If our future is in cities, says Dinyar Godrej, then people of every class and every kind must have a right to them.
I was born in a city and have lived in others. Sometimes it was my choice, sometimes it was necessary. When I was younger, I wanted to live in London. My friends left London because they hated the rat race. I liked all its different cultures, its green parks, its entertainments of all kinds, and at night its clubs. But it was only a dream because I didn’t want to live in a small room like a cupboard.
Most of all I love how busy cities are. I like watching busy people. I feel safe and far away from what they are doing but I also feel part of that. Cities can make you feel part of something bigger, even when people are often isolated.
I understand that my idea of the city is about finding a space, a place to live in and work in. Then I can enjoy some of the good things the city offers. The city is a place of opportunity and greater social freedom but for many people it is too expensive.
A boy goes to school and walks past shacks in the place he calls home, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Credit: GMB AKASH/PANOS PICTURES
Around the world, every week three million people arrive in cities to try to make their lives better and more than half of all people live in cities already. A lot this migration to the city is in the Global South and most are moving to cities of fewer than a million people. In the past 30 years, nearly 500 million people in China moved and changed a mostly rural country to one that is now 60 per cent urban.
Not all of these people wanted to move to find opportunities. Many moved because of a global economic model that does not value peasant agriculture and takes away the land for mining. These are the people who need the safety of the city most. But because they arrive with no connections and no support, it is easy to exploit them.
If, today, we ask the question: ‘Who is the city for?’, the answer is not easy to accept. The city is not a right for everyone. The modern city is more and more a place for money and capital and of class struggle. It is for the rich, for developers who are building and changing the urban environment and segregating city populations, usually with the agreement of governments. Or the modern city is for people who want to live in the rich areas and to keep all others out.
The unwanted people
The worst example of this power play is the treatment of those who people see as unwanted or in the way. Nearly a quarter of the world’s population lives in crowded informal settlements or slums often without water or sanitation and with the risk of eviction. Leilani Farha is the UN’s Special Rapporteur on housing. She writes, ‘The world now accepts what we should never accept.’ They live in the smallest amount of land per person, they have very few or none of the city’s amenities, and they use the least resources. Often the best they can hope for is for people to leave them alone – in other words, neglect them. But people still see them as unwanted, and the places where they live as terrible to look at.
In Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, suddenly they are demolishing big settlements. They are tearing down homes where people were born and lived all of their lives. Why? Because the city is the diplomatic centre and it needs to look attractive to investors. So the way the city looks is more important than its people. There are plans for at least four luxury complexes.
It is the same story in Legetafo Legedadi, 11 kilometres northeast of the Addis Ababa, where they are demolishing thousands of homes as ‘illegal’ settlements, and many of the people living in them have paid taxes. City Hall plans to build parks instead and open the area for investment. Of course, building settlements shows very resourceful people who are in the most difficult situation. It shows individuals, families, and communities claiming their place and their right to housing.
In time, these citizens will do all they can to improve their situation. Orangi Town in Karachi, Pakistan, with a population of about 2.4 million, is the world’s biggest informal settlement. The government introduced a system here, which meant homes were more secure but sanitation was still a problem. But the community had already built better homes, schools, and secure water supplies, and so they organized sewerage themselves. They used their own money ($1.26 million) and labour to bring better sanitation to more than 90 per cent of Orangi Town’s 8,000 streets. But these actions have limits because the government shows no interest. The Karachi government have not provided the secondary sewerage support.
Number 11 of the Sustainable Development Goals asks countries to ‘upgrade slums’ by 2030 and to make sure everyone has ‘adequate, safe, and affordable housing’. But things change slowly or not at all. Demolitions and evictions continue, upgrading often comes with impossible increases in rent, ‘resettlement’ means vulnerable communities moving far away from where they can earn money to live. In these difficult situations, communities don’t give up without a fight. They return and build again and again. For example, in Manila, most shopping malls are in spaces where thousands of people once lived. They keep records, they collect data to support their right to stay. They go to the law courts and sometimes they win.
In Johannesburg, the Slovo Park community challenged the city’s decision to move them 11 kilometres away. They changed the decision so that the upgrading was in the place where they already lived. And in Delhi, in March 2019, the High Court said that people who live in slums have a right to the city. This was after a demolition in which a six-month-old baby was killed.
Cities have always been places of wealth, but today more than before, cities are places that give the rich what they want and not what many of the population need.
An example is Dubai. Money from oil changed it from a sleepy town just 30 years ago to what it is today. When Dubai began to grow, the super-rich from around the world wanted some of the action. Today it has the world’s tallest building, luxury shopping malls for rich international shoppers, and an indoor ski resort with a mountain at freezing temperatures in the middle of a hot desert. Its many buildings are often so tall that the top floors are too high to let because it takes too long to reach them or the spaces in them are too small. Of the city’s 3.1 million population, nearly 90 per cent are from other countries. Most are poor migrant workers working on construction. They work like slaves in very bad conditions and they don’t have the right to visit the buildings they have built.
