The Right to the City in an Era of Austerity (1973-2014): Perspectives on the Past, Present, and Future of Urban Democracy in the United States and Great Britain
An International Conference Organized by the Research Center Monde Anglophone: Politiques et Sociétés (HDEA/Université Paris-Sorbonne) and the Research Group Politiques Américaines (CREA/Université Paris-Ouest Nanterre La Défense)
May 30-31, 2014
If Henri Lefebvre’s idea of “the right to the city” has become fashionable in recent years, this is because it seems to describe something elemental about the current political context in Europe and North America. Indeed, the body of work Lefebvre completed from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s has seen a revival, in part, because it predicted so well the circumstances that now shape the global urban landscape. Writing amidst the social and political upheaval of the late 1960s, Lefebvre fixed his gaze on a dimension of the contestation that many other observers were overlooking—the grassroots campaigns against the destruction of old Paris neighborhoods by modernization projects like the Left Bank Expressway and the Tour Montparnasse. For Lefebvre, these struggles over the use of urban space were critical because, as he also predicted in his classic book The Urban Revolution, urbanization itself was becoming one of the driving forces of capitalism. In view of the importance that the process of gentrification has taken on in Europe and North America since the 1970s and 1980s, it is hard to argue that history has not proven him right. By the 1990s, the phenomenon that British sociologist Ruth Glass had first observed in London in 1964 had become a central strategy of cities throughout the world. As David Harvey argued in 2008, such circumstances have revealed the extent to which “the right to the city” has come to mean “the right to command the whole urban process.”
This conference seeks to build upon the insights of Lefebvre, Harvey, Don Mitchell and others by exploring the histories, forms, possibilities, and conditions of urban democracy in the United States and Great Britain during this era of intensified urbanization. Such a reflection of course emphasizes the forms of political participation, political movements, ideologies and ideas that have developed around struggles over urban spaces—in other words, over the right to inhabit spaces and access their resources, to transform them to suit our values, lifestyles, and identities, and, perhaps above all, to participate meaningfully in the decision-making process that determines their fate. Urban specialists of all stripes—geographers, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, historians, and planners alike—have already added a great deal to our understanding of the relationship between space and urban democracy. We hope that this conference will help to draw out some of the latest contributions to the rich literature in this area.
Yet we also seek to add a somewhat fresh perspective to this kind of reflection by bringing such research into dialogue with scholarship focused on understanding how the story of urban democracy over the last four decades has unraveled within a context shaped by what could be referred to as the “politics of austerity.” Indeed, if the 1970s and 1980s witnessed a new wave of gentrification characterized by the increasing role of private investment capital in the process of urbanization, this same moment also saw the emergence of a new regime of austerity that entailed the withdrawal of public funding for urban redevelopment and infrastructural projects, the reduction of public sector employment and of public services, the privatization of public enterprises, the rolling back of the welfare state, and an increasingly punitive approach to the problem of poverty.
The United States and Great Britain—the two national contexts that constitute the focus of this conference—were at the forefront of these trends. During the 1980s, both President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher dramatically reduced funding to municipalities and slashed social spending, creating shockwaves of austerity in many cities and effectively dismantling liberal urban policy at the national scale in the United States and Great Britain alike. These policies, moreover, were clothed in ideologies that celebrated the values of individualism and personal responsibility. However, such circumstances contributed to the proliferation of new forms of urban political participation and collective mobilization that have yet to be adequately historicized and conceptualized. Employing terms like “participatory democracy” and “community empowerment,” local organizations and movements have sought to rebuild social solidarities and to bring ordinary citizens into struggles over housing, health care, schools, crime, the environment, the rights of immigrants, living wage ordinances, and a range of quality-of-life issues. These struggles have not merely been about “the right to the city,” but also about the very nature of social citizenship.
Thus, this conference seeks to bring together an interdisciplinary debate about the myriad ways in which metropolitan residents have fought to remake cities and to defend their rights and entitlements as citizens over the past four decades. While we intend to focus on the experiences of the United States and Great Britain, in particular, we invite specialists of other parts of the world who are ready to engage in comparative analyses. We are also open to papers that move across different historical periods in order to shed light on the more contemporary era we will be dealing with. Papers can be presented in either English or French, and conference organizers will be selecting a number of them for a book publication in 2015.
We invite scholars interested in participating in this conference to send a proposal of no more than 300 words along with a short cv no later than September 6, 2013 to the following addresses:
Conference Organizing Committee:
– Leah Bassel, University of Leicester
– Andrew Diamond, Université Paris-Sorbonne
– Akwugo Emejulu, University of Edinburgh
– Joana Etchart, Université Paris-Sorbonne
– Laurence Gervais, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense
– Cynthia Ghorra-Gobin, IHEAL-CREDA (CNRS)
– Pierre Guerlain, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense
– Frédéric Leriche, Université Versailles Saint-Quentin
– Timothy Stewart-Winter, Rutgers University – Newark
– Thomas Sugrue, University of Pennsylvania