Whose right, to what city?

Photo Credit: homesforall.org

During the 1990s, after decades of disinvestment, white flight and suburbanization, American cities once again became sites of large-scale capital investment. The resulting waves of gentrification[1] and displacement spurred the formation of new social movements, including many that considered themselves part of a US-based coalition The Right to the City (RTC). My own introduction to RTC was as the director of My Brooklyn, a documentary film I made with Allison Lirish Dean that documented the transformation of the Fulton Mall area of Downtown Brooklyn in the wake of a rezoning. RTC activists, including those affiliated with the organization Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE), were fighting to stop the displacement of small businesses and for a voice in the planning process. These goals were consonant with the way RTC described itself:

Right to the City Alliance (RTC) emerged in 2007 as a unified response to gentrification and a call to halt the displacement of low-income people, people of color, marginalized LGBTQ communities, and youths of color from their historic urban neighborhoods… Through shared principles and a common frame and theory of change, RTC is building a national movement for racial justice, urban justice, human rights, and democracy.

By 2013, RTC consisted of 50 organizations in 19 American cities. These were, according to RTC Executive Director Rachel LaForest, mainly housing groups whose members were being displaced from their homes by gentrification. The key agent of displacement, according to LaForest, was “the development of posh and polished cosmopolitan cities that can be playgrounds or safe havens to the very wealthy.” The construction of these new enclaves was pushing poor urban residents to the margins of the city, limiting their access to education, health care, affordable housing and “the cultural and intellectual legacies that many of them have been building up for generations.

In the US and internationally, RTC activism grew alongside RTC theorization, which experienced a boom in the social sciences journals during the first decade of the 21st century. The text most evoked by RTC activists and intellectuals is Henri Lefebvre’s 1968 essay “The Right to the City.” Lefebvre’s text is a complex weave of philosophy and politics, at once a critique of rationalized urban planning and a claim that cities are the spaces most suited to emancipated and creative human development. Lefebvre refers to the human needs not generally considered by urban planners, including “the need for creative activity, for the oeuvre (not only of products and consumable material goods), of the need for information, symbolism, the imaginary and play.”

For a movement called “The Right to the City,” it does seem that there has been surprisingly little discussion about what concepts of “rights” are being evoked, not only by those writing about RTC, but also by the thousands of activists globally who are working to secure some version of this “right.”

The RTC’s “appeal is intuitive, its meaning elastic,” David Adler writes in Jacobin. This flexibility allows for a broad-based coalition whose participants can find common ground. But as Marcelo Lopes de Souza has argued, there are also dangers posed by an overly broad interpretation of the RTC:

Many behave as if it should be clear to everybody what the “right to the city” means (more or less like “sustainability” and other umbrella-expressions and phrases). However, “the right to the city” should be regarded (at least by emancipatory social movements and radical intellectuals) as a kind of “contested territory,” since the danger of a vulgarisation and domestication of Lefebvre’s phrase by status-quo-conform institutions and forces is a real one.

In “What Kind of Right Is the Right to the City?” CUNY Urban Studies professor Kafui Attoh argues convincingly that “rights within the literature on the right to the city remain a black box.… Is the right to the city a socio-economic right or a liberty right, a legal right or a moral right, a prima facie right or an absolute right?”[2]

For a movement called “The Right to the City,” it does seem that there has been surprisingly little discussion about what concepts of “rights” are being evoked, not only by those writing about RTC, but also by the thousands of activists globally who are working to secure some version of this “right.” During the production and distribution of My Brooklyn, provocative questions emerged, such as: What does the right to the city entail? Where does this right come from, and who adjudicates it? Why does one group’s right to the city matter more than another’s? Is it just a matter of who has been here longer, or is there something more fundamental at stake? To answer these questions, we must first investigate the many meanings of rights.


The idea of “rights” so permeates contemporary political life that it can be startling to realize the concept is only a few hundred years old. Though earlier discussions of rights could be found in Britain (in particular John Locke’s definition of rights to “life, liberty and property”), many argue that Rousseau launched the idea of universal rights into the public sphere with his 1762 Social Contract, in which he wrote that “men, who may be unequal in strength or intelligence, become every one equal by convention and legal right.” Intellectual historian Jonathan Israel argues that Enlightenment ideas prior to 1750 were largely characterized by philosophical debates about science and religion, but “by 1789, radical thought and its social and legal goals had indeed come to form a powerful rival ‘package logic’—equality, democracy, freedom of the individual, freedom of thought and expression, and a comprehensive religious toleration—that could be proclaimed as a clearly formulated package of basic human rights.”

