Do We Have a Right to the City?

Mexico City's experience shows that you can’t establish a “right to the city” without taking on the power of capital.

Mexico City in 2014. PopJuice / Flickr

The right to the city is like a cry and a demand,” Henri Lefebvre wrote in 1967. “A transformed and renewed right to urban life.”

This is a cry and demand today heard worldwide. From a slogan among Situationists in 1968 to the central theme of the United Nations Habitat II conference three decades later, the “right to the city” has grown into a global catchphrase, tossed around by activists and policymakers alike. Its appeal is intuitive, its meaning elastic. “A dignified and secure existence in cities,” according to the UN. “A right to change ourselves by changing the city,” according to David Harvey.

Mexico City is one of the only places in the world where the effort to implement the right to the city is underway. In 2010, the Mexico City government passed the Right to the City charter, an ostensibly radical vision for the city’s future.

Building on the UN World Charter on the Right to the City, the legislation sets out core principles of urban governance — sustainability, democracy, equity, and social justice — and enshrines a diverse set of rights for urban residents. As former Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard described back in 2010, the charter is “the document with the most ambitious goals of what the city should be.”

Yet the charter remains a wish list. The housing market continues to marginalize low-income residents, pushed toward the periphery of the city. In that vast peripheral zone, informal settlements continue to proliferate, now housing over 50 percent of the city’s population and lacking access to key municipal services like water and electricity. Against the charter’s radical vision of a just and equitable city, Mexico City is still defined by segregation and inequality.

How can we explain the persistent distance between the aspirations of the Mexico City charter and the city’s reality on the ground?

The answer has two parts. The first is simple: while new welfare programs introduced under the charter have provided necessary funds to the poor, they have been financially insufficient. The second, however, reflects a more fundamental limitation of the Mexico City approach: that through these programs, the city has reified the role of the market in the urban development process. Lost is the collective project of the right to the city and the prospects for its implementation.

Separate and Unequal

Mexico City in a snapshot: vast — seemingly endless — urban sprawl. The Metropolitan Zone contains over 22 million people, spilling out from the Federal District into the neighboring states of Mexico and Hidalgo. In total, over fifty delegations (read: boroughs) and municipalities form a complex patchwork of settlement types and governance zones.

With a few important exceptions, the city is defined by two gradients. The first is income. The central delegation of Cuauhtémoc — along with the elite suburbs next door in Miguel Hidalgo — house the bulk of the city’s wealthy. Parks, museums, skyscrapers, and luxury condominiums spread across these central neighborhoods. The periphery, by contrast, houses the bulk of the city’s colonias populares, slum-like clusters of single-story cinderblock houses auto-constructed by residents themselves.

The second gradient is formality. While in the center of the city it is the municipalities that provide services like water, electricity, and public transport, in the colonias populares these services have historically been available only on an informal basis, often pirated or semi-legal, cobbled together piece by piece. Much of this urban periphery grew out of the Mexican miracle of the 1940s and 1950s, when an influx of rural Mexicans pursuing economic opportunity built settlements outside the reach of municipal infrastructure.

Residents of the irregular colonias have been forced to rely not only on informal modes of construction and employment, but also on informal modes of governance. Since they have not been accorded regular legal status, the settlements are not legally entitled to welfare resources from the Mexican government. To procure the resources they need, residents have depended on bottom-up mobilization to construct infrastructure, make community improvements, and acquire basic services like water and electricity.

In addition, hundreds of local groups like the Frente Popular Francisco Villa (FPFV) and the Unión Popular Revolucionario Emiliano Zapata (UPREZ) have emerged in peripheral zones over the last several decades to organize low-income residents and to cajole the municipalities to provide services.

In short, the right to Mexico City has always been highly unequal. The wealthy have had more access, more mobility, more opportunity, and more safety — and it is their needs that dictate urban development. Megaprojects like the interstate highway Supervía Poniente, for example, have bulldozed colonias populares to ease the commuting pains of car owners. Redevelopment projects in the city center have put immense pressure on the real-estate market, further displacing low-income residents to the city’s exterior.

