December 22, 2022

Human Rights and Cities – How Can Municipalities Do the Right Thing?

This is a revised version of a previous post
By Dr. David Sadoway
KPU Geography & the Environment | KPU Policy Studies
Viewpoint Vancouver Writer in Residence

International Human Rights Day is on December 10th every year. It is a time to take stock of where we are at and wish to be in Metro Vancouver. Declared by the United Nations (U.N.) as a day to recall “the inalienable rights which everyone is entitled to as a human being,” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948.

What do lofty rights declarations have to do with the complex day-to-day realities of citizens and their governments? When faced with conflicting or intractable material demands, how can local municipalities ‘do the right thing’? And how can governments and citizens better assess or address human rights impacts in current and future policies, plans and infrastructure projects?

Human Rights & Cities

The pandemic and recent climate-related impacts —whether drought, atmospheric river flooding or the heat dome — underscores the need to humanize our work. Human Rights Watch and the B.C. Human Rights Clinic both identified how systemic failures led to heat wave deaths in 2021. They argue that comprehensive planning and multi-level solutions for safely housing elders and the disabled are needed to prevent future tragedies.

With the ongoing urban instabilities in public health (on multiple fronts); crises in houselessness urban housing supply; precarious work for many; the troika of climate change, biodiversity loss, and urban pollution threats; and the need for expanded public transit (particularly in suburban areas) and an overall affordability crisis — additional tools are needed for engaging people with their local governments, institutions, civil society groups or mutual aid.

A human rights-informed perspective can seed transformative thinking about cities in this respect.

Housing, forced evictions, privatization of public spaces, defensive/militarized urban design, policing, security and surveillance systems, are, for example, several themes explored in this Amnesty International 2013 study. It  focuses on the decentralization of human rights from the global to the urban level and observations by urban scholars and activists.

In light of the daily cultural, socio-economic and environmental injustices we witness, urbanists have been making the case for prioritizing human rights lenses and human development lenses in cities. Amnesty International Canada just recently published the ‘stop paving over our rights’ comic (advised by Transport Planner, Eric Doherty) with a focus on the linkages between climate and transit justice and human rights.

IMAGE: ‘The World Reimagined’ public art globes & educational trail in London (UK). This is 1 of 103 globes in the UK exploring the ‘Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved Africans.’ (Sadoway 2022).

Unblocking, Engaging & Prioritizing

Urban human rights activists and movements can unblock the voices, visions, and capabilities of all who live in our midst, including (amongst others), engaging and prioritizing the rights of Indigenous Peoples, Black folks, Asian folks, children, disabled folks, women, queer and trans folks and new immigrants and refugees (amongst others).

Engaging directly with communities are key tenets of universal design and human-centred design participatory planning practices. In Metro Vancouver this includes devising plans for more and improved Indigenous cultural protocols and safety, affordable housing, accessible public washrooms, frequent and affordable public transit, seasonal cooling/heating centres, and quiet parks that enhance biodiversity and recreational space.

I would also include  ‘the right to nature’, which is the title of a 2018 book in which Amanda K. Winter examines (in a chapter) two cases of tent camping in Metro Vancouver as forms of housing and environmental activism.

The human rights cities network and human rights in the city charter are two relatively recent examples of how local governments can embed human rights in their work. Migrants rights activists created the ‘sanctuary cities’ movement to ensure protections against deportations in U.S. cities.

For example, San Francisco’s 1989 City and County of Refuge Ordinance. provides a legal basis for protection and Seattle urbanists have devised more inclusive urban design scenarios to support refugee rights in future Sanctuary Cities.

Closer to home, the Montreal Charter of Rights and Responsibilities (MCRR),  established in 2006, has served as an aspirational social contract—enacted through a municipal by-law—for actualizing human rights in the city under seven comprehensive themes: democracy; economic and social life; cultural life; recreation; physical activities and sports; environment and sustainable development; safety; and municipal services. This comprehensive local approach is regularly updated to acknowledge evolving rights language, such as endorsing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

IMAGE: Constructing Elite Imaginaries? Hoarding Condo Ads for 1400 Robson St. ‘Taking Vancouver’s Centre Stage’ and ‘Where local and international elite live, shop and work’ (Sadoway 2022)

The Right to the City

The French urbanist Henri Lefebvre in his ground-breaking work, ‘right to the city’ (La Droit à la Ville) —suggested that seeking rights was both ‘a cry and a demand’ for novel urban spaces. On this front Prof. Sandeep Agrawal and a team of legal and planning scholars set out to examine in their 2022 book, Rights and the City,“the role of municipal governments and planners in regulating, implementing, and advocating rights’ claims,” in Canadian cities

Housing activists have seen the ‘right to the city’ as a call for pushing back against the ongoing waves of investment speculation and gentrification arguing that: “housing is a human right – not a commodity or a piggy-bank for the wealthy”.

In Metro Vancouver we have witnessed similar outcries about the commodification of housing  through ‘investment vehicles’ such as condominiums, tax-free Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), stratas, and land assemblages. These are being hedged, traded, or flipped akin to stock/bond investments, all atop unceded Indigenous territories.

Such speculative urbanism feeds the undermining of communities and for most (except for the wealthiest), eroding rights to the city in favour of expanding hyper competitive land markets (i.e. “open for business” rhetoric).

