The End of the Right to the City: A Radical-Cooperative View

By Caleb Althorpe (Western University) and Martin Horak (Western University)

Social and material conditions in cities around the world are deeply unjust. Increasing material inequalities, social exclusion, hierarchy and domination face urban inhabitants in many settings. In response to these realities, the ‘right to the city’ (RTTC) has become a concept that is widely used by those who seek to build more just and inclusive cities. The RTTC frames the goals of urban advocacy groups around the world, the policy objectives of international organizations, and even makes an appearance in a piece of national legislation in Brazil.

However, many urban scholars are increasingly pessimistic about the RTTC’s potential as an idea that can effectively underpin the pursuit of urban social justice and social transformation. The RTTC, they note, consistently loses its critical edge once it gets deployed on the ground. Too often, the concept is co-opted to re-legitimize the status quo, deployed as a slogan for isolated movements or used to protect the interests of the relatively privileged. Given this uninspiring track record, these critics argue that those who are interested in addressing urban injustice should move on from the RTTC and find a concept that has more practical promise.

In this conceptual paper, we push back against this skepticism. We argue that there is latent unrealized power in the RTTC, and that we can access this power by emphasizing the positive vision of a transformed urban future that is embedded in the RTTC.  Such a positive account, which we call the ‘radical-cooperative’ view of the RTTC, focuses on the potential of cities as spaces of social cooperation and solidarity across difference, a focus that is usually missing in the contemporary uses of the concept. The radical-cooperative view that we develop emphasizes the potential of cites as spaces where inhabitants can meet their needs – both material and social – through self-governed cooperation, encounter, and collective action.

The radical-cooperative RTTC puts forward a vision of a very different kind of urban society than that experienced by inhabitants in the cities of today, where the opportunity for cooperative relations is often stifled by market relations and government policies that privilege them. Nonetheless, small-scale practices of cooperation, ranging from informal help among neighbors to cooperative gardening and housing, are common even in today’s cities. Building on this evidence, we argue that urban spaces – defined by the overlap of social difference and physical closeness – can be a fertile ground for complex cooperation across difference among inhabitants. The positive vision of transformed social relations that is embedded in the concept of RTTC has deep empirical roots in the lived experiences of the cities of today. This, we argue, makes the radical-cooperative RTTC a powerful and practical foundation for motivating a radical urban politics that aims to enable transformative change.

We argue that a key part of realizing the radical-cooperative RTTC is to transform, through bottom-up practice, the current small-scale instances of cooperation into more stable and widespread patterns of self-managed cooperation, where urban inhabitants recognize and value each other as co-participants in the collective project of urban life. And for us, the only way such cooperative urban relations could expand beyond the margins of society and form an effective counterbalance to the competition and exclusion in cities, is if they are supported by the power of the state. As a result, we argue that although the RTTC can only be grown through bottom-up action, a (redeployed) state is a crucial in allowing this to occur.

To support the RTTC as we conceptualize it, governments must prioritize policies that aim to expand and diversify spaces (e.g. open access spaces, public transit, etc.) and sectors (e.g. localized economies, support for co-ops, etc.) of urban life that are de-coupled from global capitalism, and that encourage and enable a multitude of cooperative practices to flourish. We also argue that while local governments are important, local action is not sufficient, and state support for a radical-cooperative RTTC can only be effective when it occurs across all scales.

We hope that this conceptual paper, and the normative argument it advances, will convince scholars and activists concerned with urban injustice that the radical-cooperative RTTC, with the positive vision of urban society it advances, can play an integral part in grounding a transformative urban politics. As a theoretical piece our paper was naturally limited to a certain level of generality, but one area of future research that we believe would be fruitful involves empirical work in different cities around the world to examine policies and strategies that already exist which aim to support self-managed cooperation among urban inhabitants.

Read the open access UAR article here.

Photo by Ismael Paramo on Unsplash

Author Biographies

Caleb Althorpe is a PhD candidate in political science at Western University. He specializes in political theory and his work focuses on liberal egalitarian theories of justice, work and the division of labor, and the overlap between normative political theory and urban theory.

Martin Horak is an associate professor of political science at Western University. His work focuses on multilevel governance, urban policy processes, and the micro-social foundations of political life in cities. He is the author and co-author of several books; his work has also appeared in venues such as Urban Research & Practice and Europe-Asia Studies.