The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Cities are places where the powerless can shape history: the Right to the City in the 21st Century

Alia Dharssi caught up with sociologist Saskia Sassen at the London School of Economic’s Urban Age Conference in New Delhi on November 15th. She talks about the governance challenges facing the world’s cities today and the ways in which average people can voice their concerns in the face of big money.

Cities: New York-Newark

Topics: Property, rights and evictions, City politics, Participatory governance, Property and real estate, Poverty and inequality, Social conflict

Occupy Wall Street protesters marching in a rally targeted at the Bank of America in March 2012. Activists criticised the bank for "taking their homes."The Occupy Movement, which started in New York in September 2011, protests social and economic. Photo © Michael Fleshman
An Occupy London camp in November 2011. Photo © Alan Denney
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“The city is a place where those without power get to make a history, an economy – think of immigrant communities – a culture” said sociologist Saskia Sassen in a keynote speech at the London School of Economic’s Urban Age Conference in New Delhi.  But she worries that such patterns are under threat because of a sharp rise in investment in urban property in recent years. More than $411 billion have been invested in the top 25 cities for property investment over the past year alone (see graph below) and, in many of these places, investments have risen drastically. For example, the volume of investment in Beijing and Philadelphia was more than double that of the previous year, while London and Melbourne respectively saw increases of 30% and 48% in the same period.

These investments have “deep and significant implications for equity, democracy and rights” because they contribute to a shift from mostly small private ownership to large corporate modes of ownership, argues Sassen. When large office parks, malls or residential developments replace little streets, public squares, and smaller buildings – what Sassen calls “urban tissue” – they raise land prices and turn previously public space into large blocks of private land. At the same time, many recent investments in urban land simply act as a store of savings: investors buy pricey apartments in major cities, such as London, New York and Mumbai, then leave them empty.

Sassen contends that these trends, along with foreclosures that force people to leave their property, have contributed to a “de-urbanising” and emptying ofparticular areas of cities – there is now less and less public space for most people to come together and shape the cultural fabric of their city.

A lot of governance challenges have been brought up during the conference. What do you think is the most critical governance challenge facing the world’s cities today?

It is the fact that cities are becoming less the place for citizens – broadly understood to include immigrants and migrants – and more the place for corporate investments. The space for politics in the good sense of the word has shrunken in cities and at the national level. Today, it is corporate understandings of what is good that dominates. What I was describing in my keynote is this massive investment, both national and foreign, in the city. Urban land and property become attractive investments because financial speculation has become less attractive due tothe financial crisis.Enormously powerful actors think that buying buildings is one of the best investments they can make. We’ve seen $55 billion dollars go into New York City in each of several recent years, the same thing in London, and, though at lower levels, in 100 other cities. And in New York City, for example, these numbers only include properties that cost above $5 million (USD).

One of my projects is about who is gaining rights in this context. Some wins – like those related to gay marriage – might make it seem as though citizens are gaining rights, but, basically, the ones who have gained rights are the corporations. Their logic becomes the logic of development. And we – the citizens – lose rights. The kinds of investments that I was describing today mean that the spaces for the powerless in cities shrink. You know, this whole notion that I have about the powerless being able to make history in cities – that doesn’t happen in an office park.

At the same time, as I mentioned in my keynote, there have been large numbers of foreclosures that have also emptied urban land. Thirteen million households in the United States have lost their homes – that’s 30 million people. You know, the biggest homeless encampment in the United States is in Silicon Valley. It’s made of people who have just been laid off. They have spent all their money and had mortgages that they couldn’t pay back. They expected brilliant careers and then suddenly they got hit.


Figure 1 - Sassen Interview


I’m trying to understand the idea of the powerless being able to make history. Why is it that people can't engage with one another in office parks, malls and large residential developments in the same way as more traditional spaces?

My argument is that, in cities, those without power have options they do not have in an office park: the only ones coming into an office park are those that are there for work. It is often a highly controlled space. Indeed, it wants to control its space. Similarly, though in a different way, a vast concentration of high rise housing for low-income people is also a space where there is going to be no contact with those who do have power. 

An argument I have developed over the years is that cities – our large and mixed and slightly anarchic cities – are places where those without power get to make a history, a culture, an economy. A familiar example is that of immigrant communities: they may be poor, but they revive whole neighborhoods, develop neighborhood economies, bring culture into rundown and fairly under-inhabited places. I also see this in the case of the struggles by African Americans in the US: the manifestations of Ferguson could not have happened in a suburb.

The global patterns you’re talking about are depressing. Are there any glimmers of optimism?

Well, mobilizations against this extreme valuing of urban land have elicited responses by the Occupy Movement, for example, trying to protect owners of foreclosed homes in Brooklyn, and the anti-eviction campaigns in Chicago. We need to strengthen the notion that cities belong to people, that people have a right to the city. It’s not just a question of who has more money and who can buy urban space.

The modest middle classes, not the rich middle class, are being priced out of a whole range of places. There’s very good data on London, for instance, by the Financial Times. They did a study and they found that accountants, university professors and all kinds of professionals who used to be able to live in central London cannot afford that anymore. We have similar stories all over the world. This tells you that something is really wrong. Local communities are going to have a very hard time fighting this off. They can’t just be evicted, but there can be gentrification and greater prices can push them out.

What do you think has to happen for people to have more of a voice in what happens to land and how cities are governed?

Local communities need to focus on the political sphere in the city, and they need to push politicians and local governments to work with them. We’re dealing with extremely powerful actors and they are not easy to fight. They are often foreign and they use intermediaries. I think communities should – number one –engage their political institutions. They have to make claims to the city, get mayors and their staff to support this: why should low income or modest middle class people be thrown out of their communities? It cannot just be a question of money. Long-time residents have a right to the city. And then, they have to connect with others communities. It’s going to become a battle. It already is a long, horrible, invisible battle.

Now, everything is sort of curved. If you overdo it, then the workers need to be supported. For example, New York already has to pay an extra bit of money to policemen, nurses, teachers and firemen so they can afford to live in New York. University professors in London get an extra bit of money so they can afford to live in in London, rather than simply moving to another university outside London. At some point, city governments must have stronger leadership and say: “Hell, no. We’ve got to protect the modest middle classes. They also have a right to the city and we need them in the city.”

I wrote one book, which I think is my best book, in which I examined whether and how the powerless can shape history. They do, but it takes them much more time than it takes the powerful. The question really is how long it takes for the weak party to get their agenda recognized, implemented. If you were living a hundred years ago, you would have thought that the black struggle for equal rights in the United States couldn’t succeed. The same thing can be said for the fight for women’s rights in the US. Now both have some rights. It was hard, but every single one of these struggles by the weak succeeded, at least partly, even if it took a very long time. And cities were important spaces for these struggles – to make them visible, to keep them open to whatever person was there and might want to join in the demonstration, and so on. That is why certain cities are critical.

For more details about Sassen’s argument, see her book Expulsion: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy.  


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