By Gareth Millington
I’ve been working with Henri Lefebvre’s formulation of the right to the city for a while now. Recent events in London—I am referring in particular to the Grenfell Tower fire (14 June) and the death in police custody of Edson da Costa (21 June)—have driven home a doubt that I’ve long harboured. In short, Lefebvre’s conception of this right, which famously incorporates the right to difference, the right to habitat and the right to centrality, does not go far enough—for contemporary times—in encompassing the right to protection and/or the right to safety. In addition, it does not (cannot) account for racialized experiences of precarity in a city as unequal as contemporary London. Without ever wishing to lose the spirit of both fullness and openness in the Lefebvre’s original work, the issue of protection has become fundamental in understanding the right to the city in neoliberal cities where the threats of interpersonal violence, state violence, health and safety deregulation, pollution, terrorism and austerity budgets causing cuts to vital services are lived with by the majority as an everyday urban reality. As David Madden, co-author of In Defence of Housing, has written in the wake of Grenfell: ‘There are aspects of urban environments and everyday life that can kill, either swiftly through catastrophic failure or ecological disaster, or slowly through illness or poor health. But the chances of being subjected to these conditions are distributed unevenly.’
Of course, Paris in 1968 (where and when Lefebvre wrote La droit de la ville) provided a very different context. As a Marxist (of sorts) in a country dominated by an authoritarian Gaullist state, Lefebvre understandably favoured self-organisation and self-determination (autogestion) among urban communities. He was justifiably wary of eradicating dissent, desire or play from the city. He was worried of the influence of planners, technocrats and the police—in fact any agent of the state—seeing them as responsible for ‘urbanism’, a nebulous ‘science of the city’. I think it’s fair to say that Lefebvre didn’t want or trust the state to have much to do with ‘protecting’ its urban citizens. He wanted city dwellers to learn how to do this for themselves.
The Grenfell tragedy with its intimations of criminal negligence demonstrates how an alignment between critical criminology and Lefebvrian urban studies is perhaps overdue. Critical criminology—with its Marxist roots—is concerned with who in society has the power to criminalise. It seeks to explain the aetiology of crimes of the powerful and identifies the social harms that state and corporate actors are responsible for (Grenfell, in a manner that is characteristic of ‘neoliberal’ tragedies, blurs boundaries between the two). Critical criminology seeks to make more visible these social harms, to pinpoint their causes and to pursue means through which both legal and social justice may be achieved.
An important concept in critical criminology—one which was misappropriated by the New Labour government (1997-2010)—is that of community safety. Originally, this notion encompassed much more than protecting citizens from crime or anti-social behaviour. It was never intended to divide the working-class between ‘roughs’ and ‘respectables’. In fact, it was devised as a way of critiquing governmental concern with street crime over and above the other harms that blighted the lives of the urban working-class. Community safety argued for a radical, pan-hazard approach to improving urban lives that involved tackling domestic violence, poverty, diet, health and road safety and so forth on an equal footing to crime. It also advocated a horizontal multi-agency approach to setting an agenda for protection that was necessarily derived from deep and continuous engagement with the urban communities most at risk. One aim, in the wake of inner city riots and a loss of trust between police and black communities in the first half of the 1980s in London, was to develop a more consensual mode of urban policing.
While Grenfell has shown that listening to communities (and taking their concerns seriously) remains more important than ever, it also reveals the ‘cry and demand’—to use a lexicon familiar to readers of Lefebvre—for a renewed social democratic state that is willing and able to protect citizens from the harms caused by failing, delegitimised neoliberal urban policy. A re-worked conception of community safety, most likely under a new rubric, can help to identify, act upon and neutralise the hazards of urban living that have been created and exacerbated by decades of rolling back the remit and influence of the state. Indeed, in the context of austerity, many urban dwellers are angrily demanding adequate protection, especially when—in a marketised society—they have no means of securing themselves. As the response to Grenfell shows, the organic forms of spontaneity and convergence that Lefebvre so admires do exist. People in this diverse and degraded pocket of North Kensington (London’s wealthiest borough) were quick to organise (more so than the threadbare local authority) and to demonstrate compassion and support for each other—but they, like millions of other urban citizens, also deserve recourse to safe and secure public housing, legal aid, information on the safety of loved-ones, a non-racist police force and a fully resourced fire service. The right to the city must surely comprise the right to protection.
An excellent piece on the Grenfell tragedy from The Independent can be read here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/grenfell-tower-tory-austerity-class-war-outsourcing-inequality-kensington-corbyn-may-mausoleum-a7805666.html#gallery