At the Verso blog, Anna Minton revisits Henri Lefebvre's landmark book The Right to the City, fifty years after its original publication. Minton examines how the "right to the city" concept and slogan has been taken up by urban activists all over the world in recent years, from London to the US and Brazil. She also reflects on how the fluid, indefinite meaning of the term is actually key to its appeal. Read an excerpt from the piece below, or the full text here.
Today, what economists call the ‘exchange value’ of housing in London, and other cities, has entirely broken the connection with its ‘use value’; exchange value is the price of a commodity sold on the market while its use value is its usefulness to people. When it comes to housing, prices are failing to respond to the needs of most people, allowing the influx of global capital, often from highly dubious sources, to utterly distort the market and creating a crisis of affordability affecting all layers of society.
Lefebvre’s conception of the Right to the City was based around the everyday experience of people inhabiting the city, emphasising use value over exchange value. He believed that city space is contested and the struggle for social, political and economic rights is played out in urban space. Today, in almost every city in the world, the property rights of owners trump the use rights of inhabitants and exchange value, which views the spaces of the city primarily as places for investment, is dominant. In this context, the Right to the City becomes a struggle to increase the rights of the inhabitants the city against the property rights of owners and this is undoubtedly why so many politicians are wary of the term.