The Right to the City as Complex System, Repercussions for the Formulation of the Charter

Enrique Ortiz Flores
June 2008 

The objective in the drafting of the Charter for the Right to the City is not that it be a simple declaration or a set of proposals oriented to formulate policies, but rather that the Charter recognize and guarantee at the personal and collective level the right to just, equitable, democratic and sustainable cities for all of their current and future inhabitants. All of this synthesized in one cohesive document, product of a broad process of collective construction.

This vision recognizes the right to the city as a complex right. It obligates recognition of the parts and the whole, management of the contradictions between rights and realities and between the rights themselves, and work to concretely realize them today and to guarantee their future viability.

It also leads to visualizing the crosscurrents that intertwine and collide, such as those between current trends toward social degradation versus growing pressure of conscious individuals and social collectives struggling for new plural and multicultural forms of social cohesion and co-existence. Or between the tendency to confront problems through massive, homogenizing and quantitative approaches versus new processes that value the wealth of diversity and seek the multiplication of initiatives and options capable of taking advantage of capacities –also on a large scale. Or between feverish consumerism of products, energy and space versus the urgency to advance toward more austere and solidary forms of life that assure that resources are shared by everyone and that contribute to preserve life in the planet. Or between a world of winners and losers, that today focuses its ethic on money and profit, versus the growing dream of a world founded in solidarity with a dignified place for all.

The right to the city is located at the center of these and other great contradictions and the highly dynamic interactions generated in contemporary society. From the positioning assumed and the effectiveness of the paths followed to address these phenomena will emerge the possible organization of the city as space of collective co-existence and of viable and sustainable good life for all of its inhabitants.

To achieve effective application of the Charter and avoid a situation in which the complexity of the right to the city and the different possible focuses to address it transform it into a confused instrument limited to a declarative character, consensus has been reached through its debate process to formulate it as a human rights instrument.

The universal, indivisible, integral, interdependent, and inalienable character of human rights makes them the most suitable instrument to integrally address the urban complexity, and therefore the complex right to the city.


  1. A necessary preliminary reconsideration

According to the human rights approach, one of the points in debate around the second version of the World Charter for the Right to the City has emerged regarding Article II on the strategic principles and foundations of this new right.

An initial criticism refers to the diverse categories used to define the principles. Some, such as equality and nondiscrimination, and special protection of groups and persons in situation of vulnerability, are guiding or overriding principles applicable to the whole of human rights, and should be recognized as part of the transversal criteria of interpretation of the Charter. Others, such as full exercise of citizenship, the social function of the city and of property, and democratic management of the city, have a more strategic character and profile the objective image of the city that we seek to build. And others, such as the social commitment of the private sector and promotion of progressive taxation policies, are in fact of programmatic nature.

None in fact is sufficient to explain the wealth of contents of these diverse categories. And it is therefore necessary to reconsider the issue of the principles.

Behind the right to the city lie dreams and utopias that -the same as for all the human rights recognized and yet to be consecrated- translate into guiding principles that orient their interpretation and define the criteria for their application. Free determination, nondiscrimination, equality, gender equity, solidarity, cooperation, subsidiarity, responsibility in accordance with capacity and resources, participation, transparency, and priority attention to vulnerable sectors, are principles applicable to all human rights.

The singular characteristics of the right to the city pose, in addition, the need to recognize specific principles. In the Treaty on Just, Democratic and Sustainable Cities, Towns and Villages, formulated in 1992 in the citizen forum parallel to the Earth Summit, three of these characteristics were already recognized: full exercise of citizenship, the social function of the city and of property, and democratic management of the city, the same which are also integrated in the first version of the World Charter for the Right to the City.

As noted above, the second version introduced as specific principles notions that correspond to diverse categories and levels of approximation to the urban processes, leaving aside others that are fundamental such as democratic production of and in the city, sustainable and responsible management of resources, and democratic and equitable enjoyment of the city.

These latter principles, added to the three already recognized in the Charter process, have a more strategic connotation in that they sketch the profile of the city to be built through democratic and participative processes. For this reason, in consultation with several collaborators committed to the Charter process, it is proposed to consider them as strategic foundations[1] of the same.


  1. The right to the city, a complex correlation of objectives and contents

The matrix presented below expresses part of the complexity and wealth of contents and functions implicated in the right to the city. In it are correlated the concrete vision of “the city we want” proposed by the World Assembly of Urban Inhabitants held in Mexico in October 2000 (see resolutions in separate document in this collection) with the strategic foundations of the Charter (annex 1), oriented to construct the conditions and the institutional supports that lead to make it possible.

