This essay explores the relationship between the needs for improved social inclusiveness within our urban environment and the impact that this may have on current place-making efforts. The ‘Right to the City’ movement, initially launched by Henry Lefebvre in 1967 and taken up by Harvey in 2003, demanded greater distribution and access to urban resources through revolutionary means. This has mutated into a greater discourse about growing inequalities in cities, the privatisation of common space and access to public spaces. Place-Making, despite its efforts in promoting inclusiveness and improved connectivity to public space can also have detrimental effects by furthering exclusion of certain disenfranchised populations.

Defining Cities and its ownership

While cities are in themselves complex and subject to multiple interpretations, they were most often created to allow a civil society to flourish in and benefit from a more efficient method of access to – and allocation of – resources. A primary economic driver of growth for cities is trade and its access to transport networks. Cities were thus often established in advantageous geographical locations, close to bodies of water, by natural routes of passage and thus not only home to resident populations but those who transited through it. Cities have evolved as a reflection of the social aspirations, political systems, ownership structures, religious beliefs, technological advancements and aesthetic values of their time, adapted and transformed from a complex heritage of previous such reflections. Cities are dynamic places of business, of exchange of resources, of private ownership, of wealth creation and destruction as well as a catalyst to social movements. Beyond all of those, cities are places for people to thrive and flounder, incubators for society to evolve, mature, degenerate, adapt and transition. Cities are the scene for extraordinary segregation by income, race and opportunities as well as the setting for violence, injustice, discrimination and social exclusions through the privatisation of common space.

None of those accurately define what a city truly represents, it is a mix of all of the above anchored within a world of complex geopolitics, conflicts and ever-evolving social landscapes. A clear challenge for society in today’s urban environment is the lack of equal ownership and decision making in the use of its resources. Most cities today abide by a certain measure of free market principles, and with it an inalienable right to private property driven by the private sector and its focus on profit generation. This has led to considerable developments in cities as the private sector continues to fuel investments in  growth, infrastructure and urban development in search for more capital acquisition. Yet, despite the boom in opportunities, inequality, exclusion and urban poverty continue to plague today’s global cities.

Segregation of urban resources

Urban Planners have constantly strived to create an urban form that would enable a more just and fair society with a more equal distribution of urban resources. It was Ebenetzer Howard who first considered humane solutions to overcrowding and deterioration of British cities in the Victorian age through his ‘Garden Cities’ movement (Howard, 1902). The movement was based not only on the concepts of creating a healthy and liveable mix of “town and country” but also on the removal of private land ownership, short-term rent hikes or segregated housing based on income. To achieve this he devised a system of “philanthropic land speculation” (Fainstein & Campbell 2003, p. 43.) which allowed investors no direct land ownership but access to potential future dividends derived from rent. While the movement was successful in opening the debate on inequalities within cities, it never achieved its aims and compromised with industrialists and financiers to build cities such as Letchworth (UK) which embodied certain principles but eventually resulted (in part thanks to its own success) in similar levels of inequality and disenfranchisement. Numerous planners from Peter Gedes, to Baron Haussmann, to Le Corbusier to Robert Mosses have attempted to return a sense of equal access to improved urban resources to all populations with various levels of success, none of which without compromise or effective over the long-term. The matter of scale, financing, community interference along with demands of private enterprise were often cited as key challenges. It was argued that it had to be done at a city scale to be effective, preferably over a greenfield site without legacy developments and infrastructure (Caro, 1974).

On the surface, it could be argued that planned cities of the Soviet Block would be the perfect ‘proof-of-concept’ for a just social urban environment. Cities planned from scratch, often on greenfield sites, with no regards to profits or private sector involvement with equal treatment of its population as a guiding principle. Slum areas within existing cities were “upgraded” with high rise apartment buildings, public transport was prioritised, ample park and green spaces were made available, mass infrastructure allowed residents to be connected to water, heating and electricity. A clear and desired side effect of such Soviet Socialism city planning was the near removal of a clear sense of distinctive national identity. Minsk (Bielorussia) to Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) to Astana (Kazakstan) were practically identical cities, devoid of many elements of national symbolism or cultural heritage. The cities themselves became the physical and spatial embodiment of a new form of Soviet egalitarianism, community and identity.

Yet, the issues plaguing contemporary ‘market-driven’ cities rapidly appeared in their Soviet equivalent.  Soviet cities were often designed as physical demonstrations of an overarching political power with a single minded focused on efficiency and authority. City planning gave little consideration to the enjoyment of the people and to the contemporary notions of place-making. Pyongyang in North Korea remains today as one of the few original examples of this type of planning. The privileged and powerful few (whose power was political and administrative rather than financial) lived in great luxury behind closed doors or compounds, buildings were poorly maintained, the population enjoyed few freedoms in choosing where to live, had no say in the urban development of their towns and had little security in their home tenancy (Maggs, 1961). The lack of those elements meant that residents were largely disincentivised to invest and improve their own habitat and surroundings. Poverty, state enforced segregation, degradation overcrowding and sub-standard living conditions were commonplace throughout those new Soviet cities.

