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Monday, 20 May 2013 00:00

Rebel Cities: From The Right To The City To The Urban Revolution

by David Harvey (Verso, £9.99)
by Angel Dahouk

David Harvey's book puts the case for us to create cities responsive to our needs and not those of super-rich

In Rebel Cities David Harvey explores the rise of consumer culture and its role in determining the development of cities via the urbanisation of capital.

His investigation of how political and economic power has built up urban centres for profit begins by referencing the French Marxist philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre's concept of "the right to the city," which promotes the idea that the city is a commons which should be organised for and by the people.

That idea remains both undeveloped and overanalysed but Harvey sets out to sharpen and contextualise what the right to the city means in light of recent global unrest.

Citing the post-war US, he explains how huge debt-financed investment was poured into the built environment to counter the depression. This in turn boosted spending on domestic goods and these vast urban-suburban infrastructures, says Harvey, were created to both absorb and feed the frenzy of capital accumulation.

Today the same pattern is developing internationally as a result of the global integration of financial markets in cities like Sao Paulo, Dubai or Hong Kong. Booming property markets are transforming city centres and turfing out long-established communities.

For Harvey - a prolific Marxist writer and one of the most cited academic geographers - this urban process is very much a class struggle. Those with financial power are backed by the state and given permission to reshape the city.

An example is Yale University in the US, one of the richest institutions in the world, which has poured limitless resources into the redevelopment of New Haven where it is based to suit its own needs. But the right to the city should not entail exclusivity, argues Harvey. It should be a collective right.

Urban centres are major sites of social and political conflict that contain the potential for anti-capitalist revolt and in the book's concluding section Harvey briefly focuses on recent localised movements from Bolivia to Occupy Wall Street. These, Harvey hopes, indicate the beginning of the city takeover.

This candid and accessible chronicle of the rise of capitalism and how it has organised cities underlines how for the author the city is not just a passive site or a "place of appearance." It is the epicentre of social control and the markings of a city reveal the dominance of one group over another.

"The question of what kind of city we want," explains Harvey, "cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be."

It is the people's right then to rebuild and recreate a city that matches its own needs.

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