Approximation of the right to the city, centered on the dreams and vindications of its inhabitants, requires political and institutional will to translate it into laws that formalize it, in public policies that advance its specific realization, and in instruments, resources and programs that make its realization viable.

The needs and demands of city inhabitants (rows in the matrix) necessarily translate into rights (existing and yet-to-be-conquered). The strategic foundations (columns), translate into public policies, instruments and concrete actions (see annex 1). Every intersection or node of the matrix contains these two dimensions, although some are strategic and determinant for the realization of the right to the city and others refer to necessary or complementary support to achieve it. The nodes also profile the interactive, contradictory and complementary processes that occur between the State and organized civil society.

While in the case of the matrix rows, the indivisibility of human rights makes it difficult to refer them specifically to the diverse characteristics that define “the city we want,” it is possible to recognize that the democratic and inclusive city is linked primarily to civil and political rights; the sustainable city to environmental rights; the productive to economic; the educational, healthy, secure and livable city to social, and the convivial city to cultural rights.

In this way as well, in the case of the columns:
  • Full exercise of citizenship refers to enjoyment and realization of all human rights and individual freedoms for all the inhabitants of the city, through the construction of dignified conditions of life cemented in freedom and justice. But it is not limited to individual exercise of human rights in the city, but rather proposes the right to the city as a whole of rights of collective character.
  • The social function of the city and of property refers fundamentally to distribution and regulation of the use of the territory and equitable usufruct of the goods and services that the city offers.
  • Democratic management of the city implies citizen participation up to the highest level in formulation and direction of public policies, and planning and control of urban processes.
  • Democratic production of the city and in the city is consolidated in the strategic objective to rescue and reinforce the productive and income-generation capacity of its inhabitants, in particular the popular sectors, fomenting social production of habitat and development of solidary economic activities oriented to consolidate a productive habitat.
  • The sustainable and responsible handling of the city’s natural and energy resources and its heritage pursues socially responsible use of resources, today and for future generations.
  • Democratic and equitable enjoyment of the city seeks to reinforce social co-existence, and specifically the rescue, expansion and improvement of public space and its use for gathering, leisure, creativity, and critical manifestation of political ideas and positions.

(The objectives and the type of instruments that must be developed for implementation of the right to the city are presented in Annex 1 of this text).


  1. Democratic and rights-based cities, strategic axes of the right to the city

A first review of the matrix identifies two guiding axes of the right to the city:

  • Consolidation of active and responsible citizenship through full exercise of all human rights and fulfillment of the obligations derived from the same, and
  • Democratization of all the strategic processes that form and that seek to co-responsibly (State-society) realize the collective right to the city.

The full exercise of citizenship leads to construction of a city of rights and includes the whole of human rights: civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental, linked to habitat and the right itself to the city as collective right.

Building a democratic society is not limited to the urgent need to strengthen representative democracy, but rather includes the determined stimulation of distributive and participative democracy.

The profound democratization of our societies is in fact unavoidable requisite to articulate these processes. There is no democracy without citizenship and no citizenship without rights and obligations.

The city for which its inhabitants struggle and the goals pursued by the promoters of the World Charter as a whole define the profile of the city objective that today inspires us to work for the promotion and adoption of the right to the city as a new human right.



  1. The Right to the City in the construction of Another Possible World
  
Another level of more profound complexity of the right to the city is established upon relating the socio-political, economic, and physical-environmental factors that determine the quality of life in a determined urban sphere.

In the context of the grave world trends that lead to social exclusion of broad and growing social sectors, the right to the city should be oriented toward construction of that other possible world for which those of us promoting the World Charter have struggled.

To advance in that perspective, based on the complex interdependence of the three considered factors, the need is posed to improve the quality of life of all the persons that inhabit the city through the satisfaction and full realization of all human rights, articulated in interdependent and integral form, and the democratization and interconnection of all the spaces and entities responsible to direct their management, all of this based on the following objectives:

  1. To contribute to construction of inclusive, livable, just, democratic, sustainable and enjoyable cities.
  2. To contribute to advance processes of social organization, strengthening of the social fabric, and construction of active and responsible citizenship, and
  3. To contribute to construction of an equitable, inclusive and solidary urban economy that guarantees the productive insertion and the economic strengthening of the popular sectors.

