With more than 20 million inhabitants, the Metropolitan Area of the Valley of Mexico (1) is one of the most populated regions on the planet and the primary economic, political, religious, historical and cultural nucleus of the country. The streets and plazas, of which more than five centuries ago comprised the great, ancient city of Tenochtitlán, have witnessed the most important manifestations of the Mexican people. Celebrations, events, protests, and popular mobilizations reveal an enormous collective character that has brought to light demands and proposals for greater democratic participation and the recognition, respect, and full realization of the human rights of its inhabitants.
There is no question that public policies in the city increasingly draw directly from citizen contributions and social struggles, to which much credit is due, according to both analysts and neighborhood leaders, to the strengthening of participation processes and the local democratic government itself. Initiatives for political reform and changes to legal status are currently underway in Mexico City to assure that progress continues in this direction, both to defend the rights of inhabitants and to strengthen the local government and delegations — as coresponsible autonomous entities — and to increase the capacities of metropolitan coordination.
Clearly inspired by the international debate and local documents that have already been developed and implemented, the Mexico City Charter for the Right to the City nevertheless has characteristics that make it unique in the world, both in its elaboration and promotion process, and in its contents and proposals. (2)
After originating among diverse social and civil organisations, the initiative was formally proposed to the Federal District Government (GDF) in early 2007. One year later, a Charter Promotion Committee was established, initially composed of representatives of the National Democratic Convention’s Popular Urban Movement (MUP-CND), the GDF’s General Office of Political Negotiation and Social and Citizen Attention, the Habitat International Coalition-Latin America (HIC-AL), and the federal district’s Human Rights Commission (CDHDF). It was agreed to also incorporate the Espacio DESC (Coordination Space of Civil Organizations on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) and the Federal District Social Attorney’s Office (PROSOC).
Since then, a series of public events have been organized to promote the process of the charter and to coordinate activities and exchange experiences, including in other cities of the country. These activities have included hosting a tent on the right to the city and to habitat at the World Social Forum held in January, 2008, in Mexico City’s central plaza known as the Zócalo. In July of that year, the municipal government officially inaugurated the formation process of the charter during an event attended by approximately 200 people and multiple local and national media outlets. At the event, the head of the Mexico City government emphasized that this effort “will have many positive consequences for the future of the city,” and committed to listen to the proposals and invite the Legislative Assembly to construct “a legal instrument that will establish obligations, public policies, and new forms of management.”
Some five months later, in December of 2008, a forum was held to bring together members of civil and social organizations, academics, professionals, officials, and other actors, and to gather their contributions within the six strategic bases around which the contents of the charter are organized. A few days later, interviews were conducted and opinions and images were documented from the general public in attendance at the human rights fair, organized each year by the CDHDF, including a large number of children and adolescents.
Throughout 2008 and 2009, the Charter Promotion Committee organized more than 35 meetings to coordinate, discuss, systematize, and draft the contents of the charter and to monitor and evaluate the process. Through this framework, substantive materials have been produced to feed and advance the debate and dissemination of the process (including pamphlets, a blog, leaflets, and a video specifically oriented to animate the process). Committee members have also participated in conferences, courses, workshops, radio programs, and interviews in diverse spheres to socialize the topic, stimulate reflection, and gather critiques of and contributions for the charter.
Once the charter’s general structure was established and the mentioned contributions were systematized and incorporated, those areas that required further development became clear. The Diagnosis document and the progress to date of the Human Rights Program (3) were then consulted to address those gaps. At the same time, certain proposals formulated through a citizens board for sustainable urban development (a citizen entity established to advise the formulation of the six-year governmental plan on the theme) were also integrated within the charter.
Around 3,000 people have participated so far in at least one of these activities that form part of an effort to broadly publicize the initiative and in particular to convoke citizens to debate and strengthen the movement with the active adherence of neighborhood organisations, youth collectives, unions, professionals, and the general public.
As a result of this broad process, a draft Mexico City Charter for the Right to the City has been completed and was presented for consideration to the head of the Mexico City government and all interested parties in early September, 2009, with contributions received until January, 2010, to enrich and fine tune its contents. The process will then move toward the signature of the charter and of course the definition and implementation of the strategy as specified in its short, medium and long-term plans.