A New Movement

It is in this context that the right to the city movement sprung up — a push from below for the state to recognize inequality, redistribute welfare, and reshape the city to benefit the poor.

Over the course of a decade, a collection of citizen groups that organize the city’s marginalized residents — known as the Movimiento Urbano Popular–Congreso Nacional Democrático (MUP-CND) — agitated for the charter. They launched protests, formed a partnership with NGOs like the Habitat International Coalition, and together began to draft legislation that would promote a new vision for the city.

In July 2010, the city government relented. Representing the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), Mayor Marcelo Ebrard was eager to show off his commitment to the city’s poor. His administration organized a signing ceremony and invited members of the MUP-CND to deliver speeches before the large auditorium.

“Welcome to this turning point in the history of our city,” Jaime Rello, a prominent activist in the right to the city movement, announced at the signing ceremony. “The Mexico City Charter for the Right to the City, without a doubt, is the clearest instrument to continue our long-awaited dream . . . a city of rights for everyone. There is no turning back.”

Ebrard’s government, for its part, initiated a number of programs to move toward that long-awaited dream.

The Programa Comunitario de Mejorameinto Barrial, or Community Neighborhood Improvement Program, for example, seeks to “boost the exercise of the right to the city on the part of all of the residents of Mexico City.” This year, the government will invest over 100 million pesos — or $6 million — on 208 projects around the city. The projects — which include libraries, cultural centers, public parks, and plazas — will receive up to $30,000, as well as technical assistance from the state.

The Programa de Mejoramiento de Vivienda, or Housing Improvement Program, is an even broader welfare initative. It looks to “facilitate the development of communities and their habitat on the basis of the right to the city and the right to housing.”

Run by the city’s Housing Institute (INVI), they offer small, short-term loans to local residents to improve their own housing. According to Edna Vega, former director of the INVI, in the first ten years of the program they distributed over one hundred thousand loans to Mexico City residents — the bulk of the INVI’s efforts.

Both of these improvement schemes emerged in the push for the Right to the City charter. By 2010, when the charter was signed, the schemes had directed more than $30 million to over 530 local improvement efforts. Since then, both programs have incorporated the charter’s language into their mission statements and expanded their reach into the city’s low-income settlements.

In many ways, these programs empower Mexico City’s low-income community organizations. The groups serve as the key intermediaries between citizens and the state. The funding for the city’s improvement schemes moves almost exclusively through these organizations, which then distribute funding to their members and oversee the progress of the community projects. Indeed, UPREZ was one of the key architects of the housing improvement program in the late 1990s.

“The [INVI’s] programs are the ones that are taking forward the charter,” says Zabad Eliu, a leader of the MUP-CND. According to Eliu, by distributing resources directly to low-income groups, the city allows them to decide democratically how they want to design their houses and shape their neighborhoods. Unlike massive public housing projects, they claim, these neighborhood efforts put power in citizens’ hands. “For us to implement the right to the city, the key will be to continue to boost these public programs that support the poor.”

This model of urbanism has become popular among some right to the city advocates. In Insurgent Citizenship, a staple of urban justice syllabi, James Holston depicts these bottom-up efforts as the key avenue through which disenfranchised residents pursue their right to the city.

For Holston, the auto-constructed settlements on the urban periphery are “strategic arenas for the development of new formulations of citizenship.” The Mexico City model — like the Brazilian one Holston examines — appears to support the construction of “an alternative public sphere, one based on residents’ own grassroots organizations through which they articulated their needs.”

Journalist Robert Neuwirth, in his Shadow Cities, further exalts the informal action of the urban periphery. He claims that “the world’s squatters give some reality to Henri Lefebvre’s loose concept of the ‘right to the city.’” For Neuwirth, squatting — or “irregularity,” in Mexico’s vocabulary — “is an assertion of being in a world that routinely denies people the dignity and the validity inherent in a home.”

