A year ago, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development or Habitat in Quito, Ecuador, resulted in a global commitment called the New Urban Agenda. It sets guidelines for urban development policies for the next 20 years.
One idea in particular drew the attention of international delegates and negotiators: the right to the city.
Previously present only in academic discourse and among civil society activists, the right to the city consists of efforts to introduce human rights to the context of urban life. It is a vision and a dream to see an alternative to today’s cities, a breakaway from the current climate of rapid, uneven urban development.
In Quito, advocates of the right to the city got involved in fiery debates with the representatives of states who preferred to used the term “city for all” with regard of the fulfillment of the rights of citizens.
Although in many countries the city for all approach already includes the principles of rights protection, and grants everyone the possibility to engage in urban life, to those who propose the use of the “right to the city” it is also important to emphasize the obligation states have to fulfill the rights of their citizens.
Eventually, the final statement at the end of paragraph 11 of the New Urban Agenda read: “We noted the efforts of some national and local governments to enshrine this vision, referred to as ‘right to the city,’ in their legislation, political declaration and charters.”
I sense Indonesia is not comfortable with the term “right” in the context of urban development. A human rights approach would oblige the government to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of citizens. If it fails to do so, serious consequences would follow.
Civil society groups, on the other hand, have been very active in their advocacy for the right to the city, responding to the shortcomings of the current urban development, particularly the inequality resulting from the dominance of capital owners and continuous marginalization of citizens, especially the urban poor.
The right to the city includes the right of every urban inhabitant to be involved in shaping their city.
Many efforts have been undertaken in Indonesia to recognize the right of citizens to be involved. The International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development (INFID) and Kota Kita, which is part of the Global Platform for the Right to the City (GPR2C), is currently working to promote the right to the city discourse in the context of Indonesia’s urban development.
According to GPR2C, the right to the city is “the right of all inhabitants, present and future, permanent and temporary, to inhabit, use, occupy, produce, govern and enjoy just, inclusive, safe and sustainable cities, villages and human settlements, defined as a common good essential to a full and decent life.”
Citizens and Right to the City
A strong civil society movement and a responsive government are essential for a more equitable and just urban life. The right to the city perspective offers a common ground to citizens in efforts to change and reinvent the city after their hearts’ desires. It supports the creation of urban spaces through a collaboration and meaningful participation, in which members of the public are collectively determining the conditions of their own habitat.
French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, who introduced the concept of the right to the city, highlighted the importance of looking at space for its “use value” rather than the “exchange value” to contain the commodification of space, which ruins many communities. Space should be interpreted beyond its “exchange value,” due to its vast social meaning that involves the memory and identity of its inhabitants.
It is a powerful concept that reminds us that cities are marred by an imbalance of power and competing narratives. Urban planning and development are political activities, in which power relations should always be exposed to give the weak a chance to be heard and included in the process of reshaping their cities.
The right to the city can be a powerful tool to slow the pace of urban development that is becoming increasingly capitalistic in nature. By using the collective right approach, this concept offers an alternative to the liberal interpretation of human rights, where the rights of the individual are celebrated, making people indifferent, failing to include all in shaping the city.
It is up to us whether we take the challenge.
Ahmad Rifai is a co-founder and director of the Kota Kita Foundation, an Indonesian NGO helping citizens in making thoughtful and inclusive decisions on the development of their cities.
Correction: This previous version of this article erroneously refers Kota Kita as part of INFID. The Jakarta Globe regrets the error.