[URBANTH-L]REV: Burk on Mitchell, _The Right to the City_

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Thu Mar 31 02:09:58 EST 2005

[x-posted from H-Urban]

Don Mitchell. _The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for
Public Space_. New York: Guilford Press, 2003. ix + 270 pp.
Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $25.00 (paper), ISBN

Reviewed for H-Urban by Dr. Adrienne Burk <alburk at sfu.ca>, Department of
Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC

Afflicting the Comfortable

"To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" is advice Don
Mitchell takes wholly to heart in this passionate book, directed
especially to scholars who eschew "rights talk" and juridical analysis
as somehow removed from the project of progressive research and the
making of more just societies. Mitchell takes as a point of departure
Henri Lefebvre's "right to the city as a cry and demand;" that is, a
right not only to inhabit urban spaces but also to participate in a city
as an ongoing work of creation, production, and negotiation. Choosing to
focus on those excluded from such work (and the mechanisms that exclude
them), Mitchell opens with a theory of social justice and urban space
drawn from Raymond Williams's assessment of Matthew Arnold's reaction to
the Hyde Park riots of 1866. Mitchell articulates a tension between
legal decisions supporting (so-called) "public order" over "rights;"
this tension is revisited throughout all subsequent chapters. Using case
studies such as the Berkeley Free Speech movement and People's Park and
close analysis of several arguments and dissents within case law
focusing on labor, anti-abortion protests, the public forum doctrine,
and anti-homeless laws, Mitchell offers a sustained and comprehensive
assault on those who use the discourse of order to deny others the right
to the city.

Of the book's eight chapters, five contain information that has appeared
elsewhere, but the re-workings are impressive. The addition of
considerable historical-geographic detail on the Berkeley Free Speech
movement makes a gripping account of the politics of spatiality during
that movement. In another essay, Mitchell provocatively contends that
"new" public virtual spaces have enhanced publicity for certain causes
but, importantly, have _not_ supplanted the importance of physical
occupations and negotiations of public space. Also, throughout,
Mitchell's discussions of the intersection of rights, social justice and
urban space across several chapters offer significantly more empirical
detail and conceptual insight than previous iterations.

The book has many strengths. Particularly helpful is the admirable
integration of dissents within case law and scholarship by an impressive
array of geographers, sociologists, cultural theorists, legal scholars,
activists, and politicians. Mitchell uses this range of material to map
thematically both historical and contemporary debates of public space
and free speech. Anchoring his arguments and observations in a number of
empirical examples helps clarify even quite arcane legal reasoning.
Mitchell's meticulous critique of Robert Ellickson's proposed zoning of
three "types" of public space as a portent of emerging legal directives
is also superb. Overall, in its broad reach and comprehensiveness, the
book makes a powerful contribution to the literatures on cities, on
critical  social science, on legal reasoning, on public space, and on
the issues of homelessness.

Mitchell is particularly engaged with the legal circumscriptions
governing homeless people as those who "are needed [as a byproduct of
capitalism], but are not wanted" (p. 174). He details a distressingly
large list of the discourses, policies, bylaws and legal decisions that
disenfranchise the homeless in whatever ways serve local political
circumstances. Though Mitchell himself characterizes homelessness with
compassion and regard (and is careful to acknowledge the rationale
behind his own essentializing of "the" homeless--see p. 158), his book
makes clear that the assault on the homeless is just the most tangible
manifestation of the libertarian paradise of an all-privatized social

Indeed, a central concern of the book is to show the myriad elements
which join to create and sustain the construction of "public order."
Mitchell's contention is that wealthy cities are being re-fashioned due
to global neo-liberal restructuring, leading not to an "annihilation of
space by time," but rather a collapse of public space itself through the
"constant production and reproduction of certain _kinds_ of places" (p.
165, original emphasis), i.e., locations that uphold the
"disneyfication" of public space, allowing unencumbered passage for
social elites but criminalizing and/or eradicating the homeless. For
those whose interests parallel Mitchell's, it is possible to follow his
arguments and stylistic redundancies (distracting but perhaps inevitable
in a book featuring several free-standing chapters). For those
unfamiliar with the theoretical literature Mitchell so fluently uses,
the book may border on the daunting. Readers are initiated into close
arguments on theories of justice, positive and negative rights,
characteristics of citizenship, the historical relations of democracy
and public space, legal decisions regarding the intersection of speech
and action and, increasingly, location, and on the taking and producing
of public space via Lefebvre's representational spaces and spaces of
representation. Mitchell also ruminates on the constructions of
landscape, the intersection of markets and justice, public versus open
space, use/exchange value, cyberspace, broken window theory, and
traditional discourses on the homeless. Fortunately, an excellent table
of contents clearly identifies the trajectory of each chapter and can
help the reader avoid confusion and manage the abundance of so many

