The Gendered Experience of the City (May)

In May 2019, the Rights Writers discussed what perspectives have been left out of the major debates on their topics and how including them increase understanding or contribute to progress of the issue.

During my sophomore year, I traveled to South Africa as part of my DukeImmerse program on urban policy and visited a Pietermaritzburg women’s shelter in order to research the female experience of urban living. Carrying out interviews with the women of the house, I was presented with a bleak picture of what it was like to live in Pietermaritzburg as a low-income woman, confirming my broader fear: cities have not been designed for the female experience.

One by one, women would recount their struggles, ranging from evictions and abuse, to child care issues and addiction. However, for all of the women unemployment was the biggest barrier to a better quality of living. Looking at the spatial positioning of the shelter and its surrounding suburb, it wasn’t hard to understand why this had become an issue. While the women appreciated having a roof over their heads, their area provided little in the way of local opportunities being largely residential with few businesses. Moreover, the main area of activity in Pietermaritzburg is nearly an hour long walk from the shelter’s location, with no public transport options. This issue of connectivity means women here would reasonably struggle to find employment while staying in shelter accommodation, given that there are no options in the immediate surroundings, and going where job opportunities are would prove to be too difficult or highly costly. Furthermore, even if employment can be found, the temporary nature of the women’s living circumstances would also be an issue, given that they are typically moved every five months due to shelter policy.

Pietermaritzburg, South Africa
Courtesy of Vasiliymeshko

While this is only the story in one shelter in one city, there’s no denying that urbanization is yet another aspect of society touched by gender inequality. South Africa itself is not a nation with a strong reputation for the safety of women. In 2015/16, 51,895 sexual offences were reported, equating to around 142 per day. Of this number, 41,503 were rape charges – making South Africa one of the worst countries for sexual assault. While not all of these crimes were committed against women, the majority are. These figures are also limited to reported crimes, and given that South Africa has a “femicide” rate 5 times greater than the world average, it is safe to assume that many stories of sexual abuse go undocumented.

In the context of urbanization, studies have shown that urban spaces can increase the risk that women will be subjected to violence. This also carries a wealth dimension, with low-income women being the “most exposed to the risk of violence and least able to remove themselves from violent situations”. For the women of the shelter, the nature of abuse suffered was strongly tied to their economic, employment, and housing insecurity and fits into Professor Cathy McIlwaine’s theory of “stress-induced violence”, wherein violence against women is worsened due to the vulnerability of their situations.

However, while McIlwaine cites urbanization as a process that increases female labor participation and thereby encourages female autonomy, this has not been a success for the single-mothers of the shelter. Given their struggles with employment, it was not economic access that removed them from abusive environments but, in many cases, there was a catalyst event such as a child witnessing the abuse or the women ending up in hospital. While McIlwaine addresses the highly personalized nature of these experiences, the relationship between urbanization and gender violence remains highly paradoxical. The broad conclusion that cities, by means of improving economic options for women, also increase the number of options available for dealing with abuse may not ring true.

The idea that women’s voices are locked out of the benefits of urban living might seem surprising to some given how prominent some female urban scholars have been. Writers like Jane Jacobs and Ruth Glass (who famously coined the term ‘gentrification’) have been immensely influential in urban studies. Yet, the field is still overwhelming white and male, with only 6% of The City Reader – an apparent collection of the most important urban literature – being contributed by women. Moreover, in actual urban governance there is still a clear gender gap as only 21 of the 100 largest US cities have female mayors.

Jane Jacobs
Courtesy of US Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs

Across some of the most prominent cities more is being done to reduce the sexism inherent in our urban spaces. Whether it’s prioritizing the safety of women in public spaces, closing the gender pay gap, or making life easier for single mothers through policy, the city yields a great capacity for change. Yet, only with increased representation of women in all aspects of urbanity – architecture, planning, academia, and governance to name a few – will we see cities that truly uphold women’s rights, and thus human rights.

Why Legislation Alone Doesn’t Solve Our Urban Issues (April)

In April 2019, the Rights Writers discussed the role of advocacy groups and social movements in promoting human rights and social justice in their area.