With the notion of rights came questions: Who had rights? Which rights should be protected? Which should be guaranteed? How? The lists of rights drawn up by various factions of the French Revolution in 1789 included liberty of the press, some freedom of religion, equal taxation, equal treatment under the law, and protection from arbitrary arrest. The French philosopher the Marquis de Condorcet classified them as 1) personal security and liberty 2) security of, and freedom to own, property, and 3) equality.


From the outset, rights were not just a question of individual liberty; they were also bound up with the issue of social and economic equality. Rousseau himself believed extreme inequality was a threat to the social order, being that it was the cause “of mutual hatred among the citizens, of indifference to the common cause, of the corruption of the people, and of the weakening of all the spring of government.”  But how much inequality was dangerous? Could too much equality conflict with people’s individual rights? This was hotly debated among the bourgeois intellectuals of the French Revolution; equality and freedom jockeyed for dominance in the various Charters on the Rights of Man.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, socialists were the political and intellectual force most interested in achieving economic equality (or at least subsistence) for the poor, but their support for rights (especially those besides labor rights) was weak. As Samuel Moyn, author of the recent book Not Enough, writes, “If the rights of man were primarily those of free enterprise and sacrosanct property, many thought it best to oppose the whole notion of rights rather than supplement the list” by including rights to subsistence. Marx, who figures prominently in much of the intellectual work around the RTC, was unsympathetic to rights-based politics. In her book Inventing Human Rights, Lynn Hunt summarizes Marx’s criticism as follows: “Rights of man guaranteed religious freedom when what man needed was freedom from religion; they confirmed the right to own property when what was needed was freedom from property; they included the right to engage in business when what was needed was liberation from business….”

This tension persisted well into the 20th century, and continues today. Willie Baptist, a formerly homeless community organizer, states the problem compellingly: “What good is it to be able to go into a restaurant now since they’ve taken down the ‘whites only’ sign if you can’t afford a hamburger?”


According to legal scholar Jeremy Waldron, the socialist concern that a focus on rights necessarily means deprioritizing economic needs has largely been resolved. Some clarity on the question was achieved through a distinction drawn between “first generation” and “second generation” rights. According to Waldron, “first  generation” rights include individual rights like free speech, religious liberty, and due process. “Second generation” rights are those that guarantee relief from material poverty and inequality. A key document in the advancement of second generation rights is the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As Moyn articulates, this ambitious declaration of rights “consecrated the democratic welfare state that had emerged victorious from World War II.” For RTC activists, the key provision is Article 25, which states that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care.” Also relevant to some RTC demands are third generation rights, which protect communal goods like “language, culture and tradition.”

Many RTC organizations use the 1948 declaration as part of their theory of change. The National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI), a RTC affiliate, describes the relationship of human rights to their work: “Based on the principle that fundamental human needs create human rights obligations on the part of the government and private sector, NESRI advocates for public policies that guarantee the universal and equitable fulfillment of these rights in the United States.” NESRI critiques neoliberal policies, which prioritize growth through generous subsidies to the private sector with the assumption that the benefits will “trickle down,” and asserts that it is “community” that holds the rights to development, and that any proposed project must meet five criteria: Equity, Universality, Participation, Transparency and Accountability.

Despite its widespread use in advocacy and social change around the world, however, the human rights framework has its critics. Some question the entire concept of second generation rights. These detractors often come from the more conservative end of the political spectrum, but they raise important questions. What if the resources required to meet these needs are already owned by private individuals or corporations? Where does one individual’s right to make money through property ownership and development conflict with another’s right to housing, to community, to the right to roots or to remain in place?

In Not Enough, Moyn mounts a different kind of argument about the viability of using human rights to combat inequality. For Moyn, human rights discourses march in lockstep with the economic system of an era, and our current hyper-inequality reflects the triumph of neoliberalism over the social welfare state, which, “shot through with exclusion though it was, constrained material inequality more than any other political arrangements that modern humanity has learned to bring about.”  He argues that “The age of human rights has not been kind to full-fledged distributive justice, because it is also an age of the victory of the rich” in which people “invest their hopes (and money) in human rights, looking the other way when vast inequality soars.” If there is any hope for human rights in advancing equality, Moyn argues, the movement will have to refocus its efforts and promote labor and other social rights that help foster collective empowerment and counter market fundamentalism.


The issue of property rights continues to present a particularly thorny area for RTC groups. On the one hand, organizations often fall back on individual property rights to fight the seizure of property under Eminent Domain law, as was common practice under Urban Renewal (often renamed “Negro Removal”) in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Opposition to eminent domain continues to flare up, especially since the 2005 Kelo vs. The City of New London Supreme Court decision expanded the permissible uses of eminent domain to include private projects that would contribute to “economic development.”

