Better Urbanism
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Better Urbanism

Space, Not City

In 1968, Henri Lefebvre wrote Le Droit à la ville, translated as “The Right to the City.” Various interpretations of the book have been made, but Lefebrve’s stands out: even though the book is titled The Right to the City, it is better framed as “The Right to Space.” Neil Brenner writes in his book Cities for People: Not for Profit that “cities are a place of difference” — a place where strangers meet strangers, and a place where someone can participate in urban life in an entirely different way than someone else. Granting disadvantaged communities — and all communities for that matter — a right to the city has been the goal for any anti-capitalist city planner as they feel each urbanite deserves access to all forms of urban life present in such city.

But there is more minutiae to cities. It is flawed to view a city as anything less than space, because the urbanization seen in cities, more generally, is the reproduction of space with the aim of making that new space more profitable in the short and long run. Many planners want more use value, density, and happiness. Yet, the pursuit of productivity leaves many urbanites empty-handed: they are unable to use they subway because they can’t afford it; they are unable to use the movie theater because, yet again, there is a cost constraint; and they are unable to use the park because the city has told them they aren’t welcome. Cities that aim to usurp anything they can from residents only means that some can participate in urban life.

Washington Square Park in San Francisco. Sourced from SFGate

Indeed, when urbanites who may be viewed as invisible by other wealthy residents visit a public park, there may be no one there to mingle with since the the perception of the park by planners may have had only one demographic in mind. In this regard, public parks are a great contradiction. They have the power to bring people together through conversation, interaction, and discovery. They collectivize difference and reproduce diverse cities. However, they can just as well be forgotten as people choose not to visit, not to engage, not to see. In other words, the park that people were supposed to use to involve themselves in “the urban” is unavailable.

The other problem to overcome is what a city really is. A quick Google search will tell you it is a large town, where a town is an urban area larger than a village with clear boundaries and local governments. This presents many questions: who demarcates the boundaries, why are they demarcated as such, and what is an “urban” area? Once again, we have to return to Lefebvre’s spatial triad. For space to exist, it must be conceived, perceived, and represented (lived). Space can not have meaning unless it has already past the first two steps. Inherently, for space to be conceived and perceived, there has to be some form of material relationships present, and thus material production; for space to be represented, citizens must have knowledge to begin with. Once there is some representation of the space present, a city is present, so long as a high number of other citizens represent it similarly. From this definition, it is clear that our epistemology of what cities are has a profound effect on how people perform in cities. Defining “the urban” only leads to a circular path. To know what is urban is to know what a city is, and both are undefined without conception, perception, and representation that come from various tools like maps and concepts.

Considering the extreme wealth corporations extract from cities that deny people’s right to cities, to counteract this citizens must be able to control the capital flow in their city. They must be able to represent space in the ways they see fit, not how shareholders want it. They must be able to conceive the space in the ways they want, and their perceptions must not be deluded even after the conception. Thus, the right to the city is not the right to urban features, but rather the right to control the space around you and use it in the means that urbanites feel necessary. From now on, we should make it well known that everyone deserves the right to space, and their ability to use that space shall not be infringed upon. It is not enough to simply say that everyone has a right to the city, when in actuality, they deserve the right to urban space.

This is my first piece on critical urban theory. I am new to the field but am interested in exploring these concepts in greater detail. Feedback and/or discussion would be greatly appreciated! You can reach me at dtamtrak@gmail.com.

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