In the case of Mexico, the work of a number of community organizations is, in fact, radical. These groups have, in many cases, successfully partnered with the state to deliver housing to the city’s low-income residents and band them together as a strong neighborhood unit.

Indeed, despite their material deficiencies, these colonies are often some of the city’s most politically engaged. Local organizations convene community meetings to discuss community needs. Residents participate in collective work councils. And organizations often push members to attend marches and demonstrations against state violence and corruption.

These residents are learning about the right to the city, and through its improvement schemes, the state hopes to provide the resources for them to realize it.

The Limits of Localism

Yet while these local efforts advance local citizenship, they have done little to promote a right to the city more broadly. Instead, the Mexican model of welfare funding has ended up strengthening the market forces driving Mexico City away from realizing a right to the city — and toward segregation, marginalization, and inequality.

According to David Harvey, the right to the city is a “collective right rather than an individual right since changing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the process of urbanization.” It is here that the Mexico City approach reveals its limits — and its deep ideological attachment to the market.

Mexico City’s local community organizations and their partners in the state have undoubtedly improved welfare outcomes. Between 1995 and 2010, as the city grew by 450,000 households, the number of homes with drainage and a public water connection increased by approximately 400,000. The census data shows similar patterns for access to electricity, refrigerators, washing machines, and computers. These statistics place Mexico City well above the national average.

Yet the project-based neighborhood model has failed to advance the charter’s collective vision of urban development. In Peter Marcuse’s taxonomy, this model favors “rights in cities” — individual, census-statistical rights — over the “right to the city,” a necessarily communal project. In the pursuit of the former — for basic welfare provision —the more ambitious, more holistic latter is often lost.

Mexico City’s housing improvement schemes illustrate this crucial distinction. For one, the budget for housing programs is simply insufficient. Between 2001 and 2011, the share of the city’s budget devoted to the INVI shrank from over 3 percent to less than 2 percent.

Things have barely improved since the charter’s signing. Applicants still complain of a decade-long waiting list for even a small improvement loan. Housing demand this year is over sixty thousand, concentrated largely “in the population with less than eight times the minimum wage, only 46.2 percent of which is served by the Housing Institute,” says Miriam Saldaña, president of the Legislative Assembly’s housing commission. “The result is that around one million families have been expelled from the city.”

Yet even when it has successfully advanced welfare outcomes, the housing improvement schemes carry heavy political costs. At state agencies like the INVI, the dwindling budget serves as an enticing but tiny carrot dangled in front of hundreds of community organizations. The result is fragmentation. Rather than form alliances, local groups in Mexico City race against each other to affiliate with the politicians in charge of distributing resources.

In the process, many of these groups lose sight of their radical mission. While they remain ideologically left, they’ve become less intent on training, educating, and uniting members and more concerned with herding and accumulating them.

The pursuit of new properties on which to build new settlements occupies much of the rest of their time. The project of raising consciousness — the driving mission of these local groups back in the 1970s and ’80s — has become a mad dash to buy property, find members, and pursue funding from the state.

In other words, despite the best intentions, community organizations in Mexico City serve largely as low-income real-estate developers.

It is little surprise, then, that the real-estate market in Mexico City is burning up. Even while the Housing Institute has offered thousands of housing credits, rising prices in the rental market have displaced thousands more — a process many activists call “death by rent.”

According to a recent study by the London School of Economics, housing prices in the city center have increased by 30 to 50 percent since 2001. Looking at the growth rate data, the displacement effect this has caused is clear: while poor boroughs like Milpa Alta are expanding at a clip of 2 or 3 percent, the wealthiest are posting negative rates. Central neighborhoods like Condesa, Roma, and Polanco are becoming “luxury ghettos,” as activists describe them — off limits to residents of the periphery.

