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Regular assembly: Urbanisation and the right to the city

On the eve of the first local referendum in Macedonia to preserve the original look of GTC (City Trade Centre), we address the significance of the present moment in which the citizens will be directly shaping their city. Over 43.000 citizens residing in the Centar municipality will be voting in favour of or against the preservation of the original modernist look of GTC. A referendum campaign held in April and a recent publication familiarised the citizens with the significance of preserving the building’s original architectural style.

Arguments in favour or against the referendum question revolve around the function and the significance of GTC. On one hand, supporters of the planned makeover suggest that GTC, fenced off with walls and secured from bad weather conditions, will become a more pleasant space for shoppers. In contrast, various citizen initiatives and the Association of Architects argue that the proposed changes will transform GTC from a space open to diverse – not consumer-only – experiences to a big-box mall.

We here build on existing arguments around the planned makeover, expanding the debate towards the wider concepts of urbanisation, and the possibility and/or necessity for citizens to directly shape their cities. The local referendum is an alternative to public consultations, a mode of participation that is common for urban planning in Macedonia, and is for most part either symbolic or it disenfranchises citizens. Deciding directly about the processes of urbanisation, citizens claim their right to the city— the right to remake collectively the environment that they inhabit. What possibilities, spaces and relations, then, emerge when citizens make direct decisions about the processes of urbanisation? How is this achieved through urban planning and architecture? Can architects, urban planners and institutions in Macedonia support the planning of a city of all and for all its citizens?

Five contributors responded to these questions:

 

Assembly co-ordinators: Mila Shopova and Leonora Grcheva

Photo credits: Leonora Grcheva

The right to the city and the referendum on the GTC (City Trade Centre)

Part of the regular assembly “Urbanisation and the right to the city”. Author: Mila Shopova

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.