This charter holds specific objectives: to contribute to the construction of an exclusive, habitable, just, democratic, sustainable and enjoyable city; to stimulate processes of social organization, strengthening of the social fabric, and construction of active and responsible citizenship; and to promote the construction of an equitable, inclusive and supportive urban economy that guarantees productive insertion and economic strengthening of popular sectors. In other words, the promoters of the charter believe that the right to the city can play a role in the social, economic, democratic and political strengthening of the population, and in support of sustainable territorial organisation and management. In broader terms, it aims to confront the most profound causes of exclusion: economic; social; territorial; cultural; political; and psychological. It is explicitly posed as a social response, counter to the city-as-merchandise, and as an expression of the collective interest. It is without any doubt a complex approach that demands linking a human rights perspective in its integral conception (civil, political, economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights) to that of democracy in its diverse dimensions (representative, distributive and participatory).
Inspired by the World Charter for the Right to the City, the Mexico City charter defines this right as the equitable usufruct of cities within the principles of sustainability, democracy, equity and social justice. It is of course interdependent with all integrally-conceived and internationally-recognized human rights, and therefore affirms as its guiding principles: self-determination; gender equality; social equity; priority attention for persons and collectives in vulnerable situations; solidarity and cooperation among peoples; participation, transparency, and accountability; co-responsibility; and distributive justice. However, unlike other current instruments, the Mexico City charter also draws upon the results and proposals of the first World Assembly of Inhabitants held in Mexico City in October, 2000. This fundamental input, in which more than 300 delegates from social organisations from 35 countries participated, included debates on issues related to the ideals of a democratic, inclusive, sustainable, productive, educational, and livable city (in terms of being safe from disasters and violence, — healthy, convivial, and culturally diverse).
The contents of the charter are structured around the subtitle of “the city we want” and the following strategic foundations:
• Full exercise of human rights in the city: A city in which all persons (children, youth, the elderly, women and men) enjoy and realize all human rights and fundamental freedoms, through the construction of conditions for collective well-being with dignity, equality, and social justice.
• The social function of the city, of land, and of property: A city in which its inhabitants participate to ensure that the distribution of territory and the rules governing its use guarantee equitable usufruct of the goods, services and opportunities that the city has to offer. A city in which the collectively-defined public interest is prioritized, guaranteeing socially just and environmentally balanced use of the territory.
• Democratic management of the city: A city in which its inhabitants participate in all decision spaces, reaching to the highest level of public policy formulation and implementation, as well as in the planning, public budgeting, and control of urban processes.
• Democratic production of the city and in the city: A city in which the productive capacity of its inhabitants is recovered and reinforced, in particular of popular sectors, encouraging and supporting the social production of habitat and the development of supportive economic activities.
• Sustainable and responsible management of natural, heritage, and energy resources of the city and its surroundings: A city in which its inhabitants and authorities guarantee a responsible relation with the environment in a way that facilitates a life where individuals, communities, and peoples can live with dignity and in conditions of equality, without affecting natural areas, ecological reserves, other cities, or future generations.
• Democratic and equitable enjoyment of the city: A city that strengthens social coexistence, the recovery, expansion and improvement of public space, and its use for community gathering, leisure activities, creativity, and critical expression of political ideas and positions.
As may be observed, and also in a way quite distinct from the previously prevailing approach, the charter conceives of the right to the city in a broad sense. It is not limited to the defense of individual human rights with the purpose of improving the living conditions of its inhabitants, but rather integrates rights and responsibilities that implicate them in the management, production, and responsible development of the city. Within this perspective, it not only incorporates the construction of conditions to assure that all people may access the goods, services and opportunities existing in the city without discrimination, but rather poses a more radical approach of profiling the city that we aspire to and want to construct for the future generations.
To be able to advance in the realization of each of these dreams/foundations, the charter proposes a series of public policy measures and commitments to be assumed by the diverse actors of society. Among the first, some of the most relevant measures include the following:
• Inhibiting real estate speculation and adopting urban norms for a just distribution of the burdens and benefits generated by the urbanization process. This is done by harnessing extraordinary profits (surplus value) generated by public investments, channeling them to social programs that guarantee the rights to land and housing and stimulating the social production of habitat.
