The right to the city – Marcuse


Considering the global crisis in its historical context, Peter Marcuse poses the question:

What does the Right to the City mean? More specifically: Whose Right are we talking about? What Right is it we mean? What City is it to which we want the right? Henri Lefebvre popularized the slogan in 1968, but he was more provocative than careful in its usage. The best definition he gave is:
‘… the right to the city is like a cry and a demand. This right slowly meanders through the surprising detours of nostalgia and tourism, the return to the heart of the traditional city, and the call of existent or recently developed centralities.’ (Lefebvre, 1967, p. 158)
In other places he has it meandering through:
‘the right to information, the rights to use of multiple services, the right of users to make known their ideas on the space and time of their activities in urban areas; it would also cover the right to the use of the center’. (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 34)
So: whose right, what right and to what city?” (p.189)

According to Marcuse, “Lefebvre’s right is both a cry and a demand, a cry out of necessity and a demand for something more. Those are two separate things. I would reformulate them to be an exigent demand by those deprived of basic material and existing legal rights, and an aspiration for the future by those discontented with life as they see it around them, perceived as limiting their own potentials for growth and creativity.

“The demand comes from those directly in want, directly oppressed, those for whom even their most immediate needs are not fulfilled: the homeless, the hungry, the imprisoned, the persecuted on gender, religious, racial grounds. It is an involuntary demand, those whose work injures their health, those whose income is below subsistence. The cry comes from the aspiration of those superficially integrated into the system and sharing in its material benefits, but constrained in their opportunities for creative activity, oppressed in their social relationships, guilty perhaps for an undeserved prosperity, unfulfilled in their lives’ hopes.” (p.190)

“Looked at economically, the cry for the Right to the City here comes from the most marginalized and the most underpaid and insecure members of the working class, not from most of the gentry, the intelligentsia, the capitalists.” (p.191)

“The right to the city is a claim and a banner under which to mobilize one side in the conflict over who should have the benefit of the city and what kind of city it should be. It is a moral claim, founded on fundamental principles of justice, of ethics, of morality, of virtue, of the good. ‘Right’ is not meant as a legal claim enforceable through a judicial process today (although that may be part of the claim as a step in the direction of realizing the Right to the City). Rather, it is multiple rights that are incorporated here: not just one, not just a right to public space, or a right to information and transparency [-p.193] in government, or a right to access to the center, or a right to this service or that, but the right to a totality, a complexity, in which each of the parts is part of a single whole to which the right is demanded. The homeless person in Los Angeles has not won the right to the city when he is allowed to sleep on a park bench in the center. Much more is involved, and the concept is as to a collectivity of rights, not individualistic rights. The demand is made as a right not only in a legal sense but also in a moral sense, a claim not only to a right as to justice within the existing legal system but a right on a higher moral plane that claims a better system in which the demands can be fully and entirely met.” (pp.192-193)

“What city?” Marcuse asks, replying: “Lefebvre is quite clear on this: it is not the right to the existing city that is demanded, but the right to a future city, indeed not necessarily a city in the conventional sense at all, but a place in an urban society in which the hierarchical distinction between the city and the country has disappeared.” (p.193) … “And in fact not a city at all, but a whole society. The ‘urban’ is only a synecdoche and a metaphor, in Lefebvre (1967, pp. 158, 45)….” (p.193)

“The principles that such a city would incorporate can be set forth in general. They would include concepts such as justice, equity, democracy, the full development of human potentials or capabilities, to all according to their needs, from all according to their abilities, the recognition of human differences. They would include terms such as sustainability and diversity, but these are rather desiderata in the pursuit of goals rather than goals in themselves. But there is a limit to how much benefit can be gained from trying to spell those principles out in clear terms today. Such a city is not to be predicted in detail, as Lefebvre often said….” (p.193)

“What all but the most old-fashioned utopian proposals …have in common is a rejection of the idea that the most desirable future can be spelled out, designed, defined, now, in advance, except in the most broad principles. Only in the experience of getting there, in the democratic decisions that accompany the process, can a better future be formed. It is not for lack of imagination or inadequate attention or failing thought that no more concrete picture is presented, but because, precisely, the direction for actions in the future should not be preempted, but left to the democratic experience of those in fact implementing the vision.” (p.194)

“A critical urban theory, dedicated to supporting a right to the city, needs to expose the common roots of the deprivation and discontent, and to show the common nature of the demands and the aspirations of the majority of the people. A critical urban theory can develop the principles around which the deprived and the alienated can make common cause in pursuit of the Right to the City. How to politicize most effectively that common ground? We already have sectors of society where the commonality is visible, where action for people, not for profit, is the rule.” (p.195)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold mine) Peter Marcuse (2009): From critical urban theory to the right to the city, City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action, 13:2-3, 185-197

ABSTRACT: The right to the city is becoming, in theory and in practice, a widespread, effective formulation of a set of demands to be actively thought through and pursued. But whose right, what right and to what city? Each question is examined in turn, first in the historical context of 1968 in which Henri Lefebvre first popularized the phrase, then in its meaning for the guidance of action. The conclusion suggests that exposing, proposing and politicizing the key issues can move us closer to implementing this right.

Reference is to: Lefebvre, H. (1996 [1967]) ‘The Right to the City’, in E. Kofman and E. Lebas (eds) Writings on Cities, pp. 63–184. London: Blackwell.


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