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Carouge neighborhood, Geneva, Switzerland (© Matthias Lecoq)

The Right to the City: An Emancipating Concept?

The radical approach formulated by Henri Lefebvre in 1968 criticized the failure to include inhabitants in the production of urban spaces. While the “right to the city” is today widely known and shared concept, Matthias Lecoq looks back on the evolution of this idea and questions its emancipatory potential.

Fifty years after it was defined by Henri Lefebvre (1968), the right to the city remains more relevant than ever. It is nevertheless necessary to update his understanding of the city, which has broadened its spectrum and its production dynamics. The idea of the right to the city cannot be understood unless we call into question the social production of the city. This was the subject of a later work by Lefebvre (La Production de l’espace, 1974, translated into English in 1991 by Donald Nicholson-Smith as The Production of Space): for Lefebvre, the city is the result of the interaction of the dynamics that run through it, and of which its spatial morphology is a consequence. By extension, the possibility of a right to build the city is approached from the angle of power relations, to different degrees—from the power to act collectively to economic and political power.

Lefebvre’s thesis is not legalistic in nature. In formulating the claim of a right to emancipation through the urban, he lays the foundations of a new kind of urban thinking that is intrinsically political. The originality of his approach lies not only in a career built on engagement (including in his manner of discovering the urban context, traveling across Germany on foot or conducting fieldwork in Tuscany) but also in the link he forges between philosophy and the city. The right to the city is a right to inhabit, to appropriate and to freedom—what he calls a right to individualization in socialization. But it is also a right to the œuvre (by which he means participatory activity), which in his view “cannot be conceived as a simple visiting right or as a return to traditional cities; it can only be formulated as a transformed and renewed right to urban life” (Lefebvre 1968, p. 35). He links together the urban place and the cosmos, and offers a context to political life—to the bios politikosin its etymological relationship with the city (polis) and the citizen (polites). In this way, we can understand the idea of the right to the city by suggesting that it affirms the right, for the inhabitant, to become a citizen—that is to say, occupy a role in the city in order to participate in its production.

Lefebvre’s work still represents an essential contribution to rethinking how we make cities and how we live in them together. Taking as his starting point a dialectic between theory and empiricism, he argues that space-producing activities that include inhabitants are the tangible manifestation of the right to the city. The problem, however, lies in clarifying what this inclusion means. The praxis (in the sense of a transformative action) determines its exercise: concrete political action is taken with regard to the production of the city according to different spatial contexts (the space occupied by an urban project, the street, meeting places, as well as digital space via the creation of participatory platforms or via social networks; institutional space via city councils, etc.). By reaffirming the power of praxis in establishing the social relationships that make up the city, Lefebvre proposes to conceive the urban as a field of possibilities for collective action and intelligence. In other words, if the city is not only a built morphology but also, and above all, a set of social dynamics, the enhancement of possibilities for change through collective action reveals the opportunities for transformation that exist in and via the city.

Roles to be played

Lefebvre thus considers the intervention of inhabitants as an essential component of spatial production.

The transformation of society presupposes a collective ownership and management of space founded on the permanent participation of the “interested parties,” with their multiple, varied and even contradictory interests. It thus also presupposes confrontation […]. On the horizon, then, at the furthest edge of the possible, it is a matter of producing the space of the human species—the collective (generic) work of the species—to create (produce) a planet-wide space as the social foundation of a transformed everyday life. [1]

Taking an interest in the production of the city therefore means going beyond the question of its physical construction to look instead at the practices and representations that also define it. While construction is the result of a succession of choices materialized in development plans and public policies historically monopolized by technical and political decision-makers, urban production is a process whose outcome depends on a multitude of actors. It also proceeds from a dialectical relationship between content and container. A city is filled with symbols and activities that interact with the things that regulate and animate it (laws, inhabitants, economic activities, mobility, etc.). It is produced above all by the activity of its inhabitants, which is itself conducted in a certain urban framework. Aside from urban struggles, we can identify three ways in which inhabitants exercise their right to the city. [2]

The first relates to everyday practices: inhabitants produce meaning through their daily activities—through their ordinary use of urban space. This is the case when children play in a public square, when inhabitants walk along a river, or when a group of young people sit on a bench on summer evenings. These uses, with their share of pleasure but also of inconvenience, produce a certain type of neighbourhood, atmosphere and, ultimately, city.