• Developing administrative, financial and subsidy mechanisms that foster the generation of accessible and sufficient land so that the self-managed housing complexes may generate productive (shops, greenhouses, etc.) and social (cultural, sports, social-organizational) spaces.
• Recognizing the role played by the “informal” economy in combating social exclusion, granting it legal and fiscal status that considers the legitimate interests of those who comprise it and avoid their exploitation by third parties.
• Providing cooperative societies and other social enterprises that promote the popular and supportive economy with capacity and support from public resources and fiscal incentives.
• Locating productive activities and services that generate employment for the community around residential areas, to cut down on transportation, risks and costs, and the negative impacts on the economy and urban life.
• Preserving productive rural regions and conservation and forested areas, strengthening the productive and economic capacity of communities and deterring speculation oriented to change land uses.
• Establishing norms that mandate the measurement of the environmental, economic and social impacts of macro-projects (prior to their implementation), taking into account the contributions of civil society and academia.
• Avoiding eviction processes, and in those cases where they cannot be avoided, guaranteeing that they respect the human rights of those affected in accordance with international instruments and standards: participatory programs for population relocation to nearby locations in the case of high risk soils or buildings, assuring conditions that substitute or compensate patrimonial losses and maintain social networks.
• Implement actions in support of alternative education projects and schools formed in settlements and neighborhoods through popular education perspectives.
• Taking advantage of the experience of the elderly (workers, craftspeople, teachers, etc.) in the vocational training of new generations and of apprentices.
• Preserving and promoting the knowledge and experience of indigenous peoples that inhabit the city in the management and preservation of natural and cultural resources, as well as community and alternative experiences in health issues.
• Generating instruments and programs that support the recovery of public space in its functional (social gathering and integration), social (community cohesion), cultural (symbolic, patrimonial, leisure, and coexistence) and political (of political expression, meetings, association and manifestation) aspects.
Regarding the second, the charter also outlines the commitments that should be assumed by the local government, the delegations, the Legislative Assembly, the Federal District Superior Court of Justice, autonomous public bodies, educational entities, civil society bodies, social bodies, social organisations, the private sector, and people in general. Among others, some of these actions include:
• Legal recognition of the right to the city;
• Maximum amount possible of budget allocation for available resources to progressively overcome conditions that impede equitable access to the goods and services required by the population and offered by the city;
• Training of public officials regarding the right to the city and the other human rights it includes;
• Establishment of indicators to monitor and evaluate the implementation of the right to the city;
• Promotion of support and co-investment schemes to encourage civil society activities in matters related to the right to the city;
• Follow-up with the implementation of the federal district human rights program from the perspective of the right to the city;
• Assure the inclusion of themes linked to the right to the city in formative, research, partnership, and dissemination programs and activities of universities and other educational centres;
• Broadly disseminate the contents of this charter and the good practices derived from its application;
• Document cases of violations or incompliance of progressivity;
• And promote awareness and consensus regarding the responsibilities that must be assumed by citizens to construct a city for all people.
As a complex right focused on a highly populated territory of multiple relevance for the country and with severe pressures on environmental conditions, the right to the city must propose a vision that surpasses the specialized approaches of distinct disciplines, professional practices, and the structure of public administration, as well as the individualistic and consumerist attitude prevailing among a large proportion of inhabitants.
At the same time, this proposal recognizes the urgency to revisit territorial planning as a public, collective, and participative function, placing it at the centre of its focus. Human rights and democracy are not abstract phenomena; they are attributions and processes of specific people in specific places. As we conceive it, the right to the city can and should also be a tool through which to territorialize the former and deepen the latter.
Finally, it must be emphasized loudly and firmly, that there will be no right to live with dignity in cities without the right to live with dignity in the countryside. For several decades now, alarms have been sounding regarding the urgency to look at our surroundings and our habitat in a more integral manner, and to review and radically modify our models of production, distribution and consumption, not only of things but also and perhaps most importantly of ideas, values, words, and symbols.
In short, the right to the city is proposed as a tool to support reflection, debate, formation, mobilization, articulation, and practice from a distinct point of view, through a renewed struggle for the redistribution of space, wealth, and decisionmaking regarding the present and the future of our communities.