Sustainable Cities™

David Harvey: The right to the city

The question of what kind of city we want cannot be separated from what kind of people we want to be. David Harvey invites all manner of social movements to assert their ’right to the city’ – the right to re-make the city in a different image.

David Harvey responded to the Ecotopedia enquete via e-mail from New York City, USA, on the 6th of August 2008.


…What are the (three) qualities that should characterize a sustainable city?

With half of the world's population now officially living in cities, it has become very clear that there can be no solutions to environmental, social or economic problems without major reconstructions and reconfigurations of urban living. Unfortunately, there is no single 'silver bullet' solution to creating a sustainable city. We need to work on a variety of different aspects of city life simultaneously. There are six aspects that I would single out for special attention, recognizing that how they fit together and interact in the end will be determined by how the city and its relation to nature evolve over time.

1. What kind of relation to nature is envisaged and with what kind of ecological footprint? The city has to be viewed as a metabolic and ecological system in its own right and therefore as a vibrant and increasingly dominant part of the natural world we inhabit. While there is, in my view, nothing unnatural about New York City, the qualities of the urban environments we create are a major concern and those qualities are not confined to what humans need but also to preserving the whole life-system upon which we ultimately depend.

2. The question of technologies is crucial. Everything from transport and communications, power generation, household appliances, water provision and waste disposal (recycling) to public health issues and building and neighbourhood design - all of these require careful evaluation in relation to the ecology of the city.

3. Social relations and division of labour are crucially connected to technological choices and the relation to nature. Competitive capitalist growth is the driving force behind many of the changes going on around us. The social inequalities and discriminatory structures of gender, race and ethnicity, which this competitiveness brings about, are not conducive to sustainable practices. The city has the ability to be the place where we can work on building new patterns of social relations, on a local and metropolitan level.

4. The organization of production systems relates to the organization of social and technical divisions of labour as well as to technologies. This system is driven by a political economic system in which the coercive laws of competition and market valuations hold priority of place. The production of space and the built environment, as well as decisions regarding which goods and services should be produced under which labour processes are fundamental to the transformation of nature into urban life. Experiments with new production and reproduction systems are vital in the search for more sustainable forms of urbanization.

5. The urban experience gives rise to certain mental conceptions of the world and political subjectivities. These mental conceptions can shift towards a new architecture, new design criteria and new visions of urban living. New ideas can be a material force in the making of the city and these ideas need to be liberated to explore new social relations, new relations to nature, new technologies etc.

6. The qualities of daily life and the cultivation of a sense of well-being (or of anxiety and distress) for life on the street, in the market place, in neighbourhoods, in schools, in dwellings and work places makes the city a site of encounter, leisure, hard work and rest. The joys and anxieties of daily life in urban settings, the humdrum of urban routines, the stimuli and the blasé attitude are all part of a daily life that shapes urban activism. At the same time, it is perpetually being re-shaped by technological choices, natural events (hurricanes, earthquakes, epidemics), the technologies themselves and the like.

What matters here, is how these six elements co-evolve over time, when change occurs in one of the elements it does not take very long before all of the other elements begin to shift too. The city has to be seen, therefore, as an ensemble of practices across all these dimensions. The prospects for making and re-making the city in a different image and according to a different logic are omnipresent. We need to seize these prospects in order to transform the city to our heart's desire.


…What are the challenges that top the to-do list in cities around the world?

The biggest difficulty is to overcome the parochialism of our own perceptions and to re-assert a different vision of the city as a body politic, as an ensemble of practices that can be re-made in an entirely different image from that which dominates today. We have made an urban world in which we are forced to live and in making that world we have re-made ourselves. The question of what kind of city we want cannot be separated from what kind of people we want to be.

The attempt to re-make urban life (and thereby ourselves) in a different image depends upon a greater degree of enlightened democratization than currently exists. It is also crucial for all manner of social movements to assert their 'right to the city' - the right to re-make the city in a different image. This process will be conflictual but that should be welcomed. There is nothing worse than a passive and fearful consensus to preserve the status quo, which is clearly unsustainable in both environmental and social terms.


…What are the most promising initiatives/ideas/solutions/projects that would make living in cities more sustainable?

The assertion of a right to the city and an environmental justice movement are hopeful signs. As are attempts to introduce greater democratization in urban governance over budget making, urban design criteria and to take back the city as a secure environment where all factions can flourish and claim a place in the urban sun.


About David Harvey

DavidHarvey_MK_D David Harvey is a distinguished professor of Anthropology at the Centre for Place, Culture and Politics at the Graduate Centre, City University of New York. He is a leading theorist in the field of urban studies and has been hailed as one of the most influential geographers of the late twentieth century.  David Harvey earned his Ph.D. from Cambridge University and has since been affiliated with Johns Hopkins University, London School of Economics and Oxford University. He has also held a range of foreign visiting appointments, most recently as acting Advisory Professor at Tongji University in Shanghai. David Harvey has received numerous awards and honorary degrees. He works primarily on the political economy of urbanization and on the theories and practices of uneven geographical development on a global scale. His reflections on the importance of space and place (and more recently - nature) have attracted considerable attention across the humanities and social sciences. He also has related interests in cultural transformations, utopianism and environmental change.

David Harvey is responsible for a long list of publications and his highly influential books include:

  • Cosmopolitanism and the geographies of freedom (Scheduled to be published in 2009)
  • The Condition of Postmodernity, 1989
  • Limits to Capital, 1982


Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014