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Henri Lefebvre and the Right to the City



In 1967 Henri Lefebvre described the right to the city as a “cry and demand.” Much of the revival of interest in Lefebvre’s claim focuses on the content of such a right, and prospects for realization. These voices are diverse, and at times (more than gently) sceptical that the right to the city can be anything more than an occasionally useful platitude. All would agree, however, that whatever a right to the city is, it is best understood in terms of how we use urban spaces, not the market value of those spaces. To put the point another way: the right to the city stands opposed to property rights over urban space. So why would Lefebvre himself, a Marxist, invoke the language of rights at all? It is tempting to join the critics in dismissing his “right to the city” as either a strategic or ironic rhetorical gesture. I believe we should resist this temptation: Lefebvre’s account is rooted in a subtle understanding of the historical development of urban life, its intimate yet ambivalent relationship to commerce and industry, and the distinction between our inhabiting urban society, on the one hand, and the rationalist­-commercial logic of urban habitat, on the other. Behind this subtle marriage of history and theory there is a unifying concern that Lefebvre took very early on from Marx: the reciprocal and mutually constitutive relationship between work as an expression of our being in the world, and as such, an inevitable source of alienation.
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Henri Lefebvre and the Right to the City
Loren King
Keywords: Henri Lefebvre; right to the city; Marx; alienation; everyday life
Related Topics: land use disputes; use values; spatial justice; urban housing; urban citizenship; urban marxism
About the Author: Loren King is an associate professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University.
He is a political philosopher and social scientist who studies water, justice, and
democratic legitimacy in cities.
In 1967 Henri Lefebvre described the right to the city as a “cry and demand.” Much of the
revival of interest in Lefebvre’s claim focuses on the content of such a right, and prospects for
realization. These voices are diverse, and at times (more than gently) sceptical that the right to
the city can be anything more than an occasionally useful platitude. Activists have invoked the
right to defend rights to housing for the urban poor in Brazil, where in 2001 something very
much like this right was enshrined in reforms to articles of the 1988 constitution (Lamarca 2011;
Fernandes 2007). In Brooklyn, the Right to the City Alliance uses the right as a rallying cry for a
broadly inclusive programme of activism to support a range of marginalized voices. International
organizations such as UNESCO and UN HABITAT have adopted the phrase in articulating policy
reforms toward more inclusive and sustainable urban development (Purcell 2013). Among both
advocates and sympathetic critics, all would agree that whatever a right to the city is, it is best
understood in terms of how we use urban spaces, not the market value of those spaces. To put the
point another way: the right to the city stands opposed to property rights over urban space.
But why would Lefebvre himself, a Marxist, invoke the language of rights at all? It is
tempting to join the critics in dismissing his “right to the city” as either a strategic or ironic
rhetorical gesture. I believe we should resist this temptation: Lefebvre’s account is rooted in a
subtle understanding of the historical development of urban life and an abiding concern with
work as an expression of our being in the world, but also as an inevitable source of alienation.
Rights in and to the City
Because market forces and commercial interests dominate cities so relentlessly, most
elaborations of the right to the city, in theory and especially in practice, draw our attention to the
political possibilities for challenging these neoliberal forces. Don Mitchell (2003) has put the
concept to useful effect in examining the uses of, and conflicts over, public space in North
American cities. For Mitchell, the right to the city is a call to interrogate the ways that dominant
legal tools and narratives exclude the voices and interests of a great many of those who occupy
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urban spaces. In a complementary line of argument, Mark Purcell (2002; 2008) has elaborated
the political demands of Lefebvre’s vision, and its implications for an understanding of
citizenship that takes space seriously. Kafui Attoh (2011) has examined several possible
articulations of the right to the city, framed in light of how legal and political philosophers
distinguish types of rights. David Harvey, who early on saw the importance of Lefebvre’s work,
has argued for an understanding of the right to the city as democratizing the question of “who
commands the necessary connection between urbanization and surplus production and use”
(2008: 40). And Margaret Kohn (2016) has further developed the idea of the right to the city,
understanding it in terms of fundamental interests in shaping the character of the commons, an
interest elaborated in terms of a solidaristic conception of social property that takes rights claims
to be internal to, rather than constraining, the politics of the urban commonwealth.
There are, then, several plausible ways to understand a right to the city, and to draw out the
political and especially the spatial implications of particular forms of that species of rights claim.
Still, for all of this sophisticated scholarly attention, and in spite of an extraordinary range of
activism around the globe that invokes the ‘“right to the city”’ in defense of the poor and
marginalized, we have no clear answer to the question: even if we accept the language of rights,
why should these be rights to the city, rather than to particular kinds of place? Why aren’t these
simply the urban manifestation of rights to subsistence needs, housing, political voice and
influence, and so forth? Or is this all that is meant by the “right to the city”?
The question matters for Lefebvre if we think he meant by a right to the city something
more than a clever and timely rhetorical strategy, appealing to the political mood and vocabulary
of the late 1960s. Certainly he may have understood rights as “always the outcome of political
struggle” (Purcell 2013: 146), or he may have meant something altogether novel, eschewing
altogether the bourgeois conception of rights as entitlements and constraints, powers and
privileges. Instead, perhaps Lefebvre understood the term as describing a participatory
socio-political process, inclusive of, in part constituted by (but not exhausted through) political
Still, even if you accept the empirical point that rights in practice inevitably emerge from,
and are given substance by, political struggle and complex social dynamics, we nonetheless run
up against the brute meaning of the phrase. There is only so much subversive and strategically
ironic meaning a term can sustain, and at the end of the day, a right – even a right to be part of a
dynamic and inclusive sociopolitical process that challenges bourgeois interpretations of
ownership and use – is still an assertion of entitlement. Conventional wisdom suggests that
Marxists in particular tend to dismiss any such talk as mere ideology, a precipitate of the political
and legal apparatus that arise from, and sustain, the capitalist mode of production. Lefebvre was
no exception, at least at first blush.