Dividing cities into areas by wealth destroys the idea of an open city. But it is now worse. With the neoliberalism in the 1980s there was destruction of public ownership. Business started to influence planning and in cities that had social housing authorities began to sell it and neglect it.
At the same time housing began to lose its social value, and more and more it was something for the rich to control. Around the world, cities began to build luxury developments and took away the spaces that new people arriving needed. Property became a safe place for big money. This only helped the rich. People in cities with the most expensive property said they were less happy than those from less expensive cities.
A study shows how with two very different mayors in New York – Michael Bloomberg, wealthy and neoliberal, and Bill de Blasio, supporter of workers’ rights – the problems of finding social housing has not changed at all. Both mayors allowed luxury developments to pay for social housing. But as they built luxury apartments, the rents went up in so-called affordable housing.
In London builders of private developments must also build affordable housing. They have built about 11,000 homes in this way every year since 2000. Poorer people live next to the rich but they live separately. Sometimes rents are not affordable. Some housing is 60 per cent cheaper, which in London is still very expensive. And waiting lists for social housing are growing.
Nearly 45 per cent of the population depends on flats in public housing estates, such as the one in the picture. But waiting times are longer than five years. Credit: RIDS/UNSPLASH
In the US 20 million live in housing poverty. After rent they don’t have enough money for food, medical expenses, and other basic needs. People are starting groups in many cities asking for government action. Millions of families are evicted each year. The problem is worse because 27 US states have laws stopping cities from bringing in rent control and other ways of protecting tenants.
In Berlin 85 per cent of people rent their homes. 40,000 took to the streets asking authorities to take properties from big corporate landlords and to turn them into social housing. They are protesting against landlords that own more than 3,000 properties. The biggest landlord, Deutsche Wohnen, has about 115,000. Rents have more than doubled over the last ten years as new people have moved into Berlin. The authorities are worried about the big amounts of money that they would need to pay to the landlords in compensation. The protesters are angry because they feel that landlords need no compensation.
When politicians do nothing to help the situation, then we have certain inequality. If our future is in cities, then people of every class and every kind must have a right to them.
Often the energy for change comes from communities. For example, in Jackson, the capital of Mississippi state, there is a group called Cooperation Jackson mostly of black and Latino working-class people with high unemployment. The group is trying to build its own anti-capitalist economy. Their plan is: to build democracy through people’s assemblies; to build an economy through co-operatives; and to get political candidates elected for the city.
Kali Akuno helped to start the group and he says only no imagination can stop them. They have cafes, catering co-operatives, and freedom farms, where there is no fresh food and where many don’t have a car to drive to the closest supermarket. They now own all their properties and use only recycled materials to improve them.
In Cochabamba, Bolivia, in a place where teachers live, called San Pedro Magesterio, the people built their own church, school, roads and, water supply because, as one resident said, ‘the state thinks we don’t exist’. They also built a waste-water plant.
In Barcelona, Ada Colau, a mayor for four years until May 2019, balanced social justice and local tourism. Colau and her team brought back a lot of services into public hands They stopped evictions, increased social housing, and worked to stop Airbnb taking away housing. They defended immigrants’ rights, they supported feminism, and involved people in decision-making through people’s assemblies. The new mayor won because he supported Catalan independence. And so nationalism stopped the growth of open cities.
In 2014, the Turkish Parliament changed the law to allow landlords to eject tenants of 10 years or more without a reason. REUTERS/Murad Sezer
Cities of the future
When we think about the future of the city, and the city of the future, we consider growing populations, environmental problems, sustainability, and how planning and technology could solve urban problems. But it is class, governance, and power that affect cities more.
Predictions of future populations can be very wrong. People start having fewer children when they live in a city. In Rotterdam, where I live, I am surprised to learn that nearly three-quarters of households have no children. Then we cannot be sure how climate violence in the future may affect populations.
Cities could offer big improvements, if we can learn to live more happily and closer to each other in streets ruled by pedestrians, cyclists, and public transport, and not the private car. And if we can build the governance to support communities of sharing.
When we think about planning for a happier city, the rich will no doubt want gated communities. ‘People want unjust things’, as the urbanist Richard Sennett says. But if we want ideas that work for more than just that very small rich population, we need to look at an end to big, tall buildings and the crazy separation of people. We need to look at more creative housing that allows streets that invite people to stop and talk, to make city life more meaningful. For this we all need an equal right to the city.
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(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)