Forced Evictions and the “Right to the City”

Many people are at risk of displacement in the context of urban redevelopment projects.

Poster calling for anti-gentrification demo in Berlin

Poster calling for anti-gentrification demo in Berlin

In many cities around the world, social and rights-based movements and NGOs have begun to adopt the “right to the city” as a slogan for activities that confront evictions and promote citizen participation in urban development. The “right to the city” often comes along with the word “gentrification” in developed urban cities such as Berlin, New York, Paris or Rome. Gentrification, a shift in an urban community toward wealthier residents and increasing property values, is a barrier to the possibility of meaningful citizenship and right to the city for all.

But also in middle and low income countries, forced evictions in the context of urban development have increased in the past decade, according to Marie Huchzermeyer, Professor at the School of Architecture and Planning and the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

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An informal settlement resident in Nairobi, Kenya, demands an end to forced evictions on World Habitat Day 2011. Photo: Amnesty International

With regard to the African continent, where many cities are experiencing rapid growth in population amidst uneven economic development, Huchzermeyer explains that forced evictions have occurred especially during a period in which several countries adopted constitutional democracy, such as Kenya or South Africa.  Here, authoritarian tendencies merged with the adoption of urban policy approaches prioritizing economic competitiveness, have overridden housing-related rights. Households are removed from land that is not yielding its full economic potential.

Only a fraction of eviction cases find their way to courts. “The poor, with their largely make-shift or substandard accommodation and trading stalls, often find themselves in the way, as ‘trash’ to be ‘cleaned up’ or ‘swept away’ in the unashamed official naming of many urban programs, such as Operation Murambatsvina in 2005 or Johannesburg’s operation Clean Sweep as recent as 2013″, says Huchzermeyer.

The Professor sheds a light on a paradox that has arisen in which global agencies have been calling on ‘developing’ states to compete globally for foreign direct investment, while also expecting them to improve the lives of the poor in the cities.

Henri Lefebvre, French philosopher and sociologist known for his theory of the “Right to the city” states that the economic function of the city must be subordinated to social life. This enables ordinary citizens to spontaneously participate in the shaping of their homes and the city, allowing diversity and difference to flourish in urban space.

Huchzermeyer pleads for a right to the city framework developed from below and adopted into law at city and national level. This framework should provide a link between the existing socio-economic human rights (defense against eviction) and economic attraction of a city – livability and competitiveness.

It is worth reflecting upon how the rise of urbanization around the globe can affect human rights. In this sense, the “right to the city” debate is more relevant than ever.

Bulldozers demolish housing in Old Fadama, Accra (Ghana), Photo: Philip Kuma

Bulldozers demolish housing in Old Fadama, Accra (Ghana), Photo: Philip Kuma

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Text: Josephine Landertinger Forero, with the kind support of Doutje Letinga, Amnesty International Netherlands

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Related links:

A collection of eight essays explores the opportunities and challenges that a rapidly urbanizing world poses for human rights. One Chapter, by Marie Huchzermeyer, is dedicated to Forced Evictions and the Right to the City. Find the complete publication here:

>>> Changing perspectives on human rights: The Future of Human Rights in an Urban World (Exploring Opportunities, Threats and Challenges), published by the Strategic Studies Project

The Strategic Studies Project is an initiative of Amnesty International Netherlands. Since 2013 the Strategic Studies Project has been mapping out national and international social, political and legal developments which can affect the future of human rights and the work of Amnesty International in particular.

>>> Forced Evictions in Nigeria

>>> Philip Kuma, Human Rights Activist in Ghana following forced eviction and the demolition of housing in Old Fadama

>>> Zero Evictions Campaign

>>> The Right to Housing without Borders

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