The phrase “the right to the city” has been part and parcel of the referendum campaign to preserve the original look of GTC, perhaps Skopje’s oldest post-war commercial complex. The right to the city was brought up in debates, publications, and interviews. It was used with reference to public policy, individual rights and awareness. What does “the right to the city” entail when we think about urbanisation?
The sociologist Henri Lefebvre coined the phrase in 1968 when he called for a radical transformation of social relations in capitalism, to achieve social equality by reorienting toward urban inhabitants control over decisions that shape urban space. Forty years later, the geographer David Harvey adopted the right to the city as a political ideal to call for widespread resistance against the financial capital that frames the urban process today. Lefebvre and Harvey agree that for the most part liberal democracy under capitalism has failed to achieve social rights like housing, education, and health.
Both applied the phrase when dramatic transformations of urban space were unfolding before their eyes and social rights were under attack. In the sixties, when Lefebvre was writing, old neighbourhoods were being destroyed in Paris to give way to high-rise buildings and citizens were organising a campaign to stop the construction of an expressway along the left bank of the Seine. In the countryside, agricultural land was being repurposed for leisure. In New York, Harvey observed the consequences of the 2008 sub-prime mortgage and housing asset-value crisis when over one million citizens lost their homes. Low-income households, African-Americans and households of single women were squeezed out from the city centre. Harvey explains this as a process inseparable from attempts by city authorities, backed by financial institutions, to create new urban lifestyles. Central parts of the city, like Manhattan, are turned into tourist destination and places where only the affluent can live.
The right to the city applies to Skopje. The power of decision about the urban process has been placed in the hands of state-private elites and the changes in laws and regulations have increasingly concentrated surplus in private corporate hands. Under the aesthetic guise of facades, enlarged boulevards and reconstructed ancient-era warships-turned-restaurants lurks inequality and discrimination. On April 2015, over 150 workers of the state-owned Eurokompozit protested in front of the Government building, now adorned with a new facade, for which they were hired to produce a bulletproof wall. The failure of the government to deliver payments had left the workers without income and social benefits for months. It is clear that these workers participated in the construction of the Government building without any compensation for months on end. Similarly, the planned makeover of the GTC is of major concern for present owners, renters and workers in that space. Announcements about changes to the ownership structure of the publicly owned building overlap with decisions to change the facade, showing that the aesthetic make-up of the city hinges upon economic processes that reduce the ability of users of the space to enjoy workers’, ownership and other rights. Parallel to these changes in the city, agricultural, green and protected land is being rezoned and taken away from local communities. One example are the projects under way in Ohrid, Lazaropole, and Mavrovo to build marinas, tourist development zones and hydropower plants.
The urbanisation underway in Skopje and other cities is a symptom of structural inequality, the concentration of capital in private hands and its attempt to conquer spaces to reproduce. Seen this way, urbanisation is not just a process for shaping urban space but an attack on the right to the city. Hence, the real referendum question is in fact whether we are against structural inequality, violence, and the reckless sale of state-owned property for the benefit of ever-increasing private capital. Will we collectively take control over an urbanisation process that is making these inequalities entrenched or even permanent? The citizens’ struggle for a different Skopje and social relations, which has been growing over the past few years, now takes the form of a local referendum to preserve the GTC, one of the first steps in returning the city to its citizens.