The battle for equal access to public goods and affordable quality life in the city, regardless of religion, nationality and socio-economic status, continues even after you pick a name on the ballot. The city and its social life are constantly undergoing change, and the key to development lies in recognizing new demands for a different kind of governance and ideas of public space – those that benefit the community and not individual interests. The key levers in the process of sustainable change are political activation and the creating of active communities that make choices about their surroundings and the environment, and are aware of their right to the city.
In this context, citizens across Europe are raising their voices in order to regain their right to take part in debates that help improve the quality of everyday life on a range of issues – the environment, gentrification, re-appropriation of public space, civic action, living together in various communities…
Building an inclusive city is an ongoing task
“The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of daily life we desire, what kinds of technologies we deem appropriate, what aesthetic values we hold. The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city more after our heart’s desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right since changing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanization”, wrote David Harvey, a geographer and one of the most important theorists of space, urban environment and the city, some ten years ago when researching the right to the city – the concept first introduced by the French philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre in 1968.
Whether the right to the city is still relevant when considering power relations and struggles in the city after the coronavirus pandemic, which has changed the city’s social role in just a few months, is a question that activists and journalists from London, Marseille, Seville, Warsaw, Stockholm and Zagreb tried to find an answer to in the first MediaActivism Talk Show. As we try to reimagine urban arrangements that would truly meet our needs – from better public and living spaces, better housing conditions, to measures that would combat climate crises – the pandemic demands that activists devise new participatory and creative ways to encourage change in the coming months and years.
It is necessary to rebuild a sense of public good
“The pandemic has created a connectedness that could serve as a resource for further common resistance”, says Dan Hancox, a British journalist who writes about gentrification, cities, protests, public space and social movements, among other things. Reflecting on how citizens can regain control over cities, this is how he puts it in one of his articles: “The goal is, in fact, to increase participation in the decision-making process, to encourage local democracy and civic energy, and make public services fairer and more accessible”. When it comes to gentrification, Hancox reminds us that the process of displacing the poorest members of society is not a new thing: “Moreover, it originated in London in the 1960s; we are in a way ground zero for this phenomenon”. But it was in recent years that gentrification itself has become a serious point of political contention and resistance: “It is important to point out that it has always been about housing – access to affordable housing – and here in London we look with a certain envy at Berlin and the local authorities there who understand this problem”.
There are many pockets of local resistance in London addressing this issue, but a major challenge is to bring them together, Hancox points out. He sees the connection created during the pandemic as a potential source of joint action: “Through various groups, WhatsApp groups for example, people have been communicating a lot; I got to know people in my neighbourhood better than the year before. A number of issues are being raised and a number of changes called for – be they about green areas or, for example, enlarging the space for pedestrians and cyclists in the ever-ongoing fight against cars, and this seems to me to be one of the pivotal battles in the years to come”.
As for future strategies, it will be vital to take a proactive stance, Hancox makes a point: “So far, local communities have spoken out from a desire to preserve something, but the alternative is to come up with a proposal for something new. This is what locals and North London activists did by coming together in the St Ann's Redevelopment Trust (StART), when – instead of luxury apartments on the site of an old hospital – they advocated for 500 affordable housing units to be built for the local population, while also preserving a large green area for the whole local community. This is what is so important and inspiring for citizens’ imagination – demonstrating that it is possible to come together and do something new, not just preserve the old”.
How to give a voice to nature?
It is important to encourage community-built practices, by designing innovative ways of forging connections, developing empathy and solidarity. One of the ways is to work together through the synergy of art and science, allowing us to frame common narratives and iconography that define a certain place, says Igor Stokfiszewski. This researcher, activist, journalist, artist and member of the Krytyka Polityczna organization spoke at the MediaActivism Talk Show about the protection of green areas in urban context, as exemplified by an action to defend a swamp in the eastern part of Warsaw from being drained and privatized.
“When you talk about the climate crisis, it seems hard to approach this global issue from the position of a local population; this is a challenge in the story of the right to the city. There are a number of actors who are negatively affected by the climate crisis and should to be included – something we previously failed to identify in this way. More specifically, it is not just about people, but also about animals, i.e. flora and fauna, water… actors who cannot speak up for themselves. The biggest challenge in bringing together the right to the city and the climate crisis has to do with coming up with new, innovative forms of democracy so that these can at the same time respect the citizens and involve them in the decision-making process, but also take into account the voices of non-human actors. Another important element to include is the scientific knowledge on how to preserve the city’s natural ecosystem and its dynamics”, says Stokfiszewski.
