Rights to the City and Urban Conflicts in Latin America: What Can Be Done?

María Cristina Cravino, the head of numerous research projects and publications on informal settlements and the politics of public habitation, draws from her background in anthropology to become one of the most prominent voices in the discussion about rights to the city and modern urban conflicts. 

To get her perspective, we sat down with Cravino to discuss her observations and understanding of the issue--especially in the context of quarantine and lockdowns--as well as her reflections on the role of academia in exploring the problem and finding solutions. 

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© Orestis Karagiannis. ImageAl otro lado del muro de la vergüenza / Lima, Perú

Fabian Dejtiar (FD): As a researcher on issues surrounding rights to the city and urban conflicts, I would first like you to explain to us, what do you understand as "right to the city" and "urban conflict?"

Maria Cristina Cravino (MCC): Synthetically, we attach three meanings to "right to the city." The first was a concept coined by Henri Lefebvre towards the end of the 1960s in the context of the cultural revolution sweeping across Europe that advocated for the rights of urban residents to decide how to live in cities. This meant bringing citizens to the forefront of conversations within urban sociology, which began to take on philosophical undertones before being appropriated by activists within other urban social movements.  

The second meaning can be understood within the political climate of urban demands and struggles found throughout Latin America. The deep-seated political meaning behind these movements demonstrates their connection with urban living and the fact that one cannot exist without the other. It also highlights a strong criticism of the "residentialist" approach, which prioritized satisfying the needs of housing rather than giving equal attention to services, education, health, culture, and work spaces, etc. Taking this into consideration, cities throughout Latin America began taking a holistic approach giving equal attention to public infrastructure, with many achieving various milestones throughout the process.

A third meaning, drawing from the difficulties of these social struggles, applies within the sphere of human rights, namely social, economic, and cultural rights, and seeks to transform them from declarative rights into enforceable ones. As we propose in several publications... 

… the city is conflict, just as society is conflict, but the conflicts that settle and the conflicts that manifest within each city depend on the city itself.

Without a doubt, the conflicts that make it onto the public agenda are the ones dealing with changes in urban planning. Urban conflicts highlight aspects of city life that have been naturalized and incorporated into the metropolitan experience.  At the same time, they are ripe for observing the positions of cities' different actors in relation to the use of public and private spaces, including the interstices between them. They also allow for the analysis of the social conceptions and perceptions of a city by its residents and the strategies for sustaining, reinforcing, and modifying urban hierarchies. In turn, when these conflicts enter the public agenda and become objects of debate, they lay out the ideas held by residents, the government, experts, and the public in general about urban living. Obviously, these are connected with whichever topic is at the center of debate and highlights which topics can be discussed and which ones remain off limits. There is social productivity within the conflict that models, replicates, or transforms more profound social processes. Just like with any field of social research, each conflict obligates us to delve into it and to also understand the temporalities involved in the process. 

We define urban conflicts as disputes over the use of urban space, both public and private, that impacts more than two land or property owners or includes a dispute between one property owner and a public entity. For the most part, more attention is given to conflicts within the public space, since they include more people and have multiple facets at play. Nevertheless, disputes over private spaces are becoming increasingly relevant, especially when they impact the environment. 

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© Miguel Braceli. ImageProyecto "La Nube" in Caracas, Venezuela

FD: In this sense, what do you believe is being done poorly in Latin American cities? What is the first change that should be made? 

MMC: This is a difficult question because the biggest issue in Latin America is inequality and nowhere is this more evident than in the cities. The second element that makes answering this question so difficult is the heterogeneity between Latin American cities, especially when it comes to size, and economic, social, ethnic, and cultural landscape.  

I believe that key structural issues to be addressed are:

  • a) The democratization of urban planning and management. In other words, residents have a say in decisions being made. Here, there are three problems: the power imbalance between people, the lack of public spaces in which to debate, and the lack of information about what goes on within the cities themselves. 
  • b) Equal access to land, housing, services, and urban opportunities. In particular the regulation of urban land and limits on market speculation regarding real estate and construction as well as limits on the monopolization of public services. 

This implies developing a political system totally opposite of neoliberalism, within which we would find a strong criticism of urbanism and progressive local governments who simply replicated neoliberal ideas about urban development with little to no creativity involved. Achieving this system would require dedicated professionals who are also attentive to the needs of the majority.

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© Pedro Vannucchi. Image Re-Urbanization of Sapé / Base Urbana + Pessoa Arquitetos en Brasil

 FD: In the case of informal settlements, what urban elements indicate unequal access to cities? In your opinion, what spaces or architecture make for more equal access for the majority? 

MCC: Informal settlements are the ultimate expression of a lack of access to urban land and adequate housing. What needs to be discussed more thoroughly is our understanding of urban integration. For some people it's simply a matter of painting walls pretty colors and inserting architectural landmarks; however, the most extensive needs are related to adequate housing, access to services, transportation, and high quality public spaces. 

Another rarely discussed yet relevant point is that these neighborhoods have the same rights to security as other areas of the city. This would mean disbanding the notion of zones of exception where established laws don't apply and institutional violence against residents is a daily occurrence. This would also mean breaking the stigmas against these areas, particularly those propagated in the media and even by city governments. 

Another issue is that urban policies regarding informal settlements are usually implemented after the fact. In other words, the government intervenes once the settlements are established and use the resources made available by the organizations. It's more economically feasible to guarantee access to conveniently-located urban land and housing to avoid the costs associated with building a neighborhood from scratch. 

On top of improving and managing these self-built neighborhoods, neighborhood organizations also serve as interlocutors for local governments. Respect for local representation should ultimately be the foundation for state intervention. 

