What sort of right is 'the right to the city'?
By Julian Jonker
RECENTLY I HAVE taken to visiting the Sea Point promenade at sunset, a wide pedestrian area that runs on the edge of Cape Town’s west city precinct and along the beautiful rocky beaches of the Atlantic coastline. Sea Point was once a working class migrant neighbourhood, although a series of high rises pay tribute to its status as a wealthy white enclave after forced removals. Now it is gradually returning to a more boisterous neighbourhood in which synagogues, drug dealers and Lebanese restaurants hustle for attention.
The promenade itself is pleasant to visit, not just for the sights, but because it is always so full of people enjoying the last few minutes of daylight. Of course not everyone can come here, since the city remains divided into its economic and racial zones it inherited from the past. Yet there is still a greater amount of diversity than one would see in many other parts of the city. It is as if in this activity of walking alongside the sea there is a basic kind of democracy, of runners, senior citizens, young families, dog lovers, shift workers, rastas smoking blunts, lovers, etc. People mind their own business, but are also aware of being in a kind of shared space: there is some sense of a public. This geography of the promenade seems to provide a metaphor for understanding a city’s public life. To get a better sense of what our city’s public life does and does not have, it might be a good start to develop our histories of where people can, cannot and do in fact walk.
At Isandla Institute’s recent seminar on “Culture and the Right to the City”, I was struck by other examples of promenading related by architect Vanessa September. While growing up in Athlone, it was the community centre that provided a source of stimulation and community for September and her contemporaries. When the community centre shut itself behind fences and barbed wire, the youth took instead to the streets in their search for some sense of public life. Today, public space for the area’s residents consists in a recently erected shopping mall on Vanguard Drive. Teenagers promenade here, not so much window shopping as putting themselves on display. They are not simply enthralled by consumerism, but participate in their own economies of attention, and recreate the mall’s promenades as public space.
There are other examples of how such passage is central to the public life of a city. The most famous must be Cape Town’s carnival, in which residents of the periphery march through the streets of the city centre each year to stake their claim to its heritage. This is what citizens demand of a city, across class and race bounds: to be able to walk its streets.
The promenade seems an apt metaphor for the public life of the city, that sphere in which we wish to inculcate this thing called “cultural diversity”. I wondered, then, if this metaphor might also shed light on the title of the seminar, which had to a certain degree remained opaque to me. Participants had settled down quickly to the day’s task of teasing out strategies for realising cultural diversity in Cape Town. Various possible meanings of culture and diversity were canvassed. Yet the seminar’s most innovative phrase went unexpounded. What exactly might this “right to the city” entail? No such right exists in any legal documents; it is not attested by the Constitution, nor the international covenants that promote cultural diversity, nor any municipal by-laws for that matter. In any case, what exactly would such a right allow, or enable? Would it oblige the city to give me something? Would it allow me to do things which I can’t do at the moment, or would it ensure that I can keep doing the things that I already do as part of my life in the city? What is such a right’s provenance, and how would it be enforced or realised?
Today, rights are a vital part of contemporary political life, although they are also incredibly abstract entities. Rights, for all their popularity in everyday discourse, remain mysterious to those who study law and morality. In order to understand rights, we should not confuse them too readily with the network of legal documents and international organisations that claim them, and instead remember that they are firmly rooted in practical affairs of the most local kind.
Linguistics shows us that we use metaphors in order to develop and grapple with new concepts, moving in this way from practical everyday activities to the more abstract notions generated by increasingly complex societies. So, for example, a ‘rival’ used to be someone with whom you shared a river; and think of how today’s political discourse is filled with navigational metaphors about ‘roadmaps to peace’ and ‘staying the course’. Similarly, it might be productive to speculate about the etymology of rights discourse.
