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.

Erin McDermott is a junior from Glasgow, Scotland, majoring in Political Science with minors in Economics and Art History. She is passionate about urban policy and the ability of cities in combating global issues. She first got involved in this field after participating in the Governance, Policy, and Society DukeImmerse program, and she currently is in a Bass Connections research team that analyzes the intersections of urban spaces and the creative arts. At Duke, Erin is an International Karsh Scholar, Vice President of the Center for Race Relations, and a podcast producer for Hear at Duke.

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