Another point in the argument against evictions is their high occurrence rate throughout the region. At the same time that many neighborhood improvement programs were taking effect, the majority of which were funded by multilateral credit agencies, the number of violent evictions grew as well. We need to reflect on how this systemically violent practices can be tolerated within the context of democracy. It must be condemned. Without a doubt the fight to remain in one's home is one of the most dramatic situations that a person can encounter.

Rights to the City and Urban Conflicts in Latin America: What Can Be Done? - Image 6 of 6
© gustavomellossa | Shutterstock

FD: Having written several texts on urban inequality within cities, I imagine that the lockdowns spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic have given you a lot to think about. Could you share your opinion with us? 

MCC: We never tire in saying that Latin America is the most urbanized and unequal region on the planet, but, in practice, this inequality is all but invisible. After all, in order to follow stay-at-home orders amidst a pandemic, one first must have a home. 

Even more absent in this debate about the unequal distribution of urban resources is the acknowledgment of the role that racism and classism play in these shortcomings, especially since many of these neighborhoods are home to people from more rural parts of the country or from other countries in the region. 

The pandemic highlighted that the place where one lives is a key resource for, not only social distancing, but for work, study, and a comfortable family life as well. Whether or not a person had access to the network of public services was another factor in their ability to follow the health and safety measures as well. Of course, informal settlements lacked many of these resources, however, this is something that public policy should have addressed decades ago.

For different cities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of aid was delivered by local organizations in the form of community kitchens, food banks, neighborhood cleanup, the distribution of information on preventing the spread of the illness, and even advocating state governments to provide aid in their communities. 

The virus' spread exacerbated urban inequality, having an especially marked impact on informal settlements. Many of the residents of these areas worked in informal jobs and therefore had little to no access to government assistance. Consequently, many had to continue working out of economic necessity, putting them at greater risk of contracting the virus. Take into consideration that the overall health of residents of these areas is far worse than in other social sectors. Respiratory illnesses are especially abundant thanks to the environmental conditions, overcrowding, and lack of living space, not to mention the limited access to health services, work-related injuries and illness, and poor nutrition. Because of this, many people suffer from tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses. Many people coming from the rural areas suffer from Chagas disease as well as dengue, yellow fever, and sexually transmitted illnesses. Many residents suffer from lead contamination and parasites in their water supply. A large percentage of homes are built over informal dumps beneath pylons, close to factories and open sewers. Untreated illnesses like diabetes and hypertension occur at a high rate thanks to poor nutrition. Many people have also been frequently exposed to pesticides and toxic runoff from textile, shoe, food, and metalworking factories. All of these combined created the perfect conditions for COVID to rage through these communities. In some countries, the privatization of healthcare meant that many were unable to treat their pre-existing ailments or even receive adequate care if they contracted COVID-19.

Another factor to take into consideration is the poor quality of transportation services throughout the region. For many cities, the primary means of transportation for a large percentage of the population are metros, trains, and buses, facilitating the spread of the virus. Social sectors with access to personal means of transport were far less impacted by both the risk of contagion and the travel restrictions implemented to quell the spread of COVID. This lack of or difficulty accessing mobility should be addressed in urban planning in order to provide high quality,  low cost services that can be built along with the city. One of the greatest challenges currently facing large metropolitan areas is that many people must dedicate up to 6 hours daily simply to commute between home and work. In the context of the pandemic, location, not just housing, proved just as important in terms of preventing the spread of the virus. 

The size and quality of dwellings was also put into focus, not only for lower income households but for middle-class ones as well who started working from home. The ability to pay for housing also proved challenging across economic demographics, as job losses and business closings rendered many people unable to keep up with rent or mortgages. Evictions were widespread in spite of many countries trying to prevent them. Cramped living quarters brought many challenges, and, although there is little concrete data, could have increased instances of domestic violence.

Digital connectivity also proved to be a factor in urban inequality, not only for work but for studying and accessing help as well.  

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Neighborhood 31 in Retiro, Buenos Aires. Author: Ministry of Urban and Transportation Development, Government of Buenos Aires. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image via Wikipedia user: Mauricio V. Genta

FD: From an academic or research perspective, is enough being done to combat urban conflicts? Do you note any sense of urgency within research to address this? How should universities prepare students to address this issue?

MMC: This depends on what area of study we are talking about and in which university. Social Sciences is an area far more prepared to take on the challenge of urban conflicts mainly because it doesn't perceive it as a result of societal combativeness or as some social pathology but rather as a part of social dynamics.  Of course, there's a lot to be improved on and pursuing this area of study doesn't guarantee readiness to lead the implementation of policies by non-profits and local organizations.

Architecture, on the other hand, does little to prepare professionals to approach and solve urban conflicts. This should be added to the curriculum within urban studies as an interdisciplinary focus, providing the tools necessary to understand, address, and take action.

One of the other means of educating students is through consultations with the government and other regional organizations as well as through university extensions, which offer students exposure to the social realities that they often cannot grasp through theoretical study. Of course, these experiences are more for learning rather than actually taking action.

It's fundamental to educate professionals with the ability to critique but also to understand needs across social sectors and take into consideration ethnic and gender perspectives.

Lastly, it's necessary to strengthen the dialogue between the academic and urban planning sectors. To close this unfortunate gap would empower academic institutions to give realistic support to government entities and open urban planners to the critiques from professionals in academia. Ultimately, this would broaden the impact of academic institutions on public policy.

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Cite: Dejtiar, Fabian. "Rights to the City and Urban Conflicts in Latin America: What Can Be Done?" [Derecho a la ciudad y conflictos urbanos en América Latina, ¿qué debemos hacer?] 20 Oct 2021. ArchDaily. (Trans. Johnson, Maggie) Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/969541/rights-to-the-city-and-urban-conflicts-in-latin-america-what-can-be-done> ISSN 0719-8884

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