This appearance is deceiving, however: Lefebvre’s position is in fact rather more nuanced
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than it might at first seem, and indeed, just as heterodox as his more orthodox French Marxist
critics once charged. Despite his own protestations, Lefebvre really did have in mind a right in
more or less the received sense that contemporary analytic philosophers and legal theorists mean
when they discuss rights (e.g. Wenar 2005), and that Marxists mean when they reject rights as
bourgeois contrivances.
Situating Lefebvre’s Right
That is a bold thesis and no doubt too strong, but I will be satisfied that useful expository and
interpretive work has been done if I can show that Lefebvre’s account is surprisingly friendly to
an analytic understanding of rights, and coheres as an account of a right to place thus understood.
We can plausibly claim Lefebvre’s right to the city by adopting a very different philosophical
posture than one usually finds in discussions of Lefebvre and the right to the city. Conversely, we
can profitably invoke Lefebvre from within a scholarly tradition usually thought rather
uninviting to such voices.
Lefebvre’s account is rooted in a subtle understanding of the historical development of
urban life, its intimate yet ambivalent relationship to commerce and industry, and the distinction
between spaces as artifact or work (oeuvre) and as product—this in turn mirrored in the related
distinction between our inhabiting urban society, in contrast to the logic of urban habitat
imposed by the rationalist conceits of planners, on the one hand, and commercial ambitions of
developers, on the other. Behind this subtle and at times confusing marriage of history and theory
there is a unifying concern that Lefebvre took very early on from Marx: the reciprocal and
mutually constitutive relationship between work as an expression of our being in the world, and
as such, an inevitable source of alienation.
Drawing out this early philosophical foundation to Lefebvre’s later work goes much of the
way to explaining his insistence that any hope for transformation of the city away from
commercial imperatives and the dominance of exchange values must be rooted in the working
class (Lefebvre 1996: 153- 55 and 158). It also provides philosophical coherence to talk of a
“right to the city,” suggesting plausible answers to the questions of why the priority of use values
should be framed as a right, and why it should be a right to the city.
The Road Not Taken
Upon hearing talk of rights, an understandable inclination is to draw on tools that seem
especially well -suited to the task: the concepts and arguments of twentieth and twenty -first
century analytic ethics and political philosophy. To this end, we might invoke, for instance, Leif
Wenar’s powerful framework for conceptualizing and organizing the various species of rights
(Wenar 2003; 2005; 2013), and then pair that understanding, perhaps, with a contractualist
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justificatory approach to legitimacy, exemplified in the work of John Rawls (1999; 2005), with
its attention to justifying public demands on others in ways that respect them as moral equals.
Such a pairing promises to be a productive (although certainly not the only plausible) framework
for debating conflicting use values of urban space. People have a reasonable expectation not only
for social and spatial mobility – freedoms that liberals have eagerly defended, often in the
language of rights – but also for spatial fixity, or permanence: the neighbourhoods we call home,
and the spaces we use in living our lives together, typically have a moral significance that is
rarely captured in the market value of plots of land, or the assessments of planners and
How to assess that significance? First, by asking citizens to justify their claims to those
locations and uses, in ways that are not merely self- serving or narrowly partisan, but that instead
appeal to reasons others can find valid, and that are grounded in public values and concerns.
Second, by ensuring that political institutions foster and respect such reasonable claims and
justifications. If there can be a practicable right to place, as David Imbroscio (2004) argues, and
if there is a right to the city in particular, as Lefebvre and others insist, then the standard
analytic- liberal, rights -based framework seems likely to be a powerful way to elaborate and
justify such a right.
This critical- liberal approach to place -rights in and around cities is not unfriendly to
critical Marxist concerns about the uneven geography of urban development in and around the
capitalist city, so perhaps it is not surprising that the space between Lefebvre and the liberal
analytic narrative is less pronounced than it might at first appear. Henri Lefebvre is often labeled
a heterodox Marxist, yet there is a tendency – certainly in geography and urban studies – to read
him through the lenses of critical Marxist and radical democratic approaches that reject much, if
not all, of the liberal analytic and normative framework. In his use of the early Marx and his
privileging of a particular idea of the city, however Lefebvre illuminates a fruitful way to bring
philosophy to the city that is recognizably Marxist yet surprisingly consonant with liberal
rights -based analytic narratives.
Furthermore, Lefebvre’s approach may be useful in a way that more analytic approaches
perhaps are not. The latter tend to come into their own for conceptual clarification, logical
1Not only moral significance: David Imbroscio (2010) argues that liberal urbanists tend to be too friendly
toward mobility -related reform programmes, and less friendly toward place building strategies that
arguably respect a reasonable expectation for spatial permanence that I am citing here. Some of his
interlocutors suggest that Imbroscio’s charge is too sweeping, leading him to downplay important
place- based reforms endorsed on liberal -egalitarian grounds; see e.g. Todd Swanstrom (2006). I take no
sides in that dispute here; I only mean to flag this as an important social scientific and policy debate over
whether and how liberals can take seriously something like a right to place, understood as feasible spatial
permanence enjoyed by residents in given neighbourhoods.
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analysis, and normative argument. In contrast, a considerable strength of Lefebvre’s analysis is to
ground a right to inclusive and responsive politics firmly in the realities of urban life under late
capitalism, and doing so with a conception of alienation that is at once more useful and more
sophisticated than the development and application of that concept in Marx and Engel’s mature
Why a Right to the City?
A right is a distinct assertion. Sometimes that assertion is made directly at others, as when I
assert a power over them, or an exclusion from some obligation that binds them. In other cases
the burdens placed on others are more diffuse, as when I assert some privileged standing that
requires resources that must ultimately be provided by others. Philosophers have clarified with
great precision the ways in which various dimensions of rights are logically distinct yet
sometimes importantly related. Again following Wenar’s comprehensive analysis, we can say
that some rights assert liberties (and often thus imply exemptions); others define claims (and in
so doing impose duties on others); still others confer authority (typically over the substance of
claims), and yet others establish protections by establishing immunity from authority (Wenar
2003: 225 -37).