Earlier this year, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg made headlines as she blasted international governments for their inaction over climate change. Her words galvanized school children in nearly 1000 cities to strike from their educational establishments in a bid to save their futures. Whether it’s environmental movements, like the one sparked by Thunberg, or even the legalization of sex work, squatters’ rights, or larger economic movements like Occupy Wall Street, ultimately all roads lead back to the city.

Indeed, it’s almost impossible to know where to begin when discussing the intersections of rights and urbanity, in no small part because cities are the arenas in which public protests are staged.  Yet, while all sorts of causes are represented, many citizens and advocacy groups are specifically dedicating themselves to improving urban life in the way Henri Lefebvre imagined when he coined the concept of “the right to the city.”

Stand Against Racism Protest in Auckland City

As discussed in my first blog, the right to the city is a call to action envisioned as a collective and transformative power which would place human needs at the heart of urban governance. Yet, too often today we see the interests of elites and corporations prioritized over the basic inclusivity of the city. In response, a growing number of cities are adopting their own policies and charters to enhance the ability of the city to provide for basic human rights.

In 2011, Mexico City made history by becoming the first municipality to adopt a Right to the City Charter. The result of three years of bottom-up advocacy led by the ‘Movimiento Urbano Popular’ (Urban Popular Movement), then-mayor Marcelo Ebrard described the charter as “the document with the most ambitious goals of what the city should be.” The Movimiento Urbano Popular had also built support from various social justice organizations who combined to form the Coalition of Civil Society Organizations for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (Espacio DESC), as well as the Mexico City Commission for Human Rights. After hosting a series of public events, around 3,500 citizens engaged in the fight for a right to the city charter, fulfilling the key sentiment which underlies any urban improvement effort: decisions driven by the collective will of the people.

The aim of the Mexico City Charter was to push government leaders into enacting real policy promising urban equity and was ultimately successful due to sustained public pressure and effective organization of social groups. However, the work of these advocacy groups should not end with the creation of policy, but instead be committed to ensuring that such policy is upheld. One such case in which this hasn’t worked is with Brazil’s City Statute.

Brought into law in 2001, Brazil’s City Statute sought to expand on the nation’s constitutional obligation to “ordain the full development of the social functions of the city and ensure the well-being of its inhabitants.” Led by the Urban Reform Movement, the statute gave municipal governments new planning powers and ensured all Brazilian cities would introduce “master plans” to improve living conditions. Yet, almost two decades later the success of the law is questionable.

In São Paulo, South America’s largest city, around 1.2 million people live in the urban favelas. While the City Statute in theory would give those in poverty their right to the city, the reality of its implementation is starkly different. A conservative city government combined with a corruption filled system means that poor areas originally designated as protected from corporate development are now being unjustly cleared. Ultimately, city officials have reneged on their promises, and have prioritized capital developments rather than the social functions of the city. Moreover, the poverty in Brazilian cities is so chronic, and the city governments across areas vary so much that this federal level policy hasn’t made nearly enough impact in protecting urban residents.

While the statute aimed to be a transformative instrument of urban change, the outcomes haven’t achieved this. Instead, as Mexico City shows, local residents and city dwellers are best placed to decide what is best for their cities. Numerous grassroots organizations and citizens engaged in the drafting of the charter, rather than leave it up to federal officials miles away to dictate their right to the city. Ultimately, the lesson here for social movements is not to simply push for legislation, but to fight for the lasting realization of their legal aims. Without sustained public pressure our institutions and politicians will simply pass a law and say the job is done.

Favela in Nova Friburgo

Smart Cities: Innovative or Orwellian? (March)

In March 2019, the Rights Writers explore the role the media has played in covering their issues and what effects it has had — positive and negative.

In recent years, urban issues have increasingly captured public imagination. From the fight against gentrification, to the implementation of “smart-city” technology, a majority of the population now finds themselves living in cities; therefore, their problems are often urban by nature. While dedicated urban outlets, such as CityLab, are delving deeper into what the modern-day city looks like, traditional media sources lag behind – failing to understand the complex history and urban theory that has molded our present-day cities.

However, perhaps the more interesting question to ask about media and the city, is how our existence and conception of the city has changed as media and technology have rapidly become a part of our everyday lives. That is, how have social media and technology altered the very fabric of urban living?

