The right to the city as a call to action

(Image: The PB process. Source: Participatory Budgeting Project).

According to Lefebvre, the right to the city is a ‘cry and a demand’ (Lefebvre 1996, 158). It is a political claim that argues for an urban reform inspired on the study of current urban realities. The right to the city questions the structures of power in urban society and criticizes the exclusion and alienation of workers from the processes of city making. It calls for a renewed urban society, where residents are part of the decision-making processes of the city.

Lefebvre also characterizes the city as ‘oeuvre’ (Lefebvre 1996, 149). This French word has a broad meaning, but it can be translated as ‘work,’ as in a work of art, the opposite of a product.  An ‘oeuvre’ is unique and irreplaceable work of art made by people, while a product reflects repetition and artificiality. For Lefebvre, the city as an ‘oeuvre’ should be collectively shaped by its residents. In the context of urban planning, the city as an ‘oeuvre’ challenges the strategies and practices of city making, demanding actual involvement in how decisions about the city are made, moving beyond the discourses of consultation and participation (Arnstein 1969; Lefebvre 1991; Merrifield 2006).

What does Lefebvre’s right to the city mean in practice for today’s American cities? We are all well aware of how minorities have been not only historically excluded from the city making processes and decisions but also harmed by these same processes. The right to thecity is a call to action for community members to push city administrators to listen to their voices. Is it possible though? How can residents, specifically minorities who have been oppressed and disempowered over the years, have a voice in the decisions about what their city should be? 

Participatory Budgeting

One possibility is through a process called participatory budgeting (PB). PB is a process through which community members have the opportunity to decide how to spend part of the public budget. Participatory budgeting was first put in place in 1989 by the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, for the municipal budget. Since then, PB has spread all over the world, including to the US. The process starts with a committee representative of the population in partnership with government representatives designing the process of PB, establishing rules to make sure the process will meet the needs of the community and be inclusive to everyone. 

The second step of PB involves gathering community members to brainstorm ideas for possible projects or interventions they may want to improve their communities. Volunteers create proposals based on the brainstormed ideas. Later, residents have a chance to vote on how to allocate the budget among the proposed projects. The budget funds the winning projects. In the PB process, community members thus have the opportunity to collectively shape their city’s future, as their own ‘oeuvre.’

In 2017, BeCville, a community arts project led by Matthew Slaats, piloted the participatory budgeting process in the neighborhoods south of the downtown area in Charlottesville. First, they gathered data on how residents wanted to improve their neighborhood. The results were published in a newsletter and distributed to residents. Artists submitted project proposals based on the community’s ideas. Residents voted and selected four projects to be funded.

This year we might get another chance to have a say in the future of our neighborhoods in Charlottesville. The city government is currently considering the possibility of starting a participatory budgeting process in Charlottesville. PB is a unique opportunity for community members to be able to help decide what they want for their communities! Participatory budgeting allows all residents to have an active voice in the decision-making process of what should be done to improve their neighborhood and their town! Participatory budgeting is an opportunity for citizens to actively exercise their right to the city. Get involved, share your ideas, and vote!

For more information check out @cvillepb on Facebook!


Arnstein, Sherry R. 1969. “A ladder of citizen participation.” Journal of the American Institute of Planners 35, no. 4: 216-224.

Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Productionof Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell.

Lefebvre, Henri. 1996. “The Right to the City.” In Writings on Cities, edited by Eleonore Kofman, and Elizabeth Lebas. Oxford: Blackwell.

Merrifield, Andy. 2006. Henri Lefebvre: A critical introduction. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Mitchell, Don. 2003. The Right to the City – Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space. New York: The Guilford Press.