The Nature and Justification of Rights
Wenar’s account is perhaps the most systematic contemporary analysis of these Hohfeldian
dimensions of rights -talk, and how we can understand the nature of, and rationales for, rights in
a way that moves beyond a seemingly intractable debate between will versus interest
justifications. Will -based accounts of rights appeal to the space of choices that rights either
protect or extend. Interest -based accounts instead justify rights in terms of the interests they
This longstanding debate has been dominated by advocates of each approach crafting
clever counter examples to the other. Interest theorists thus confront will theorists with the
question of whether incompetents have rights? They point out that criminal law often seems to
protect our right from harm precisely by limiting, not expanding the choices available. These
challenges are then met with troubling counter examples in turn: interest theorists are called to
explain why I still have a right (to fulfillment of a contract, say) if I was confused about what
interest was at stake when I signed? Indeed, why should the interests of others ever bind me, if I
have little at stake myself?
For Wenar, we can break this cycle of examples and counter examples by being clear on the
2The reference is to Wesley Hohfeld (1919), an enormously influential work in legal thought, which is the
starting point for Wenar’s and many other modern analyses of rights.
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kind of “Hohfeldian incidents” being invoked by an assertion of right, and thinking of claim
rights in particular in terms of roles rather than individuals (Wenar 2013: 206ff). Doing so
provides a way to clarify our understanding of rights that avoids the familiar pitfalls of interest
and will- based approaches.
For our purposes we can forgo some of this logical precision and think less formally, and
more practically, about how rights often involve the bearer, or their advocates, being justified in
making a demand (imposing a duty) on others, and holding a legitimate expectation that others
will acknowledge that claim and act accordingly. Think of rights involving liberties of speech,
conscience, association and political participation, or relief from obligations otherwise expected
of citizens, as when advocates of group- differentiated rights justify certain religious or
ethnocultural exemptions from military service or labour laws (e.g. Kymlicka 1995). Whether
the rights asserted are differentiated or universal, we often take such rights to be justified when,
given available evidence, they are, or can publicly be seen to be, supported by compelling
reasons, even if the protected activity itself seems unreasonable to many citizens. Thus a right of
free speech for racists is often upheld in free societies in spite of most reasonable and informed
citizens finding racist beliefs groundless.
Consider too how the cluster of rights types involved in property are responsive to reasons
in this way. A right of property in land – at once an assertion of privilege (or better, of liberty), a
claim (that others have a duty to respect), and an authority (power to shape specific claims
associated with my legitimate holding) – is honoured to the extent that reasons in support of
those assertions are widely taken as persuasive. This is so whether the justification is framed in
terms of abiding interests, a presumption in favour of liberty, or again, as Wenar (2013) usefully
suggests, in terms of how we discharge our responsibilities in a variety of roles.
To be sure, reasonable people disagree over what count as convincing reasons and
sufficient evidence, and the history of philosophical approaches to what ultimately grounds rights
talk – however specific rights are justified – reflects as much. I want, then, to distinguish
between (i) the philosophical clarification of categories of rights and their relationships, (ii) the
moral and sociopolitical justification of rights, and (iii) the background and orienting question of
whether or not rights exist. The first and the last question are intimately related, to be sure, as
Wenar’s analysis demonstrates: our views on what rights fundamentally are, and indeed whether
they exist at all, will inform the strategies we invoke, and the standards we cite, in justifying
particular rights.
3Wenar (2005: 224, and 252), where he concludes that “All rights are Hohfeldian incidents. All
Hohfeldian incidents are rights so long as they mark exemption, or discretion, or authorization, or entitle
their holders to protection, provision, or performance. Therefore, rights are all those Hohfeldian incidents
that perform these several functions.”
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Still, in framing what is distinctive about Lefebvre’s understanding of the right to the city,
it will prove helpful to separate the more recent conceptual clarifications on offer in ethics and
legal and political philosophy, on the one hand, from the broader historical currents of thought
about rights as such, on the other. There have been, in Western political and legal thought, two
prominent strategies for explaining the existence of rights (that then, of course, demand specific
justifications), and two equally prominent historical sources of scepticism about rights in toto.
The Existence of Rights
Beginning with the historical advocates, the two approaches are: first, to appeal to nature, and
second, to contract, either real or ideal. Advocates of natural law are not in agreement over what
rights are natural and why, but they invoke the idea that, whether discovered by reason,
revelation, or intuition, some rights are brute facts, and so must be respected by persons and
institutions. I am not concerned here with the (quite likely intractable) controversies over what
rights can be thus discovered, and whether, and if so why, their natural status counts as part of
the justification for specific rights. I am here only framing the various ways that scholars have
thought of rights, even before they have then wondered whether rights create space for acts of
will, or whether they advance interests.
Distinct from appeals to nature, one sort of contract theorist of rights takes some claims to
be such that any rational moral agent would assent to them: that hypothetical consent is sufficient
to establish the existence of the right in question. Other contract theorists are both less
demanding and less abstract: particular types of historical agreement over the scope and content
of certain rights are sufficient warrant for subsequent generations of citizens to acknowledge the
existence of those rights. Again, I am not concerned here with the myriad controversies that
plague these positions: how can hypothetical consent bind actual parties? If historical agreement
on rights is sufficient, must we limit ourselves only to those rights agreed to in the past by
founders? Why only those, if other rights seem to be justified by similar lines of reasoning, but
for claims that the founders never could have envisioned? These are vital questions, to be sure,
but I am merely mapping a broad conceptual terrain, not taking sides in various disputes.
Two sceptical views are also prominent historically. First, the early utilitarians doubted that
there are such things as rights, and more generally, consequentialists reject rights as moral
primitives. Even John Stuart Mill, who advocated extensive personal liberties, did not appeal to
rights, defending them instead for their consequences for social progress and human flourishing.
