right to the City (see Figures 1 and 2). This was the culmination of a three-year advocacy process led by the Urban Popular Movement (Movimiento Urbano Popular, or MUP), with support from the Habitat International Coalition-Latin America (HIC-AL), the Mexico City Commission for Human Rights and the Coalition of Civil Society Organizations for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Espacio DESC), all of whom participated in drafting the charter. An estimated 3,500 citizens also participated in the elaboration of the charter through various events and consultations. The process for creating the charter reflects a key element of the right to the city—that it must include the right of people living in cities to participate in decisions that affect city life and the production of urban space. The implementation of the principles contained in the charter, however, will require a more sustained mobilization effort, underlining the importance of social movements in democratizing city planning and governance.

Figure 1:
Jamie Rello of the Urban Popular Movement speaks at the signing of the Mexico City Charter for the Right to the City, as Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard (with bended elbow, to the right) listens. 
Credit: Noe Pineda, HIC-AL 

Figure 2: 
Mayor Marcelo Ebrard signs theMexico City Charter for the Right to the City in the presence of Alejandra Barrales, head of the Legislative Assembly of the Federal District (right) and Edgar Elias Azar of the Superior Tribunal of the Federal District (left).
Credit: Noe Pineda, HIC-AL

Advances in the Mexico City Charter 
The Mexico City charter builds on the collective experience of similar initiatives, including Brazil’s City Statute of 2001, the Montreal Charter of 2006 and the World Charter on the Right to the City, now being developed. But the Mexico City charter has several characteristics worth noting. First, the initiative was advanced by the urban social movement “from below” and adopted by a city-level government. The charter also underlines important political and policy differences between the Federal District and the national government. Finally, the charter seeks to go beyond realizing human rights inthe city to also include a focus on realizing the collective right to the city (see Figure 3). The Mexico City Charter (2010) defines the right to the city as follows:

The right to the city is the equitable use (usufructo equitativo) of cities according to principles of sustainability, democracy, equity and social justice. It is a collective right of urban inhabitants that confers upon them the legitimate right to action and organization, based on respect of their differences, cultural expressions and practices, with the objective of exercising their right to self-determination and attaining an adequate standard of living. The right to the city is interdependent with other internationally-recognized human rights, including civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights as defined in international human rights treaties (authors’ translation).

The charter identifies six fundamental principles that incorporate an amalgam of human rights and collective rights understood as being interdependent and indivisible to promoting the right to the city. The charter puts forward a territorial approach to rights and democracy (i.e., representative, distributive and participatory), a strategic direction especially relevant now that there is a Human Rights Program for the Federal District. The charter conceives of urban inhabitants as the “subject” of the rights outlined in the charter and describes government agencies and elected representatives as being “subject to” the obligations to respect, protect and fulfill these rights through the creation of new laws and urban policies and/or the enforcement of existing ones. Like Brazil’s groundbreaking City Statute, the Mexico City charter also establishes new rights at a collective level, such as the social function of property. This is a key component of the right to the city that entails fundamental urban reforms and the redistribution and regulation of urban land for the purpose of constructing a more just and inclusive city. The charter also incorporates at least two important principles addressing the right to the city as first articulated by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre in the 1960s: 1) the right to participate in decisions affecting urban inhabitants and the production of urban space; and 2) the right to appropriate urban space in favor of its use value over exchange value. Notably, these components include legal rights, social and political claims and material conditions.

Planning and the Right to the City
The six key principles included in the Mexico City charter suggest a significant role for planning. The charter aspires to recapture the public and collective function of spatial planning. The article in the Fall 2009 Progressive Planning (No. 181) entitled “The Right to the City Alliance: Time to Democratize Urban Governance” highlighted the three principles that should guide the work of planners with regard to the right to the city: the right to participate, the right to security and the right to resist. While aimed at planners working in the United States, these principles will also be important for planners in Mexico City interested in pushing forward strategies and initiatives in support of the charter, though they will need to be adjusted to a different social, economic and political context.

David Harvey has written that “we individually and collectively make the city through our daily actions and our political, intellectual and economic engagements. But, in return, the city makes us.” This observation takes on a very concrete meaning in cities of the Global South such as Mexico City, where the majority of urban inhabitants must construct their own housing and urban services (e.g., water, sewage) through an arduous, incremental and insecure process, thereby appropriating space for housing and livelihoods and actively making the city in the process. At least 40 percent of the built-up area of Mexico City is comprised of so-called “informal” housing. This represents direct participation in city-building, decision-making and active (albeit piecemeal) everyday resistance to “formal” planning at the same time (see “State Support for the Social Production of Housing?” in Progressive Planning, No. 175, Spring 2008).

In writing about Sao Paulo, James Holston has referred to this process as one of “insurgent citizenship” in which poorer residents build and defend their living space, construct a new city and “propose a city with a different order of citizenship.” This process invokes Lefebvre’s assertion that the right to the city involves the ongoing appropriation of urban space for use rather than exchange, but it also reflects the socio-economic inequality that underpins informal settlement. Although urban planning cannot singularly resolve such deep-seated structural inequalities, it can play a prominent role in promoting the social function of property and facilitating the appropriation of urban space to fulfill important social rights such as housing and employment, and to better accommodate the diversity of needs found within cities, including access to public goods and services. In the context of Mexico City, this involves the introduction of new planning practices at different spatial scales.

It also involves sorting out and taking a position on the contradictions contained in existing planning documents, including the principles of “sustainability, equity and competitiveness” underpinning the new urban development program in the Federal District.

