“A street is a series of houses united by the link of the neighbourhood," said Josep Pla in Barcelona, una discusión entrañable [Barcelona, a fond discussion] and a city is a knot of streets, a network of relationships, an agglomeration of neighbourhoods without which we could not understand what we are.
A city is a social space that we live in and we imagine; a shared being, doing and wanting. Nowadays, more than half the people on the planet live in cities, and in these cities the stories are forged which construct the memory we want to preserve and the links we want to create.
When we defend the right to the city, what we are doing is fighting against those who wish to deprive us of these stories, this memory and these links, and how successful this struggle is largely depends on there being some cities people want to go to and others from which they wish to flee. Of course, not all cities are the Ithaca of Ulysses, sweet homelands of lush, rolling hills.
There are cities devastated by corrupt development and the building boom that divides, fragments and imposes its hierarchies on them. Because while the rich bunker down in their enclosed, ‘secure’ residential areas, the big developers are creating parallel cities where life can be lonely and unstable, urban metabolisms that ceaselessly grind down those in greatest need of proximity and integration. Women carers, those with precarious livelihoods, the elderly, children and disabled people... Today there are 883 million people living in these marginal neighbourhoods, condemned to dealing with the insurmountable class, gender and race barriers that a few have placed in their way.
When we defend the right to the city, we are thinking of transforming these things. We are thinking of the Ithacas that welcome and nurture, where politics for the common good reigns. Compact, capillarised cities where proximity and access to the basic needs to sustain life is the priority.
In Spain, our Ithacas are cities that have opted for coordinated self-government in their fight against the dismantling of local autonomy enforced by the Popular Party’s Local Administration Act and Montoro Act.
Cities that gain sovereignty by reclaiming water, electricity, transport and land for the people, common goods expropriated years ago in the form of sales, outsourcing and public-private partnerships.
Cities that gain sovereignty by rejecting a predatory tourism model, resisting speculation and the environmental deterioration it causes.
Cities that gain sovereignty by opting for a local economy, urban allotments and agroecology. Gaining sovereignty is integrating the outskirts of the city so that the suburbs are not just a desert of potentially buildable land, an endless well of resources or simply a sewer.
And gaining sovereignty is rescuing the memory of the city, the iconic and symbolic spaces; rescuing a story that must be told from the experience of the social majorities, because there are some who have used the city to revictimise and forget.
Our Ithacas are cities of good government, committed to transparency, accountability and citizen engagement, because not one single social right can be guaranteed where there is no guarantee of a democratic basis and a community network. Participatory budgets, mayors in neighbourhoods and districts, high levels of social investment and the right to housing where there are only empty promises. Or a multi-consultation that can be used against the power of the oligopolies, like the one in Barcelona.
Our Ithacas are cities of refuge, even though the journey to Ithaca nowadays is nothing like the one the great Konstantinos Kavafis described in his famous poem, because there are no summer mornings, nor ports at which to call, no fine things, sensual perfumes, or scholars from whom to learn. Against the criminalisation of those who defend migrant people and refugees; against the excluding solidarity that pits the penultimate against the last; against the idea of ‘us first’, our Ithacas are always places that welcome and nurture.
Today, refugees comprise a relatively small, stable proportion of the world population, but the numbers of policies launched and resources assigned to making borders impenetrable are overwhelming. In 1990, fifteen countries had walls or fences, while at the beginning of 2016 this figure had risen to almost seventy. According to Amnesty International, from 2007 to 2013, prior to the crisis, the European Union spent almost 2 billion euros on fences, surveillance systems and land and sea patrols, 2 billion euros on reinforcing the security of its borders, and just 700 million euros on reception policies.
In her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt claimed that the inability of countries to guarantee the rights of those displaced in interwar Europe contributed to creating the conditions for dictatorships to thrive. The people without rights were then “the first symptoms of a potential reversal of civilisation.” And curiously, this statement is much more applicable now than it was then, only a decade ago.
Many public figures say that we must look after our own before we look after refugees, but it is more likely that these people are not interested in either. Because if psychopathy governs political action against the “others”, then this same principle will be applied to “our own” citizens.
From the Ithacas we must resist the primitive xenophobia that insists that immigration is a “threat” to the native population, to keeping social and employment benefits, to the survival of our “cultural specificity”. A combination of cultural racism and welfare racism that ultimately lends support to the thesis of national preference that is emerging and thriving all over Europe. Its aim is to feed fear and the feeling of insecurity, to generate alarm as a way of justifying the introduction of repressive policies and permanent states of exception, applied to both ourselves and to those from elsewhere,
The Bush Administration built a wall between San Diego and Tijuana to stop migration, but it spent nothing on maintaining the New Orleans dykes which would be destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and when the climate catastrophe was upon it, it designed evacuation plans only for those who had their own cars, abandoning those who had no means to survive. This is what “us first” means, as the definition of “us” becomes ever narrower and more elitist. When Social Darwinism governs public policies, then it is easier than it seems to become one of “the nobodies, who cost less than the bullets that kill them”, “the others”, “the them” or “people from nowhere.”
This is why our Ithacas are also feminised and feminist cities, organised around interdependence, ecodependence and care, because all of us are dependent, unfinished beings, at all stages of our lives... When people say that life must be placed at the centre, what is at the centre is the knot of relationships and material conditions that everybody depends on to live.
And none of these Ithacas is alone. These cities function in a network, like a polycentric, mutable hive. Here are the Cities for Public Water Meeting, held in Madrid a couple of years ago to defend water as a common good and a public asset; the global network that emerged in Barcelona in 2017; the ‘Fearless Cities”; and the Atlas of Change, which maps municipal experiences across Spain. Municipalism can face down state and interstate exclusion policies and it does so by weaving alliances and linking towns into a rich hybrid blend.
In cities there are no citizens, there are only neighbours, because what is important is not what each person is, but where they are, what they do and what they want to do together, with those with whom they share the territory and experiences.
“The city opens its windows wide so as not to miss a sound. A song goes past on a bicycle leaving each house the gift of a note” (M. Krüger, Visit to Amsterdam).
María Eugenia Rodríguez Palop (Llerena, Spain, 1970). Professor of Philosophy of Law at Carlos III University. She is the author of The new generation of human rights. Origin and justification (Dykinson, 2001 and 2010) and Claves para entender los nuevos derechos humanos (Los Libros de la Catarata, 2011).