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The Right to the City and Reading the Right to the City

Critical Reading Worksheet

French sociologist and philosopher, Henri Lefebvre’s work focuses on wide variety of ideas and concepts. He wrote extensively about the concepts of everyday life, the production of (urban) space and cities. The Right to the City may be Lefebvre’s most widely recognized concept. Lefebvre published The Right to the City in 1968, and this term became popularized when the May 1968 student/worker rebellion in Paris took up Lefebvre’s call for a Right to the City as one of their slogans. More recently, The Right to the City has become a unifying banner for a variety of political groups working on urban issues.

Lefebvre’s makes an intellectual case for the right to the city. Like many philosophical arguments, he spends a great deal of time setting-up his argument, defining the concepts it is grounded in, and situating his ideas into the larger academic conversation. Much of the article will be difficult to understand without having some previous knowledge about the urban condition. The purpose of this worksheet is to help you navigate through the article and to highlight the pages that you need to focus on in order to understand Lefebvre’s call for a Right to the City.

You will also read an article about homelessness in Pretoria, South Africa that applies Lefebvre’s concept of the right to the city to the everyday survival strategies people use while living on the streets. “Homelessness in Pretoria: Exploring the survival challenges of the homeless and their right to the city” is a much more straightforward article that is easier to understand.

You will most likely find Lefebvre’s writing to be difficult. Don’t get discouraged. Struggle through it using this worksheet as a guide and know that the second article will be much easier to read and understand.

Reading #1: The Right to the City by Henri Lefebvre

In pages 147-157, Lefebvre establishes the need for a right to the city by critiquing the ways in which cities are conceived and constructed. You should skim through this part of the reading, doing your best to understand what he is saying, but not feeling pressured to read and re-read sections until you comprehend them. Just try to get a sense of his main ideas, don’t worry too much about details. As you read, answer the following questions:

1. Read the second, full paragraph on page 148 (It starts with “The science of the city…”) What is Lefebvre critiquing in this paragraph? Can you glean any information about how he conceptualizes cities and urban life from this section?

2. Lefebvre was also concerned with the accelerated urbanization that was occurring alongside the increased commodification of urban space and life. Urban theorists borrow a concept from Marx (use value vs. exchange value) to discuss some of these contradictions. Exchange-value refers to the price or market value of an object and use-value refers to the intrinsic value people place on an object. How does Lefebvre incorporate this concept into his argument (see pages 152-3)?

3. In earlier writings on the history of the Paris Commune, Lefebvre referred to the city as an oeuvre (loosely translated an artistic work or a body of artistic work, see pages 156-7). How do you think this concept of the city as oeuvre relates to the notion of the Right to the City?

Read from page 157, first full paragraph (begins with “Among the contradictions characteristic of our time”…) to the end of the article, page 159. This is the section of the article where Lefebvre introduces and outlines the concept of the right to the city.

4. How does Lefebvre describe and define the Right to the City in these pages?

5. Who must assert their Right to the City? Why?

6. Does Lefebvre outline any specific rights that this Right to the City entails (like are outline in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)? If so, what are they? If not, what do you think they would be?

Many urban scholars and activists find the concept of the Right to the City to be a useful framework for talking about issues of access, participation, opportunity, inclusion, and equality in cities. Now read the second article, “Homelessness in Pretoria: Exploring the survival challenges of the homeless and their right to the city.” Read this article in its entirety. It should be much easier to read and understand. Don’t worry too much about the methodology section (pgs. 430-431). Answer the following questions:

1. List some of the survival challenges that people experiencing homelessness face in Pretoria. How many of these challenges are universal to the experience of homelessness around the world, including here in Portland, and how many are unique to Pretoria or southern Africa?

2. Are homeless people denied a right to the city? Provide examples from the reading or from your own observations/experiences in Portland to support your ideas.

3. If all inhabitants of Pretoria (or Portland) were guaranteed a “right to the city,” how would the lives of homeless people change? What would this “right to the city” entail and why?



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