What Does It Mean To Have A Right to the City?


Right to the city scholars and activists shared historical perspectives and contemporary grassroots insights into the global phenomenon during an Urban Law Center event on Nov. 9.

The lunchtime discussion, “What Does it Mean to Have a Right to the City?,” featured presentations by Urban Law Center Fellow and Fordham Law S.J.D. candidate Thomas Coggin, Right to the City Alliance Executive Director Dawn Phillips, and Santi Mas de Xaxàs Faus of Plataforma d’Afectats per la Hipoteca (PAH) in Spain. The panel examined right to the city theory as well how people in the United States and around the world are breathing life into these movements.

“In the United States, we often talk about a right to housing, often more in the reach than in the honoring, but there’s a really interesting movement here and in much of the world that has a broader vision about access to urban resources and the use of urban space,” said Professor Nestor M. Davidson, faculty director of the Urban Law Center, in his welcoming remarks.

Coggin opened the proceedings with a speech that mapped out how the theory first described in the writings of French intellectual Henri Lefebvre in 1968 was subsequently adopted over the ensuing decades at a global level. Coggin also offered a critique of right to the city literature as well as thoughts on the possible intersection of the law and the aforementioned movement. His doctoral research project is a comparative study outlining jurisprudence for public urban spaces in his native South Africa, the European Court of Human Rights, and the United States.

“In legislating for the right to the city, there is potential for the notion to remain quite static, and for exercises in the right to the city to be delegitimized because they don’t accord with what the law says,” Coggin said. “But at the same time, I think there is some strength to enacting the right the city in law because it can act as a basis to guide policy and legislation going forward.”

Coggin highlighted Brazil’s City Statute, a federal law passed in 2001 that seeks to provide land access and equity in major urban areas. In addition, he stated that right to the city can act as a good philosophical reading of existing legal rights and provides judges space to consider tenants’ rights.

Santi Mas de Xaxàs Faus, Thomas Coggin, and Dawn Phillips

Right to the city means far more than just housing, stressed Phillips, who heads the Brooklyn-based Right to the City Alliance and is co-director of Programs for Oakland-based Causa Justice Just Cause (CJJC). The work involves defending urban residents on a myriad of issues such as police brutality, environmental racism, and transportation equity, Phillips explained.

“The idea of right to the city is most important for us about the opportunity to envision transformation,” Phillips said, noting groups cannot organize successfully without this vision. “There’s a tremendous opportunity in the idea of right to the city to say this is what we want, this is how it should be, and this should be my role.”

That is exactly what members of PAH are fighting for in Barcelona, Madrid, and other cities across Spain, where more than 3.5 million homes sit empty as a result of the 2008 financial crisis. PAH formed in 2009 as a Spanish platform against evictions, and has quickly grown to 220 self-financed “nodes” that reject political affiliation, shun hierarchy, and engage in civil disobedience to advance its demands. Among the demands are debt cancellation by property return, rent control, ending evictions of family homes, and transforming empty houses held by financial institutions into social housing.

“We create a new narrative that politicians do not represent us any longer,” said Maus de Xaxàs Faus, who wore a green PAH hoodie. “No Democrats. No Republicans. You are the ones that created the problem. We are the civil society organizing ourselves to tell you how things have to be done.”

“The final victory will be when we are capable of changing the law,” the PAH spokesman added.


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