Towards political urban planning for the right to the city

Charlotte Mathivet, Yves JOUFFE et Claudio PULGAR, 2016

Collection Passerelle

By asserting a right to inhabit the city in its centre, the slums pose an act of resistance to the established order. What if, from places of relegation, they become spaces of emancipation? The authors plead for a political urbanism, the «  invisibles  » becoming producers of the city, instead of a police urbanism that orders and excludes.

Slums are at first sight a hotbed of social and urban dysfunction. In fact, they call for transformations that go beyond them, both of the city and of the society that contains and produces them. The «  right to the city , » a slogan formulated by Henri Lefebvre in 1968 as a collective right to live and build, demands this radical transformation. Numerous social movements have taken up this slogan and are implementing it, particularly in Latin America. It is true that the scale of the favelas contrasts with the few shantytowns in our rich metropolises. But the struggles of the South are changing the way we look at our own working-class neighbourhoods. They show us the way to a city made by all the people who live there. They underline the need for political will, but they also remind us of our collective responsibility.

¡No queremos vivir así, queremos vivir aquí !

Bidonville, slum, villa miseria, población callampa, shanty town 1… In many languages, the word used derives from a term that itself has a very negative connotation. However, most cities were built spontaneously and precariously, without imposed planning. Rural and then immigrant populations wishing to get closer to the potential benefits of the city built it. The «  Right to the City  » (Lefebvre, 1968) refers to the evidence of an ordinary right that is often denied. Urban struggles have allowed its integration into certain laws and constitutions in the form of a set of rights to housing, health, mobility, work, participation in institutions, etc. (Lefebvre, 1968). It remains a unifying slogan for people to regain power over their lives and their cities.

Concentration (that of people, activities, exchanges, wealth and power) defines the city. The desire to live in the centre founds the city as the slum. Amparo García, a community leader in a slum in Puerto Rico, says: «  We don’t want to live like this, we want to live here ! The desire for centrality and proximity to the services and sources of income offered by the city motivates slum dwellers to face very difficult and precarious living conditions. The Brazilian favela is the most striking example, located in the centre of Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo, alongside rich buildings with swimming pools and armed guards. Just like the {gated communities of Mexico City, whose high walls are adjacent to huge slums.

This desire and need for centrality is one of the pillars of the right to the city (World Charter on the Right to the City, 2005). This centrality also refers to the relationships woven within a community, which are vital for its inhabitants: leaving them behind, even for more stable but more distant housing, is a price that few are willing to pay. In Chile, for example, families who have benefited from social housing in a suburban subdivision would prefer to return to their campamento in the city centre, where they have forged very strong ties .

The choice of where to live should not be such a privilege. The shantytown in the heart of the metropolis materializes an alternative to the inequality between centre and periphery, namely a «  differential space  » where territorial projects abound. However, the right to the city is not reduced to the right to live in its centrality, it contains a right to build. In addition to the right of appropriation, there is a right of participation.

Building your city collectively

The inhabitants of French slums, those of yesterday and today, tend to shape new parts of the city despite state repression. The shantytown, if it persists, can then emerge as a political space. From self-construction out of necessity, there is often only one step towards self-management of the territory, as many examples in Latin America show.

Through the Movimiento de pobladores en lucha (Mathivet, Pulgar, 2010), in Santiago de Chile, the inhabitants take the destiny of their living space into their own hands, by setting up housing projects, building schools or drawing up a regulatory plan. They implement the right to the city by participating in the life of their neighbourhood. Harvey asserts that «  The right to the city is not just a right of individual access to the resources embodied by the city : it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city to make it more in line with our most fundamental desires ". (Harvey, 2011). Changing the city means first of all building your house and developing your neighbourhood.



But this way of doing the city is obviously accompanied neither by the power to manage the city nor by the recognition of an autonomous capacity to produce its housing and habitat. On the contrary, the urgency for the State is to destroy the slums before their inhabitants manage to show that they «  do city ". The argument of illegality then hides instituted power relations, particularly visible in the case of colonial cities whose violent foundation is relatively recent.

A mirror of our fears and injustices #

The right to the city is also a call to resistance. And slum dwellers, in particular, are in dire need of building a roof, but also of resisting its destruction. This effort leads them to reclaim the power to make the city, to change it to have a legitimate place in it. Consequently, slums and other marginal spaces are potential territories of counter-power, producers of political alternatives, and not simply places of survival, objects of possible humanitarian interventions. However, this potential is largely neutralized by the fears they awaken and the violence they suffer. The precarious, popular city, made by its inhabitants, remains the majority habitat in the world 2. Why such violence against the makeshift houses that sketch out self-built neighbourhoods? Above all, what does it reveal?

The destruction of precarious places of survival seems all the more cruel as it proves vain and costly and as technical solutions exist. To this cruelty that they suppose to be nested in old prejudices, charitable associations try to oppose the respect of human rights. In vain : forced evictions are accelerating, precisely in the name of the protection of the inhabitants against imminent pseudo-perils !

