Crabtree, Andrew (2017). 'Sustainable Cities, the Right to the City and Intergenerational Justice' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is…one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.

                                                                                                               David Harvey, 2008

The capability approach usually operates at the levels of the individual, state (including Nussbaum’s list of central capabilities as constitutional guarantees and the Human Development Index) or regional levels. Yet, half the world’s population lives in cities a figure which is set to rise to 60% by 2030. Given that sustainable cities are part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 11), it might be argued that, with important exceptions such as Deneulin (2014), there has been disproportionately little attention given to cities and related rights within the capabilities approach.

This paper begins by discussing the concept of “sustainable cities”. Its starting point is SDG 11 and its ten targets. This is then compared with Arcadis’ and the Centre for Economic and Business Research sustainable city index which is based on the three pillars of sustainability, namely people (quality of life: health (life expectancy and obesity), education (literacy and universities), income inequality, work-life balance, the dependency ratio, crime, housing and living costs), planet (the environment) and profit. As a first move, it will be argued, from a capabilities perspective, that the three pillars should be reduced to two as profit is only of instrumental and not intrinsic value (Sen, 1999). The paper will then go on to discuss the adequacy of these indicators and not least to the absence of rights.

The right to the city discussion started with Henri Lefèbvre book Le Droit à la Ville and has been developed by, among others, David Harvey. Section two thus outlines this approach which sees the right to the city as part of struggle over who commands urbanization, surplus production and use with an emphasis on dispossession and urban revolution. Section three then goes on to discuss  Deneulin’s critique of this approach (and its less radical version as institutionalised in UN Habitat) before outlining her capabilities based concept of  ‘just cities for life’. Here she suggests two possible ways forward, one drawing on Honneth’s (1993) concept of struggles for recognition, the other more dialogical.

The paper then moves on to ask: Whose rights? The discussion outlined above concentrates on intragenerational justice in which future generations are not taken into consideration. They are not included in the SDGs, they cannot engage in struggles for recognition or dialogical processes Inspired by Thomas Scanlon’s (1998) contractualism, the paper asks: what kind sustainable cities cannot be reasonably rejected by present and future generations? I argue that a trustee relationship has to be integrated into the above discussion.


One immediate upshot from this is that attention is drawn to children, their children and their place in the city and its future. Whilst children receive attention – implicitly or explicitly – in several of the SDGs (SDG 11 Target 2 reads: By 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons), these are not formulated in specific relation to rights and sustainable cities and children’s role in making cities they value or may value. In other words, children are seen as being there to be helped rather than active agents. The paper therefore moves on to discuss cities for children (Bartlett et al. 2016) and the work of NGOs such as the Child Rights Information Network.

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