Mill’s approach does, however, suggest that utilitarians and other consequentialists can in
practice support something very much like a right, even if they are sceptical or dismissive of the
concept as a moral or legal foundation. Contemporary utilitarianism has seen considerable
conceptual refinement, most prominently the distinction between act and rule utilitarians. The
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former take the principle of utility to apply as a maxim guiding every action, whereas the latter
allow that some actions may not be utility enhancing, but are supported by a rule that does tend
toward maximizing overall utility. Rule utilitarians, themselves a diverse group, can be friendly
to rights, understanding them as just such rules (e.g. Brandt 1984).
The other sceptical voice in the history of political philosophy and social theory belongs,
of course, to Marx, who famously said very little about rights. Furthermore, what he did say –
chiefly in “On the Jewish Question” and the “Critique of the Gotha Programme” – is not at all
encouraging to rights advocates. Marxists since have tended to understand rights talk as
ideological: rights, especially property rights, reflect the legal and political institutions
characteristic of a particular dominant mode of economic production, and corresponding social
relations with respect to the means of production. When those relations are transformed, the
social norms and legal practices that both require and sustain them will dissipate, becoming mere
historical curiosities.
Lefebvre’s Invocation of Rights
Lefebvre is no exception here, at least at first blush. While he invokes the language of rights, he
insists that whatever a right to the city is, it cannot be natural or contractual (Lefebvre 1996:
194). Why then, does he speak of a right at all? It would be easy (and probably in some measure
correct) to dismiss this choice of words as rhetorical. Given the social and political upheavals of
the late 1960s, especially in Paris, “rights talk” would find easy purchase among readers. Yet
what little he explicitly says about the right to the city seems earnest, particularly in light of his
withering scorn for any imagined right to nature.
Consider the case: when we first encounter the fleeting elaboration of the right to the city,
deep within the collection of chapters which make up Le droit à la ville, the idea of right is
presented initially in good Marxist form, as an historical moment, a contradiction of late
capitalism: “Rights appear and become customs or prescriptions, usually followed by
enactments” (Lefebvre 1996: 157). Through various struggles – not least those of the working
class – the abstract rights borne of great revolutions are given concrete elaboration: liberties of
conscience and speech and assembly; and then of shelter, education, and recognition.
Thus far, Lefebvre’s account is true to his Marxist roots, and entirely consistent with
Marxist orthodoxies, which while fighting among themselves on the philosophical question of
rights within marxism, nonetheless roughly converge on the rejection of much real -world rights
5For an overview of the contrast, most prominently between G.A. Cohen and Steven Lukes, see Brenkert
(1986); also Boyd (2009).
4or “Des droits se font jour; ils entrent dans des coutumes ou des prescriptions plus ou moins suivies
d’actes”(Lefebvre 2009: 106).
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talk as rife with ideology. On Lefebvre’s account, rights emerge historically with the rise of
capitalism, and find concrete expression through tensions internal to the political and legal
structures that arise with, and reinforce, that mode of production. These abstract right claims,
followed by more concrete expressions, nonetheless remain bourgeois instruments, mere
precipitates of the capitalist mode of production. Indeed, when the purported “right to nature” is
discussed by Lefebvre, it is dismissed as a “pseudo- right” that only emerges once nature has
been commodified and valued through mechanisms of exchange (Lefebvre 1996: 158).
The right to the city is different, however: it emerges in part through the struggle of the
working class (whose efforts are necessary, but not sufficient) to reclaim ways of living that are
not unrelentingly mediated by mechanisms of market exchange and rationalist planning. It is not
merely a bourgeois negative right, but something deeper and more extensive, yet still
meaningfully characterized as a moral right.
What grounds this sort of right? In much of the literature in geography and urban studies
on the right to the city, the (entirely plausible) intuition is that enfranchisement and inclusion,
paired against against neoliberal market and political forces, admits of several mutually
supporting justifications.
Distinct from these popular rationales, I think Lefebvre suggests a different kind of
analysis, grounded in the early Marx, whose conception of work and alienation, as central to
human being, is essential to, and ubiquitous in, Lefebvre’s thinking.
For the early Marx, our multifaceted capacity to produce and express ourselves in the
world is something more than a base animal need—after all, unlike other animals we produce
works even when we are not driven by need. And yet we are driven to express ourselves in the
world through a variety of works, and these expressions are immediately distinct and separate
from us, and so vulnerable to being appropriated from us.6
For the early Lefebvre, as much sociologist as theorist and philosopher, this Marxist theme
is critical. Elaborating his approach in the 1958 forward to the first volume of his Critique of
Everyday Life, Lefebvre insists that “the theory of alienation and of the “total man” remain the
driving force behind the critique of everyday life” (1991: 76). “All self- actualization – which can
only be partial, and must therefore involve alienation at a more -or- less deep level – appears to
be, and becomes, total alienation” (1991: 78) But Lefebvre thinks we can rescue the concept
from this apparent reductio ad absurdum by in essence integrating the philosophical conception
of alienation into the sociological analysis of everyday life. For example: “the content of
concrete life has produced forms which conflict with it, smother it, and which consequently
collapse from this self -inflicted lack of substance and roots” (1991: 80 -81). This general
6I have in mind here Marx’s discussion of estranged labour, early in the Economic and Philosophic
Manuscripts of 1844; see Tucker (1978: 76- 77 and 114- 15).
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indictment, cast early on as the framework for Lefebvre’s sociological work, becomes the
guiding critical theme of Le droit à la ville, where industrialization, in subsuming and
reconstructing the spatial and institutional forms of urban life, undermines the very features that
make the city attractive for human emancipation from the tyranny of exchange value.
We do not merely reside and produce in the places we live; we inhabit them, expressing
within and through them the full richness of our lives in this early Marxist sense (although here
we see some of the influence of Heidegger on Lefebvre’s thinking). Central to this vision is a
conception of vital social needs: Lefebvre calls them “anthropological needs which are socially
elaborated” and include “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”
(1996: 147), and of course the requirement of time and places where these needs can be
expressed and satisfied.
For Lefebvre, then, the contrast between oeuvre and mere product, and between inhabiting
and mere habitat, rests on a complex understanding of human needs that are of necessity
expressed in our relations with others in time and place. It is this spatially grounded and
intimately social conception of need that I think is sufficient to ground a moral right claim.
