A right to the city?

Ahmad Rafay Alam June 25, 2010

Pakistan is the most urbanised country in South Asia. At the moment, some 35 per cent of 170 million people live in cities or earn their income through means other than agriculture and livestock. In the next decade, it’s expected that about 50 per cent of the population will live in cities. By 2050, over 60 per cent of an estimated 300 million Pakistanis will live in cities. This massive demographic change doesn’t just mean that Pakistan will shift from being a rural society to an urban one – which is profound in and of itself – it means that, as the cities double or treble in size, incredible pressures will come to bear on available housing stock, sewage and sanitation infrastructure, employment opportunities and healthcare and recreational facilities.

What our inevitable urbanisation also means is that, at some point, we’ve got to start thinking about the right to the city.

In his seminal essay, The Right to the City, academic David Harvey points out that cities are one of the more powerful representations of capitalism through civilisation.  It is the city on the trade route or the city that has provided the space for trade and commerce that has been lifeblood of cities. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and as much as cities have played host to the enterprise of capitalism, capitalism has influenced the manner and way that cities are shaped and have designed.

The modern “global city” is a place where the world’s economy takes place. These are places like New York, London, Tokyo, Singapore or Dubai where the best and brightest in the world are attracted to work for the companies that represent global trade and capitalism. In return, these cities are designed to cater for such services. International airports, numerous hotels and recreational facilities greet every visitor (as does an efficient public transport system).  But over and above the physical infrastructure, these cities provide services (accounting, law, financial, administrative) that aid and oil the machines of trade.

Arif Hasan, in describing the world class city concept, explains how global capitalism has also played its part in shaping the cities in countries like Pakistan. On the one hand, since our cities and economy aren’t robust enough to finance themselves, urban development is often funded by international donor bodies such as the World Bank, the IFC or the Asian Development Bank, which Hasan notes are basically the bankers to global capitalism. Urban planning gives way to projects and the idea of having consistent urban development that meets the needs of citizens is subsumed under other priorities such as funding, project management, achieving milestones and what not.

Where then is the “common man” in all of this? Does he stand to benefit from the type of urban development around him? Can he do anything about it?  In order to answer these questions, we need to think about the idea of having a right to the city.

The right to the city is far more than the individual access to urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.  It is, moreover, a common rather and an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends on the exercise of collective power to reshape the process of urbanisation.

Given the expected demographic change and massive urbanisation of Pakistan, we must start developing the notion of a legally recognised right to the city. Something an urbanite can take to court and enforce, say, his right to the clean environment (Lahore spends billions on roads and doesn’t have a single sewage treatment plant, so does Karachi and Islamabad, but neither of those two cities have clean drinking water for all their residents). Someone living in a slum should have the right to question his government’s constant use of eminent domain — which, under the constitution, can only be exercised in the public interest — to build housing societies for the rich.

The time to recognise a right to the city has come, for, as Harvey quotes Henri Lefebvre, “the revolution has to be urban, in the broadest sense of the term, or nothing at all.”

Published in The Express Tribune, June 26th, 2010.


Syed Nadir El-Edroos | 11 years ago | Reply Our urban landscape is hostage to the whims of petty cosmetic changes on the outside, and rampant exploitation from the inside. Wider boulevards and fly overs is synonymous with development. Its out in the open for everyone to see. Every politician wants to credit for setting it up. However, things like water supply and sanitation, subterranean and hidden is difficult to milk politically. People appreciate it, but take it for granted. We are already dividing up our urban environments into go and no-go areas. Gated communities keep the rif-raff out of plush neighbourhoods, check posts and security keep large swaths of public areas under careful watch leaving people squeezed into a maze of urban jungle. And in that maze, people are easy picking for exploitation. To be moved around, to have their property take over illegally. All with a quiet wink and a nod. Hopefully one day we will return to claim back our surroundings, for our station commanders, property mughal's, nazims and mayors, have longed claimed the right to govern by seizing more and more space for themselves. Society has lost out.
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