In The Media City, author Scott McQuire dissects this concept. Having realized that the media often fails to connect issues to their urban origins, McQuire provides a clear link between our consumption of media, technological developments, and how we function in the modern city. He argues that ultimately, media cannot be separated from the city, and as our consumption develops, sources of media determine how we interpret our urban homes.

While McQuire wrote The Media City in 2008, his theory still applies 11 years on. Given how many of us live out parts of our life online, cities have adapted and are actively trying to harness change through social media platforms. In Las Vegas, city officials are cutting through the red tape and building citizen engagement on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram with the core goals of raising awareness of city initiatives, and humanizing the government. Within a year of building their platforms, the city was able to reach half of the city’s population through social media engagements and quickly quashed false rumors of an airport closure during a 2017 storm.

Social media could also prove to be a valuable tool in disproving false and often negative narratives surrounding cities. For example, a study by Shelton, Poortuhuis, and Zook looked at Louisville, Kentucky and investigated whether the commonly held belief of a “9th Street Divide” between the central business district and poorer, minority neighborhoods was actually present in reality. Using two years of geotagged tweets, the researchers actually found that based on day-to-day spatial activities of the city, neighborhoods were actually much more fluid than expected. Their paper argued against the premise that certain neighborhoods are viewed as separate from the city, given that there was no presence of a divide in people’s daily movements. However, since much of this work is being done in academic circles it will still be a while before it filters in to mainstream media, as shown by the persistent framing of Louisville issues in the context of the division.

However, the paper highlights the potential of data in changing our conceptions of the city and this work is also being done on an even more ambitious scale. Sidewalk Labs, a company owned by Google’s parent, Alphabet, is currently renovating Toronto’s waterfront in the hopes of building a city driven by technology. Promising an earth-friendly, sensor heavy city that will gather as much data as it can to optimize urban living, Sidewalk Toronto aims to bring technologists and urbanists together to build the perfect city.

Many are excited about the proposal with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying the initiative will enable “technologies that will help us build smarter, greener, more inclusive” spaces. Yet, there’s something so Orwellian about the scheme that’s not gone unnoticed by many critics. Bianca Wylie, leader of a movement against Sidewalk Labs’ project described the company as a “trojan horse”, which under the guise of enhancing quality of urban life is actually trying to invade privacy and make money.

Worryingly, Dr Ann Cavoukian a privacy expert consulting on the Toronto project resigned, blasting the initiative as a “city of surveillance”. Cavoukian is the mind behind “privacy by design”, a framework which centers privacy in every step of the engineering process. While Sidewalk claimed to have a adopted this metric, Cavoukian left the company after they refused to promise anonymous data collection processes, effectively meaning they could track each individual resident. This was the second resignation due to privacy concerns, following the departure of TechGirls Canada founder, Saadia Muzaffar.

Many of the worries cited are not just about Sidewalk’s lack of privacy transparency, but the ethical questions concerning a private technology company taking the reins of a city. This is especially troublesome coming from a Google-affiliated company that is still allegedly working on Dragonfly – a Chinese search engine which will require major censorship and further entrenchment of human rights violations in the country.

In response to these concerns, Sidewalk has stayed notably quiet, with head of urban systems, Rit Aggarwala, distancing Sidewalk from Google and arguing that people can engage with the project without having all of the answers to the privacy questions. John Tory, Toronto’s Mayor, has also not taken a stance in relation to the privacy concerns, but did issue a statement claiming no action had been taken regarding Sidewalk’s request to be given a portion of the city’s property tax revenues.

There’s no denying that data and social media could bring benefits to urban living. From better automated and efficient city services to improving health outcomes for residents. Yet, the lack of transparency and accountability of private technology companies should stop us from blindly jumping on the bandwagon for smart city technologies. Instead, we should be ensuring smart cities will fully benefit residents, without compromising their right to a private life; and at present, Sidewalk Labs haven’t done enough to convince us this is the case. If the failed Amazon-New York deal should teach us anything, it’s that residents should and will be the ones to dictate what a city needs – not private interests.

city lights US map
toronto waterfront

Trump’s Broken Urban Promises (February)

For February 2019, the Rights Writers discuss their issues in the context of US political discourse (including public opinion), particularly in light of the two-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s presidency.

“When I look at the failing schools, the terrible trade deals, and the infrastructure crumbling in our inner cities, I know all of this can be fixed – and it can be fixed very quickly.”

