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To Whom Does the City Belong? On the Right to the City

by Michel Ansay - Sarah Deutsch - Fany Gashugi -

"To whom does the city belong? Whose is the city?" [1]wondered the Heinrich Böll Foundation in a long memorandum preliminary to the Johannesburg Summit in 2002. [2]"The city, for whom and by whom?" wondered the UNESCO along similar lines in preparation for Habitat II in 1996. [3]

We would like to start from there, from "the right to the city". What is it about, in the North and in the South? This will be the basic question in this paper, which will move between the cities of the North and the cities of the South.

Cities in the North are competitive cities, convenient to a certain social consensus (OECD). They generate growth, spatial segregation between the rich and the poor, and functional specialization (UNESCO).

Cities of the South! More and more, world population growth is what the cities of the South are made of; poverty there is increasingly urban because the cities of the South have not kept their industrialization promises; the urban women of the South are increasingly carrying the weight of poverty because they are the ones who provide food, in particular from their city vegetable plots. [4] According to Th. Trefon, in Kinshasa, how people eat is a mystery. [5]

In the beginning, the "right to the city" was a concept put forward by Henri Lefèbvre. [6] The right to what it already offers, but also, as one reads further, the right to change the city according to our needs and desires. Whose is the right to the city? Citizens and voters, all of its residents, its users (for instance, commuters who come and go)?

Should other categories be included? For instance, people in vulnerable situations, the poor, the homeless, isolated women, the old, the children and the young, ethnic minorities, immigrants, the displaced, refugees? The answer is clear.

From whom can I claim this right to the city? Who can guarantee it? Whose duty is it to grant it to me? The concept of urban governance [7] is more than a passing trend. It consists in power sharing, framed by the law, from the center toward the periphery. Power is thus distributed among the actors: civil authorities, civil society, other stakeholders, including in the private sector, and the market forces. For civil society, it is a process of awareness raising, speaking out, urban struggles, enabling, and empowerment.

We would like to mention an example. In Cureghem (Anderlecht), the Institut de la Vie receives immigrant women, mainly Turkish or Moroccan, in its Center, Carmen Boute. Answering a call by the Roi Baudouin Foundation, the Center focused on these women’s existence difficulties. There could have been medical, ethno-psychiatric solutions. It was the power to speak, in the end, which proved to be the instrument of their liberation and their conquest of citizenship. First, their conquest of a geographical territory because these women of Anderlecht had "never gone beyond the channel". Conquering speech has allowed them to go without fear to the local administrations and to their children’s schools, to extend their territory gradually to the territory of citizenship, where their words are made possible and are heard. [8] They now have projects, including one of a community garden and one of a school parliament. They used to receive passively, now they have things to offer… [9]

We would like to list some aspects of the right to the city, collective rights as much as personal ones, more specifically the right to space, the right to a territory. "Space never exists per se or objectively. It is the space of relations (R. Jaulin, 1999)". [10] We can add that these relations are not just economic ones.

1. The first right that comes to mind is the right to housing other than a subway entrance or a cardboard shelter. According to Habitat International Coalition (HIC), in the world there are more than one billion people who do not have a proper roof, a place in which to live in peace and in dignity. According to COHRE (Center of Housing Rights and Evictions), 70% of these people are women.

2. The right to the city is also the right to eat. In Africa and in many of cities of the South, Urban Agriculture (UA) provides 20 to 40% of people’s food. This contribution is not included in the agricultural statistics of a Minister of Agriculture. African cities, which are undergoing constant demographic explosion, are, as a consequence of rural depopulation, cities of farmers who possess agricultural know-how. This is coming to be known as “rurbanization.”

In Europe, working-class vegetable plots used to be of significant importance in tight family budgets. Their new significance today was widely appreciated during this symposium. Producers and consumers are only separated by a few kilometers, sometimes just a few meters. Conversely, I have read in a report that the food found in a large American shopping center has traveled an average of 2,500 kilometers.

3. The right to the city is also the right to a healthy environment, to a healthy city. In Butembo (Democratic Republic of Congo), a city whose 500 water sources are polluted, the right to drinking water is waning.
This is where we should bring up the role of UA in organic-waste processing in Africa. When converted to compost, it makes the land fertile again. Appropriate technology, for instance in Dakar, makes it possible to recycle used water for gardening. [11] In Africa, waste is increasingly becoming raw material. In China, human waste is converted to compost.

The health of cities and the health of humans are intimately related. Waste management through UA contributes to the cleansing of cities. It can be argued that there are "polluted gardens".

But health is not only defined in terms of physical health: according to the World Health Organization, health is also moral and social wellbeing. We can mention the significance in today’s society of the flowers that we offer, that we look at, or the role of gardens in the conservation of the physical health and the morale of senior citizens.

4. The right to space in a city is also the right to move in it easily. This would apply to the role of accessible public transportation with differentiated pricing.


Claiming space, a territory in the city is not only a matter of square meters, of measuring space for the various appetites of roads or offices … It requires the full exercise of more basic rights (the right to housing, to a healthy city, to accessible transportation, etc.). It provides spaces for meeting, for creativeness, for the exercise of citizenship, for beauty, and for pleasure. As P. Viveret has put it, bonds are more important than goods. [12] Shared gardens are a magnificent example of this.


[1Symposium on shared vegetable plots, April 26, 2005, in Charleroi (Hainaut, Belgium), an economically depressed region. Urban land abandoned by the industrial revolution has been turned into shared vegetable patches, where people are re-acquiring the taste of living together; where people are claiming the right to a piece of land …

[2The Jo’burg-Memo, "Memorandum for the World Summit on Sustainable Development", Heinrich Böll Foundation, April 2002, 79 pages.

[3Sachs-Jeantet C ., "Vers la ville de la solidarité et de la citoyenneté," UNESCO , Habitat II, Istanbul, June 3-14, 1996.

[4Villes du Nord et villes du Sud, A la rencontre de l’agriculture urbaine, Ath-Bruxelles, September 25-26, 2002, Minutes of the Symposium, Institut de la Vie, 159 pages

[5Trefon Th., Ordre et désordre à Kinshasa, edited by Th. Trefon, Africa Tervueren, Cahiers africains, N° 61-62, 2004, pp. 13-32.

[6UNESCO, Politiques urbaines et droit à la Ville, dossier, March 18, 2005.

[7Solinis G., "Politique et gouvernance urbaine", Newsletter, SHS, UNESCO, Paris, January 2005, pp. 16-17.

[8Makedonski P.M., de Morsier Y., Ranson I., "Territories, places for creating relationships: for communities of shared relations", CPP 7 bis, September 2001, Alliance for a Responsible, Plural and United World, 59 pages.

[9Deutsch S. , Gashugi F., Geczynski S., Loodts J., Piron V., Salhy Oumnya , Ansay M., "Vivre à Cureghem, un droit à la ville. La dépression chez les jeunes mères et leurs enfants en milieu immigré, Être là et agir". Report to the Roi Baudoin Foundation, 2004.

[10Jaulin R., Exercices d’ethnologie, PUF, Paris 1999, p. 75.

[11SY Moussa, "La réutilisation des eaux usées : une alternative viable pour l’agriculture urbaine en Afrique de l’Ouest" in Villes du Nord et villes du Sud, A la rencontre de l’agriculture urbaine, Ath-Bruxelles, September 25-26, 2002, Minutes of the Symposium, Institut de la Vie, pp. 90-100.

[12Viveret P., "Reconsidérer la richesse", progress report of the mission on “new wealth factors” to the Secretary of State for Solidarity Economy, Guy Hascoët, in Transversales, N° 70, 2001.

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