In these luxury ghettos, the power of real-estate capital is ballooning. Consider the example of Norma 26, a government policy supposedly geared toward the “stimulation of social housing production.” As I have written elsewhere, through a toxic mix of bribes and regulatory oversight, private developers used the policy to capture major profits while pushing out low-income residents.

Developers would construct the building using state subsidies, and simply wait until the five-year rent controls had expired to put the property on the market. According to the Mexico City government, over 75 percent of the “social interest” housing did not reach low-income residents.

A right to housing, much less a right to the city, remains elusive.

The “Social Function” of Property?

There are, of course, a variety of policy measures that do directly address problems in the real-estate market. Land banking, for example, offers a powerful way for governments to reserve or preserve land for low-income residents, rather than leaving them to languish on the periphery. Rent controls, anti-speculation laws, tenure rights — cities have tools at their disposal to disrupt the displacement tendencies of the market and weave a more collectively just urban fabric.

In Mexico City, however, these have remained largely off the table — even as the charter moved toward legislation. Despite the best efforts of local community organizations, the broader logic of capital remains intact. And the right to the city — the reclamation of value generated by the urban poor—remains out of reach. “We hope that step by step the charter can change the role of the market,” Eliu says. “But right now it is just trying to make a new type of citizen so that we can pressure and promote new policies.”

Eliu has been working for several years to develop Mexico City’s first cooperatives. Month after month, he returns to the Housing Institute to try to get officials to recognize collective property ownership. But so far, the bureaucracy hasn’t budged. “People have private property just programmed into their head,” he told me in December. “The constitution says that we have a right to self-determination. But the INVI has rules that impede us.”

The attack on collective property is widespread. In the 1930s, President Lázaro Cárdenas — the revolutionary hero of the Mexican left — oversaw the establishment of thousands of ejidos, communal agricultural plots distributed to Mexico’s landless peasants.

In the 1990s, however, amid his neoliberal crusade, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari eliminated the constitutional right to collective property. On the periphery of Mexico City, where ejidos are historically prevalent, communal land has been partitioned, privatized, and placed back on the property market.

In its rejection of Eliu’s cooperative efforts, the INVI merely upholds this legacy. Despite the charter’s insistence on the “social function of the city, of land, of property,” it is the real-estate market that the government today defends most fiercely. The collective right to the city project is substituted for a push for local, individual gains — and subordinated to the needs of capital.

Strategies and Shortcomings

On August 8, local leaders of Mexico’s left-wing Morena party gathered in Solidarity Plaza in downtown Mexico City for a second signing ceremony for the Right to the City charter. Coming five years after the legislation’s enactment, the event marked the recommitment of these freshly elected officials to the charter’s vision and to working with the citizens groups to achieve it. Squinting in the harsh summer heat, a small crowd of activists and Morena supporters applauded as officials moved single file to ink their names to the charter.

“We must do it from below,” Jaime Rello told me. “It is the citizens that must determine their own needs and their own rights.”

For both Rello and the broader organizing committee, the ceremony represented a major step forward in the implementation of the right to the city. These activists recognize the lack of progress the city has made since the passage of the 2010 legislation. They know that, as with so many progressive laws in Mexico — and, despite the endless stream of human rights violations that appear to emanate from it, Mexico has legislated a wide variety of progressive programs and policies over the last two decades — the charter will remain dead letter until grassroots forces push for its revival.

The strategy for the right to the city movement, then, is to poke at the state, politician by politician. Without wholesale buy-in from the administration, the only option left for Rello, Eliu, and the broader social movement has been a piecemeal approach. “The administration has not pushed the charter and the concept of the right,” says Eliu. “There are political parties that are committed to avoiding the charter all together.”

The limits of localism, for these activists, are obvious. “The ideal would be to do it at the city level, in totality,” says Eliu. “But right now we are trying to start with building a new form of community.”

If pragmatic, it’s a strategy with acute shortcomings. Without a radical reconsideration of the market process — without a forceful challenge to capital’s power — neither progressive charters nor legal instruments will produce an equitable and sustainable city.