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Our right to the city

We need to reassert a sense of collectivity in the way we live, writes James O'Nions

May 30, 2011
5 min read


James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.


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A tussle is taking place in Westminster politics over the word ‘progressive’. Conservatives are divided over whether to claim the word from the left as part of the detoxification of the Tory brand or denounce it as an anodyne cover for dubiously pinko sentiments. Meanwhile, Nick Clegg casts around for coalition policies to promote as progressive to try to deflect the flak from the decidedly anti-progressive spending cuts.

Internships, Clegg thus weakly proposes, should be subject to open interviews, not awarded to family friends. The grammar school boy should have the opportunity to enhance his CV too. The issue of payment is not broached. Yet this intervention is part of a wider agenda to recast ‘meritocracy’ as the acme of progressive ambition. No need for the redistribution of wealth here. In fact, no problem that the cuts are redistributing wealth from the poor to the rich, so long as a few of the poor themselves can be redistributed that way too.

The Labour Party is not immune to pouring meritocratic wine into ‘progressive’ bottles. The contradiction inherent in Labour’s need to re-engage its working class support, while still appealing to ‘the squeezed middle’ (best expressed in Andy Burnham’s leadership campaign oxymoron ‘aspirational socialism’), dovetails with the dominant culture of commodification. Even those genuinely seeking redistribution express little vision beyond enabling more people to privately buy their way out of material deprivation.

In choosing to focus on radical visions for our cities in this issue of Red Pepper, we are hoping to show that something more attractive, and more challenging to capitalism, is possible. In his important 2008 essay for New Left Review, ‘The Right to the City’, David Harvey wrote: ‘The right to the city is … 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.’

This sense of collectivity in the way we live in the city is something we need desperately to reassert. Yet this is not just an ideological problem. The physical city has often been constructed in a way that reinforces an outlook framed by atomistic individualism. We peer out of our windows at the noise, pollution and physical danger of traffic. Our fear of crime has soared in a cityscape that is increasingly privatised and subject to surveillance (see Anna Minton, page 26). Individual home ownership guts our common interest in solving the housing crisis as homeowners hope for ever‑increasing property prices.

Yet alternatives exist. As Chiara Tornaghi shows (page 22), various embryonic urban agriculture projects can be starting points for reclaiming the commons while cutting down the environmental impact of our food and multiplying the public green space in our cities. The post-war period of building new social housing may not have been universally successful, but as Owen Hatherley points out (page 28) the architects and planners in those years often had a vision of building design as serving a higher social purpose. Not everyone will agree with the modernist result, but it’s clear that community, democracy and solidarity can all be built into the city, and with them quality of life.

Given where we start from however, building a new radical urbanism will not be easy. We are helped in some ways by the aftermath of the financial crisis. The neoliberal juggernaut has been slowed and with it the building frenzy throwing up private apartments, shopping complexes and the infrastructure of boutique lifestyles for the wealthy.

At the same time, the perennial crisis in housing has been exacerbated, leading to rising repossessions and homelessness. Any movement to claim the right to the city needs to tackle the housing question centrally. As Stuart Hodkinson argues (page 20), such a movement must start with the immediate issues around providing affordable housing but seek always to decommodify housing and move towards collective ownership and control. In doing so, it will inevitably encounter a whole range of other issues, from the redistribution of wealth to the power of multinationals to the problem of gentrification.

Recent events in Bristol, with the so-called ‘anti-Tesco riot’ in the Stokes Croft area, are illustrative of this wider battle over the character of city life. The issue is not limited to a single, if symbolic, supermarket branch, but encompasses a struggle over gentrification and the entry of major retailers into an area currently characterised by local shops – many catering to ethnic minority communities – squatted buildings and some inspiring non‑profit community and arts spaces (see RP Aug/Sep 2008).

This concentration of radical urbanism is relatively unusual, but it need not be so. Combined with a movement to fight urban inequality, and a strategy of reclaiming the commons in housing, public space and elsewhere, such spaces can provide both a better way to live and a thorough-going challenge to the priorities of the capitalist city.

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James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.


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