David Harvey: Rebel cities

Recently I have been enjoying David Harvey’s “Rebel Cities. From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution”. It is about the relationship between capitalism, the processes of urbanization and social movements.

At first glance, the issue seems to be clear as soon as we can imagine the relationship. However, Harvey manages to charm us with its narrative, linking various historical facts and places with a point in common: strong social and territorial impact of the capitalist market. The book is based on Lefevre’s thesis from the 60 (the right to the city), Harvey guides us to the Paris of urban transformations and social movements from the late XIX, and returns to the situation of our current global society.

Historically, the urban phenomenon has been led by the powerful social classes. These are those who have designed and redesigned the cities where we live. But, as long as the city is our environment and built by us, the city can also affect people and their quality of life.

“…the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be…” (Harvey, 2012:4)

This is the main reason why the right to the city should be a collective right, from which citizens could participate in the design of the city. The right to the city is one of the most valued rights but denied the same time.

“The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual or group access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change and reinvent the city more after our heart’s desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right. Since reinventing the city inevitable depends upon the exercicse of a collective power over the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake ourselves and our cities is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of human rights.” (Harvey, 2012:4)

A really strong dependence arise between capitalism and urbanization processes. Capitalism requires surplus that must be constantly generated and reinvested to generate more surplus. The urbanization has been one of the main activities that have absorbed this surplus capital. Harvey shows examples of different historical moments, like the Paris of Haussmann, the crisis of the 30s or 60s in the U.S., to explain how urbanization has been used to move forward to the radical expansion of the urban process nowadays.

“In this way an inner connection emerges between the development of capitalism and urbanization. Hardly surprisingly, therefore, the logistical curves of growth of capitalism output over time are broadly paralleled by the logistical curves or urbanization of the world’s population.” (Harvey, 2012:5) 20140106_195819_1b

From the late 90s, the housing development and market have been used unsuitably to stabilize the economy and it took off the expansion of the global housing boom. Even new agreements and institutions were created to ensure and organize the necessary credit in the unprecedented process of housing bubble. In 2008 became the current crisis that clearly calls into question the housing and financial market.

Today we live in an individualistic and polarized society, with a lifestyle influenced by urban spaces that are foreign and have been generated by distant and unclear dynamics. The quality of life that everyone can reach depends on his/her budget at the time of choosing where and how to live. However, despite the strong fragmentation of society, urban social movements are demanding greater democratic control of the urban process.

“A process of displacement and dispossession, in short, also lies at the core of the urban process under capitalism. This is the mirror image of capital absortion through urban redevelopment” (Harvey, 2012:18)

In the field of urban planning and landscape management, it is obvious that public participation is essential for the assessment and preparation of proposals. Tools such as participatory budgeting and public participation plans should be used properly and be much more important in the future. They are absolutely powerful instruments that can solve many social conflicts in our cities.

“…then the right to the city is constituted by establishing democratic control over the deployment of the surpluses through urbanization” (Harvey, 2012: 23)



Source: Harvey, David (2012) “Rebel cities. From the right to the city to the urban revolution”. Verso. ISBN-13: 978-1-84467-882-2

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