Urban Planning ǀ Critical Zone — Friday

“The time of the urban revolution is beginning,” wrote the French philosopher and Marxist Henri Lefebvre in 1970. Just two years after Paris in May ’68, this forecast turned out to be premature. But now things are fermenting again in the cities of the world. New movements are attacking neoliberal capitalism on the urban terrain. In New York, Istanbul, Durban, Hamburg and Vienna, they are looking for the “right to the city” and are thus associated with Lefebvre’s book. Le droit a la ville from 1968, which was finally published in German. (below freitag.de/lefebvre a review can be read.) “The time is ripe for this book,” says Hamburg-based artist and activist Christoph Schäfer in the foreword. Lefebvre’s reflections on the city are unexpectedly current – and offer a starting point for a new left-wing blueprint for society. Five theses:

1 The urbanization of society has reached a critical zone.

A city is more than the sum of its buildings. According to Lefebvre, it is an expression of the social order. Thus, the political city of antiquity manifested itself as a center of power. In the trading city of the Middle Ages, it was the site of the new market economy. As an industrial city, it became a “collective traffic order” that organizes the flow of raw materials, goods and workers. Lefebvre’s analysis is shaped by Fordism and its settlements, suburbs and factories, but he also noted: “In city centers, offices are replacing apartments.” Industrialized nations were thus approaching a “critical zone.” At that time Lefebvre could only guess at their outlines.

Today we know: Fordism has given way to a post-industrial service economy, characterized by a “game between people” (Daniel Bell) – people who have to throw themselves into the market and often enough slip into insecurity. For the lucky few globalization, on the other hand, leads to absurd cultural palaces à la Elbphilharmonie and oversized, clean empty neighborhoods like Frankfurt’s Europaviertel. A gradual refeudalization of society is underway, which is also reflected in urban development.

Any political analysis of today’s capitalism must start from this “critical zone”. The city is the space where capitalism is being replaced – or not being replaced at all.

2 Residents must go from being extras to reinventing the city.

“Urban reality is being rediscovered,” Lefebvre wrote—above all, “it is being reinvented.” Modern cities are no longer places of material production or life. No, the urban core becomes “a high-quality consumption product for foreigners, tourists, people from the periphery, suburbanites.” It survives because of this dual role of place of consumption and consumption of place.”

This development is now in overdrive. Cities today compete with each other as brands, relying on their historically inherited substance, palaces, squares, parks that attract the sinister “creative class” (Richard Florida). Residents mutate into extras in a Disneyfied city, such as when entire neighborhoods are redesigned into entertainment districts. What dubs “gentrification” is simply segregation in the capitalist real estate market. Rental brakes help as little as calls to politicians. That’s capitalism, dumbass.

The road must lead from the “critical zone”: to the free city, where everyone has the same right to the same.

3 The goal could be urban libertarian communism.

Lefebvre knew what Karl Polanyi had said earlier A big transformation he has already established that the urbanization of society is irreversible. It now comprises the majority of the world’s population. When Lefebvre first proclaimed the “right to the city” in 1968, he rejected all romantic notions: “The right to the city (…) can only be expressed as the right to urban life in a transformed, renewed form.” gave answers to questions that every political agenda – even today – must ask. For example: Who should decide? Lefebvre established self-government (generalized autogestation) whose design encompasses the whole of everyday life. Residents have not only the right to housing, but also the right to appropriation.

This means nothing less than urban libertarian communism: city dwellers self-govern in councils and assemblies, land ownership is socialized – it cannot be traded on the market. Some regions of the world are already approaching this: in the western Kurdish city of Rojava, in Consejos Comunales in Venezuela or Juntas Vecinales in El Alto, Bolivia, people determine their own affairs to an extent that Europeans can only dream of for the time being.

4 Manufacturing must return to the city.

In the “critical zone”, the means of production, technical knowledge and class consciousness have largely evaporated. The flow of goods comes to the city from distant industrial areas and offshore zones. Lefebvre did not experience this development – it never occurred to him to ask for the “right to work”. But: He propagated the right to work as a “participatory activity”: creating things together as use value, not as exchange value.

This approach, borrowed from art, is now being followed by a global movement that has rediscovered manufacturing in the city. She builds her own machines, opens workshops for communities, shares her technical knowledge over the Internet. Their places are still a splash in the post-industrial city. And yet there are signs of a new way of production. It’s not luxury, it’s not DIY as a hobby. Instead, the ability to self-produce is necessary when an urbanized society becomes complicit in global exploitation maquiladoras (assembly companies) wants to leave behind.

5 Migration shows: the right to the city knows no borders.

The new migration, which has reached its peak these days, is the ultimate attack on the self-image of the neoliberal city. People who have fled war and poverty bring nothing with them that can be immediately capitalized. For them, the city in the north is a place of hope, a promise of a good life that was impossible for them in the post-colonial societies of the south. The neoliberal city corresponds to an “emergency urbanism” that seeks to manage newcomers in camps, keep them away from the city, and eventually deport them again. Hamburg network Rechtaufstadt.net dissected that approach in a ten-point paper: Since decent housing means nothing to the neoliberal city, it has reduced social housing construction to almost zero—and now it’s overstretched.

Thousands of people therefore started to help the refugees: they open up the urban space for the newcomers, and also occupy the empty places. The right to the city applies to everyone, and includes: the right to centrality. The center of a free city should not be a center of power, it is a place of “meeting and exchange” (Lefebvre), where people live together. Claiming the right to centrality raises the issue of power. Right-wing populists and the executive will defend the status quo. The right to the city movement could crush it if it became a mass movement. On those who have yet to decide to opt for movements – or barbarism.

Right to the city Henri Lefebvre Birgit Altthaler (translation) Nautilus 2016, 224 pp., €18

Niels Boeing is a freelance author and is active in the movement for the right to the city. The band was last announced by him Are you kidding? Are you serious when you say that? Reflections on the free city of the future Nautilus 2015, 160 pages, €14.90

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