A “Right to the City”?! – The use of Public Spaces

Schloßgarten Stuttgart, Immobilienprojekt Stuttgart 21, © Yvonne P. Doderer

Who owns the city? “It is lying on the street, hanging in trees and is hidden under cobblestones”. Initiatives are fighting for participation in shaping urban spaces.

A city is not only a constructional space, but above all a social one. In recent years, a spectrum of identities, resistance-oriented social movements and groups have formed that are struggling for more participation and decision-making rights. Issues relating to basic principles emerged here that suddenly cast the city as a space in which a diversity of negotiation processes relating to normative and acting power are carried out: who defines a city’s image and who is responsible for the city’s future development? Who talks and who listens? Who has the power to decide and act, and who makes decisions about the built structures themselves, that form and influence urban daily and community life in equal measure? The question of space is therefore always a question of power.

Urban upgrading

© Yvonne P. DodererFor a number of years now, capital investments in land, real estate and even in the construction of entire cities in actual or projected growth areas can be observed – from Europe, Russia, the USA, North Africa, the United Arab Emirates, to China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and more recently Vietnam and Cambodia. The urban and infrastructural upgrading involved in this process is taking place under the banner of – as the American geographer David Harvey formulates it – “accumulation through dispossession”.

A politics of the economisation of space, i.e. of the city such as this is nothing new. What is new is the financial volume, the dimension and extent of these capital investments and the ignorance and ruthlessness of the interests driving them towards many city dwellers and their right to have their basic needs met, to urban use values and democracy in the form of transparency and political participation in planning decisions. Whole urban districts are being destroyed, residents displaced or even driven out with bulldozers and police to make room for new office- and service complexes, infrastructure projects, shopping malls, up-market residential space, and also high-end cultural facilities such as museums or opera houses. Financial crises and breakdowns in capital markets do not seem to have any negative effects on this boom – the opposite seems to be the case instead, as real estate is still considered to be a good and secure capital investment.

Urban resistance movements

© Yvonne P. DodererBut these investments are increasingly meeting up with resistance, as is clearly demonstrated by the reactions to “Stuttgart 21,” the railway and real estate project connected with the Stuttgart main train station. These urban resistance movementsanaginst large-scale projects, against a urban and site policies that conceive of cities as businesses and urban space as a commodity, can be summarised under the heading A Right to the City – coined by the philosopher of space Henri Lefebvre as early as 1968 under the influence of the Paris resistance movement in May of that year and developed in “Le Droit à la Ville,” his publication of the same name. Since then, many initiatives, NGOs and networks have organised themselves under this label in many countries, including Germany. In Hamburg, for instance, a considerable number of groups, associations and individuals have united to protest against “Hamburg” as a brand name demolition of existing urban structures, rising rents, gentrification policies and Disney-fication of their neighbourhoods.

The city as resource

Centro Sociale, Hamburg, © Yvonne P. DodererThese two directions are reflected in Lefebvre’s much-cited observation, “…the right to the city is a cry and a demand ….” For some, the issue is first of all having existential needs such as residential space, access to vital resources like water, and to infrastructures such as refuse and waste water disposal and streets and regional public transportation. For others, this demand expresses their longing for a city that supports precisely those things that constitute urban life and culture as such; structural, social and cultural heterogeneity and enablement of productive difference instead of social and socio-spatial divisions. Even though the debates surrounding the right to the city are (for now) being carried out on a comparatively comfortable starting level, it must be clear by now that the city, represents a valuable resource too, whose purley profit-oriented exploitation cannot occur without consequences for society as a whole and for community life in cities. In view of the fact that increasing numbers of people are living in cities, urban development that is intelligent, sustainable, social and equitable with respect to class, gender and ethnic differences is a more than urgent necessity.

© Yvonne P. Doderer

Prof. Dr. Yvonne P. Doderer
is a free-lance architect/urban researcher, operates the Office for Transdisciplinary Research & Cultural Production (Büro für transdisziplinäre Forschung & Kulturproduktion) in Stuttgart and is Professor of Cultural Studies at the Düsseldorf University of Applied Sciences (FH Düsseldorf).

Translation: Edith Watts
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
September 2011

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