I appear to be emerging from a particularly long period of hibernation, thinking, planning, and applications. And it seems to have been triggered by an article in The Guardian and the fact that today is Bicycle Day.
First, this article (click here). I find that, by and large, The Guardian write well on cities. From architecture to policy, social trends to histories, they tend to do a decent job. Of particular note is their recent series on The Story of Cities, which is well worth exploring. But this particular article on The Right to the City caught my eye. For the best part of two years, the concept of the right to the city has formed the springboard for my thinking and writing, particularly in my MA work. In particular I have focused on acts of protest and the means of repurposing and (re)appropriating both public and private urban space, with a keen eye on the global events of Occupy and the Arab Spring. Satisfyingly, this is where the article starts:
‘On a grey and drizzly April morning just steps away from the University of Barcelona, dozens of men and women, holding protest banners and wearing slogan-emblazoned T-shirts, stormed into a branch of CatalunyaCaixa bank, chanting “We will never be defeated!”
Within a matter of minutes, the floor was scattered with paper, the walls plastered in posters and stickers. The room was charged with the anger and joy of protest. Bank employees sat sheepishly in a corner, as the protesters continued to sing and shout; police stood across the street, watching.‘
The article continues by drawing attention to a variety of protest groups, including London’s own Focus E15, a group of mothers who occupied their social housing, resisting eviction for a presumed ‘regeneration’ scheme.
While this is all very interesting, and it is good to see the idea of the right to the city being applied to small and large scale protest groups, I can’t help but feel that something is missing in the article’s analysis, and in its use of the term ‘the right to the city’. The writer focuses–again, quite correctly–on the idea of cities being more “exclusive” and that these protests are focused on making the city more “inclusive”, leading to the conclusion that the right to the city is achieved with “better involvement of citizens in urban development”. So far, so okay.
But what I feel is missing here is the analysis of the protest movement as a performance in, and of a desired, spatial organisation. One can read the protest of the Focus E15 group as a performance of neighbourhood solidarity in the face of the eradication of communities in favour of luxury flats, and their resultant social and communal isolation (note, if you haven’t seen Ben Wheatley’s High Rise yet, do so immediately). This idea of performance is, I believe, a key element in the production of space. Significantly, the fact that reference to performance/production of space is missing from this article goes along with the wholesale omission of Henri Lefebvre in favour of David Harvey’s interpretation of the right to the city. This in itself isn’t a bad thing. I’ve always used (and shifted the order of) Harvey’s own interpretation of the right to the city as put forward in New Left Review 53, September-October 2008: ‘it is a right to change ourselves by changing our city.’ In light of the performance of protest and the resultant production of space/spatial organisation, I favour the reversal of this statement: the right to change our city by changing ourselves.
The Guardian article seems to skim over possibilities other than entering into extant civil structures in order to enact this change. The focus on local and municipal governments reaching out to communities in order to take suggestions seems weak-willed, almost placatory:
‘more than 30,000 ideas from citizens have been gathered, and later this year the public will vote on which scheme they want to be taken forward. It’s the biggest participation project ever in Madrid.‘
The biggest participatory project ever in Madrid will result in a single scheme being taken forward. If this is to be the result of state-sanctioned participation in the right to the city, why not explore other options? Instead of entering into municipal structure, why not maintain a spirit of resistance and an outsider status? After all, thirty thousand suggestions resulting in a single change is hardly exercising the ability to change ourselves by changing a single part of the city’s dominant power structure. Why not, then, change our city by changing ourselves, rather than the other way round. The performance of a desired space–dissonant, unsanctioned improvisations within the sanctioned, tolerated, and orchestrated structure of the city–changes our self by changing the way we interact with extant and potential new structures. In so doing and documenting these changes, we present a new means of interacting with the city; a new artefact to relate to and live in. A transmissible paradigm of urban living, and a right to the city that has been fought for, rather than given.
In a particularly participatory way, one can take examples from Albert Hoffman who, today in 1943, took the first intentional dose of LSD and changed the way he saw Basel. The use of drugs functions as a means of generating and/or sustaining a performance of desired space. The ability to chemically change your perception of and relation to one’s surroundings is in itself a subversion of those structures. It became, and remains, an unsanctioned, even deviant, improvisation within sanctioned space, and just one of many tools in the spatial performance tool box.
Happy Bicycle Day, everyone!