Excavating Lefebvre: the right to the city and its urban politics of the inhabitant


Much current activism and scholarship has raised concern that the various processes of neoliberal restructuring are threatening democracy. More specifically, researchers in geography and other social sciences have stressed that political and economic restructuring in cities is negatively affecting the enfranchisement of urban residents. Much recent research and writing has explored progressive responses to this perceived disenfranchisement in cities. One popular trend has been a fascination with the idea of the ‘right to the city’ as a way to respond to neoliberal urbanism and better empower urban dwellers. I argue that the right to the city holds promise, but that in the literature the idea remains both theoretically and politically underdeveloped. It remains unclear (1) what the right to the city entails or (2) how it might address current problems of disenfranchisement. This paper examines the right to the city in greater depth. It does so by offering a close reading and analysis of the intellectual roots of the idea: the writings of Henri Lefebvre. I suggest that Lefebvre’s right to the city is more radical, more problematic, and more indeterminate than the current literature makes it seem. The paper concludes by suggesting that the right to the city does offer distinct potential for resisting current threats to urban enfranchisement. However, the right to the city is not a panacea. It must be seen not as a completed solution to current problems, but as an opening to a new urban politics, what I call an urban politics of the inhabitant.