If we peer back before the events of 18th century Europe, it seems plausible that our thinking about rights in fact stems from very pragmatic solutions to problems of social coordination and avoiding conflict in everyday situations. Think of a ‘right of way’: when traversing a bustling street, in which a multitude seeks its different goals in different directions and at different speeds, how to prevent chaos? At a certain degree of complexity, a society must generate norms about right of way – when one may occupy a way, or travel it in one or the other direction. Essentially, a right of way carves out a space of liberty for the user of the road, declaring them to be in the right without questioning what their greater goal or individual worthiness might be. The right of way, from this perspective, blindly grants access to both the rich and the poor, the thief and the priest.
Of course, things are more complicated than that. Before one can make rules about who has a right of way, there must first be routes upon which to travel. And although routes and ways do to a certain extent arise spontaneously, or at least through the wear of many feet shuffling from one point to another over the years, the really good routes that we like to use all the time are constructed at great expense and with much expertise and coordination, and typically by the state: highways, bridges, tunnels through mountains, that sort of thing.
In other words, there are two paradigms of thinking about rights here, related but enigmatically so. On the one hand, what we mean when we talk about a right is a certain freedom from interference. A right allows us to do certain things without anyone obstructing us, be it someone else or the state for that matter. This is in fact what jurists mean when they talk about ‘negative rights’, and it is what we have meant by rights ever since the French Revolution. Rights are there to protect our freedoms from the interference of the state.
On the other hand, sometimes we may be free to do something, but are prevented from doing so because we lack the means to do it. For example, anyone is free to travel from Cape Town to Johannesburg, but it would be much more difficult to do so if the N1 had never been built. We can think of a right of way similarly, not as a freedom but as a right to a way, a claim which we have on the state not simply to leave us in peace but to actually do something. This is what jurists mean when they talk about ‘positive rights’, and they talk about positive rights often in the context of the South African Constitution, since many of its rights seem to entail that the government not only refrain from interfering with our freedom to speak and associate and believe what we wish, but also that the government provide us with various things (such as access to housing, education and healthcare).
There is then clearly much room for debate when it comes to characterising a right, especially such an innovation as a “right to the city”. In South Africa, constitutional lawyers try to have it both ways. The rights we have in the Bill of Rights secure us freedoms, and they impose obligations on the government. Economics, on the other hand, teaches us that these things are opposed, because increased government intervention means that individual freedom shrinks, whether because of increased taxation to support intervention or regulation that secures the efficacy of intervention. But can’t we have it both ways? Is there not a way of thinking about rights that goes beyond the dichotomy of positive and negative obligations?
Perhaps the metaphor of the pathway is again instructive. In our modern experience roads and paths are planned by experts. Yet even then they typically follow the lead of the most ancient of our routes: they are simply created through common usage. A path starts when someone wants to get from one point to another across uncharted territory. The next person, crossing the same territory, follows in her footsteps, and the path becomes clearer and clearer. Path-building, then, is a collaborative exercise, that can take place without the intervention of the state. People who use a path can get together and make their own decisions about norms of right of way – who gets to use the path and when. If we take the metaphor of the right of way seriously, then, it allows us to detach our concept of right from the state, and to think about a right as something which can be produced collaboratively, through building networks and through common practice and agreement.
Perhaps, then, we can imagine a right to the city that is not something we claim from the state, or the municipality, but from each other. Numerous organisations and initiatives addressing cultural diversity already exist. What is needed is not a new state-imposed solution, but a collaborative approach by the existing initiatives. Yet what is crucial about the right of way metaphor must be maintained: the essence of a right of way is the freedom it grants, without stopping to evaluate means and ends. What is protected is the pathway itself as a common space of movement. A right to the city, imagined on these lines, might be thought of as a right to a common space in which we can move between points, collaborate, but without our individual movements being dictated. This is the central, powerful paradox of the public pathway: it is created and recreated through the history of common usage, but it remains radically open to individual freedom of movement.
My understanding of an approach to cultural diversity that is premised on a ‘right to the city’ is that it must be an open-ended one. Cultural diversity should not be viewed as some quantifiable administrative goal which can be eventually reached through some particularly effective strategy. Instead, it should be seen as a pathway, a way of doing things that remains always open-ended. Similarly, the “right to the city” is a road down which one chooses to travel, but without being sure of where its end lies.