Lefebvre, by way of the early Marx, accepts an understanding of human needs based in our
nature as complex social beings, which amounts to a compelling reason for guaranteeing the
bases of these needs.
We might disagree, of course, over whether or not there are such needs; or if so, whether
they really rise to the standard required to ground successfully a claim of right. Such
disagreement, while expected, is of no consequence here: I only mean to show a plausible way in
which Lefebvre’s invocation of a right to the city can be understood as more than mere strategic
rhetoric. If such a right is rooted in claims about the central importance of uses of spaces we
inhabit and otherwise occupy, uses vital to living a properly human life, then we can imagine
those claims being linked to needs in such an obvious and pressing way that we ought to
consider these uses as entitlements rooted in moral rights.
8Think here especially of Marx’s remarks about the transcendence of private property in the Economic
and Philosophic Manuscripts, a process through which, inter alia, “the senses and enjoyment of other
men have become my own appropriation” such that, “for instance, activity in direct association with
others ... has become an organ for expressing my own life, and a mode of appropriating human life”
(Tucker 1978: 88).
7There is, curiously, a strong resonance between Lefebvre’s characterization of socially elaborated needs,
on the one hand, and on the other how John Rawls (e.g. 1999: 79) elaborates the socialness of some
primary goods, their quality and distribution being deeply implicated in the basic institutional structure of
any given society.
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Why a Right to the City?
If the centrality of place- specific uses is a deep and unavoidable fact of our lives, one implicated
with alienation, then why isn’t a right to inclusion and influence over those uses – and their
characteristic spaces – itself worthy of enshrining as a right? Why is Lefebvre’s a right to the
city, rather than a right to places and use values more generally?
The simple answer is that the city, for Lefebvre, is “a refuge of use values” (1996: 68), but
that only pushes the question back: what is distinctive about the city that makes it such a refuge,
and why are there not such refuges elsewhere?
For Lefebvre the answer lies in the historical interplay of, on the one hand, dimensions of
centrality (political, ecclesiastic, commercial) for which towns and cities have been the spatial
locus; and on the other, the eventual supremacy of the logic of industrial production and market
Commerce finds roots in the medieval cities of Europe, between which trade networks
flourish. In contrast, industrialization eventually flourishes largely outside the city, only to return
and reshape the city according to its own distinctive logic of exchange values and rational plans.
The final stages of this historical process leave urban society triumphant over rural life. This
triumph, however, is a result of the urbanization of industrial society, not the primacy of the city
as a complex and dynamic way of living together. Rather, “urban society is built on the ruins of
the city” (1996: 126) thus understood.
According to Lefebvre, and again true to his Marxist roots, “each type of society and each
mode of production has had its type of city. The relative discontinuity of modes of production
defines the history of urban reality” (1996: 168), an historical categorization elaborated in the
table below.9
Modes of Production and City Types
Type of City
Mode of Production
Triumphal: “the sacred enclosure captures and condenses sacredness
diffused over the whole of the territory. It manifests the eminent right of the
sovereign, inseparable possession and sacredness” (168).
Antique (Greek, Roman)
Place of assembly: the agora and the forum; these cities, along with the
Asiatic forms, were “essentially political” (65).
Medieval (Feudal)
Enclosure of market and church: “urban centrality welcomes produce and
9Table page references are to Lefebvre (1996).
Published in Sharon Meagher and Joe Biehl, eds. Philosophy of the City Handbook (Routledge 2019), . Please honour copyright and intellectual property law, and cite published versions.
people ... heralding and preparing capitalism” (169); “the medieval city,
without losing its political character, was principally related to commerce,
crafts and banking. It absorbed merchants, who had previously been
quasi-nomadic and relegated outside the city” (66).
“place of consumption and consumption of place” (170); exchanges and
places of exchange”; “the urbanization of society” (124).
In Lefebvre’s reading of European history, inevitably shaped by the influential historical
narratives and descriptive categories of Henri Pirenne (1923) and Max Weber (1921), the rise of
the medieval city and the transition to capitalism present contradictory forces. The medieval city
is the focus of wealth and of crafts, arts, and the enfranchisement of peasants; yet the city is also
the primary site of production and exchange. Wealth is now mobile, and commerce involves
networks of cities, eventually subsumed under the coercive power of emerging national states.
Cities become the focus of community inherited from the village and the guild, but they also are
the sites of intense class struggles: “the ‘minuto populo’ and the ‘populo grasso’,” in the Italian
cities, “the aristocracy and the oligarchy,” to the north. “These groups,” in Lefebvre’s
characterization, “are rivals in their love of the city” (1996: 67).
Thus a paradox of the high medieval city: the rich “justify their privilege in the community
by sumptuously spending their fortune: buildings, foundations, palaces, embellishments,
festivities.” In this way, “very oppressive societies were very creative and rich in producing
oeuvres.” Yet “later, the production of products replaced the production of oeuvres and the social
relations attached to them, notably the city” (1996: 67). This explains why “the most eminent
urban creations, the most “beautiful” oeuvres of urban life (we say “beautiful,” because they are
oeuvres rather than products) date from epochs previous to that of industrialization” (1996: 65).
Again, industrialization typically began outside of the city, but then attempted to reshape
the city according to its imperatives:
We have before us a double process or more precisely, a process with two aspects:
industrialization and urbanization, growth and development, economic production
and social life. The two “aspects” of this inseparable process have a unity, and yet it
is a conflictual process. Historically there is a violent clash between urban reality and
industrial reality (1996: 70).
