Right To The City: What About Rural Residents?

More than half of the world population lives in urban areas, which figure is projected to reach two thirds by 2050, according to the United Nations.

Cities are the nodes of economic and social life in industrial and post-industrial societies, providing jobs and a wide range of services not only for their residents but also for people living outside urban areas. However, cities are much more than this: in today’s massively urbanized world, they are the main sites of capital accumulation and of the reinvestment of surplus value that cannot be utilized profitably in the production of consumption goods (e.g. think about property development and large-scale urban renewal projects).

Therefore – as e.g. David Harvey argues – cities are key important for the constant reproduction of capitalism. Furthermore, it is widely discussed in urban studies literature that a lot of people are excluded not only from the use of cities’ assets but also from the power to effectively participate in controlling the urban development process under capitalism. As a result, contemporary urban space does not serve the interest of each social group equally.

In our recent article, Violations of the right to the city for women with disabilities in peripheral rural communities in Hungary published in Cities: The International Journal of Urban Policy and Planning, we are addressing the question of how the right to the city applies to rural residents. Therefore, we examined a group of women living with disability in rural communities, taking Hungary as a case – a country where urban-rural inequality is still a considerable challenge. We used Henri Lefebvre’s and David Harvey’s concepts of the right to the city as a theoretical framework, but our main goal was not only to grasp these women’s relationship to urban areas but we intended to contribute to the theoretical debate about the right to the city. In this article, we call for an intersectionality approach to the right to the city: exclusion from urban assets is experienced differently by people living with various health problems, and socio-demographic and socio-economic backgrounds and intersecting dimensions of social disadvantage can exacerbate their situation. In addition, we argue that extending the scope of the investigation beyond the administrative boundaries of cities has notable lessons because, in peripheral regions, the urban-rural divide still causes social inequalities.

According to Lefebvre, space is a social product, thus it reflects societal relations of production, culture, and power. Space, in turn, influences people’s everyday practices and how they see the world, which means that space has ideological functions. Every socio-economic formation creates its own social space. According to Marxist theories, the essence of capitalism as a mode of production and socio-economic formation is that it gives a priority to the expanding and never-ending accumulation of surplus: it commodifies everything, preferring the exchange value of things to their use value, emphasizing property rights, so alienating people from the objects of their activities, and from space itself.

The concept of the right to the city, as Lefebvre sees it, refers to the de-alienation of urban space. The concept has two aspects: the right to appropriation and the right to participation. Appropriation means that people make urban space their own, members of the community use it to meet their needs. Right to participation maintains that instead of passive citizenship and formal participation, people should be really and actively involved in political decision making thus contributing to the production of urban space. Thus, people can develop consciousness of their own situation and of the alienating character of the capitalist city, and they will fight for democratic control over urban space. Similarly, in his book (2012) Rebel cities. From the right to the city to the urban revolution, Harvey argues that the right to the city is not only about access to material assets but it should be understood as a collective right to influence the urban process, thus it “is constituted by establishing democratic control over the deployment of the surpluses through urbanization” (pp. 22–23).

Although the right to the city is considered by many a fundamental human right, a lot of people cannot exercise this right as they are excluded from the use of urban assets and from participation in politics. Infringements of various social groups’ (e.g. homeless people, ethnic minorities, immigrants) right to the city are well documented in critical urban studies literature, including women and people with disabilities who are often disadvantaged due to patriarchal and ableist power relations, and in our article, we focus on these two dimensions of oppression. Also, we argue that paradoxically the urban-rural dimension is important in examining the right to the city: with economic development, globalization, and large-scale urbanization, inequalities between urban and rural areas with respect to quality of life are often downplayed, but such inequalities have not vanished everywhere. Recent studies demonstrate the existence of ableism, patriarchy and urban-rural inequalities in Hungary, drawing also our attention to this topic.

We used a qualitative method to examine the right to the city with respect to ableism, patriarchy and urban-rural inequalities. Our article is based on empirical data gathered from semi-structured interviews conducted with 32 women with serious physical or mental impairment or chronic illness, living in rural areas in Eastern Hungary. This method provided us with the opportunity to better understand social relations and power geometries compromising the right to the city of these people by examining their everyday experiences of using urban services and participating in urban life in general.

We analyzed the interviewed women’s experiences with relation to the city according to the dimensions most often mentioned in their narratives: (1) labor-market, paid and unpaid work; (2) public services (with special attention to health care); (3) housing market and financing. Regarding labor market participation, a common experience among the interviewees is that finding a suitable job in their rural communities is extremely hard. In addition, these rural communities can easily become labor-market traps for them. Due to ‘female roles’ considered traditional in Hungarian society (nurturing children at home, housekeeping), and lacking adequate assistance, they can be de-integrated from the labor market. The longer this de-integration is and the fewer transferable skills they have, the harder their re-integration will be. Being rural inhabitants, some of them have been agricultural workers in large-scale or homestead farming but unskilled and physically demanding jobs can also contribute to breaking their careers. Furthermore, commuting might be a solution but not for everyone. Interview research revealed that factors such as increased environmental stress during travel or urban employers’ preference for local labor instead of commuters could markedly hinder these women’s chances to find a job outside their communities (e.g. in the nearest town). To sum up, expressions of rural labor-market disadvantage are quite common in the interviewees’ narratives, suggesting also that the situation in urban areas is better.

Obtaining public and private services is another aspect of the interviewed women’s connection to the city. For people with disability, the use of health-care facilities is the primary manifestation of their connection to urban areas. Although they can get most of the necessary treatments in the nearest urban centers, their limited mobility due to their low incomes, their health issues and the lack of supportive environment (e.g. family support) considerably impede such efforts. In addition, their disadvantaged situation is often attributed to their physiological and mental characteristics, not to social barriers. This shows the dominance of the bio-medical model of disability among the interviewees and points to the need for propagating the social model of disability in Hungary.

A possible solution to the interviewees’ ‘rural problems’ would be the relocation to an urban area, so they would be closer to necessary services. However, urban-rural inequality can also be observed in the property market. The interviewees complained that they could not sell their current houses at a reasonable price, thus it is almost impossible for them to purchase an apartment in the city due to overpricing on the urban housing market. In addition, they are also disadvantaged on the credit market since financial institutions prefer more affluent residents (which was especially the case in the early 2010s due to the global financial crisis).

In conclusion, the interviews demonstrate that women living with disability in rural areas experience disadvantage on the labour market, in public services and on the property market due to oppressive power geometries of ableism, patriarchy and uneven development. The effects of these oppressive forces on individuals can be somewhat different but they are not independent from each other. Furthermore, since many of the above-mentioned services and assets are located in urban areas, we can argue that the right to the city of the interviewed women is being compromised. They have limited access to urban resources but their participation in political decision making is also be hindered due to scarce financial resources and limited mobility.

The right to the city can be considered a universal human right but the diversity of people’s material realities should also be taken into account. Similar forms of disadvantage could form the basis for political mobilisation but the political and civil activity of these people is very weak, which is a typical post-socialist characteristic of Hungarian society. Therefore, it is important for women with disability and for other disadvantaged social groups to get conscious of their own situation and see the roots of their oppression such as ableism, patriarchy or capitalist uneven development, and critical social scientists have the responsibility to assist in this process.

These findings are described in the article entitled Violations of the right to the city for women with disabilities in peripheral rural communities in Hungary, recently published in the journal Cities. This work was conducted by Sz. Fabula from the University of Szeged and J. Timár from Eötvös Loránd University and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Centre for Economic and Regional Studies, Institute for Regional Studies.

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