The right to the city

We live in an era when ideals of human rights have moved centre stage both politically and ethically. A great deal of energy is expended in promoting their significance for the construction of a better world. But for the most part the concepts circulating do not fundamentally challenge hegemonic liberal and neo-liberal market logics, or the dominant modes of legality and state action. We live, after all, in a world in which the rights of private property and the profit rate trump all other notions of rights. I here want to explore another type of human right, that of the right to the city.

Has the astonishing pace and scale of urbanisation over the last hundred years contributed to human well-being? The city, in the words of urban sociologist Robert Park, is:

man’s most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself.1

The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from that of what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire. The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanisation. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.

From their inception, cities have arisen through geographical and social concentrations of a surplus product. Urbanisation has always been, therefore, a class phenomenon, since surpluses are extracted from somewhere and from somebody, while the control over their disbursement typically lies in a few hands. This general situation persists under capitalism, of course; but since urbanisation depends on the mobilisation of a surplus product, an intimate connection emerges between the development of capitalism and urbanisation. Capitalists have to produce a surplus product in order to produce surplus value; this in turn must be reinvested in order to generate more surplus value. The result of continued reinvestment is the expansion of surplus production at a compound rate – hence the logistic curves (money, output and population) attached to the history of capital accumulation, paralleled by the growth path of urbanisation under capitalism.

The perpetual need to find profitable terrains for capital-surplus production and absorption shapes the politics of capitalism. It also presents the capitalist with a number of barriers to continuous and trouble-free expansion. If labour is scarce and wages are high, either existing labour has to be disciplined – technologically induced unemployment or an assault on organised working-class power are two prime methods – or fresh labour forces must be found by immigration, export of capital or proletarianisation of hitherto independent elements of the population. Capitalists must also discover new means of production in general and natural resources in particular, which puts increasing pressure on the natural environment to yield up necessary raw materials and absorb the inevitable waste. They need to open up terrains for raw-material extraction – often the objective of imperialist and neo-colonial endeavours.

The coercive laws of competition also force the continuous implementation of new technologies and organisational forms, since these enable capitalists to out-compete those using inferior methods. Innovations define new wants and needs, reduce the turnover time of capital and lessen the friction of distance, which limits the geographical range within which the capitalist can search for expanded labour supplies, raw materials, and so on. If there is not enough purchasing power in the market, then new markets must be found by expanding foreign trade, promoting novel products and lifestyles, creating new credit instruments, and debt-financing state and private expenditures. If, finally, the profit rate is too low, then state regulation of ‘ruinous competition’, monopolisation (mergers and acquisitions) and capital exports provide ways out.

If any of the above barriers cannot be circumvented, capitalists are unable profitably to reinvest their surplus product. Capital accumulation is blocked, leaving them facing a crisis, in which their capital can be devalued and in some instances even physically wiped out. Surplus commodities can lose value or be destroyed, while productive capacity and assets can be written down and left unused; money itself can be devalued through inflation, and labour through massive unemployment. How, then, has the need to circumvent these barriers and to expand the terrain of profitable activity driven capitalist urbanisation? I argue here that urbanisation has played a particularly active role, alongside such phenomena as military expenditures, in absorbing the surplus product that capitalists perpetually produce in their search for profits.

Property and pacification

As in all the preceding phases, this most recent radical expansion of the urban process has brought with it incredible transformations of lifestyle. Quality of urban life has become a commodity, as has the city itself, in a world where consumerism, tourism, cultural and knowledge-based industries have become major aspects of the urban political economy. The postmodernist penchant for encouraging the formation of market niches – in both consumer habits and cultural forms – surrounds the contemporary urban experience with an aura of freedom of choice, provided you have the money. Shopping malls, multiplexes and box stores proliferate, as do fast-food and artisanal market-places. We now have, as urban sociologist Sharon Zukin puts it, ‘pacification by cappuccino’. Even the incoherent, bland and monotonous suburban tract development that continues to dominate in many areas now gets its antidote in a ‘new urbanism’ movement that touts the sale of community and boutique lifestyles to fulfil urban dreams. This is a world in which the neo-liberal ethic of intense possessive individualism, and its cognate of political withdrawal from collective forms of action, becomes the template for human socialisation.2 The defence of property values becomes of such paramount political interest that, as Mike Davis points out, the homeowner associations in the state of California become bastions of political reaction, if not of fragmented neighbourhood fascisms.3

We increasingly live in divided and conflict-prone urban areas. In the past three decades, the neo-liberal turn has restored class power to rich elites. Fourteen billionaires have emerged in Mexico since then, and in 2006 that country boasted the richest man on earth, Carlos Slim, at the same time as the incomes of the poor had either stagnated or diminished. The results are indelibly etched on the spatial forms of our cities, which increasingly consist of fortified fragments, gated communities and privatised public spaces kept under constant surveillance. In the developing world in particular, the city is splitting into different separated parts, with the apparent formation of many ‘micro-states’. Wealthy neighbourhoods provided with all kinds of services, such as exclusive schools, golf courses, tennis courts and private police patrolling the area around the clock intertwine with illegal settlements where water is available only at public fountains, no sanitation system exists, electricity is pirated by a privileged few, the roads become mud streams whenever it rains, and where house-sharing is the norm. Each fragment appears to live and function autonomously, sticking firmly to what it has been able to grab in the daily fight for survival.4

