The right to the city- Ahmad Rafay Alam

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Last August, an unlikely but highly motivated group of artists, musicians and social activists in the German city of Hamburg occupied the city’s Gangeviertel buildings. They were protesting the city’s attempt to woo a “creative class” to spur urban development.

In October, they published their manifesto, Not in Our Name, whose opening lines immediately betray reference to Marx: “A spectre has been haunting Europe since US economist Richard Florida predicted that the future belongs to cities in which the ‘creative class’ feels at home.”

Richard Florida suggests that a city with a “creative class” – that is, a city with a high concentration of high-tech workers, artists, musicians – even homosexuals – correlates with higher levels of economic development. He has even devised a “Bohemian Index” to prove it. At the risk of oversimplification, Florida suggests that a city with a thriving creative class will, in turn, attract more creative and dynamic people.

And in today’s world, it is precisely these creative and dynamic people that can run a Global City. Build a city to cater to the “creative class” and watch it bring the city more trade, business and money. Some successful cities are beginning to realise that investing in companies or infrastructure yields less return than when they invest in people.

Smart people, and not money, it seems, make the world go round.

The city of Hamburg, clearly having spotted something it liked in all of this, fell hook, line and sinker for the message and even hired a consultant to chalk out a strategy in the light of Florida’s work.

Development in the city sparked up as the city aimed to send out a very specific image of a pulsating capital that offers visitors creative opportunities of every stripe. It even plans, for example, to build the world’s largest opera house.

However, some of the city’s artists, musicians and social activists – a slice of that very “creative class” Florida refers to – have objected. They have objected to the fact that their city is being reduced to Brand Hamburg, as they refer to it, and point out, for example, that rising property prices fuelled by the development are driving the “creative class” out of the city centre. Not in Our Name, they say, and they invoke Marx.

One of the groups involved in the occupation of the Gangeviertel buildings – which were slated to be developed into “a glass-and-steel architecture, offices and luxury condominiums” – was Right to the City, a loose group of activists and pressure groups whose name refers to the title of a paper published in October 2008 by noted geographer and social theorist David Harvey.

Harvey is the Distinguished Professor of the Department of Anthropology at City University of New York and has spent a career spanning over four decades mapping, amongst other things, how imperialist economies need to be located somewhere. He’s followed the money, so to speak, around the Portuguese, Spanish, French, English and American empires and can identify the places in which the economies of these empires were located.

Cities, argues Harvey, are ideal places for capitalists. There is no better example of the excess that characterises capitalism than the city. It is the investment in this excess capital – located in cities – that interests Harvey. So it should. In Pakistan, for example, urban areas take up less than 10 percent of our landmass, yet they contribute, according to the 2008-2009 Economic Survey, to approximately 70 percent of GDP.

One of the ways that capitalist economies soak up the capital they’ve accumulated, Harvey explains, is by investing in urban infrastructure. Another example is badly-thought-out military adventures. Look at the cities around the world, Harvey says, and ask yourself who you think the cities are being built for? Fair enough. And one can ask whom the Centaurus Tower in Islamabad is being built for when the CDA has, basically, sounded the red alert because of acute water shortages. One can ask whom the Lahore Canal Road widening project will benefit, given that less than 15 percent of the population has access to private automobiles. One can ask whom the Karachi Port Trust built the world’s second-highest water fountain for.

If you were to step back and, for a second even, question the trajectory our urban development has been and, to quote Harvey, “the results are indelibly etched on the spatial forms of our cities, which increasingly consist of fortified fragments, gated communities and privatised public spaces kept under constant surveillance.” Sound familiar? Whom, indeed, are our cities being built for?

Arif Hasan has a similar, though distinct, understanding and explanation of how our urban areas are taking the forms they are. In his paper on “The World Class City,” Hasan describes how urban planning in developing countries like Pakistan has been replaced by “project-based” planning.

Since ours is a poor country, almost all investment in urban infrastructure (other than housing) has been made with money provided to us by multilateral funding agencies like the World Bank, the IMF, the ADB and the Japan International Cooperation Agency, and that too on a fragmented, unconnected, project-by-project basis.

Private housing is no exception. Investments in urban housing over the past decade have catered largely to an urban elite. Though Hasan does not dwell for long on the investments in the Pakistani housing market, he does share with Harvey the conclusion that far too many inner-city urban developments have resulted in dislocation of the poor and a preference for an increasingly scarce (and, if I may say, paranoid) elite. Nadeem Ul Haque, former vice chancellor of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics — who enjoys taunting urban planners and comfortable civil-society begums alike with suggestions to convert the Royal Palm and Gymkahana Golf Clubs into more efficient and equitable uses of space — is also relevant here. I can think of no other place in the world where “urban development” has been used to perpetuate an elitist status quo.

According to Nadeem Ul Haque, one of the reasons we have housing shortage is because most of the land in our cities is used in a wasteful way. We have government offices and residences acres large, but catering to just a few. We have a housing template that prefers a four-kanal bungalow but is out of reach of all but a few Pakistanis. This waste makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the city to function as it should – to provide fair and equal habitation, employment opportunities and even public transport for all.

In this situation, with all the chaos that urban planning has become in Pakistan, it is time to consider who cities are built for. David Harvey has formulated a strong argument for a Right to the City, a fundamental right of every urban dweller to participate in the growth and development of their metropolis. The Right to the City, he argues, must be adopted both as a working slogan and political ideal. The democratisation of this right “is imperative if the dispossessed are to take back control which they have for long been denied, and if they are to institute new modes of urbanisation. Lefebvre was right to insist that the revolution has to be urban, in the broadest sense of that term, or nothing at all.”

Postscript: The occupation of Hamburg’s Gangeviertel buildings ended when the city of Hamburg agreed to enter into lease agreements with the squatters.

The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning. Email:

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