With respect, I offer two conceptual criticisms. First, while clearly
the immense and engaged scholarship evident in this book had to stop
somewhere, I found it odd that there was not much analysis of _why_ the
United States has contributed such detail to legal reasoning. Is it that
the mixture of commerce and politics that Mitchell claims is part of
public space is particularly volatile and calibrated in U.S. culture? Is
it the cultural tendency towards litigation? The unfettered regard for
capital? I would have appreciated Mitchell's observations on this point,
given his erudition on the topic, as well as at least an initial
discussion of the legal decisions regarding public space in other modern

More problematic for me, however, is Mitchell's implied but not quite
coherent linkage of historical battles fought about rights with the
contemporary situation of the homeless. Mitchell argues throughout his
book that predisposition to distributive justice and "rights talk" is
necessary but not sufficient to foster more just societies; i.e., that
material spaces need to be won, produced, contested, taken, negotiated,
occupied, and inhabited as a way of provoking and grounding legal
decisions. He offers as examples the civil rights, women's and labor
movements. Yet he claims these battles were fought on a different notion
of citizenship than the one governing debates about homelessness:
"[A]nti-homeless laws reflect a changing conception of citizenship
which, contrary to the hard-won inclusions in the public sphere that
marked the civil rights, women's and labor movements in past decades,
now seeks to reestablish exclusionary citizenship as just and good" (pp.
181-182). This is a powerful statement, but I find that it inadvertently
mischaracterizes the extreme violence, racism, and structures of denial
which confronted those previous struggles.  The earlier struggles around
labor and civil rights, for example, also faced assumptions of
exclusionary citizenship. However, they (and women's movements)
possessed powerful ideological and logistical organizational tools:
large, relatively geographically-concentrated constituencies, shared
traditions of rhetoric and analysis of solidarity and faith, pivotal
spokespersons, access to sites possessing organizational resources, and
tactically useful geographies (workplaces, churches, restaurants, homes,
universities). The constituencies of these earlier movements also shared
appreciation for strategic collective corporeal discipline and
self-regulation (consider the marches, boycotts, and sit-ins), and often
the status of waged workers. All of these provided incalculable
contributions to the visibility of these movements and for their
advocates to argue the "rights talk." Yet these characteristics are not
part of the lives of most homeless people today. The disenfranchisement
amongst the homeless is compounded by the unprecedented demographic
realities of who and where they are. Though clearly not homogeneous, by
any measure the homeless "body politic" is not only geographically
dispersed, but also riddled with a high incidence of mental illness,
addiction, social disaffiliation, racism, violence and often pronounced
disinclination to acquiesce to authority. It is a constituency fractured
by multiple deprivations, deprivations which can be exploited by the
"exclusionary citizenship" rhetoric, but not entirely explained by it. I
thus found the emphasis on the citizenship argument, coupled with the
silence about the organizing realities of the various earlier social
movements Mitchell cites as "successful," both puzzling and surprising.
Noting these differences explicitly would have strengthened, rather than
diluted, his argument.

It is not for the homeless alone to win in the streets and in the
courts; it is for the rest of us, those who are housed and can afford to
be contemplative, those who venture beyond our private thresholds under
conditions of our own choosing, to recognize that the cry and the demand
for a right to the city must be inclusive. This recognition is not an
act of charity for "them," but rather a common goal based on a belief
that exclusive and sanitized cities, far from uplifting humanity,
instead erode our collective social repertoires and allow the rise of
brittle, fearful and unimaginative spaces, citizens, and societies.

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