Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Futility of the "Right to the City" in the face of Neoliberal Globalization

The Futility of enforcing the "Right to the City" in the face of Neoliberal Globalization
HCED Reading response for Tuesday September 20, 2016

Last week diplomats representing almost every world government agreed to the “New Urban Agenda” a document that aims to set global priorities for global urban policy for next 20 years. While the document will not formally be adopted until the Habitat-III conference in late October, the negotiated text is not expected to change. The final consensus document is the result of thousands of hours of deliberation, advocacy, negotiation, and word-smithing. And the language in the document is quite strong; my advocacy colleagues who poured in the negotiations through the Major Group for Children and Youth are very proud of the result.

Paragraph 11 of the New Urban Agenda contains the first-ever mention of “the right to the city” in international law:
11. We share a vision of cities for all, referring to the equal use and enjoyment of cities and human settlements, seeking to promote inclusivity and ensure that all inhabitants, of present and future generations, without discrimination of any kind, are able to inhabit and produce just, safe, healthy, accessible, affordable, resilient, and sustainable cities and human settlements, to foster prosperity and quality of life for all. We note the efforts of some national and local governments to enshrine this vision, referred to as right to the city, in their legislations, political declarations and charters.

This negotiation result is particularly relevant for my Housing, Community, Economic Development class readings this week, which included an article called Taking the Right to the City Forward. Miloon Kothari and Shivani Chaudhry, the authors of that piece, urged civil society to  consolidate many disparate demands of urban justice around the central concept of the “right to the city.” Civil society did just that, creating a global platform and campaigning vigorously for the New Urban Agenda to include “the right to the city.” And while the final negotiated language was watered down, the advocates achieved their goal.

Here’s the problem: while the “right to the city” will be formally included in international law, it will change almost nothing for poor and oppressed communities living within real cities. All of the violations of human rights highlighted in Taking the Right to the City Forward will continue. While the language of the New Urban Agenda (and other international agreements) is stirring, that language is not tied to any decisions regarding the allocation of real urban resources. While the “right to the city” will receive international lip-service, the underlying neoliberal economic logic that perpetuates the urban violation of human rights remains the same

I found Neil Smith’s article New Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy a sobering contrast to the optimism of the Taking the Right to the City Forward. The demands of global capital, which sets the terms within the current neoliberal economic model, means that city governments have little choice but to structure their operations in a way to attract international investment. If the nation-state no longer provides funding for essential social services and cities need to compete with each other for scarce funding city, then the demands of the market will trump obligations of human rights. As the New Globalism article explains, this has led to absurdly unjust situations. Among other things, this includes large-scale spatial segregation of rich and poor and state-subsidized gentrification of poor neighborhoods at the city center, under the guise of the euphemism “urban regeneration.”

One particular example of current urban injustice is the 4-hour travel required by the lowest-paid workers in rapidly developing cities like São Paulo and Harare. While workers and citizens in older western cities are able to organize enough resistance to prevent such spatial segregation, workers in these new mega-cities have not. And amazingly, this arrangement appears to be economically sustainable. As Neil Smith notes the “rigors of almost unbearable commuting… have elicited a ‘desperate resilience’ and been absorbed amidst the wider social breakdown.”

The authors of Taking the Right to the City Forward would agree with Smith’s identification of specific social harms. But I find their proposed solution of creating and enforcing international soft law extremely unsatisfying. To create the framework for local enforcement of human rights, we need new incentive structures for cities. And that cannot happen without a dramatic reorientation of the global economic model, which will likely need to happen through the institutional form of existing national governments. Calling for enforcement of existing laws and for local governments to implement needed policies is easy. Organizing and building enough political power to make such policies real is not. And that is what is needed if we are to change the underlying logic presented in New Globalism and actually take the right of the city forward.

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