It was clear that authoritative top-down planning, as practiced by Soviet bureaucrats, along with an absence of the incentives created through a free market system did not lead to a lower level of urban segregation than in ‘market-driven’ cities. Such segregation and exclusion was possibly better hidden and, with few avenues for free expression, was less publicised but was nevertheless very real. Equal and fair access to urban resources were equally absent in both systems. A bottom-up democratisation of space usage and urban rights would be required to enable sustainable change.

Right to Cities?

The term “Right to the City” was initially coined by Henry Lefebvre in his 1968 book “Le Droit à la Ville” where he stated ‘The right to the city is like a cry and a demand …. a transformed and renewed right to urban life’ (Purcell, 2002). Lefebvre was intent on democratising the urban environment so that it could benefit all more equally, he denounced the excess and abuses present in today’s capital driven cities along with the lack of compassion of decision makers. He predicted an urban crisis which would lead to a new form of ‘radical democracy’. His rhetoric was resolutely Marxist and anti-capitalist with demands for a violent urban revolution. This stance was taken up by Harvey (2008) who built on this notion by declaring the ‘Right to the City’ to be a basic human right, something which is in contradiction to his statements that such enhanced ‘democratic’ rights should be awarded to low-income classes and removed altogether from higher-income classes, he also argues that today’s private property and means of production should be taken over by those who have none (YouTube, 2015). Beyond a call to revolution, Harvey offers few pragmatic solutions to issues of urban inequality. Those concepts have taken hold at times of greater struggle for survival and urban inequalities for many, particularly in the student uprising of 1968, the Vietnam war and racial equality struggles in the US.

The ‘Right to Cities’ movement has spread and in most cases moved beyond the somewhat theoretical and utopic demands for social revolution towards establishing a greater sense of democratisation in creating a healthy, fair, equal, affordable and liveable city with a distinct identity for all. The movement in its various forms (with a myriad of organisations) argues that disenfranchised populations have no to little say in how cities are designed and managed and that this further widens the income, racial, religious and age gaps between the classes of city inhabitants and the opportunities they have. They seek not just an improvement in quality of life at the micro and mezzo scale of housing or community but a greater protection of disenfranchised populations at the city and regional level (Samara, 2007).

In 2001, the World Social Forum brought together a number of key social & urban focused stakeholders to discuss the principles of the ‘Right to the City’. From this forum emerged the “World Charter for the Right to the City” which outlines and serves to strengthen its key principles and strategic foundations. Brazil was the first nation to official inscribe the charter in its city statues in 2001 (Brown 2009:4) while Mexico was the first city to pass the charter in 2010 (Adler 2015:7). This ‘Right to Cities’ movement and its stated goals are ultimately at odds with the basic principles of private ownership and profit generation which regulate most urban space today and are unlikely to change in the near term. It does nevertheless engage an important discourse in the role that the citizenry plays in shaping its urban habitat and what place-making can do to further this agenda.

Impact on Place-Making

As long as citizens retain the right to relocate freely, the creation of equitable urban space should not be focused on unfairly penalising the wealthy to the benefit of the poor or awarding greater powers to disenfranchised groups to the detriment of current decision makers as advocated by Harvey (YouTube, 2015) since those citizens will seek more welcoming shores and leave behind a city of low-income residents which then struggles to provide basic public services (as was partly the case with Detroit). The focus should rather be on making cities as desirable as possible for all its stakeholders. This effort can be achieved in part through inclusive and compassionate place-making.

Over the past 20 years, many cities have strived to become more democratic in their approaches to urban design and resource allocation. Cities globally are progressively turning their backs to the reign of the automobile and (re)ushering-in an age of people-centric urban planning with sustainability and participation as guiding principles. A key driver in achieving this has been the treatment of public space and its connection to its users (Saez, 2015). Mitchell (2003: 230-232) provides an example of increasing social exclusion in public parks in the U.S. where homeless people are evicted so as not to offend other users. The increased popularity of gated communities is another form of social exclusion and the creation of barriers to spaces which should belong to the public domain (Webster and Lai, 2003: 5).

Jan Gehl, a Danish Architect, has been a strong advocate of returning communal spaces within cities to interactive pedestrian use, building cities with visually stimulating urban landscapes and developing an urban dimension to constructions (Gehl, 2010). He has successfully carried out projects in numerous cities and his principles are followed globally. These efforts, at a localised scale, can often ironically have the detrimental effects of further widening wealth gaps, accelerating migrations and urbanisation, fostering exclusions, and driving social and spatial segregation. Improved place-making often results in gentrification and thus results in higher property values, increased rental prices, changes in retail  and employment offerings and eventually a displacement of poverty towards areas which have not yet been ‘improved’ and thus negating many of the intended benefits of place-making for the original occupiers.

Another such instance is found in the current drive towards pedestrianisation, cycling infrastructure and increasing restriction of car usage. Those efforts disproportionally benefit those landlords who are sufficiently wealthy to own property within the zone of impact but has considerable negative outcomes to the poorer populations – typically resident outside of such zones – who rely on their cars to access the bustling employment opportunities of the city centres. Those populations are not only penalised financially through higher parking costs, have reduced access to employment opportunities but are also excluded from owning or renting properties within the enhanced pedestrian friendly zones.

