The right to the city

If our urban world has been imagined and made then it can be re-imagined and re-made, says DAVID HARVEY.

The city, the noted urban sociologist Robert Park wrote, is:

Man’s most consistent and on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and with any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself. (1967:3)

The right to the city is not merely a right of access to what already exists, but a right to change it after our heart’s desire. We need to be sure we can live with our own creations (a problem for every planner, architect and utopian thinker). But the right to remake ourselves by creating qualitatively different kinds of urban sociality is one of the most precious of all human rights. But the sheer pace and chaotic forms or urbanisation throughout the world have made it hard to reflect on the nature of this task. We have been made and re-made without knowing exactly why, how, wherefore, and to what end. How then, can we better exercise this right to the city?

The city has never been a harmonious place, free of confusions, conflicts, violence. Only read the history of the Paris Commune of 1871, see Scorsese’s fictional depiction of The Gangs of New York in the 1850s, and think how far we have come. But then think of the violence that has divided Belfast, destroyed Beirut and Sarajevo, rocked Bombay, even touched the ‘City of Angels’ [Los Angeles]. Calmness and civility in urban history are the exception not the rule. The only interesting question is whether the outcomes are creative or destructive. Usually they are both: the city is the historical site of creative destruction. Yet the city has also proven a remarkably resilient, enduring and innovative social form.

But who has rights to the city? The communards of 1871 thought they were right to take back ‘their’ Paris from the bourgeoisie and imperial lackeys. The monarchists who killed them thought they were right to take back the city in the name of God and private property. Both Catholics and the Protestants thought they were right in Belfast as did Shiv Sena in Bombay when it violently attacked Muslims. Were they not all equally exercising their right to the city? ‘Between equal rights,’ Marx (1973:344) once famously wrote, ‘force decides.’ So is this what the right to the city is all about? The right to fight for one’s heart’s desire and liquidate anyone who gets in the way? It seems a far cry from the universality of the UN Declaration on Human Rights. Or is it?

Marx, like Park, held that we change ourselves by changing our world and vice versa. This dialectical relation lies at the root of all human labour. Imagination and desire play their part. What separates the worst of architects from the best of bees, he argued, is that the architect erects a structure in the imagination before materialising it on the ground. We are, all of us, architects, of a sort. We individually and collectively make the city through our daily actions and our political, intellectual and economic engagements. But, in return, the city makes us. Can I live in Los Angeles without becoming a frustrated motorist?

We can dream and wonder about alternative urban worlds. With enough perseverance and power we can even hope to build them. But utopias these days get a bad rap because when realised they are often hard to live with. What goes wrong? Do we lack the correct moral and ethical compass to guide our thinking? Could we not construct a socially just city?

Social justice

But what is social justice? Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic argues that ‘each form of government enacts the laws with a view to its own advantage’ so that ‘the just is the same everywhere, the advantage of the stronger’. Plato rejected this in favour of justice as an ideal. A plethora of ideal formulations now exist. We could be egalitarian; utilitarian in the manner of Bentham (the greatest good of the greatest number); contractual in the manner of Rousseau (with his ideals of inalienable rights) or John Rawls; cosmopolitan in the manner of Kant (a wrong to one is a wrong to all); or just plain Hobbesian, insisting that the state (Leviathan) impose justice upon reckless private interests to prevent social life being nasty, brutish and short. Some even argue for local ideals of justice, sensitive to cultural differences. We stare frustratedly in the mirror asking: ‘which is the most just theory of justice of all?’ In practice, we suspect Thrasymachus was right: justice is simply whatever the ruling class want it to be.

Yet we cannot do without utopian plans and ideals of justice. They are indispensable for motivation and for action. Alternative ideas coupled with outrage at injustice have long animated the quest for social change. We cannot cynically dismiss either. But we must contextualise them. All ideals about rights hide suppositions about social processes. Conversely, social processes incorporate certain conceptions of rights. To challenge those rights is to challenge the social process and vice versa. Let me illustrate.

We live in a society in which the inalienable rights to private property and the profit rate trump any other conception of inalienable rights you can think of. This is because our society is dominated by the accumulation of capital through market exchange. That social process depends upon a juridical construction of individual rights. Defenders argue that this encourages ‘bourgeois virtues’ of individual responsibility, independence from state interference, equality of opportunity in the market and before the law, rewards for initiative, and an open market place that allows for freedom of choice. These rights encompass private property in one’s own body (to freely sell labour power, to be treated with dignity and respect, and to be free from bodily coercion), coupled with freedoms of thought, of expression and of speech. Let us admit it: these derivative rights are appealing. Many of us rely heavily upon them. But we do so much as beggars live off the crumbs from the rich man’s table. Let me explain.

To live under capitalism is to accept or submit to that bundle of rights necessary for endless accumulation. ‘We seek’, says President Bush as he goes to war, ‘a just peace where repression, resentment and poverty are replaced with the hope of democracy, development, free markets and free trade.’ These last two have, he asserts, ‘proved their ability to lift whole societies out of poverty’. The United States will deliver this gift of freedom (of the market) to the world whether it likes it or not. But the inalienable rights of private property and the profit rate (earlier embedded, at US insistence, in the UN Declaration) can have negative even deadly consequences.