IMAGE: Public planning graffito sign(ed) commentary for a proposed two-tower development at Barclay & Hornby, Vancouver (Sadoway 2021)

The Right to Infrastructures

The asymmetrical provision of urban hard and soft infrastructures, creating a Splintering Urbanism of haves and have nots — such as ‘high speed’ or ‘express’ and ‘economy’ services; or ‘core condo door’ vs. ‘poor door for social housing’ — has also, undermined the right to the city for at least the past two decades and no doubt longer in post-colonial cities.

Access to public services and infrastructures shapes rights to the city and therefore human rights in the city. Activist-scholars refer to the access, uses or shaping of services as ‘the right to infrastructure’ and ‘lively infrastructures.’  Their provision enables and affirms life in contemporary cities.

The late planning scholar John Friedmann reminded us in a 2010 article of the importance of reflecting upon whether our plans, policies or projects are contributing to placemaking or place breaking. For example, why is it that infrastructure budgets and priorities, at most levels of government, seem to frequently be ‘black box’ processes? If city (or market) servicing or infrastructural priorities undermine, rather than advance human rights, then we need a rethink on how we define ‘growth’ and to ask whose costs and whose benefits plans or projects will accrue to.

IMAGE: Street Art(ivism) in Lukwungen & Songhees Territory (Victoria, B.C.). (Sadoway 2022)

Land Back

Indigenous Peoples — whose historically occupied settlements have been relocated or displaced and territories occupied by wave after wave of settlers — from the Caribou Gold Rush to contemporary property ‘gold rushes’ — have articulated alternative visions to rights-based approaches for land and resource stewardship. One recent example is set out in the Yellowhead Institute’s ‘Land Back’ red paper — which ‘critically engages with Canadian proposals’.

Such a vision no doubt has been shaped by bearing witness to ongoing cycles of dispossession, de/re-territorialization, urban developments, infrastructuralism and extractivism. This also signifies how colonialism and market mechanisms frequently have worked together to hasten the disconnect between people and place in global urban regions.

Despite the blunt force of disconnections or displacements there are numerous examples of Indigenous-driven urban housing projects for First Nations communities. Kekinow Housing Society with several projects in the fastest growing city in Metro Vancouver comes to mind, along with a range of novel Indigenous-led projects envisioned in and around Metro Vancouver that seek to advance cultural and socio-economic development, despite their corporate partnerships.

Meanwhile many First Nations (and settler-resident allies) in Metro Vancouver continue to oppose and question the short and long term cultural, socio-economic and environmental costs of the $25 billion dollar Federally-funded Transmountain Crossing Pipeline (TMX). This project was imposed across unceded First Nations territories and through both dense urban areas and sensitive natural areas and highlights how perceptions of ‘the national interest’ can override numerous existing rights and longstanding cultural praxis.

Harvard scholar Neil Brenner’s turn of millennium work on ‘de-territorialization’ and ‘re-territorialization’processes, and his more recent studies on urban ‘implosions/explosions’ (referring to global/world cities), provides insight into how massive global capital flows have aided and abetted in undermining the right to the city for many, whether in colonial or post-colonial spaces, including in hinterlands that serve as extraction zones for contemporary urban-regions.

IMAGE: Urban Infra-Structural Power Paradoxes? This night image on Viale di Trastevere (Rome, Italy) features an EV charging station (foreground), a rough sleeper / houseless person (centre sleeping bag) next to pedestrians, in front of a real estate agency (Sadoway 2022)

Urban Protestscapes & Transformative Rights

Having lived in a range of cities that have stark variations in the rights to protest and assemble in public spaces — from neo-authoritarian Hong Kong and quasi-authoritarian Singapore to ex-authoritarian Taipei and Ulaanbaatar— the ‘right to the city’ can illustrate the tensions of street politics, and between perceived collective and individual rights and responsibilities in democracies.

How these rights are interpreted by governments, their critics/protesters and in the policing of public space remains contentious. Indeed, the so-called ‘Freedom (Truckers) Protests’ in Ottawa or urban tent encampments across Canada and in Metro Vancouver have illustrated the varied political privileges and ideologies of those exercising their ‘rights to the city’.

Tina Kempin Reuter, writing in the Journal of Human Rights (2019), underscores the transformative potential of decentralizing rights since “the right to the city not only allows urban dwellers to access what already exists but includes the right to change it and adapt their own lives accordingly.”

Local governments that advance rights and visions for free (or affordable) food, housing, healthcare, transit, education, or livable environs may not have full or even partial jurisdiction in these domains. None-the-less the advancement of these (or other) human rights by cities — as the Montreal and Seattle examples illustrates — suggests an interest in public innovations and finding workarounds that can enact transformations.

High level ‘global’ human rights statements are germane to ‘local’ governance because all neighbourhoods are ultimately nested within wider worlds. Global systems and processes— whether trade, telecommunications, or transportation systems, as much as transboundary pollutants or global fluxes in ecosystems — ultimately ‘touch down’ and have localized ramifications. More germane, however, is actualizing rights in practices, plans, policies.

Why not consider how we might actualize everyone’s right to the city as we shift into a new year?

IMAGE: The Right to Post(er) in the Public Sphere. A four language anti-war poster spotted in Berlin, Germany’ (Sadoway 2022)



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