In addition to political and land interests, the shantytown suffers from the many fears it activates, whether well-founded or not: invasion, poverty, delinquency, epidemics, poor housing, social disintegration… All these fears intersect in the shantytown without it being the main cause. All these fears intersect in the shantytown without it being the main cause. Yet it should be erased as if it were the source of the problems and not their point of convergence. Normalization of the slum will not solve the problems or the fears that arise there. On the contrary, it is the transformation of the city and society that will resolve the suffering concentrated in the slums. The inhabited sheet metal of the slums becomes a banner and claims the right to housing and the city for all city dwellers.

Ordinary violence of the State

The shantytown also reveals the violence of institutions. Their modes of control over the shantytown are only the particular declensions of government mechanisms (Foucault, 2004) that are exerted over the whole society. Slum dwellers are publicly referred to as foreigners, Romanians or Roma, with a radically different way of life from the French. They serve to bring the nation together in the face of difference and threat. Their racialisation makes it possible to expel them as illegal immigrants from the city and the country in which they live - even in violation of national laws and European agreements. The violence of slum clearance in itself reaffirms that a war is being waged against supposed aggressors of the nation. Sharp police surveillance represses the appropriation of land for the crevices of the territory and the informal activities spread throughout the city. These are « illegalisms » insofar as the right of ownership takes precedence over other rights. Yet these informal places facilitate economically necessary and politically justifiable know-how. The squaring of the territory then neutralizes the survival practices of all the precarious inhabitants.

Would the denunciation of repeated evacuations and squaring lead to praise for attempts to adapt social law to the supposed specificities of the inhabitants, through integration villages or the dispersal of communities in the social housing of medium-sized towns? But this application of the law remains a minority in the face of summary evictions, which makes it possible to condition it on proof of potential integration: a clean criminal record, schooling, employment contract, etc. This social sorting creates a new category of poor people who are good to integrate in order to better deny their rights to the bad (Castel, 1999). The latter are expelled while the others are separated from their community base, prevented in their survival practices and placed under control. Urbanizing only for some means evicting others.

These methods of control appear to be exacerbated against slums, but they apply to the entire population. Acknowledging that state violence is pervasive points to new spaces of alliance and action outside the slums to transform them.

Slums, ZADs that ignore each other

Criticism is being voiced against modes of government, resistance is being organised against their violence and alternatives are emerging. The most current form of this is the «  ZAD ", a zone to be defended which is superimposed on the zone of deferred development of large useless and imposed projects, such as the Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport. The ZAD mixes a tactic of territorial occupation with an extraterritorial alliance strategy. It challenges the sovereign capacity of the state to prescribe its territorial development projects and generalizes criticism of the social mechanisms that produce this endless development. The ZAD also shares with the slum a creative light housing and migrations that link it to other places. Despite their obvious differences in populations and objectives, slums could therefore assert themselves as ZADs. By joining forces, by denouncing urban projects and a restrictive state order, their inhabitants, currently racialized as foreigners, squared as delinquents, sorted as marginalized, would move from denial and repression, not only to conditional rights, but to full rights, i.e. political power.

This transformation is already taking place in the mobilization of slum dwellers with the town halls, who then renounce eviction. It is expressed in demands that benefit everyone: the right to housing for all, « equality or nothing », « manifesto for political anti-racism », etc. The demands are also expressed in the form of demands that benefit everyone: « the right to housing for all », « equality or nothing », « manifesto for political anti-racism », etc. The politicization of slums will seem out of reach for some. But it already draws immediate lines of action, towards a precisely « political » urban planning.

Turning our backs on police urbanism

Urban planning has historically been linked to disciplinary logics: from the plan of Hippodamos de Milet in ancient Greece, to current urban renewal projects, as in the planning of new colonial cities by military engineers, in Baron Haussmann’s Parisian plan in the service of urban financial speculation, or in the tabula rasa of modernism.

The planning is then an operation of «  police ", in the sense of Jacques Rancière. « It is an order of the visible and the dicible that makes such activity visible and such activity not visible, that such and such a word is heard as speech and such and such a word as noise. …] The police is not so much a « disciplinarization » of bodies as a rule of their appearance, a configuration of the occupations and properties of the spaces in which these occupations are distributeds  » (Rancière, 1995).

Urban planning «  police officer  » is nourished by the widespread idea of the «  city as a refuge of liberties  » and «  haven of peace ". Formulated in particular by UN Habitat, this idea legitimizes criticism of informal districts as places of urban inequality and leads to their normalization through eradication. In France, the ambition of a pacified city tends to reduce the «  politics of the city  » to a «  police de la ville ". (Garnier, 2012). The latter claims to renovate working-class neighbourhoods, including informal neighbourhoods, in order to merge them with the rest of the city, but its interventions promote their racialization, gridlock and social sorting. The slums are policed spaces, but they are denied being political. That is the challenge.