Lefebvre’s is a right to the city, then, because that is the mode of living that best allows us
to flourish as persons, together. Writing of Paris between 1848 and the end of the Haussmann
Published in Sharon Meagher and Joe Biehl, eds. Philosophy of the City Handbook (Routledge 2019), . Please honour copyright and intellectual property law, and cite published versions.
period, Lefebvre provides perhaps the clearest of many elaborations of this idea: “urban life
suggests meetings, the confrontation of differences, reciprocal knowledge and acknowledgement
(including ideological and political confrontation), ways of living, ‘patternsʼ which coexist in the
city” (1996: 75). Given the global nature of the logic of industrialization and its drive to urbanize
society, Lefebvre presents the right to the city as a way to recapture what is distinctively urban
from that process: to gain access to, and influence over, the spatial and institutional dimensions
of the centrality essential to realizing vital needs that require social elaboration.
Claiming Lefebvre’s Right
Lefebvre is often cast as a heterodox marxist. This he certainly was. He was also a hopeful
romantic, looking back to medieval spatial and civic forms to find revolutionary possibilities. In
framing those possibilities so powerfully within the concepts and vocabulary of Marx’s early
expressivist understanding of how and why we work in the world, Lefebvre provides a
justification of a rights claim specific to the context of the city as a distinctive spatial and civic
form in which that work best proceeds.
What is more, this grounded urban justification is consonant with a philosophical tradition
typically thought at odds with Marxist formulations: the liberal analytic understanding of rights.
We can claim Lefebvre’s right to the city without irony or inconsistency, as a familiar species of
right, so long as we accept his argument about the distinctiveness of the city.
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... It frames the goals of advocacy groups (such as the RTTC Alliance in the United States (Fisher et al. 2013)), the policy objectives of international organizations (UN HABITAT 2010), and even a piece of national legislation in Brazil (Fernandes 2007). Invocations of the RTTC generally share two core emphases: an insistence on the importance of the use value (as opposed to the capitalist exchange value) of urban space and resources; and the claim that the power to shape the city should belong equally to all its inhabitants (Purcell 2014;King 2020). The RTTC fuses a critique of the stark social inequalities that characterize cities under global capitalism, with a call to political mobilization framed through the language of rights. ...
... The RTTC is not solely the preserve of the dispossessed, since even those who are ostensibly "doing well" in the contemporary city do not necessarily have access to this cooperative side of urban life; there is what Lefebvre (ibid., p. 159) calls a certain "untragic misery" of the wealthy suburban inhabitant. One can see the influence of the early Marx here, insofar as the critique of capitalism goes beyond the conditions of deprivation and want, but also invokes the particular mode of social life-exclusion and zero-sum competition-required by it, and its occlusion of a more cooperative and communal alternative (Marx 2000;Lefebvre 2014, 330;King 2020). The RTTC, then, belongs also to-"those superficially integrated into the system and sharing in its material benefits, but constrained in their opportunities for creative activity, oppressed in their social relationships, guilty perhaps for an undeserved prosperity, unfulfilled in their lives' hopes" (Marcuse 2009, 190). ...
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Is the Right to the City (RTTC) still a useful framework for a transformative urban politics? Given recent scholarly criticism of its real-world applications and appropriations, in this paper, we argue that the transformative promise in the RTTC lies beyond its role as a framework for oppositional struggle, and in its normative ends. Building upon Henri Lefebvre's original writing on the subject, we develop a “radical-cooperative” conception of the RTTC. Such a view, which is grounded in the lived experiences of the current city, envisions an urban society in which inhabitants can pursue their material and social needs through self-governed cooperation across social difference. Growing and diversifying spaces and sectors of urban life that are decoupled from global capitalism are, we argue, necessary to create space for this inclusionary politics. While grassroots action is essential to this process, so is multi-scalar support from the state.
... Kebanyakan dari mereka bekerja di sektor primer sehingga keberadaannya dibutuhkan. Oleh karena itu, masyarakat ini semestinya diberi hak atas ruang kota (King, 2019), dan dibantu agar memiliki hunian yang layak, yaitu hunian yang memenuhi persyaratan keselamatan bangunan, kecukupan minimum luas bangunan, serta kesehatan penghuni (PUPR, 2019). ...
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Abstrak_ Permukiman masyarakat menengah ke bawah sudah lama menjadi persoalan di berbagai kota, termasuk Kota Semarang. Hal ini dikarenakan permukiman tersebut umumnya terbentuk secara organik di area-area yang tidak diizinkan. Namun, keberadaan masyarakat golongan menengah ke bawah sangat penting bagi kehidupan di kota dan semestinya diberi hak atas ruang kota melalui hunian yang layak. Artikel ini bertujuan untuk mencari tipologi fungsional (applied typology) dengan memahami temuan berupa tipe spesifik yang bertahan atau berulang dari rumah kalangan menengah ke bawah yang dapat dimanfaatkan untuk perancangan hunian untuk kalangan menengah ke bawah di Kota Semarang. Penelitian ini menggunakan metode kualitatif dengan metode purposive sampling untuk pemilihan beberapa sampel. Sampel penelitian ini diambil dari tiga permukiman dengan topografi yang berbeda, yakni pada Kampung Jurnatan (kemiringan 0-2%), Kampung Wonosari (kemiringan 15-40% dan >40%), serta Kampung Patemon (kemiringan 2-15%). Hasil studi tipologi ini menunjukkan adanya beberapa karakter utama dari rumah yaitu: ruang multifungsi, keberadaan ruang atau area penyimpanan di dalam setiap rumah serta fasilitas umum, dan ruang sirkulasi linier yang juga multifungsi untuk sosialisasi masyarakat pada area kampung. Temuan tersebut dapat diimplikasikan dalam kriteria desain perancangan hunian menengah ke bawah pada permukiman horizontal maupun vertikal. Kata kunci: Tipologi; Permukiman; Rumah; Menengah ke Bawah; Semarang.
... These considerations also serve to clarify why our choice of an ontological approach is not antagonistic to other scholarly approaches to the analysis of space, which could be employed to study gastrospaces-e.g., studies in anthropology (e.g., Low 2017), geography (Lefebvre 1996;McCann 2002), sociology (Gabrielson and Parady 2010), and philosophy of the city (King 2020). Rather, ontology can be used to generate bridges and dialogues across these various approaches, by providing shared means of representation and analysis while respecting the specificities of micro-or local analyses and histories. ...
