Issues Home About Contact Us Issue 29 - September 2023 عربى
Terminology Corner
Right to the City

is the most-assertive concept among these expressions. It constitutes a clear claim to a specific “right” that is not enshrined in any international multilateral instrument to date. Strategically, the Right to the City (R2C) movement seeks to contribute to the standard-setting processes by defining the normative content of R2C as claimed, before it becomes law. Latin American social movements—self-characterized as popular mass actors with a common cause—favor R2C as part of a long, historical phenomenon of generating global standards and norms through coordinated mass actions.

However, R2C also has assumed a quasi-juridical character. It forms the subject of the above-mentioned first regional UCLG Charter-Agenda. That instrument’s first operative section reflects the recognition that:

(a)   All city inhabitants have the right to a city constituted as a local political community that ensures adequate living conditions for all the people, and provides good coexistence among all its inhabitants, and between them and the local authority.

(b)   Every man and woman benefit from all rights enunciated in the present Charter-Agenda and are full-fledged actors of the life of the city.

(c)   All city inhabitants have the right to participate in the configuration and coordination of territory as a basic space and foundation for peaceful life and coexistence.

(d)   All city inhabitants have the right to available spaces and resources allowing them to be active citizens. The working and common spaces shall be respectful of everyone else’s values and of the value of pluralism.

2. The city offers its inhabitants all available means to exercise their rights. The signatories of the Charter are encouraged to develop contact with neighboring cities and territories with the aim of building caring communities and regional capitals.

       As a framework and summary of all rights provided for in this Charter-Agenda, the above right [to the City] will be satisfied to the degree in which each and every one of the rights described therein is fully effective and guaranteed domestically.

3. City inhabitants have the duty to respect the rights and dignity of others.

This iteration of the concept of R2C respects local inhabitants’ collective right to local decision making. (See Rights of the City below.)

Parallel to this formal, municipal-level recognition, “the right to the city” is also a slogan and claim of urban social movements to guide urban policies to be more equitable and inclusive, as an alternative to current policies and planning practices that lead to segregation, privatization and inequitable distribution of public goods and services.

The popular civil-society and social-movement approach to the right to the city arose in response to the marginalization and stigmatization of low-income areas of cities—in particular, slums—that have sprung up in the latter half of the previous century’s intense rural-to-urban displacement and migration. In that context, the urban social movements, especially in countries of former military regimes in Latin America, enjoined and applied the vocabulary of the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre and enshrined the principles of the right to the city in a Global Charter on the Right to the City [Arabic] (latest version 2005). This popular source and claim of the right to the city emerged through several successive iterations vetted among urban social movements in Latin America and diffused through the World Social Forum.

Currently, the “right to the city” claim and argument enshrined in the 2005 Global Charter rest on a bundle of codified human rights and corresponding obligations of authorities at all levels. In setting out the claims relative to the exercise of citizenship and of participation in planning, production and management of the city, the Charter outlines numerous rights and freedoms, including those already enshrined in the Human Rights Covenants (1966): Participation, peaceful assembly, freedom of association, freedom of expression, Freedom of movement, adequate housing, information, political participation, security of person, health, food, water and decent work.

The Charter also claims as rights and corresponding obligations certain values not yet enshrined explicitly in international treaty law. These include the social production of housing/habitat and the rights to “sustainable and equitable urban development” (whereas, the right to development is subject of 1986 Declaration [Arabic], but not yet enshrined in treaty law). The Global Charter also asserts a right to transport and public mobility, as well as a right to the environment in the city context. It establishes the popular claim at the level of rights related to (1) the human rights dimensions of land and the human right to equitable administration of land, public goods and natural resources, and (2) urban planning as a technical service and public good to which all citizens are equally entitled.                                         

Through its serial iterations since 2001, the Global Charter has emphasized consistently that the essential elements of the right to the city involve:

  • Full exercise of citizenship
  • Democratic management
  • The social function of urban property and the city.

The “strategic foundations” of the right to the city, thus, pursue:

  1. Full exercise of human rights in the urban context;
  2. Operationalizing the social function of land, property and the city;
  3. Democratic management of the city; Social production of habitat and the right to a productive habitat (social economy);
  4. Responsible and sustainable management and use of the commons (including natural resources and cultural heritage);
  5. Democratic enjoyment of the city (especially linked with the use of public spaces and community facilities).

While recognizing the imperative of coexistence based on peace, solidarity and multiculturalism, the Charter also celebrates the diversity of most cities. Thus, the Charter gives practical meaning to the over-riding human rights principle of nondiscrimination as pivotal to the institutionalization and enjoyment of the right to the city.

The right to the city concept emerged from a parochial urban context; however, it is not to be construed that that relegates the constituent claims to the benefit of urban inhabitants only. Nor does it mean that any person has to be “urban,” as a condition for eligibility to enjoy these rights. Furthermore, the habitat discourse has evolved significantly since the Charter’s 2005 version’s ultimate inclusion of wider and more-diverse territorial regions, referring also to rural areas as city “surroundings.”


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