Urban Implications of RENT: “Right to the City”

You will never feel more pumped up about your future in planning than during the time you spend in a planning theory class. In one class, we discussed “The Right to the City” by David Harvey, in which he describes various theorists’ and urbanists’ – from Henri Lefebvre to Mike Davis – views of how the city should be developed and inhabited by all of its citizens. Writing in 2008 at the start of the recession, Harvey says:

Urbanization has always been…a class phenomenon, since surpluses are extracted from somewhere and from somebody, while the control over their disbursement typically lies in a few hands.

We could see the implications of this recently during the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests: people taking to the streets and occupying privately owned “public” space and aligning themselves adjacent to the “few hands” that Harvey points to – this time on Wall Street. From Karl Marx’s social class discussions to modern day, this is a battle that continues, and it is our job as planners and policy-makers to mediate the situation.

Even in popular culture, there is a call to action. Riding on the train and reviewing my notes from class, I heard the cast of RENT blasting through my headphones, lamenting their poor living conditions and pending eviction to create a cyberland:

How can you connect in a land when strangers, lovers, landlords, your own blood cells betray? What binds the fabrics together when the raging shifting winds of change keep ripping away? (RENT!) Draw a line in the sand and then make a stand!

(Note: RENT premiered in 1989, cyberland sounded really cool and new…maybe a [stretching] comparison to urban renewal’s attempt to bring “new life” and remove the stain of the poor from urban centers?)

While some might deem RENT as an odd comparison to Occupy Wall Street, I think it is pretty spot-on: groups of people binding together to fight against economic oppression and for their right to the city. It was a valid fight in the 1950’s and 1960’s when Jane Jacobs argued against urban renewal and for the vitalization of the street, in the late 1980’s when RENT was written, and recently with Occupy Wall Street.

However, this question came up in class: should the APA (American Planning Association) endorse the OWS movement? In 1965, planning theorist Paul Davidoff wrote “Advocacy and Pluralism in Planning,” arguing that planners must act as an “advocator” of people’s use of the city. I agree with Davidoff, and believe his writings transcend time to be applicable now to OWS. The APA should get involved; step in and take the interests of not just the protestors, but interest groups as well, to improve communication and come to solutions on economic, social, and spatial levels. The movement has purposely taken on an urban presence, acting as theorist Henri Lefebvre would have encouraged, as he gave considerable importance to space in revolutionary movements, “insist[ing] that the revolution [be] urban, in the broadest sense of that term, or nothing at all.” Davidoff rejected the idea of planners acting “solely as a technician” and argued that planners must get involved at all levels, citing “philosophy, social work, law, the social sciences, and civic design” as areas that planners must become familiar with and act upon in the interest of the public.

However, Davidoff also stated that advocacy is for those who are “concerned with proposing policies for the future development of the community,” not just everyone with an opinion. Unfortunately, the movement’s goals and expectations are unclear at best, ranging from tax policy, student loan forgiveness, and closing down big banks. There is no real plan for change, only demands based on a vague ideal. So, what’s keeping the APA from endorsing the movement and acting as an advocator for the right to the city? Maybe if the movement put on a musical number as catchy as “Seasons of Love,” that summarized their goals and thoughts, the APA would be in Zuccotti Park and boardrooms collecting ideas to come to some solutions before demonstrators come down with pneumonia in the icy parks of New York City.

-Stephanie Byrd
1st Year MPL, Design Concentration

2 responses to “Urban Implications of RENT: “Right to the City”

  1. Great post Stephanie!

    To add on, I think the character of Benny in RENT best symbolizes the role of the planner. In “You’ll See”, he negotiates with his close friends to prevent a protest foreseen to cause social obstruction. Though Benny makes an honest attempt to reconcile class warfare by getting involved in on a social level, it’s unfortunate that he’s ultimately seen as money-minded and cold, redeemed solely by his ability to provide financial remedies.

    • Thank you, it’s nice to know there’s another RENThead out there in the bunch.

      I couldn’t agree more about Benny, but I hadn’t thought about it like that before.

      Another example of “Benny syndrome”: the other day in PPD 527 we watched a documentary called “Style Wars” that focused on graffiti artists in NYC and the efforts they go through to get their work on subway trains. When the director was interviewing MTA officials, I completely felt as though he was trying to frame them as the “bad guys” and victimize the graffiti artists, but really, who is in the right in the situation? Vandals or tax-paying officials?

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