UN Habitat alongside the Project for Public Spaces, is striving to create more inclusive place-making policies by prioritising social dimensions over physical elements. They call for “requests” on creating safer environments for the most vulnerable, public spaces that foster inclusive economic urban growth such as regional markets and greater public involvement in the decision making process (UN Habitat, 2015). They focus on city-wide public space improvements to ultimately improve quality of life for all.

The Taksim Gezi park uprising in Istanbul in May 2013 is an example of a time when the agenda of the ‘Rights to the City’ ran alongside those of place-making proponents. City Authorities planned to destroy this relatively small but lively and inclusive public park to replace it with an exclusive shopping and residential centre, a sit-in protest was violently repressed leading to city-wide outrage and demands for  greater protections of communal space (Kuymulu, 2013). The violent clashes which followed held many roots in the demands for greater equality and protection of public space, the treatment of low-income residents, wide scale evictions and low levels of participation in city planning. This demonstrated the often underestimated attachment and importance to public space held by all communities of the city.

Place-making has, over time, privileged defined structures of values within a certain historical, social and political context, which runs contrary to many founding objectives of the ‘Right to the City’ movement. While greater overall community participation, aligned with localised governance can mitigate some effects, it is key decision makers who ultimately yield control and shape urban space.

Control of the decision-makers

Top-down planning systems are still predominantly in place and are hard to change, yet the ‘Right to the City’ movement is predicated on bottom-up intervention, a rising of the masses, ‘a collective power to reshape the process of urbanisation’ (Harvey, 2008) and thus a dramatic shift away from present decision-makers and their processes. Conflictingly, for ‘Rights to the City’ objectives to be sustainable and achievable, considerable pro-poor State intervention is required in terms of regulation, legislation and financing, such interventions are driven by current decision makers with access to ample resources.

Distribution of power changes over time as society becomes more engaged in urban planning activities and in voicing their demands. Knowledge, access to social media and the ability to demand change are equally important. The Soviet Socialist period, despite its attractions to Lefebvre and Harvey in terms of capital allocation and lack of private enterprise, resulted in very unequal access to urban resources such as land. Pyongyang (DPRK) remains a clear example of this situation. Without private property, market incentives, rule of law and a stable urban society, authoritative top-down planning becomes essential. The decision making processes adopted impacts the place-making strategies that can be utilised. Today, bottom-up planning is largely limited to localised levels and dedicated to smaller scale decisions.

A defining aspect of place-making is the creation of a sense of identity which can be fostered within communities through both individual enterprise and through transformative regeneration projects. The meatpacking district in New York city for instance benefited culturally from the development of the High Line and its identity was transformed but as is often the case, developers took this unrealised form of social and cultural value and realised it in economic terms, often to the detriment of original residents.

In conclusion 

Place-making should be focused on bringing about gradual and inclusive improvements in the quality of life for all residents, protecting and enhancing access to public space while retaining principles of affordability and accessibility. ‘Walkability’, ‘connectivity’, ‘permeability’, ‘adaptability’, ‘community participation’, ‘human scale’ have become the vernacular of place-making endeavours and its attempts at making common space more inclusive, lively, inviting and sustainable. The challenge remains in minimising the capital value enhancements of place-making so as not to impact the ‘Rights to the City’. For cities to thrive, sufficient density, diversity and ‘mixity’ (income, density and use) are key tenets that can contribute towards the creation of a liveable sense of place, however complex to achieve it may be.

It is a trait of human character to seek close proximity to those of similar wealth and likeness, to hoard possessions and desire more than our peers have. Society will never be just, fair or equal. According to Thomas Jefferson, ‘nothing is more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people’ (Harvey 2008). Using place-making to make our urban environment fairer than it currently is should in itself be the goal, this can only be achieved through legislative, financial and public support at both a State and a ‘street’ level in order to renegotiate the social contract which currently exists between the city and its citizens.

The UN Habitat Convention III to be held in Quito in October 2016 has ‘Social Cohesion and Equity’ as the first theme in its ‘New Urban Agenda’ (UN Habitat 2016). It aims to bring greater visibility and urgency to the matter, yet ‘Rights to the City’ are not and are unlikely to become legally enforceable due to the complicated nature of defining urban users, and what exactly such rights would entail. They constitute a set of goals and objectives which cities may abide to and draw inspirations from but which will continue to be subservient to the electoral needs of politicians and the requirements of capital flows.

With an increasingly decentralised economy, centres of industries and localised knowledge production, cities may loose attractiveness in an economic sense. More individual infrastructure capacity such as power generation and storage as well as water purification may lead to more malleable localisation of communities. A greater flow of information alongside increased global urbanism may lead to new forms of place-making less reliant on top-down decision making, state controlled financing and private sector incentives and therefore less likely to drive improved desirability through gentrification and thus be better aligned with the social incentives of the ‘Rights to the City’ as a universal human right.


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