Review of Agrawal Rights in the City

Sandeep Agrawal (ed.) Rights and the City Edmonton: University of Alberta Press

Rights and the City brings together contributions on the role of municipal governments and planners in regulating, implementing, and advocating human rights’ claims in a practical context “ such as the application and practice of rights to and in the city” (ix). Municipal policies are also affected by policies enacted by state, provincial or federal governments defining rights or creating human rights issues. In a Canadian context such as the city of Edmonton Alberta, human rights issues arise in situations such as when planner’s create a set of guidelines as standards for locating group homes for those recently discharged from prison or for those who need assistance with everyday living such as the disabled. Other cases include regulations targeting homelessness. For example, municipalities may limit “ camping ” or donations of even food to people in public places to force some of the homeless out of the public eye or into shelters despite the lack of adequate funding for housing and shelters. Other examples are the location of marijuana distribution businesses or its use in public spaces, as well as more classic examples such as free speech in public. Students of legal rights will find a helpful introduction in this volume. For example, Renee Vaugeois contributes a review of the John Humphrey Center efforts to make Edmonton a “ Human Rights City ” in terms of dignity, security, freedom, and justice.

However, more radical understandings of Lefebvre are placed alongside these legal texts, but they do not challenge the chapters which retrench into law, rather than social change. Other reviewers of this book also make this error in misunderstanding Henri Lefebvre’s notion of the “ right to the city ” as about human rights in a narrow sense. They see his suggestion that there is a right to the city as an abstraction that can be realized through legal and professional practice. For example, this may tbake the practical form of a right to adquate shelter or a right to public space. This has been raised in the US, where Black Lives Matter protests after a series of police murders of unarmed black people (24 in 2022) such as George Floyd (d. May 25 2020) have encountered restrictions on the right to protest in the US. This is tremendously important but I wish to focus on Lefebvre’s legacy here.

Decolonizing the right to the city

Alexandra Flynn attempts to locate “ rights ” and “ city ” in the context of Canadian settler-colonialism and its constitutional frameworks. How might these be interpreted to allow a “ land back ” return of territory to displaced Indigenous communities? In reality, she critiques the tendency of Canadian municipalities to deploy a “ right to the city ” discourse in their own interest as a “ right of the city ” to be the sole representatives of their citizens. This discussion moves away from Lefebvre’s European context to jurisdictional and legislative problems of what legal status and powers an entitiy such as a Canadian city has and the rôle of the courts in upholding litigated rights. The chapter thus turns first to municipal legal obligations to respect Indigenous title — an important issue in the face of “ municipal colonialism ” in cases such as the Town of Oka (Québec) that supported and sought to expand local golf courses over land to which Mohawks actually had a documented title. Second, the Calls to Action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC 2015) demand action from communities and local institutions including municipal governments, universities and school boards. A focus on the question of “whose” rights have primacy misses the opportunity to ask about decolonizing rights: how to construct a decolonial right to the city which empowers different groups through the complexity and vibrancy of the city?

While educating planners that they should pay attention to the neglected issue of human rights, the risk with this approach is that rights become technical issues or the preoccupation of institutions divorced from the reality of political action. Elsewhere we have argued that there has been a externally imposed and elitist neoliberal appropriation of the idea as part of urban boosterism and international competition, through “ urban labs ” funded by the Rockefeller Foundation in capital cities in the Americas. Agencies such as LabCMX in Mexico City fetishized community vitality and sought ways of harnessing grassroots creativity and commercializing it.

A Politics of Rights

This is in contrast to the Lefebvrean legacy of a “ politics of rights ” as John Flytzianis has argued. Quite a bit would have to change in planning education for its practitioners to be able to address the contention, made by Rinaldo Walcott, that private property is at root an exclusion that sets up a series of violations of the rights of everyone else who is excluded. Nor is the relation between rights (which tend to be institutionalized) and obligations to neighbours and fellow-residents (which tend to be left out of the equation) examined in detail. These raise questions of experience and ethics. Rights “ in the city ”  are clearly neither “ rights to ” the city nor a democratic  Right to the City that challenges the primacy of bureaucratized governance under welfare states, and private property owners under neoliberal capitalism.

There is a grievous problem of geographers’ readings of Lefebvre translations. It leads to mistakes in understanding such as “Le droit à la ville …and The Production of Space… have led to the idea of a right to the city, informing an urban social movement”  (xiii). The “ right to the city ” is a radical political proposal for autonomous self-organization and revolution, not for a “ social movement ” such as might represent one interest-group. Assuming that Lefebvre was intending to contribute to liberal discourses on rights as judicial artefacts, or to international human rights regimes under signatory states misses Lefebvre’s radical proposal for the ways neighbourhood self-organisation of coexisting diversity provides a model for larger spatial collectives – the right to the city is not just a right to equity in the city but a right of all to “ be ” the city as a complex totality. Although extending beyond citizens rights to all persons, and although appropriated as “ encouraging transformation within existing legal rights frameworks ” (xiv), Lefebvre questions and attacks the bureaucratic state apparatuses and the notion that rights are to be administered as opposed to be exercised as authentic qualities and entitlements. Where human rights law sees institutions as guarantors of rights, Lefebvre saw human rights as requiring continual nourishing and refreshment from human actors who are necessarily political and economic animals first and juridical subjects a very distant second.

-Rob Shields (Univ. of Alberta)