Spaces of emancipation without, against, from the state

Considering the possibility of such «  political  » urban planning implies unloading the notion of shantytown from the negative connotations that disqualify its inhabitants and attaching it to the idea of potential emancipation. This idea seems to naively ignore their hostile living conditions. In reality, this presupposition of great misery, social marginality and political disorganization proves to be wrong in many precarious neighbourhoods. In the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, on the other hand, it is consumerism that breaks down community ties. On the other hand, social movements fighting for the right to the city show how to overcome the apparent contradiction between emancipation and poverty, which fosters dependence on the State. These movements do not directly call for the implementation of this right, but they do so through concrete actions, using the resources granted by the State (such as the Chile barrio or Favela-bairro slum-building programmes), with a view to empowerment.

Considering the possibility of a «  political  » urban planning implies unloading the notion of slum from the negative connotations that disqualify its inhabitants and attaching it to the idea of potential emancipation.

In Santiago de Chile, the Movimiento de pobladores en lucha (MPL) thus articulates «  fights without the State, through territorial control and self-management, against the State, through direct action to erode the dominant order, and from the State, as an accumulation of anti-systemic forces ". (Renna, 2014). It proposes a complex and autonomous strategy, capable of being on several fronts at the same time, to exceed the demands of the assistant financial specialists. A proposal that finds an echo in other Latin American movements (such as the roofless workers’ movement in Brazil or the piquetero movement in Argentina) that advance «  together with the State, in spite of the State and against the State ". (Lopes de Souza, 2014).

Urban planning, like education, is not progressive or conservative per se. It depends on the actors who produce it. In the shantytown, two moments are articulated. Firstly, self-construction supports a socio-political process independent of the instituted procedures. Popular urban planning can transform spaces of exclusion into territories of emancipation, into spaces of radical political participation - by the very absence of the State. Secondly, the consolidation of the shantytown is based on procedures and institutions. A tension then appears between becoming an autonomous subject and becoming a citizen subject to the law 3. The risk is that the action «  from the State  » (unlike «  without  » or «  against ") becomes a collaboration, turning participation into a political trap. Autonomy and self-management remain essential principles in this type of movement in Latin America.

Political urban planning from the shantytowns

In the design of another planning, from below, with social movements, urban planners can play an intellectual «  backguard  » role, involved in the process, neither guides nor responsible for a « consultation ", but capable of making their knowledge available to these processes.

In different ways, but in the same sense, groups of « neighbourhood architects » can play an intellectual « rear-guard » role, involved in the process, neither guides nor responsible for a « consultation », but capable of making their knowledge available to these processes. (Arquitectos de la comunidad) are working with participatory methodologies in Cuba, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. In France, groups of professionals such as Alternatives pour des projets urbains ici et à l’international - Appuii (e.g. in the social housing district of La Coudraie) or the Pôle d’exploration des ressources urbaines - Perou - dans les bidonvilles 4 support the inhabitants in the face of a process that they do not master, in order to engage with them, even if it means overturning the usual methods, rhythms and objectives. Other urban planning professionals, or even institutions such as the Councils for Architecture, Urban Planning and the Environment5 are more or less similar, the will to empowerment being restrained by institutional dependencies.

This approach also emanates directly from the social movement, which then seeks the skills it needs. The Council of Social Movements of Peñalolén in Chile was thus able to accompany the elaboration of an urban plan by the inhabitants, a tool that enabled it to win the referendum against the official plan of the city council. While these practices are a source of hope, they must be seen in the context of the criminalization of poverty, which is exacerbated in French shantytowns. Two destinies are possible for these marginalized areas, often in the heart of the cities: to remain a place of unbridled institutional violence, or to reveal themselves as a place of collective emancipation.

Urban planners can support the initiatives of the inhabitants without and against the institutions that guarantee urban order and established injustices. They can also act from their institutional positions, maintaining a posture of committed collaboration rather than consultation that serves the powerful.

These various modalities would give concrete expression to a « political » urban planning that allows the « invisible » to become productive subjects of their city. They would finally participate in the right to the city, which is less a right to obtain than a permanent struggle, for a city in which each person is fulfilled by taking a full part in its collective transformation.

1 Used in many countries, the English word slum first refers to a shady street in a poor neighborhood. Villa miseria, literally miserable neighbourhood, is the name of the shantytowns in Argentina. In Chile, poblaciones callampas are popular neighbourhoods that have developed informally by illegally occupying land and growing here and there like mushrooms or mould (callampa). Shanty town literally means slum area.

2 To quote the title of the exhibition from Centre SUD :

3 The case of the Roma is very well studied by Alexandra Clavé-Mercier in her doctoral thesis defended in 2014, «  Des états et des «  roms " : une anthropologie du sujet entre transnationalisme et politiques d’intégration de migrants bulgares en France ".


5 See for example the interest of the Conseil d’architecture, d’urbanisme et d’environnement pour les initiatives habitantes,


  • CASTEL R. ( 1999), Les métamorphoses de la question sociale : une chronique du salariat, coll. Folio, éd. Gallimard, Paris.

  • CHARTE MONDIALE DU DROIT À LA VILLE (2005), Forum Social Mondial, Porto Alegre. Voir http:\\content\Charte_Droits_a_la_ville_2005.pdf

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