reading: The Right to the City by Henri Lefebvre

Henri Lefebvre writes about the city and its role in society in The Right to the City. In this text he makes several distinctions, basically outlining two theoretical understandings of the city. He distinguishes between use value and exchange value, advocating for the former. Overall, he distinguishes between the city as oeuvre and the city as a product. Understanding the city as an oeuvre roughly means that it is a sort of work of art that is collectively made and remade by its inhabitants. It is the interactions, personal exchanges, and play that should define a city and its use should be of primary value. Thus urban life is a sort of spontaneous theater. Understanding it as a product emphasizes the value of exchange. Urban activities are characterized by commodification, privatization, and production to satisfy these demands. This understanding, which is of course a product of capitalism, has influences on urban spatial form, including generalized segregation based on socio-economic class. The right to the city then is a “transformed and renewed right to urban life” as the production of the oeuvre. “The right to the oeuvre, to participation and appropriation (clearly distinct from the right to property), are implied in the right to the city.”

In light of Delanda’s writings on tactics and strategies, it is interesting to look at a passage from Lefebvre in which he discusses such matters:

“Scientifically speaking, the distinction between strategic variables and tactical variables seems fundamental. The first ones, as soon as they are identified, subordinate the second… Is not the transformation of daily life part of strategic variables? One could think it so. To take an example, flexible working hours are of interest. This is only a miniscule tactical action. The creation of new networks concerning the life of children and adolescents (creches, playing fields and sports, etc.), the constitution of a very simple apparatus of social pedagogy, which would inform as much social life itself as sexual life, the art of living and art tout court. Such an institution would have much more impact; it would mark the passage from the tactical to the strategic in this field.”

Also within the context of the research that I have carved out thus far, another passage seems relevant:

“To the extent that the contours of the future city can be outlined, it could be defined by imagining the reversal of the current situation, by pushing to its limits this inverted image of the world upside down. There are currently attempts to establish fixed structures, ‘equilibrium structures’, stabilities submitted to systematization, and therefore to existing power. At the same time there is a tactical wager on the accelerated obsolescence of consumer goods, ironically known as ‘durables’. The ideal city would involve the obsolescence of space: an accelerated change of abode, emplacements and prepared spaces. It would be the ephemeral city, the perpetual oeuvre of the inhabitants, themselves mobile and mobilized for and by this oeuvre. Time comes first. There is no doubt that technology makes possible the ephemeral city, the apogee of play and supreme oeuvre and luxury.”

This quote certainly brings to mind Constant’s New Babylon, as a utopia dreamed up along these lines.

Lefebvre’s concepts are rather influential and I will likely return to them, particularly in discussing David Harvey’s book Rebel Cities (which is how I came to The Right to the City).

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