Re-signifying the right to the city in the digital age

When public spaces become not public, what are the possible means to reassure their primordial civic function?

Camila Huber (MAUD/MLA I AP 20’) 


ImageImage Credit: Photo by Shannon Finney/Getty Images – March 24th 2018 - Accessed October 21st, 2018.

One day, in a casual conversation, I had a hard time trying to explain to an engineer friend why real estate rules should not regulate demographic patterns of a city. We heatedly debated why residents should not be continually pushed to the edges of certain cities in question because of real estate rates. He argued that as long as there was demand for certain prices, the rates were right and should therefore continue or be raised even further.

When I asked him if he knew the concept of the “Right to the City”, he unsurprisingly said no. Although the concept is widely endorsed by a range of scholars, and many local authorities, it is not deployed as a reality on the ground. Notwithstanding, certain societies find ways to reclaim their right to the city, which usually translates into informality. For instance, in South America, the favelas or shanty towns are a manifestation of such phenomena, where crowds occupy non-marketable land (usually environmentally protected or undesired for many reason) to find belonging in the composition of an area.

However, it is important to reflect on how the abovementioned patterns occur in places where there isn’t a geographical, regulatory, or land use hiatus. Some cities have previously been successful in enhancing mixed income neighborhoods, like Berlin with its subsidization mechanisms or the “projects” in New York City. Unfortunately, when those projects fail, are not effective, or simply do not exist, public spaces are the only realm left for the population at large to exercise their right to the city. But, are public spaces truly public to their full extent?

Part of the answer relies on how public spaces are financed. For instance, in the United States, parks, plazas and waterfronts are mostly built through public-private partnerships, a model with positive and negative aspects. Production of public spaces in a city can be enhanced and facilitated through such financial engines. These spaces, as we all know, are important for the health and social life of an urban realm, yet certain negative facets put into question the effectiveness of such a model. First, private companies that agree to invest in public spaces are seeking something in return, which is usually exposure and recognition. Therefore, they tend to prefer projects located in neighborhoods or specific areas of higher added value, which, in turn, attracts trendy complementary services (kiosks, vendors) and subsequently becomes an Instagrammable scenic place of high social value (in the sense that they become desirable destinations, due to the potential social status they can bring). Second, another mechanism usually employed is the creation of high-end real estate developments behind these public spaces to partially or completely fund the project. As an outcome of this process, what we clearly see, in big American cities, are highly segregated public spaces, which mostly satisfy a restricted exclusive population and sometimes tourists.

All this is not to say that there aren’t true public spaces in American Cities or elsewhere, but such issues bring into the discussion the question of what the primordial function of public spaces really is. To me, they are a physical manifestation of the democratic realm of a city and therefore, have historically been the stage for civic engagement.

When such an important aspect of civic life fails, what are the other means in which people could regain or re-signify their right to the city?

Technology is certainly one possible answer. In the virtual world everyone has equal access to open platforms which, as I previously pointed out, is not necessarily true in the concrete urban realm. It is important to observe the major role internet and especially social media have gained throughout the years, becoming the primary means of civic engagement, so that today many social movements begin and are strengthened in the virtual realm. With that said, and with the urge for democracy to endure, should we consider internet access as a public good? One that every citizen should be guaranteed? A broad, affordable connectivity could become a means to assure civic engagement and re-signify the right to the city in the digital age.


  1. "David Harvey: The Right to the City. New Left Review 53, September-October 2008". Retrieved 2018-10-20.

  2. Lefebvre, Henri (1996), "The right to the city", in Kofman, Eleonore; Lebas, Elizabeth, Writings on cities, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Wiley-BlackwellISBN9780631191889.



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