From other corners of the RTC movement, however, a critique of individual property rights resounds loudly and clearly. Squatters have always claimed that property ownership rights can be trumped by a moral right to occupy land. At a less radical end of the spectrum, many activists and even city officials are talking seriously about expanding the use of community land trusts to take property off the speculative market and collectivize its ownership.

In What a City Is For, Vancouver-based Matt Hern asks provocative questions about the right to the city as it relates to property rights and ethical claims:

Considering displacement is to ask who deserves access to land and why, and those answers, or at least those questions strike me as right at the heart of what a city should be for. Cities should be setting us free, and in many ways and for many of us, they do. But all cities are built on colonial plunder, and most, certainly those in my part of the world, have been built on the backs of racist dominations and unearned privilege.

Hern questions the assumption that people should automatically have a right to stay where they are, solely because they have resided in a particular area for a given amount of time, and the “us” versus “them” politics that emerge from those assumptions. After all, every wave of newcomers since the indigenous inhabitants of our lands has displaced someone. Instead, Hern argues that we need a deeper, non-property based way of thinking, and that a solution to displacement can only be theorized in a “decolonized politics of land, ownership and sovereignty.” Hern advocates for models of land tenancy that take new approaches to questions of ownership: community land trusts, cooperative housing and squatting. “The City is a collective achievement,” he writes, “but so many of us are entirely acclimated to believing that differential and preferential access to the benefits is justified. How unimaginative is that?”

Imagination, perhaps, is the thread that leads us back to Lefebvre, via David Harvey.  In his essay The Right to the City, Harvey interprets LeFebvre as saying that the right to the city is more than an individual—or even collective— right to resources. It is, Harvey writes “a right to change ourselves by changing the city.” We need to imagine ourselves outside of the choices capitalism has constructed for us, to ask “what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire.” We answer these questions not in the abstract, but by participating in urban life, making abstract rights (to education, work, culture, rest, health, housing) real by joining with others in political and other types of action. “The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is,” according to Harvey, “one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”

How do we exercise this right? Harvey theorizes that cities grow through a geographical and social accumulation of capital. Capitalist logic dictates that profit created through real estate development must be reinvested, creating the need for endless redevelopment. For Harvey, the right to the city is very specifically the right to control the way surplus capital created in this manner is reinvested.


The question of rights is not simply an abstract intellectual debate. Each notion of rights is embedded with assumptions, which, when activated, result in widely different political forms. Having spent a decade involved in anti-gentrification and anti-displacement politics in New York City, I believe one way people could reclaim their right to the city is by fighting for a more participatory and democratic land use review process. Right now, decisions on critical issues like zoning and subsidies are made largely behind closed doors, and then ratified through a highly circumscribed public hearing process where the public has very little impact and the state is subject to minimal accountability. We need to force open the process to make it more transparent and allow meaningful participation by the public. One way to begin this process would be by amending the city’s charter to make community boards elected, not appointed, and then giving them a binding (not advisory) vote on rezoning and other land use actions.

In the case of Downtown Brooklyn, Allison and I came to realize that the displacement of the African-American and Caribbean businesses from Downtown Brooklyn wasn’t unfair or unjust simply because they had been there a long time, or because city policy created hardship for individual business owners (though of course that was true). What made their displacement a deeply moral and political affront was that these business owners had survived in Brooklyn through redlining and disinvestment, crises caused not just by racism but by the use of racial categorization to make money for white developers and landowners. As historian Craig Wilder says in the film,

We took millions of people across the United States, and we basically imprisoned them in small sections of cities, and we set public policy that destroyed many of their lives. And now 40 years later, we’ve decided that those neighborhoods have value and so we’re in the process of distributing them and disbursing them again for the convenience of someone else.

People and communities arrive in the present with different histories of privilege, inclusion, exclusion and even violence. Before we can begin to balance whose right to the city may trump someone else’s, we will need to take a hard look at how we got to this point. Seen in this light, the most important right in the RTC may be the right to resist having the results of collective labor be taken away by land owners, investors and their political agents. Making this right real would force us to reimagine the relationship between people, labor and land. Yes, the RTC is aspirational. It’s not something we have, but it’s something worth fighting for.

1. “Gentrification” is a term with many definitions. In the 2015 study guide for the documentary My Brooklyn, Allison Lirish Dean defines it as “a process in which capital is reinvested in neighborhoods—usually those that have experienced a period of disinvestment—to create spaces that appeal to wealthier groups of people, often whites. Over time, lower-income groups are displaced” (Dean 21).

2. Attoh, Kafui A. “What Kind of Right Is the Right to the City?” Progress in Human Geography, vol. 35, no. 5, Oct. 2011, pp. 669–85 (p. 569).

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