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In this paper, we establish gastrospaces as a subject of philosophical inquiry and an item for policy agendas. We first explain their political value, as key sites where members of liberal democratic societies can develop the capacity for a sense of justice and the capacity to form, revise, and pursue a conception of the good. Integrating political philosophy with analytic ontology, we then unfold a theoretical framework for gastrospaces: first, we show the limits of the concept of “third place;” second, we lay out the foundations for an ontological model of gastrospaces; third, we introduce five features of gastrospaces that connect their ontology with their political value and with the realization of justice goals. We conclude by briefly illustrating three potential levels of intervention concerning the design, use, and modification of gastrospaces: institutions, keepers, and users.
... inhabitants of the city) to take charge of processes of spatial production (Lefebvre, [1968(Lefebvre, [ ] 1996(Lefebvre, [ , 1974Shields, 1998;Dikeç, 2002;Purcell, 2002Purcell, , 2003Chiodelli, 2013). Appropriating urban spaces and resources, in respect of moving around the city and accessing urban space, are a key dimension of what Lefebvre ([1968Lefebvre ([ ] 1996 referred to as a reclaiming of oeuvre: the ability to participate in the city and to be part of urban life and to be present within it (Mitchell and Heynen, 2009;King, 2020). The 'right to the city' supports the claim of all (including older adults) to social participation and inclusion, and the opportunities to access the 'rich' social, economic, political, cultural and physical spaces that constitute urban life (Cramm et al., 2018;Woolrych et al., 2021). ...
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A global ageing population presents opportunities and challenges to designing urban environments that support ageing in place. The World Health Organization's Global Age-Friendly Cities movement has identified the need to develop communities that optimise health, participation and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age. Ensuring that age-friendly urban environments create the conditions for active ageing requires cities and communities to support older adults’ rights to access and move around the city (‘appropriation’) and for them to be actively involved in the transformation (‘making and remaking’) of the city. These opportunities raise important questions: What are older adults’ everyday experiences in exercising their rights to the city? What are the challenges and opportunities in supporting a rights to the city approach? How can the delivery of age-friendly cities support rights to the city for older adults? This paper aims to respond to these questions by examining the lived experiences of older adults across three cities and nine neighbourhoods in the United Kingdom. Drawing on 104 semi-structured interviews with older adults between the ages of 51 and 94, the discussion centres on the themes of: right to use urban space; respect and visibility; and the right to participate in planning and decision-making. These themes are illustrated as areas in which older adults’ rights to access and shape urban environments need to be addressed, along with recommendations for age-friendly cities that support a rights-based approach.
... King (2019: 83) asserts the dominant paradigm is closely bounded to the rights of property ownerships. According to him, the rights of property ownership is a product of both legal domains and capitalist system 'property rights, reflect the legal and political institutions characteristic of a particular dominant mode of economic production, and corresponding social relations with respect to the means of production' (King 2019). Furthermore, Young (2014: 147) asserts that the dominant paradigm of property ownership is 'based on the sovereignty and probity of the title deed and according others, at most, the license to act in a range of permitted ways'. ...
In recent years, individual street artworks have been framed as cultural heritage. However, attempts to integrate street artworks and graffiti into formal heritage frameworks have not provided solutions to the philosophical and practical problems associated with their preservation. Rather than focusing on street artworks as passive objects to be conserved, preserved or managed, this research analyses the conservation of Dolk’s street artworks as an example of lively theatrical performance emerging from embodied actions, lived processes and social practices. Applying non-representational theory, heritage studies and cultural studies, the research argues that the conservation of street artworks is not passive, but active – a process in which humans, social media and artworks, themselves, are active, relational and equally important actors contributing to ‘heritagization’. The case illustrates that acts of destruction – as well as social media debates and street art performances that oppose conventional heritage practices and commodification – can serve as stimuli for not only reconsidering the meanings and values of street art but also protecting the rights of city commons.
... to reclaim ways of living that are not unrelentingly mediated by mechanisms of market exchange and rationalist planning (King, 2018)." ...
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The present research presents findings over the influence of participatory processes in the livelihood of participates involved in initiatives for social housing development. It takes special consideration on the developments on the self-help practices of housing. In the macro scale, the research dwells on the impact of the housing policies and strategies implemented in the Colombian context, its effects on the ever-growing housing deficit and the role that participation has had in such endeavours. It considers, the inherent dimension of the housing deficit such as quality of basic services, the relation to ownership, the role of land and its market, and the quality of the housing units. In the mesoscale, it directs the attention to participatory mechanisms produce to include the participation of communities and what / how are such spaces used to reduce the housing deficit. It builds over the macroscale analysis and examines the use of these mechanisms in the reduction of the present quantitative and qualitative deficit. The VIVA neighbourhood, a project of directed self-help is taken as a Case Study to analyze the results of implementing such processes and their immediate outcomes in livelihood. In the micro-scale, the research aims to provide insight over the influence that such participatory processes have on the livelihood of participants. For this purpose, the research takes the Sustainable Livelihood Framework as a tool to assess the livelihood changes and the relation to the participatory processes of developing the housing project.
