The right to the city is a right to the story

Change the story and you change the city. Marketing and PR people have always known that, from the famous ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ campaign of the 1980s to the unforgettable, but unfortunate, decision to brand Glasgow’s Prestwick Airport with the legend ‘pure dead brilliant’.

The story of a city emerges not only from the story as told, but from the way the story is understood and retold. As the philosopher Paul Ricoeur puts it, the sense of a text ‘is not behind the text, but in front of it. It is not something hidden, but something disclosed. What has to be understood is not the initial situation of discourse, but what points towards a possible world…’

For a while my home city, Sheffield, has been telling a story of The Outdoor City: a city characterised by adventure and activity in fantastic natural spaces. It’s a story that has come to haunt the city’s leaders as its intransigence in persisting with a programme of felling thousands of its street trees has achieved national and international notoriety, most recently attracting the ire of Britain’s environment secretary, Michael Gove. Once the story is out it is the property not of the teller but of the hearer.

The physical characteristics of urban space and the way we choose to use it, the performances we act out in that space and the stories behind those performances, are all interlinked. When we contest and re-tell stories of our cities we open up ‘possible worlds’ that others might want to close down.

This week a local radio station in Yorkshire asked for my thoughts on the right to protest in public space after listeners complained about a protest by a local trade union against exploitative zero-hours contracts. Their action had caused traffic gridlock in Hull. Was it right to inconvenience the public in the name of workers’ rights?

My response was to recall that nearly all the rights we now enjoy have come from acts of disruption that have inconvenienced people. The right to perform acts of protest in public space preserves that space as public realm, rather than as the privatised and restricted zones that are now proliferating across British cities. A street that is no longer public may be quiet and orderly, but the people permitted to use it can no longer count themselves free citizens.

To act as a citizen is to be able to speak, to perform, in the public realm and to argue for difference and change – or against it. It is to claim the right to contest the story of the city and of the spaces within the city.

In my book on the future of town centres I refer to three movements that have, one way or another, changed the stories of the urban spaces they call home. Transition Town Totnes has done it through reimagining the local economy. Incredible Edible Todmorden has done it by using public spaces to grow and share food. The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft has done it through claiming the right to turn a run-down area of Bristol into a people-powered cultural quarter.

A term frequently used among these citizen activists is ‘resilience’. It encompasses notions of independence and resourcefulness, but also self-determination. Rob Hopkins, a founder of the Transition Town movement, talks about resilience in terms of ‘a fundamental rethink of assumptions about infrastructure and systems which could lead to a more sustainable and enriching low carbon and more resilient economy, rather than just “sustaining” current models and practices.’

But resilience has also been used as an excuse for leaving things as they are, a somewhat complacent assumption that left to the workings of the market and consumer preferences, urban centres will sort themselves out and ‘bounce back’ in whatever ways are appropriate for the 21st century. A story of resilience can be a story of inactivism as well as activism.

These stories are there to be wrestled over. Acting as citizens is not only about claiming rights to the city and the use of its spaces, as advocated by Henri Lefebvre and performed by protesters in Hull and, more prominently this week, Barcelona. It is about challenging the stories of the city and what it stands for. The right to the city, as I discuss in a new article in the journal Citizenship Studies, is also a right to the story; to lay claim to narratives of resilience and stories of the possibilities of place is to engage in acts of citizenship.

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