In the second case, that of appropriation, the action stems from a deliberate desire to change the meaning of a space. This oriented and organized spatial practice, without necessarily being linked to everyday life, has a direct influence on what a city is or could be. Tactical urban planning (improvised bicycle paths, temporary occupation of wasteland or diverted uses of street furniture) is the best illustration of this: inhabitants take the initiative to modify their urban context—increasingly with the complicity of institutions—but they do so mainly on the margins.

Lastly, inhabitants can organize or join participatory processes. Within this framework, they can participate in institutional initiatives, where they are usually asked for their opinions on development projects, or they may prefer self-organized processes by civil society, which then set themselves up as counter-projects. In both cases, these processes disrupt the traditional engineering of urban production. First, because this participation takes time: it is necessary to inform, understand, listen, speak, and deliberate. This process slows down urban production by making it more complex. Second, participation requires space, because new places of participation must be opened up that are legally accessible to the entire population. Thus, in addition to traditional public meetings, institutions organize participatory bodies, workshops, urban itineraries or digital processes that call for social networks and collaborative platforms; all these are different spaces for the exercise of the inhabitants’ right to the city.

The exercise of the right to the city occurs via these three roles. This right cannot be granted, but only claimed in order possibly to be realized. From Lefebvre’s point of view, the right to the city cannot be guaranteed by institutions because its exercise requires a statement and an action. The right to the city is claimed, stated, and then realized. If a political context of emancipation proves fertile ground for this, it meets the same requirements of action and statement, and thus calls for political skills. This virtuous circle can be facilitated by the presence of third parties, by training, or by the transparency of the production mechanisms controlled by the institutions. But what then remains of inhabitants’ initiative, which is central to Lefebvre?

From right to duty

The right to the city, like citizenship, needs a framework in order to be expressed. This framework is composed of several layers: an accumulation of interlocking spaces that make it fundamentally political (Debarbieux 2014). The exercise of the right to the city entails action on the one hand—that is, citizen acts of construction and reflection (participation in meetings, installation of furniture, gardening, etc.)—and on the other a collective reference that will validate and enrich the process of acquiring citizenship. This is what Joan Subirats (2011) calls the political co-production of citizenship: the individual forges links with others, experiencing co‑responsibility and solidarity. The author proposes a new conception of citizenship based on its exercise:

a concept of citizenship founded on the values of equal opportunities, solidarity, democracy, and personal autonomy. A citizenship that can only grow and be consolidated through its own exercise. A citizenship that can no longer be a simple receptacle or container of recognized rights, but must become a permanent exercise of joint responsibility and social solidarity in the face of shared problems. (Subirats 2011, p. 86). [3]

This view of the praxis of citizenship in relation to the question of the production of the city focuses on the processes of creating new citizen spaces of expression, and values everyday acts in their relation to space. Citizens are no longer inhabitants who consume (housing, transport, services) but inhabitants who act through their practices.

This everyday action no longer defines the city exclusively as a right, but also as a duty. In recent years, economic and political liberalization, as well as growing awareness of major environmental issues, have shifted the responsibility for urban policies to city dwellers. While the rise of participatory urban planning systems is to be welcomed, we should at the same time question the limits of the injunctions that also target city dwellers. Ultimately, the city is the result of our involvement and choices, of our ability to call ourselves into question as an urban society. More than ever, the right to the city must make way for thinking that considers those duties that are shared by inhabitants, politicians, and architecture and urban-planning professionals. The right to the city must be adapted to all scales, from the home to the neighbourhood to the city, in an urban context that is subject to unprecedented environmental and societal pressures that require us to collectively rethink our situation, or otherwise run the risk of no longer being able to respond to the challenges we face.


  • Certeau, M. de. 1990. L’Invention du quotidien, Paris: Folio.
  • Debardieux, B. 2014. “Les spatialités dans l’œuvre d’Hannah Arendt”, Cybergeo: European Journal of Geography [online], document 672.
  • Lefebvre, H. 1967. “Le droit à la ville”, L’Homme et la société, no. 6, pp. 29–35.
  • Lefebvre, H. 1968. Le Droit à la ville, Paris: Anthropos.
  • Lefebvre, H. 1974. La Production de l’espace, Paris: Anthropos.
  • Subirats, J. 2011. Otra sociedad ¿otra política?: De “no nos representan” a la democracia de lo común, Barcelona: Icaria Asaco.

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To cite this article:

Matthias Lecoq & translated by Oliver Waine, “The Right to the City: An Emancipating Concept?”, Metropolitics, 3 July 2020. URL :

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