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Migrasi internal yang meluas di Jakarta juga mempersulit upaya untuk menyediakan layanan kesehatan yang dibutuhkan warganya. Pandemi memperparah kerentanan sosial masyarakat perkotaan dan semakin menunjukkan ketimpangan yang ada di kota. Pertanyaan yang ingin dijawab dalam makalah ini adalah "Sejauh mana masyarakat miskin kota dapat mengakses hak mereka untuk mendapatkan penghidupan yang berkelanjutan?". Untuk membantu meningkatkan pemahaman kita tentang bagaimana masyarakat miskin kota mengakses hak dan hak mereka atas penghidupan yang berkelanjutan, kerangka kerja penghidupan berkelanjutan dikombinasikan dengan pendekatan analisis demografi. Pengumpulan data dan penelitian lapangan merupakan elemen-elemen dari metode analisis yang digunakan untuk memahami dinamika penghidupan masyarakat perkotaan. Masyarakat miskin berada di tengah dan terlihat membangun strategi penghidupan mereka di atas seperangkat sumber daya yang vital. Orang-orang menemukan cara untuk memenuhi kebutuhan hidup dan melanjutkan hidup mereka. Dalam kasus masyarakat miskin perkotaan di Jakarta, penting untuk dicatat bahwa meskipun model penghidupan berkelanjutan menekankan bahwa masyarakat miskin adalah ahli dalam kondisi mereka sendiri, namun sangat merendahkan jika kita mengasumsikan bahwa semua strategi penghidupan yang dilakukan oleh masyarakat adalah benar. Banyak rumah tangga miskin di perkotaan tidak memiliki akses terhadap informasi, pandangan yang lebih luas, dan pengetahuan tentang pengalaman di luar wilayah mereka, sehingga mereka dapat melakukan kesalahan dan mengadopsi strategi penghidupan yang kurang memuaskan atau bahkan gagal.
The plight of residents in inner-city slums in the global South has continued to receive research attention. However, there is a paucity of empirical studies on the influence of the living conditions of this category of residents on attachment to their home environment in urban areas in Nigeria. This study investigated place attachment in the inner-city Ibadan, Nigeria, using data derived from household survey of 856 residents in Oke-Foko Community. The findings of the descriptive statistics, factor, and multiple regression analyses revealed that around 63% of the respondents were attached to their home environment and place dependence contributed more than place identity to this. In addition, satisfaction with housing units features and support services, security and tenure status of the respondents emerged as the top four predictors of place attachment in the area. The study implies that improved place attachment and by extension active citizenship behaviours by residents of urban slums in Nigeria and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa can be achieved if appropriate strategies are engaged to enhance the quality of their housing units, level of security of lives and property, and improve their access to basic social services and facilities within their home environment.
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This article explores the potential of ‘Co-Creation’ to develop new understandings of neighbourhood disadvantage in collaboration with civil society partners. It argues that there is a growing need for collaborative knowledge production with communities carrying vernacular knowledges previously invalidated by dominant epistemologies. The first part of the article undertakes a reconceptualisation of ‘co-creation’, a term usually associated with citizen involvement in neoliberal contexts, redeveloping it as a ‘critical artistic practice’ (Mouffe, 2013) in which new ways of imagining the city can be articulated. The second part of the article examines the practice of Co-Creation as a participatory methodology involving artists, researchers and stakeholders in developing ‘agonistic spaces’ by scrutinising a five-day workshop conducted in the Rio de Janeiro favela of Santa Marta to explore multiple understandings and meanings of this neighbourhood. Through an analysis of creative workshop activities such as photovoice and mapping exercises, the authors explore the potential of the Co-Creation approach to construct new subjectivities that can help subvert existing configurations of power. The conclusion formulates some recommendations about future strategies to maximise Co-Creation’s potential to engage communities in collaborative knowledge production about their neighbourhoods and bring about positive change.
This chapter describes the functioning of the restaurant sector in the urban space based on spatially oriented and non-spatially oriented theories. The former are of particular importance, as they concern not only the spatial distribution of restaurants, bars, etc., but also consumer behaviour. Central-place theory, bid-rent theories and the socio-spatial structure of a city (such as Burgess’ concentric zone theory, Hoyt’s sector theory, and Harris and Ullman’s multiple nuclei theory) are proposed as useful concepts to explain the concentration of eating establishments in urban areas. New approaches to the city and city planning, such as the concepts of the creative city, the compact city and the smart city, are also offered.
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The author considers the plausibility of granting a “right to place” (RTP) as an entitlement of citizenship in a nation such as the United States. Such a right would afford people the capacity to live in the places (or place communities) they choose. To explore whether granting such a right is plausible, the author identifies and examines the salient barriers now preventing Americans from choosing their place communities. The final section suggests that these myriad barriers, while formidable, are not insurmountable—a conclusion that, in turn, suggests that an RTP could be plausibly granted to Americans in the twenty-first century.
Virtually all philosophers now agree that human beings - and possibly the higher animals - have moral rights in some sense, both special rights against individuals to whom they stand in a special relation (such as a creditor's right to collect from a debtor), and general rights, against everybody or against the government, just in virtue of their human nature. Some philosophers also think, however, that anyone who is a utilitarian ought not to share this view: there is a fundamental incompatibility between utilitarinism and human rights. Most utilitarians, of course, have not thought there is such an incompatibility. John Stuart Mill, for instance, espoused utilitarianism at the same time that he defended rights to free speech and freedom of action except where it injures others. In what follows I wish to explore some reasons recently put forward to show that the utilitarian who wishes to affirm that there are moral rights faces a serious logical problem; and I shall argue that further analysis shows the alleged difficulty is unreal.
This essay critically examines the concept of the right to the city. While many progressive scholars have embraced the idea of the right to the city, what these scholars mean by rights has often been left unexplored. The first half of this essay focuses on the distinctions that political philosophers and legal scholars often draw between various kinds and forms of rights. The second section focuses specifically on how rights are mobilized within scholarship on the right to the city, as well as the tensions and contradictions – with respect to rights – that arise therein.
While there has been a growing utilization of Henri Lefebvre's concept of the `right to the city', not much has been said about the legal implications of such a concept. This article discusses the main aspects of the legal construction of the `right to the city' in Brazil. Following a discussion of Lefebvre's contribution to the debate on urban politics, the article analyses the role played by the legal order in the determination of the exclusionary pattern of urban development in Brazil, as well as the role a redefined legal order can have in the processes of urban reform, socio-spatial inclusion, and sustainable development. Emphasis is placed on the main dimensions of the 2001 City Statute, the legal framework governing urban development and management, which recognized the `right to the city' as a collective right, followed by an introduction to the proposed `World Charter of the Right to the City'. As a conclusion, it is argued that, while a great deal has already been done to promote the materialization of the `right to the city' in Brazil, there are still serious obstacles to be overcome, and renewed socio-political mobilization is required for the new legal-urban order to be fully implemented.