‘Rebel cities’ are fighting back across the US
Friday, April 14, 2017
In last year's U.S. presidential election, the countryside revolted and made their voices heard with the election of Donald Trump. But the cities are starting to fight back. The experience of "rebel cities" across Europe — and their demands for the "right to the city" — is inspiring a similar spirit of defiance in cities across the U.S.
Reclaiming the 'right to the city'
We are not used to listing the "right to the city" as one of our fundamental human rights, but there are some who disagree. The concept runs through many of the major debates over urban transformations today — from anger fueled by gentrification in cities across the developed and developing world, to the 2013 urban uprisings in Istanbul over the proposed flattening of Gezi Park, and protests over evictions for Olympic stadiums in Brazil.
The term ("le droit a la ville") was first coined by sociologist Henri Lefebvre amid the tumult of 1968 in Paris. It was a response to the largely commercially-driven changes and highway projects in the city that were causing a crisis of everyday life in the city. It was a call for a city that was less alienating, more meaningful and more playful.
But what exactly is the "right to the city"? As the pace of urbanization in cities across the world reaches unprecedented speed, it is ultimately a battle over who gets to shape those urbanization processes — developers, commercial interests and the 1 percent, or the mass of people using the city day in, day out?
Indeed, David Harvey, one of the most outspoken commentators on this issue, has described the right to contribute to the remaking of our cities as one of our most neglected human rights.
Since Lefebvre, the right to the city has become the rallying call for a number of so-called "rebel cities" and their leaders.
The cauldron for this experimentation has largely been in Europe, where citizens of countries like Spain — exhausted by financial crisis and austerity policies — have embraced city leaders who offer a different vision of access to urban life. These leaders are capitalizing on the emerging sense of "insurgent citizenship" among those who feel marginalized by more conventional policymakers.
The rise of "rebel mayor" Ada Colau in Barcelona began with her work as an anti-eviction activist, and pictures of her being carried off by riot police at a 2013 protest did her campaign no harm. The Spanish, who are many ways the modern-day pioneers of the rebel cities movement, have urged the U.S. to join the fight by "remunicipalizing" public services and continuing efforts to introduce local minimum wages.
Indeed, in 2007 activists came together to form the Right to the City Alliance, on a platform of fighting against gentrification, the criminalization of the poor and homelessness. It now has networks in cities across the states, and is aligned with other prominent movements like Black Lives Matter.
U.S. mayors have also begun to answer this call. Across the world we are seeing city mayors frequently openly contesting national government policies on immigration, renewable energy and other policy choices — from London Mayor Sadiq Khan's #LondonIsOpen campaign to U.S. mayors defying Trump's immigration orders. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio openly hopes his Cities for Action coalition will be invigorated by Trump's election by pooling dissent and pushing progressive alternatives.
Cities on the front line of resistance
The news of U.S. mayors discussing their cities as a kind of "bloc of island nations" certainly suggests rebellion is in the air. The spirit of '68 that Lefebvre channeled in Paris may not be about to return to our streets, but U.S. cities certainly look like the front line of resistance.
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