Pushing for the Charter—A Multi-Level Process 
Although the MUP began advocating for the charter in 2007, the issues at stake go back further in time and involve the promotion of several important social policies. These policy changes were enabled by the reintroduction of local democracy in Mexico City in 1997, and more specifically, the support of elected representatives (including mayors) from the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (Partido de la Revolución Democrática, or PRD). The first of these initiatives was the Housing Improvement Program (Programa de Mejoramiento de Vivienda), first introduced in 1999 by the Mexico City government under pressure from social organizations and a number of housing NGOs. Since its inception, the program has provided numerous interest-free loans to improve housing conditions for lower-income households in the city. The program supported over 165,000 housing improvement interventions in informally-settled areas of the city between 2001 and 2009. And since 2007, the lot-level Housing Improvement Program has been complemented by the Barrio Improvement Program (Programa de Mejoramiento Barrial). By 2010, approximately $31.2 million had been channelled by local government into community-scale improvements for around 530 projects in “marginalized” communities in the city, such as the introduction or upgrading of recreational and cultural facilities, sidewalks or other urban infrastructure, parks, community centers and public art projects. This initiative not only supports informal housing and the appropriation of urban space in the city for community and social purposes, but it does so through a decision-making process that involves the collective organization of residents at the neighborhood level to propose improvement projects as well as the participation of citizens in the eventual selection of the projects to be supported by the local government—a truncated but significant form of participatory budgeting at the city level.

The recent signing of the Mexico City Charter for the Right to the City builds on these programs and also proposes a more comprehensive set of interventions at different levels—the individual lot, neighborhood and city. Implicitly, the Right to the City Campaign waged by urban social movements represents the recognition of the limits of place-based urban policy. Although the Housing and Barrio Improvement Programs have helped to improve the material living conditions of lower-income residents, they have left unchallenged the market-led development ongoing in the rest of the city that is extending and solidifying elite residential and commercial enclaves and other processes of socio-spatial exclusion. Moreover, the charter aims to not only direct the production of urban space, but also open up decision-making in an effort to create “productive habitats” capable of providing secure livelihoods and a dignified standard of living.

At the signing of the Charter for the Right to the City, Mayor Marcelo Ebrard described it as “the document with the most ambitious goals of what [our] city should be.” He also announced that the charter will form the basis for the elaboration of a constitution for Mexico City within the next year, and committed to redesigning the way in which government is structured and functions to guarantee citizen participation in governing the city. Clearly, this would extend the social development processes described here and help to institutionalize the important social demands expressed in the charter. Still, ongoing advocacy and mobilization will be needed to continually push forward this process of realizing social, economic, political and cultural rights in the city, and above all, the right to construct and enjoy the city as a place of social transformation and citizenship.

Jill Wigle (jill_wigle(at)carleton(dot)ca) is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa. Lorena Zárate (info(at)hic-al(dot)org) is coordinator of the Habitat International Coalition Regional Office for Latin America (HIC-AL) based in Mexico City. HIC is an international network of more than 350 organizations, academics and activists working on housing and human settlement issues in 118 countries. HIC-AL was part of the committee that helped to draft the Mexico City Charter for the Right to the City. More information is available at (in Spanish) and (in English and French).

Figure 3: 
Key Strategic Principles of the Mexico City Charter for the Right to the City

Vision Strategic Focus Content and Primary Objective(s)
1. A city of human rights The full exercise of human rights in the city Involves the realization of political, economic, social, cultural and environmental human rights without discrimination; ensures collective dignity and well-being in conditions of equality, equity, justice and solidarity

To generate conditions for the development of a dignified quality of life for all in the city, at both individual and collective levels

2. A city for all: inclusive, equitable and of social solidarity The social function of the city, land and property Involves the distribution and regulation of urban land and space and the equitable use of common goods, services and opportunities offered by the city, prioritizing the collectively defined public interest

To guarantee the right of all persons to a secure place where they can live in peace and dignity through the creation of legal instruments and participatory mechanisms that oppose speculation, urban segregation, exclusion, forced evictions and displacements

3. A politically active and socially responsible city Democratic urban management Involves citizen participation at the highest levels of decision-making, including the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of public policies, urban planning, budgeting and the control of urban processes

To strengthen democracy through the creation of decision-making spaces and mechanisms of direct democracy, and the development of participatory planning, monitoring and evaluation of urban public management

4. A socially productive city Democratic production of urban space and productive habitat Involves the rescue and strengthening of the productive capacity of urban inhabitants, especially the working classes and urban poor, and the facilitation of the social production of habitat and the development of economic activities that contribute to a productive city of solidarity

To facilitate the right to participate in the social production of habitat and to guarantee the productive insertion of all in the urban economy, including youth

5. A viable and environmentally sustainable city Sustainable and responsible management of environmental, cultural and energy resources as common goods in the city Involves the socially responsible use of resources and the enjoyment of a healthy environment that allows all people and communities to develop under equal conditions

To guarantee improved environmental conditions and that urban development does not take place at the cost of rural communities, ecological reserves, other cities or future generations

6. An open, free, critical and enjoyable city Democratic and equitable enjoyment of the city Involves the strengthening of social solidarity and the rescue, expansion and improvement of public spaces

To rescue and strengthen the cultural and recreational enjoyment of public spaces and the respect for cultural diversity in the city

Source: Adapted and translated by authors from Carta de la Ciudad de México por el Derecho a la Ciudad (2010).

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