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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


Reading Harvey in Bangkok

By Camillo Boano, on 12 May 2012

Just a few days before my departure to Bangkok with the MSc Building and Urban Design in Development group for the annual fieldtrip, David Harvey’s book Rebel City: From Right to the City to the Urban Revolution arrived to my doorstep.

The eleven hour flight from London allowed me to read it and the Bangkok reality, working on a project called “Co-production of Housing at Scale: Collaborative People-Centered Partnerships for Slum Upgrading in Bangkok, Thailand” in collaboration with CODI, Asian Coalition of Housing Rights and the Community Architect Network, offered rich materialities to unfold its rich and provocative narrative.

Harvey in the introduction of the book, elaborating on the relevance of Lefebvre seminal work The Right to the City, assert that such right is both a cry and a demand. A cry as a response to the existential pain of withering crisis of the everyday life in the city, as well as a demand to confront such crisis and create an alternative urban life (p.x). While sustaining the relevance of the critical Lefebvrian thinking, Harvey call for a meaningful adoption of  “dialectical methods of critical inquiries” (p.xiii). Thus, the struggle to the Right to the City make evident that cities are no more perceived as collective body politics but instead constructed for a boutique-lifestyle reflecting the driving forces of a capitalist production of territories.

So, moving from an empty meaningful signifier (p. xv) the Right to the city become the right that should “be accorded to all those who have had a part in producing the common“ (p.78)

What follows is a series of quotes subtracted from Harvey’s latest superimposed as captions onto a photographic essay capturing a reality completely different than the one tackled in Rebel Cities. Traveling with this text into the field, it became apparent that our fieldwork explorations of reality found could easily feed off the author’s quest of an alternative reality.
All the pictures are credited to Atiyeh Ardakanian, Ariel Shepherd, Bethany Ritter, Budoor Bukhari, Camila Cociña Varas, Christopher Montgomery, Diogo Cardoso Martins, Elizabeth Price, Elisabetta Bricchetto, Elsbet Alen, Francesco Pasta, Laura Pinzon Cardona, Lisa Marie Hanking, Lina Gonzalez Arango, Maria Luz Navarro Eslava, Ojama Akagwu, Paola Maria Fuentes, Rachel Felicia, Sarah Ahmad, Stefano Mascia, Zhu Han. Harvey’s Rebel City quotes, were selected in several discussions with Benjamin LeClair Paquet.

“The World Bank [World Development Report 2009] plainly favors speculative capital over people. The idea that a city can do well (in term of capital accumulation) while its people (apart from the privilege class) and the environment do badly, is never examined” (p. 29).

“The property market absorb the great deal of the surplus capital directly through new construction” (p.11).

“The central conclusion is that the collective laboring that is now productive of value must ground collective not individual property rights. […] The common is not, therefore, something that existed once upon a time that has since been lost, but something that is, like the urban commons, continually being produced” (p. 77).

“The is a categorical error to view globalization as a causal force in elation to local development” (p. 101).

“Why not focus, therefore, on the city rather then the factory as the prime site of surplus value production?” (p. 129-130).

“The actual site characteristics are important, and the physical and social re-engineering and territorial organization of these sites is a weapon in political struggles” (p. 118).

“Those who create an interesting an stimulating neighborhood life lose it to the predatory practices of the real estate entrepreneurs, the financiers and the upper class consumers bereft of any urban and social imaginations. The better the common quality a social groups creates, the more likely it is to be raided and appropriated by private profit – maximizing interests” (p.78).

“ We don’t have to wait for the grand revolutions to create heterotopic places” (p .XVII)

“Any spontaneous alternative visionary moment if fleeting; if it is not seized at the flood, it will surely pass” (p. xvii)