Taken from a 2016 campaign speech given in Charlotte, NC before his election, this was President Trump’s hopeful basis for urban policy. Yet, despite his being the most urban President to date – a New York City resident and real estate developer – Trump’s urban agenda has been largely disappointing.

While much of city living is dictated by state and local government, Trump proposed a range of federal policy initiatives directly related to urban renewal. These included greater investment in urban infrastructure thanks to cuts in climate action funding, as well as an increased presence of law enforcement in a bid for safer neighborhoods.

However, despite the promises of increased infrastructure investment, Trump’s 2019 budget outline called for an 18.3% funding cut to the Housing and Urban Development Department – the biggest reduction since the 1980s. Not only is this damaging to cities; the proposal disproportionally impacts society’s poorest.

The $8.8 billion slash to the HUD budget primarily focuses on reducing funding for federal housing assistance programs such as Section 8 rental vouchers. Trump’s changes to this scheme, which allows 1.7 million of the lowest-income families in America to access housing, mean recipients will face rent increases of up to $1,800 a year – a devastating expense for any struggling family.

HRF McDermott february 1https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:3138_Clinton_Avenue_Sealed_(3911772134).jpg Tony Webster from Portland, Oregon, United States [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


This comes at a time when the US is already dealing with an eviction crisis, a topic that rose to prominence after the 2016 release of Matthew Desmond’s powerful best-seller Evicted. Drawing from his ethnographic study of Milwaukee, Desmond shone light on the plight of low-income renters across America and the importance of the right to shelter when trying to break from the poverty cycle. A report by Apartment List found that 3.7 million of America’s renters have experienced an eviction while 20% have struggled to make a rent payment.


While the data may be worrying, they also signal the failings of America’s urban policy. As Desmond explains, “We cannot talk about poverty in this nation without coming to grips with how utterly broken our housing system is for America’s poor.” That is not to say the issue began with Trump, in fact Desmond’s data focuses on the Obama-era, but despite Trump’s avid promises nothing has been fixed and his new budget proposals are only likely to exacerbate the issues.

This is not the only broken campaign promise though. In the same 2016 Charlotte speech, Trump promised that he would not “let another generation of American children be excluded from the American Dream”, with a particular emphasis on opening doors for children of color. Yet, America’s current eviction data combined with outcome projections of Trump’s HUD budget speak to a deeply contradictory story.

Irrespective of marital status, households with children were twice as likely to face eviction. Renters of color disproportionately face eviction and actually pay more for housing. Meanwhile, the recent government shut down caused HUD staff shortages leading to 1,150 Section 8 housing contracts failing to be renewed, and 100,000 low-income residents risking eviction.

Another reason Trump’s HUD budget cuts are so disastrous lies in the geography of evictions. While people often mistake expensive and largely unequal cities like New York and San Francisco to be at the root of the eviction crisis, the issue is actually concentrated in Southern and Midwestern states, like Kentucky and Tennessee. These unfortunately are also the states which will see the largest rental increases of 40-45% under Trump’s budget proposal, based on projections by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

So, what can cities do to offset the impacts of HUD cuts? For a start, they could introduce just cause eviction laws. A policy supported by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), just cause eviction laws limit the reasons landlords can pose an eviction, yet many cities have not introduced this legislation. Additionally, in housing cases, poor residents are often not guaranteed legal representation, with New York only recently becoming the first city to ensure a right to counsel for low-income tenants.

Looking ahead to 2020, urban policy is poised to be a key distinguisher in the race to the White House. Elizabeth Warren recently announced the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, a piece of legislation designed to counteract the far-reaching consequences of historical red-lining and ensure racial equity in housing. Last week, Julián Castro, Obama’s former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, entered the race. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have both proposed past bills to provide “rent relief”, while Trump recently signed an executive order to create a “Revitalization Council” focused on delivering greater investment to neglected neighborhoods. Regardless of who wins, the Presidential hopefuls will not be the ones to face the brunt of America’s failing urban policy; the poorest will. 

HRF McDermott february 2

https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?search=urban+blight&title=Special%3ASearch&go=Go#/media/File:Cincinnati-blight-and-renewal.jpg UpstateNYer [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

The Forgotten Right to the City (January)

For our first month, January 2019, the Rights Writers introduce their topics and give an overview of the main actors and debates.