Free markets are not necessarily fair. ‘There is’, the old saying goes, ‘nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequals’. This is what the market does. The rich grow richer and the poor get poorer through the egalitarianism of exchange. No wonder those of wealth and power support such rights. Class divisions widen. Cities become more ghettoised as the rich seal themselves off for protection while the poor become ghettoised by default. And if racial, religious and ethnic divisions crosscut, as they so often do, with struggles to acquire class and income position, then we quickly find cities divided in the bitter ways we only know too well. Market freedoms inevitably produce monopoly power (as in the media or among developers). Thirty years of neo-liberalism teaches us that the freer the market the greater the inequalities and the greater the monopoly power.

Worse still, markets require scarcity to function. If scarcity does not exist then it must be socially created. This is what private property and the profit rate do. The result is much unnecessary deprivation (unemployment, housing shortages, etc.) in the midst of plenty. Hence the homeless on our streets and the beggars on our subways. Famines occur in the midst of food surpluses.

Storm of powers

The liberalisation of financial markets has unleashed a storm of speculative powers. A few hedge funds, exercising their inalienable right to make a profit by whatever means, rage around the world speculatively destroying whole economies (such as that of Indonesia and Malaysia). They destroy our cities with their speculations, reanimate them with their donations to the opera and the ballet while, like Kenneth Lay of Enron fame, the chief executive officers strut the global stage and accumulate massive wealth at the expense of millions. Is it worth the crumbs of derivative rights to live with the likes of Kenneth Lay?

If this is where the inalienable rights of private property and the profit rate lead, then I want none of it. This does not produce cities that match my heart’s desire, but worlds of inequality, alienation and injustice. I oppose the endless accumulation of capital and the conception of rights embedded therein. A different right to the city must be asserted. Those that now have the rights will not surrender them willingly. ‘Between equal rights, force decides.’ This does not necessarily mean violence (though, sadly, often it does come down to that). But it does mean the mobilisation of sufficient power through political organisation, or in the streets if necessary, to change things. But by what strategies do we proceed?

No social order, said Saint-Simon, can change without the lineaments of the new already being latently present within the existing state of things. Revolutions are not total breaks but they do turn things upside down. Derivative rights (like the right to be treated with dignity) should become fundamental, and fundamental rights (of private property and the profit rate) should become derivative. Was this not the traditional aim of democratic socialism?

There are, it turns out, contradictions within the capitalist package of rights. These can be exploited. What would have happened to global and urban life had the UN declaration’s clauses on the derivative rights of labour (to a secure job, reasonable living standards and the right to organise) been rigorously enforced? But new rights can also be defined: like the right to a city which, which as I began by saying, is not merely a right of access to what property speculators and state planners define, but an active right to make the city more in accord with our heart’s desire, and to re-make ourselves thereby in a different image.

But this can never be a purely individual affair. It demands a collective effort. The creation of a new urban commons, a public sphere of active democratic participation, requires that we roll back that huge wave of privatisation that has been the mantra of a destructive neo-liberalism. We must imagine a more inclusive, even if continually fractious, city based not only upon a different ordering of rights but upon different political-economic practices. If our urban world has been imagined and made then it can be re-imagined and re-made. The inalienable right to the city us worth fighting for. ‘City air makes one free’, it used to be said. The air is bit polluted now. But it can always be cleaned up,


Bush, G.W. (2002) ‘Securing freedom’s triumph’. New York Times, 11 September.

Marx, K. (1967) Capital, Volume 1, New York: Vintage.

Park, R. (1967) On Social Control and Collective Behaviour, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

First published in Loretta Lees (ed.) (2004) The Emancipatory City, London: Sage.

Reproduced by permission of SAGE Publications, London, Los Angeles, New Delhi and Singapore (© David Harvey, 2007).


David Harvey: An Introduction

The world is awash with liquidity, argues David Harvey, and it is the city that is absorbing most of this surplus capital, thereby stabilising the global economy. This is leading to a massive transformation of urban life. Where others focus on the massive growth of slums, particularly in the third world, he addresses the effects of the building boom.

In cities as apparently divergent as New York and Mumbai land values are soaring, driving out the urban poor. Huge gated communities are one sign of the restructuring process that benefits the rich, he notes. Meanwhile, people on low incomes employed in the city face a life of long-distance commuting. In the USA, this means that women over 50, mainly Hispanic and black, spend between two and three hours a day travelling to work and back.

Socialists, Harvey argues, must find ways to address these issues. In this article he argues that the impact of neoliberalism on city life can be challenged by an alternative vision of the city of our dreams.

David Harvey teaches at the City University of New York. A prolific writer and campaigner, both an anthropologist and a geographer in the creative Marxist tradition, his works include The Limits to Capital (1982), The Condition of Post-modernity (1989), Spaces of Hope (2000), The New Imperialism (2003), and A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005).

Barry Winter


1 Comment

  1. Summer 2007 - ILP
    22 October 2010

    […] A time of peace? Paul Dixon wonders how long Northern Ireland’s political truce will last The right to the city David Harvey calls for a re-imagined city to meet our urban dreams Shaking up the left Harry Barnes […]

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