Under these conditions, ideals of urban identity, citizenship and belonging – already threatened by the spreading malaise of a neo-liberal ethic – become much harder to sustain. Privatised redistribution through criminal activity threatens individual security at every turn, prompting popular demands for police suppression. Even the idea that the city might function as a collective body politic, a site within and from which progressive social movements might emanate, appears implausible. There are, however, urban social movements seeking to overcome isolation and reshape the city in a different image from that put forward by the developers, who are backed by finance, corporate capital and an increasingly entrepreneurially minded local state apparatus.


Surplus absorption through urban transformation has an even darker aspect. It has entailed repeated bouts of urban restructuring through ‘creative destruction’, which nearly always has a class dimension since it is the poor, the underprivileged and those marginalised from political power that suffer first and foremost from this process. Violence is required to build the new urban world on the wreckage of the old. Haussmann tore through the old Parisian slums, using powers of expropriation in the name of civic improvement and renovation. He deliberately engineered the removal of much of the working class and other unruly elements from the city centre, where they constituted a threat to public order and political power. He created an urban form where it was believed – incorrectly, as it turned out in 1871 – that sufficient levels of surveillance and military control could be attained to ensure that revolutionary movements would easily be brought to heel. Nevertheless, as Engels pointed out in 1872:

In reality, the bourgeoisie has only one method of solving the housing question after its fashion – that is to say, of solving it in such a way that the solution continually reproduces the question anew. This method is called ‘Haussmann’… No matter how different the reasons may be, the result is always the same; the scandalous alleys and lanes disappear to the accompaniment of lavish self-praise from the bourgeoisie on account of this tremendous success, but they appear again immediately somewhere else… The same economic necessity which produced them in the first place, produces them in the next place.5

It took more than a hundred years to complete the embourgeoisement of central Paris, with the consequences seen in recent years of uprisings and mayhem in those isolated suburbs that trap marginalised immigrants, unemployed workers and youth. The sad point here, of course, is that what Engels described recurs throughout history. Robert Moses ‘took a meat axe to the Bronx’, in his infamous words, bringing forth long and loud laments from neighbourhood groups and movements. In the cases of Paris and New York, once the power of state expropriations had been successfully resisted and contained, a more insidious and cancerous progression took hold through municipal fiscal discipline, property speculation and the sorting of land-use according to the rate of return for its ‘highest and best use’. Engels understood this sequence all too well:

The growth of the big modern cities gives the land in certain areas, particularly in those areas which are centrally situated, an artificially and colossally increasing value; the buildings erected on these areas depress this value instead of increasing it, because they no longer belong to the changed circumstances. They are pulled down and replaced by others. This takes place above all with workers’ houses which are situated centrally and whose rents, even with the greatest overcrowding, can never, or only very slowly, increase above a certain maximum. They are pulled down and in their stead shops, warehouses and public buildings are erected.6

Though this description was written in 1872, it applies directly to contemporary urban development in much of Asia – Delhi, Seoul, Mumbai – as well as gentrification in New York. A process of displacement and what I call ‘accumulation by dispossession’ lie at the core of urbanisation under capitalism.7 It is the mirror image of capital absorption through urban redevelopment, and is giving rise to numerous conflicts over the capture of valuable land from low-income populations that may have lived there for many years.

Consider the case of Seoul in the 1990s: construction companies and developers hired goon squads of sumo-wrestler types to invade neighbourhoods on the city’s hillsides. They sledgehammered down not only housing but also all the possessions of those who had built their own homes in the 1950s on what had become premium land. High-rise towers, which show no trace of the brutality that permitted their construction, now cover most of those hillsides. In Mumbai, meanwhile, 6 million people officially considered as slum dwellers are settled on land without legal title; all maps of the city leave these places blank. With the attempt to turn Mumbai into a global financial centre to rival Shanghai, the property-development boom has gathered pace, and the land that squatters occupy appears increasingly valuable. Dharavi, one of the most prominent slums in Mumbai, is estimated to be worth US$2 billion. The pressure to clear it – for environmental and social reasons that mask the land grab – is mounting daily. Financial powers backed by the state push for forcible slum clearance, in some cases violently taking possession of terrain occupied for a whole generation. Capital accumulation through real-estate activity booms, since the land is acquired at almost no cost.