While The Universal Declaration of Human Rights may be one the most important documents in the world, I would argue it has neglected one of the most globally significant rights – the right to the city.  A term first coined in the same year by French sociologist Henri Lefebvre, the idea of a right to the city has risen to greater prominence in recent years as many of the world’s largest issues now play out in urban spaces.

While the 1960’s marked a significant time in urban history such as with the passing of the Fair Housing Act in the US and the first International Human Rights Year, the ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’ also encompassed this time. A period of sustained growth and production across the Western World, these years had severe effects on the design of the cities we live in today. The rise of automotive dependency coupled with inner city divestment led to the urban sprawl phenomenon now intrinsic to American cities and left urban centers as places of decay. Recognizing the flaws of these trends, Lefebvre framed the right to the city as a call to action envisioned as a collective and transformative power which would place human needs at the heart of urban governance.

With 60% of the global population expected to live in cities by 2030, cities are inextricably linked to the well-being of both people and planet, yet metros across the globe lie in social crisis and we have yet to reclaim the collective right to the city Lefebvre imagined. As urbanist Richard Florida puts it, we’ve found ourselves in a system of “winner-takes-all” urbanism, wherein a small subset of global metros reap a disproportionate amount of economic rewards compared to their counterparts.                                  


This situation is best encapsulated with the 2018 end to Amazon’s national city search for a new headquarters. Although 238 cities vied for the promise of 50,000 new jobs, the tech-giant settled on DC and New York – halving its original investment promise. The billion-dollar company, which paid no federal tax last year and has faced a multitude of accusations related to poor treatment of workers, will receive more than $2 billion in incentives. At the same time, wealth divides are stark in New York with the gap between the richest and poorest people matching that of Swaziland’s.

What the “municipal Hunger Games” shows are that cities are relentlessly following a flawed economic development strategy that neglects citizens. City officials are doing whatever they can to attract external investment from large companies, and in the process our urban cores are becoming cultureless monoliths where corporations thrive, but people are pushed out. By bending to the wills of Amazon and their counterparts, cities are abdicating the immense influence they have over human well-being.

A 2016 report by the Economic Innovation Group worryingly found that only 9 US cities had managed to achieve relative prosperity and maintain low rates of inequality. Unsurprisingly, those cities which displayed both economic success and high inequality included the financial hub of New York City and technology driven economies such as San Jose and San Francisco. Even more worryingly, more than half of the 100 cities were found to be both unequal and in distress, indicating the failings of our economic system. While New York and San Francisco have been able to attract outside investment and capture specific industries, other cities like Atlanta and Philadelphia have fallen behind – unable to compete on a global level but unable to build resilient urban ecosystems.

In Richard Florida’s The New Urban Crisis, the growing poverty and inequality occurring in Western cities is extensively documented, prompting doubt over the current standards for sustainable urban development. As we begin to realize the problems which urban planning in the developed world has exacerbated, there remains a very real issue of how to stop developing nations from suffering the same fate.

As Florida explains, the historical connection between urbanization and economic growth in advanced nations is now tenuous at best, but for developing nations it doesn’t exist: a trend he dubs “urbanization without growth”. With another 7-8 million people expected to move to cities in the next century, the global aspect of this urban crisis should be a prevalent issue to leaders around the world. A majority of this movement will occur in the developing world which lacks 60% of the urban infrastructure needed to deal with it, meanwhile cities across America suffer from failing and aged infrastructure.


While the right to the city may not yet be enshrined into international human rights legislation, some progress has been made to elevate the issues. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals have a dedicated target for sustainable cities and communities, primarily aimed at improving issues like inadequate housing, lack of water access and poor safety conditions.

Moreover, as people lose faith in national governments to cope with global challenges, there comes an opportunity for city administrations across the planet to reimagine the scope of what they can do and in the process address some of the worst crises we face. Workers’ rights and the right to shelter are two of the key human rights articles that fall under urban jurisdiction. But most importantly, the right to a fair and free world must be upheld in the places where humans overwhelmingly reside. In the following blog posts I hope to show the power of cities and highlight that when city officials reorganize methods of economic development, tackle larger issues, and use their power and influence for people we will finally see cities that uphold broader human rights.