The human, physical and economic dimensions are all considered in these objectives. The right to the city, in accordance with these objectives, can help by being factor of social and political strengthening of the population, of sustainable territorial ordering and management, and of growth of the solidary economy.

Construction of the other possible world involves the expansion of the transformative consciousness of persons, of their articulation in committed and active collectives, and of the mobilizing hope of those who dream of a city for all: it therefore has a human, social and political dimension.

The territory, the city itself, the neighborhood and the home, constitute the physical dimension of the right to the city. This right touches both the environmental and the built patrimony, and poses the need to preserve them and place them at the service of life, of the inhabitants of today and of future generations.

Relocating the human person and nature at the center of our ethic leads also to rethinking the economic dimension of the right to the city. This demands a critical and profound review of the relation between production and reproduction, to articulate them in benefit of the human being as subject and primary objective of economic activity.

The following elements must all be recognized and promoted by the right to the city in order to advance another possible economy, founded on work, solidarity, and human know-how and creativity: the valuing of work above capital; solidary collaboration and complementation; productive insertion of inhabitants in urban society; recognition and appreciation of women’s role in the economy; fair trade; respectful exchange with nature, and the development of technologies which are adequate to organized production processes.

The interactions among these three factors and between the State and the population are illustrated in the following figure:



It is a dynamic and articulated interaction that not only illustrates the complexity of the right to the city but also the importance of overcoming sectoral, disciplinary and specialized approaches in the analysis and handling of the urban phenomenon.

Managing the city of the 21st century demands learning to administrate its complexity, through processes that facilitate inter-sectoral coordination and that advance toward new forms of integral and participative management of urban issues.

It also involves the construction of a dynamic and critical balance between organized civil society and State institutions through reinforcement of the organizational, productive and management capacities of social and civil organizations, and the democratic opening of spaces of negotiation, planning, control and action that promote and support their co-responsible participation to the highest possible level. It therefore demands political will and social commitment.

Finally, it poses the consequent emergence of a new culture and a new ethic, both centered on the human being, life, and respect for nature.


  1. Implications for the drafting of the Charter

The formulation of the Charter clearly illustrates that the right to the city is not only a question of human rights. Social processes converge in its promotion and concrete operation that struggle for the objective that these rights not only be recognized, respected and protected, but fundamentally that they be materially realized and solidified for all.

The drafting of the articles that address the rights included in the Charter therefore must be very careful to assure that said rights are not limited to their legal dimension –as important as it may be- but rather express the wealth of contents, interactions, priorities and responsibilities synthesized in the matrix. By maintaining the Charter as human rights instrument, we are encompassing the totality of elements included in it, but we must remain aware in its drafting of the importance of the State role in its recognition, promotion, defense, instrumentation and realization, and that of society in the co-responsible exercise of its rights and citizen obligations.

This obligates a review of the wording itself of the current version of the Charter that attributes to cities the duty to implement the rights, leaving unclear the responsibility held by public powers and in particular local authorities in their application. The Charter must specify the obligations and responsibilities of the State as well as the commitments acquired by other social actors to socialize its contents and to assume co-responsibility in its fulfillment.

From the complex interactions presented in the second graph between the socio-political, the economic and the physical-environmental, the need is derived to allocate a transformative and precise sense to the right to the city and therefore to the wording of the Charter.

The right to the city does not refer to the city as we know it today but rather to that city we imagine and want to build. It is not equivalent to producing hundreds of thousands of commercial homes or kilometers of streets and pipes, but rather touches very diverse aspects of the planning, production, use and consumption of the city itself and its components; of governmental management and the participative and co-responsible action of its inhabitants; of social relations, co-existence, and fun and creative uses of public spaces; of diversity in all its urban manifestations and of the mechanisms to protect, improve, and give social sense to the city’s environmental, cultural and built heritage.

All of these and other elements that define the city as complex system are contemplated in the strategic foundations and in the whole of interrelated human rights in this proposal. But their transformative force will depend largely on the congruency and the care dedicated to define the Charter’s organization, contents, and wording itself, and, of course, the precision and profundity in the agreements and responsibilities that it gathers.

Annex 2 presents an outline of the Charter for the Right to the City that reflects several of the proposals presented here and others gathered from the debates underway around the structure of the Charter for the Right to the City in process in Mexico City.




[1] Foundation here is synonymous to principle, but it has a connotation of basis-for-action more than as orienting or ideological reference.