Henri Lefebvre, originator of the term “right to the city,” was a French sociologist, Marxist scholar, and philosopher. He was a member of the French Communist Party (until later he became one of its biggest detractors), professor of philosophy, member of the French Resistance, an outspoken critic of Stalin, founding theorist of COBRA and the Situationist International, to name a few. His controversial, sometimes unfashionable views influenced 20th century philosophy, sociology, geography, political science, and literary criticism. Lefebvre’s understanding that space is in fact a social production pervades nearly all contemporary urban theory. It is hard to overestimate Lefebvre’s impact.
“What does the city create? Nothing. It centralizes creation. And yet it creates everything” (117).
The essence, to Lefebvre, is the urban phenomenon’s own centrality, specifically as it intersects with what makes or unmakes it. This potential is “the meaning of urban space-time” (116) and the concomitant vantage is a top-down consolidation, rendering it, through “confusion” (ibid), perceptible and revealed. The city is “associated with the logic of form and with the dialectic of content (with the differences and contradictions of content)” (119). Structures are both “morphological” and “sociological” (116).
This confusion-derived consolidation of information is like the nature of urban space itself: ephemeral. It is “transparent” (120) and the “writing” the city inscribes within that urban space, never finished. “The city writes itself on its walls and in its streets. But that writing is never completed” (121). Meaning, for Lefebvre, could splinter anytime because urban life “hovers, ambiguous and uncertain, between the interpretation of messages based on a (recognized) code and the metalanguage that is content to paraphrase messages that are known, repeated, redundant” (ibid).
Despite these apparent signals of clarity: transparency, writing, metalanguage, and so on, the city remains paradox. In a series of phrases that could as easily describe the Internet, the city form “tends toward” (119) both centrality and polycentrality. Our “transparency is also deceptive” (120). And, critically, “u-topia [where anything can happen anywhere] is as necessary as isotopy and heterotopy. It is everywhere and nowhere” (p.130). The potential-rich “concrete abstraction” (119) that is the urban milieu is “a place of encounter, assembly, and simultaneity;” “a center of attraction and life” (ibid).
Lefebvre does not believe the city has effectively conveyed democracy. From his Marxist perspective, he observes the working class has never really shaped a city. The merchants, intellectuals, and politicians modeled it, and the industrialists destroyed it. “The working class never had any other space than that of its expropriation, its deportation, segregation” (128). This final point is paramount for Lefebvre because segregation, with separation, “constitute a totalitarian order…. Segregation complicates and destroys complexity” (133). A “uniform space…can stifle urban reality” and “assume a mantel of democracy” (125). Lefebvre thus advocates for the radical critique of urbanism expressly to desegregate the city and promote democracy.