Participation is crucial, he stresses: “In trying to find new and innovative forms of democracy, we experiment together with scientists and artists to create new ways of talking about the natural environment in urban spaces, and somehow define the voices of non-human actors, which is a very exciting process. It’s also COVID-related; namely, it is inspiring that during this period we came to understand the importance of the natural environment, seeing how the virus as a non-human factor has affected the city”.
Citizens on the road to change
It became crystal clear to the people of Marseille a few years ago that it was impossible to move away from the status quo without taking a stand through collective action. In early November, two years ago, two buildings collapsed in the old city centre, killing eight people in their beds. One of the buildings was city-owned, and the tragedy could have been avoided. “Local authorities knew there was danger but did nothing”, says Valérie Manteau, an author and a journalist, and an active member of the grassroots initiative Les États Généraux General Assembly from Marseille.
The street where the tragedy took place, Rue d’Aubagne, is mostly populated by immigrants and residents of African descent. City authorities were warned more than a decade ago that there was imminent danger. But for years they have allowed the old buildings fall into disrepair, waiting for developers to come renovate and gentrify them, while the owners neglected their property as they were feeding of the rent that the poor paid with the help of state allowance.
“Everybody knew it was a humble neighbourhood, that people were living in bad apartments, but we who lived there didn’t know they could collapse just like that”, recalls Manteau on the MediActivism Talk Show. After the buildings collapsed, several thousand people were dislocated and discontent mounted. Large demonstrations broke out and movements sprang throughout the city, eventually leading to a change of government – from a conservative one to a broad and diverse left-wing coalition. Changes are now visible, but there is still a lot of work to be done and the pressure from the residents should remain permanent.
The key is to make citizens aware that they have the vote – every day, not just on election day. One of the crucial moments, as Manteau put it, was after the symbolic renaming of the square in front of the demolished buildings, in what was a participatory process: “We talked to people, not just about changing the names of streets. They asked if they had the right to change them and we encouraged them to be aware of what else they might want to change, because they are the ones who live there and have the right to say how they want to be living. Once this awareness was raised, a good first step was taken toward further change”.
As a sign that those living in the city intend to participate in the decision-making that affects their immediate surroundings, in Zagreb, a seldom used democratic form has been revived. Iva Marčetić, an architect, a researcher and member of the Pravo na grad organisation, spoke about the Citizens’ Assemblies – rediscovered and redefined in recent years – in a podcast which was part the MediaActivism project.
She pointed out that the most common reasons for initiating the Citizens’ Assemblies in the last three years have been related to spatial planning decisions, i.e. urban-development plans. For example, in Trešnjevka neighbourhood they opposed a plan to pave with asphalt one of the few green areas in this neighbourhood not encircled by traffic lanes; in the city centre they stood up against bad urban interventions on Victims of Fascism Square, and in Črnomerec they rebelled against the construction of a mega-block of residential and business towers in that neighbourhood.
Although Zagreb is formally very decentralized, in practice it doesn’t really work. Marčetić points out that the assemblies were preceded by years of activism, and that councillors who entered the local self-government from the ranks of activists are largely the ones who launched these public forums: “The assemblies were defined by the Statute of the City of Zagreb, but it was only after the 2017 local elections that they became active, and we have tried to use the podcast as a medium to make citizens aware of this resource”.
Creating narratives for the future
Public space is the focus of city rights activists, and one of the key issues is how to deal with the exclusion of different identity groups from public spaces. The media also play an important role in this. “With the arrival of coronavirus, many issues have been put aside, and it has become apparent that marginalized groups were the ones being talked about and not being talked with”, warned Aleyna Kaya, a journalist and activist from Stockholm who writes about social issues, human rights and mental health, among other things.
“It is important to have your own story out, to change the narrative, to create strong diverse communities. The role of the media is to hear the diverse voices and different perspectives of individual communities. It is important, for example, to talk about racism, more than about interculturalism, and reach different audiences, but the newsrooms themselves should also be as similar as possible to the society they address”, concludes the journalist and activist Moha Gerehou.
It is always important to keep in mind the bigger picture, but also be aware that in the new pandemic circumstances, many old issues have come to the surface – healthy environment, public space, space for socialization and recreation, urban greenery, affordable housing, public transport. (In)equality and inclusiveness are just some of those, inextricably linked to the right to the city and the common struggle to democratize and govern the space we live in.
By: Andreja Žapčić, https://www.kulturpunkt.hr/