“The Right to the City is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanisation. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”
David Harvey, 2003
A dominant theme at the UCLG Congress the LGiU attended in Durban, South Africa, was how can cities contribute – in essence take the lead – in implementing the 2030 sustainable development agenda and targets. Globally there are profoundly difficult challenges – such as addressing massive inequalities and discrimination, essential if progress is to be made. But decentralisation is key: how far is it a reality and how far is it actually embedded in institutions, including municipalities? And how can local action make a major difference?
Several conference sessions discussed the Right to the City. But does ‘rights to the city’ actually mean? It is a sharper way of talking about universal human rights and human dignity. It’s embedded in the 2030 Agenda (and the New Urban Agenda). The Right to the City is about improving people’s neighbourhoods and housing and improving the city and its surroundings but, fundamentally, it is also about democratic participation.
The Right to the City is a response to the most pressing challenges faced by communities around the world – social injustice, inequality, dispossession, spatial segregation, discrimination and environmental degradation. It is a vision of cities where no one is left behind and all voices are heard. How can different interests – of the poor, the elderly, young people, immigrants, disabled people – be reconciled?
Speakers from Latin America, Africa and from the poorest commune of Paris stressed that the choice was stark – segregation versus inclusion. Globally people are competing for access to public spaces and land. A mayor from Uruguay explained how urban planning had turned around his city with new spaces made for social gatherings. With most people living in flats they didn’t get out in the sun and had nowhere to meet: the new spaces are places for children to play and older people to chat.
In South Africa major cities, such as the eThekwini Municipality, emphasise safety in their long-term plans and they bring together stakeholders including all council departments, the South African Police Service, NGOs, community safety structures, businesses, and the national and provincial governments. Municipalities are the means for making the right to the city meaningful.
A connected theme was how cities need to collaborate to meet these profound challenges. “Collaboration, coordination and constructive dialogue”, as one speaker put it. In Africa that might mean collaboration between places on mobility and transport, on access to energy and water, on preventing the growth of shanty towns outside cities. We heard many examples of smaller cities and towns working together and with the major cities but, just like in the UK, cities and towns are competing for central government funding and for inward investment.
The mayors and councillors speaking didn’t have easy solutions, but then there are never easy solutions anywhere. Speakers did, however, stress the potential advantages of intermediate cities. Residents want to belong to a place they can identify with and the smaller cities have a human scale. It is easier (though not easy) to work with residents and to establish trust. To succeed smaller cities need to establish their own cultural identity.
Can local government in the UK claim that we face similar challenges to African municipalities? Well, yes and no. Attending and meeting councillors and officials from South Africa local government it was clear that there are global issues that are at the top of any international gathering of sub national government. But, of course, the scale of the challenges and the economic, political and social context are very different. Yet we do share many common problems; our smaller cities and towns, for example, do face challenges from their vicinity to major cities. How can the opportunities of being a smaller city or town be exploited and how can these towns and cities work together but be in competition for funding? (See our briefing on breaking the cycle of decline in British towns).
And, of course, there are themes and principles that are common to all local government. It is increasingly clear that to make faster progress in reaching the sustainability targets local action is essential. It is bottom up development strategies that will often make the difference as well as dialogue and collaboration between all levels of government. The local-global movement is key.
We can learn from each other – not by copying a blueprint but by understanding the hints we takeaway from what is happening all around the world. Listening to delegates from Africa and Latin America it is clear the UK has much to learn about deliberative democracy and involving citizens in decisions.
And finally – and to me most importantly – we can talk at conferences about strategies, about macro-economics, about corporate investment, but what is always at the centre are the lives of people where we live.
Janet Sillett is LGiU’s Head of Briefings.