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  • Writer's pictureClaudia Hirtenfelder

Animals and their Claim to the City

Updated: Aug 25, 2023

In the first episode of Season 3, I speak to Marie Carmen Shingne about the concept 'Right to the City' and we use it as a launching pad to consider who has legitimate claims to urban space with an express focus on animals. In this blog post, I unpack some of the tenets of Right to the City and flag some important ideas from Marie's paper "The more-than-human right to the city: A multispecies reevaluation"

Right to the City?

'Right to the City' is a concept that first emerged in Henri Lefebvre's 1968 book Le Droit à la ville and it has since been used in a variety of social movements as a means of claiming and changing urban space. It works to challenge the notions of who the city is for and the taken-for-granted ways in which it has not only been built but also conceived of.

Prominent Geographer David Harvey (2003) notes that one's 'right to the city' is not merely access to what the city already has on offer - but to also an ability to change and alter the city - to reimagine and remake it. He highlights how cities are perpetually changing and that the fast pace of urbanization has often led to a lack of reflection as to to the ways the city both shapes and is shaped by our relations:

"We individually and collectively make the city through our daily actions and our political, intellectual and economic engagements. But, in return, the city makes us." (Harvey, 2003)

Harvey (2003) considers how conceptions of justice, even utopian ideals, have contributed to these relations and are indispensable because "Outrage at injustice and alternative ideas have long animated the quest for social change." He cautions, however, that such ideals need to be contextualized and any claim to a right must be unpacked - notably he flags how rights have become individuated and increasingly collapsed with claims to private property and capital accumulation. Harvey exclaims:

"If this is where the inalienable rights of private property and the profit rate lead, then I want none of it. This does not produce cities that match my heart's desire, but worlds of inequality, alienation and injustice. I oppose the endless accumulation of capital and the conception of rights embedded therein. A different right to the city must be asserted."

He finishes by noting that a new urban space, one that is more democratic and inclusive requires a reduction in privatization and a city imagined and practiced through different political-economic practices because "If our urban world has been imagined and made then it can be re-imagined and re-made".

Whether or not Harvey (2003) conceptualized of nonhuman others as forming part of his 'us' in the reimagining of cities is unclear but 'Right to the City' does offer a tantalizing opportunity to rethink cities as well as how numerous property relations have shaped them. Animals are not persons in the law, but property and the ways in which they have belonged in and lived in cities continue to be shaped by this property status. How could changing this status of animals shape the city? What would the city look like if animals were not things and property to be managed but urban residents to be considered?

The More-Than-Human Right to the City

Marie Shingne's paper "The more-than-human right to the city: A multispecies reevaluation" starts this reimagining by asking three questions and extending them to animals - whose right? what right? and which city?

In short, the answer to these questions highlight how unequal power relations have privileged the neoliberal needs and wants of a few urban residents often ignoring those of disenfranchised groups like those humans living in informal settlements and animals.

For Shingne (2020), to effectively answer these questions one needs to first conceive of animals as having a claim to the urban and to do this one must recognize the diverse and entrenched ways in which animals have been othered in urban policies and processes. She contends that for animals to lay claim to the urban areas in which they reside not only their use of space, but how they could thrive in that space, must be considered both socially and institutionally. Animals needs and their desires must to be on the minds of decision makers and urban planners.

In my conversation with Marie we only began to scratch the surface of what this might mean. We noted how different dogs (pet dogs versus street dogs) might have varied urban needs as well as how advocacy groups might lay claim to and disrupt urban space for animals. We got stuck on thorny questions like figuring out which animal needs matter and how to arbitrate the numerous and possibly conflicting desires of different groups.

It is perhaps easy to forget that our human systems have long tried to manage differing claims, wants, and needs. Existing systems are not perfect and they more often than not work to only serve a few - but as Harvey (2003) noted in his seminal comment on 'Right to the City' we need outrage at injustice and novel ideas if we are going to change cities. So what might a utopian, multispecies city look like? What does a city in which the needs of a variety of species, not just humans are considered, thought about, arbitrated, and imagined anew?

My imagination

I am not yet adept enough to imagine a whole new system, or to strike up policies that effectively consider numerous groups of animals and the ways in which their differing needs and wants could be considered, managed, and mediated. But here are some rudimentary ideas which could contribute to this urban re-making:

  • Killing should not be the solution - For too many animals, in too many instances, killing is the first and immediate solution to their taking up space in the urban.

  • Make more inclusive architecture and find alternative methods of delineating boundaries. Some of this work has already begun - check out this First Guide to Nature Inclusive Design

  • Let go of the idea of a perfect, clinical, and orderly city. Perhaps once we start to embrace the messy, complicated, often grimy aspects of what it means to live, we will be more accepting of other people and animals, their bodies, and their practices too

  • Marvel at the animals you see and imagine their experiences. As Zipporah Weisberg would implore, try to see the magic of life

  • Look to history and other cities - Cities are dynamic spaces and the ways in which your city operates today are likely different to how it once did, and is probably different to how some other cities manage their human-animal-urban relations. There are lessons to be learned from ideas already thought.

  • Don't forget about the animals and landscapes you don't see. I believe an important part of reimaging cities as multispecies spaces is also recognizing that cities do not exist in silos. The consumption and practices that take place in cities impact a variety of animals. These animals do not only include urban pet animals (like dogs and cats), liminal animals (like raccoons and rats), or urban wildlife (like birds, butterflies, and coyotes) but numerous animals whose lives are not necessarily obvious in the urban - including wildlife 'out there' who are conceptualized as being separate from cities and the lives of animals who are frequently only in cities as commodities to be eaten or worn. I guess coupled with imagining rights to the city is also an active imagining of the responsibility and connectedness of the city beyond itself.

To Close

'The Right to the City' is clearly a concept that is full of potential and is certainly an effective tool with which to think animal-urban relations. I am excited to read and learn more about the ways in which animal studies scholars, geographers, urban planners, advocates, and architects might use this idea as a way to reimagine our (human-animal) spaces and relations.

What a great concept to start Season 3 with!

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