“The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather then an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the process of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.” – David Harvey, The Right to the City (2008), a postface to Social Justice and the City

I moved to São Paulo in 2010 inspired by collaborative place making, eager to study ways in which favelas are “upgraded”, creating more livable, humane, and connected neighborhoods. After a diverse and eye opening year in which I completed a post-graduate course in public housing design at Escola da Cidade, led a youth arts collective in a favela in the north periphery of São Paulo, and investigated several reurbanization projects throughout the city I felt optimistic about collective public space making and the opportunity architects have to co-design reurbanization and urban upgrade projects. Then, I witnessed reurbanization begin. I watched children climb over the wreckage of homes left in a state of half demolition and listened to families tell stories of how long it took to build their home, unsure of where they would go next.

The Bamburral Favela during housing removal for reurbanization. São Paulo, Brazil.                         Credits Kirsten Larson

Despejo na Favela, a samba written in 1973 by Adoriran Barbosa, a musician from São Paulo reflects what I am experiencing in the city. I realized that I was investigating a very narrow slice of an enormous urban dilemma whose web is just as intertwined with the politics of capital and hierarchies of knowledge as it is to punctual architectural actions that reform open sewers and pave roads. I began to feel reurbanization’s potential to oppress rather than liberate, to understand the stark contrast between slick design boards and a living urban reality, to see through photos of community meetings, and to question the authenticity of community design processes. I am questioning to what extent reurbanization is a need. What is truly necessary to build healthy vibrant communities? Whose needs does urban planning really serve? And, to what extent and where has planning been used as an ideological instrument by the dominant classes? Within these unanswered questions I began to imagine the questions that may lead to alternative paradigms in planning. How can decision making be lateral rather than vertical? Where does liberation come into play? And most of all, how do we as architects and planners navigate a process where our work, our pedagogy, and our ethics directly effect the lives of oppressed citizens of the working class, a population which is not included in our beloved ‘formal city’?

As the world population stretches past seven billion, instances of urban ‘informality’ and subsequent reurbanization do not only appear in São Paulo, Brazil, or Latin America. Rapid unregulated urbanization is an exponentially increasing global condition that requires architectural, political, and social action in hundreds of cities throughout the world. It was the subject of the 2010 UN-Habitat World Urban Forum in Rio de Janeiro titled Right to the City. In a speech made at the closing ceremony of this session of the World Urban Forum, Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka Secretary General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN-HABITAT, commented on the meaning of a Right to the City – “The Right to the City is about consolations, inclusion, and empowering people to solve their own problems. It is about fighting slums and not slum dwellers and fighting poverty instead of fighting the poor!” While I agree with the sentiment of her statement the notion of “fighting slums”, or in the case of Brazil “fighting favelas”, is distressing. It resembles the sentiment of Adoriran Barbosa’s samba “os barracos todos no chão” (all the shacks leveled). A fight against slums intrinsically includes the people who live there, the unique social and cultural practices held within, as well as existing spatial relationships and values that were carefully built over decades. This notion of “a fight” against favelas polarizes people rather then bringing them together – how are residents expected to fight against their home? Shouldn’t this movement be fundamentally based on a fight for favelas, for infrastructure, transportation, and adequate housing? Most of all shouldn’t it be a movement to collectively explore, preserve, and build upon the existing and numerous values, both social and spatial, within favelas?  In this way, shouldn’t it be a fight against the social stigmatization that hangs over poor and peripheral neighborhoods?

Reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed by the late Brazilian activist and educator Paulo Feire, I reflected on my experiences in Brazil. “True solidarity with the oppressed means fighting at their side to transform the objective reality which has made them the “beings for another.” The oppressor is in solidarity with the oppressed only when he stops regarding the oppressed as an abstract category and sees them as persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived of their voice, cheated in the sale of their labor – when he stops making pious, sentimental, and individualistic gestures and risks acts of love” (Freire, 50).

It is within the delicate and varying textures of the favela that the conundrum of the architect arises, because between charming footpaths and family owned shops, open sewers, unpaved roads, and numerous cases of inadequate housing and infrastructure stifle the health of favelas. The architect’s job becomes a tightrope walk between resisting the impulse to fetishize a harsh urban condition while still looking for value in the alternative spatial articulations that define the social and physical fabric of favelas. Here, in the process of listening, planning, and building Paulo Freire’s pedagogy is paramount.

5 thoughts on “The Right to the City

  1. Poignant message with profound implications. Eloquently put and with references to classic samba and Freire to boot; It’s like Papai Noel came early for me. Nicely done, Kirsten.

    If anyone would like to hear the song:

  2. Pingback: Right to the City « CairoFromBelow

  3. Hi Andrew,

    Thank you for posting the video! It is a great song even if you don’t understand the words. Also, glad you liked the article.


  4. Estimada , Kirsten Larson.
    I am a lastyear student of the Urbanism faculty at Erasmus in Brussels, Belgium. I am working on my final project which is about the informal city and movement (danse). I will be in Sao Paulo between January 18 and February 7. I was wondering if it is possible to meet to get to know your work and to discuss ideas about the subject I am investigating.

    I have been reading your blog and would like to know more about your experiences in Brazil.
    I hope it is possible to meet.
    Muito obrigado.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s