Will the people who are displaced get compensation? The lucky ones get a bit. But while the Indian Constitution specifies that the state has an obligation to protect the lives and well-being of the whole population, irrespective of caste or class, and to guarantee rights to housing and shelter, the Supreme Court has issued judgements that rewrite this constitutional requirement. Since slum dwellers are illegal occupants and many cannot definitively prove their long-term residence, they have no right to compensation. To concede that right, says the Supreme Court, would be tantamount to rewarding pickpockets for their actions. So the squatters either resist and fight, or move with their few belongings to camp out on the sides of motorways or wherever they can find a tiny space.8 Examples of dispossession can also be found in the US, though these tend to be less brutal and more legalistic: the government’s right of eminent domain has been abused in order to displace established residents in reasonable housing in favour of higher-order land uses, such as condominiums and box stores. When this was challenged in the US Supreme Court, the justices ruled that it was constitutional for local jurisdictions to behave in this way in order to increase their property-tax base.9

In China millions are being dispossessed of the spaces they have long occupied – three million in Beijing alone. Since they lack private-property rights, the state can simply remove them by fiat, offering a minor cash payment to help them on their way before turning the land over to developers at a large profit. In some instances, people move willingly, but there are also reports of widespread resistance, the usual response to which is brutal repression by the Communist party. In the PRC it is often populations on the rural margins who are displaced, illustrating the significance of Henri Lefebvre’s argument, presciently laid out in the 1960s, that the clear distinction that once existed between the urban and the rural is gradually fading into a set of porous spaces of uneven geographical development, under the hegemonic command of capital and the State. This is also the case in India, where the central and state governments now favour the establishment of Special Economic Zones – ostensibly for industrial development, though most of the land is designated for urbanisation. This policy has led to pitched battles against agricultural producers, the grossest of which was the massacre at Nandigram in West Bengal in March 2007, orchestrated by the state’s Marxist government. Intent on opening up terrain for the Salim Group, an Indonesian conglomerate, the ruling CPI(M) sent armed police to disperse protesting villagers; at least 14 were shot dead and dozens wounded. Private property rights in this case provided no protection.

What of the seemingly progressive proposal to award private-property rights to squatter populations, providing them with assets that will permit them to leave poverty behind?10 Such a scheme is now being mooted for Rio’s favelas, for example. The problem is that the poor, beset with income insecurity and frequent financial difficulties, can easily be persuaded to trade in that asset for a relatively low cash payment. The rich typically refuse to give up their valued assets at any price, which is why Moses could take a meat axe to the low-income Bronx but not to affluent Park Avenue. The lasting effect of Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation of social housing in Britain has been to create a rent and price structure throughout metropolitan London that precludes lower-income and even middle-class people from access to accommodation anywhere near the urban centre. I wager that within fifteen years, if present trends continue, all those hillsides in Rio now occupied by favelas will be covered by high-rise condominiums with fabulous views over the idyllic bay, while the erstwhile favela dwellers will have been filtered off into some remote periphery.

We have yet, however, to see a coherent opposition to these developments in the twenty-first century. … At this point in history, this has to be a global struggle, predominantly with finance capital, for that is the scale at which urbanisation processes now work. To be sure, the political task of organising such a confrontation is difficult, if not daunting. However, the opportunities are multiple because, as this brief history shows, crises repeatedly erupt around urbanisation both locally and globally, and because the metropolis is now the point of massive collision – dare we call it class struggle? – over the accumulation by dispossession visited upon the least well-off and the developmental drive that seeks to colonise space for the affluent.

One step towards unifying these struggles is to adopt the right to the city as both working slogan and political ideal, precisely because it focuses on the question of who commands the necessary connection between urbanisation and surplus production and use. The democratisation of that right, and the construction of a broad social movement to enforce its will is imperative if the dispossessed are to take back the control which they have for so long been denied, and if they are to institute new modes of urbanisation. Lefebvre was right to insist that the revolution has to be urban, in the broadest sense of that term, or nothing at all.

This is an abridged version of a text that was originally published in the New Left Review, September–October 2008. For the full version see:

1 Robert Park, On Social Control and Collective Behavior, Chicago, 1967, p. 3.
2 Hilde Nafstad et al., ‘Ideology and Power: The Influence of Current Neoliberalism in Society’, Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, Vol. 17, No. 4, July 2007, pp. 313–27.
3 Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, London and New York, 1990.
4 Marcello Balbo, ‘Urban Planning and the Fragmented City of Developing Countries’, Third World Planning Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1993, pp. 23–35.
5 Friedrich Engels, The Housing Question, New York, 1935, pp. 74–77.
6 Engels, op. cit., p. 23.
7 David Harvey, The New Imperialism, Oxford, 2003, chapter 4.
8 Usha Ramanathan, ‘Illegality and the Urban Poor’, Economic and Political Weekly, 22 July 2006; Rakesh Shukla, ‘Rights of the Poor: An Overview of Supreme Court’, Economic and Political Weekly, 2 September 2006.
9 Kelo v. New London, ct, decided on 23 June 2005 in case 545 US 469 (2005).
10 Much of this thinking follows the work of Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, New York, 2000; see the critical examination by Timothy Mitchell, ‘The Work of Economics: How a Discipline Makes its World’, Archives Européennes de Sociologie, Vol. 46, No. 2, August 2005, pp. 297–320.

David Harvey is Distinguished Professor at the PhD Program in Anthropology at City University New York Graduate Center.