This article focuses on the relationship between the planner’s role and the deployment of ‘right to the city’ (RTTC) as an orienting principle. First, various definitions of the concept are explored, beginning with Lefebvre’s initial development of the RTTC concept in 1968 followed by two more recent and divergent interpretations, with Harvey appealing to Marx and Engels and de Souza appealing to libertarian views. Through these interpretations the historical context of RTTC is provided, as well as how it has become relevant to principles and practices of urban planning and development today. Lastly, the paper chronicles the role of planning as it has been and as it currently is before moving on to explore RTTC as a normative concept that could help us to imagine what planning should be in principle and in practice.
Definition and Emergence of RTTC
Historically there have been thousands of urban protests all over the world. Some groups have apprehended the term “right to the city” as a slogan for various recent urban protests; however, what these various groups understand and intend is often quite unclear. While urban protests have arisen for various nominal reasons, such as disgust with political oppression, protests against cuts in urban services, frustration with unemployment, high college tuition, and destruction of park and open space, Richard T. LeGates and Frederic Stout (2016), editors of the latest edition of The City Reader contend, “protestors often include a broad spectrum of people excluded…who are angry for a wide variety of personal and philosophical reasons” (p. 270). Purcell (2003) posits that for decades right to the city movements and initiatives have conjured in conflicts over a broad scope of urban issues: housing, against patriarchal cities, for participatory planning, and against social exclusion in cities.
According to LeGates and Stout (2016), “the term ‘right to the city’ refers to both a concept developed by Marxist geographers and a slogan adopted by young people, the poor, and individuals and groups around the world who feel they have been excluded from aspects of city life” (p. 270). The movement is characterized then, as the public’s response to neoliberal urbanism and the disenfranchisement and political and economic restructuring of cities that ultimately threaten democracy in urban governance (Purcell, 2003).
Concepts of the ‘right to the city’ were first introduced in 1968 by French Marxist philosopher, sociologist and geographer, Henri Lefebvre in his book of the same name, Le Droit á la ville. He developed the term as a result of alienated university students in France who were protesting over the development of the left bank expressway, the invasion of central Paris, and the destruction of traditional neighborhoods with towering high rises, such as Place d’Italie and the Tour Montparnasse (LeGates and Stout, 2016). Due to this phenomenon in Paris, Lefebvre predicted the ever-expansiveness of the urban process by acknowledging early on that it had started “obliterating the distinctions between town and country through the production of integrated spaces across the national space if not beyond” (LeGates and Stout, 2016, p. 274). Also during this time, the right to the city was falling into the hands of quasi-state and non-state institutions: local governments had undergone a massive structural reorganization that involved contracting out services to volunteer organizations and private firms as well as transferring much of their power and responsibility over to complex networks of new state, quasi-state, and non-state institutions all in an effort to become more competitive in the global economy. As a result of this structural reorganization, theorists including Lefebvre were worried that local governments were becoming driven solely by capitalist accumulation, and would resolutely exclude local inhabitants from decisions that shaped their cities. Therefore, RTTC arose out of fear that as local government institutions were evolving into more complex sets of institutions, they too were growing increasingly less accessible to residents. In response, Lefebvre created RTTC to counteract the growing disenfranchisement of urban inhabitants and provide marginalized urban populations some renewed form of democratic control (Purcell, 2003).
Mark Purcell (2003) of the University of Washington differentiates what Lefebvre means by the right to the city from how it could be misinterpreted:
I suggest that Lefebvre’s right to the city is an argument for profoundly reworking both the social relations of capitalism and the current structure of liberal-democratic citizenship. His right to the city is not a suggestion for reform, nor does it envision a fragmented, tactical, or piecemeal resistance. His idea is instead a call for a radical restructuring of social, political, and economic relations, both in the city and beyond (p. 101).
Thus, intrinsic to Lefebvre’s idea of the right to the city (RTTC) was the reframing of decision-making processes in cities by reorienting decisions about the production of urban space away from capital and the state towards urban inhabitants (Purcell, 2003).
To understand Lefebvre’s vision of the right to the city, it is important to clarify three key elements of the movement: what is meant by urban space, who constitute urban inhabitants, and the rights in which they are entitled. Lefebvre defined urban space as perceived space, conceived space, and lived space, which constitute all aspects of urban life. Therefore, the right to the city focuses on enfranchising people with respect to all aspects that produce urban space, and is about the right to urban life (Purcell, 2003). Stemming away from conventional enfranchisement, which typically aims to empower national citizens, it is important to note that the right to the city seeks to empower urban inhabitants (or citadins) who are members of the community and live out their daily lives in the city. Therefore, urban inhabitance is the dominant basis of political membership as opposed to national citizenship, and political identity takes precedence over national identity (Purcell, 2003).
Urban inhabitants maintain two principle rights under the right to the city movement, including the right to participation in any decision that affects the production of urban space in any given city, and the right to appropriation, meaning the right to physically access, occupy, and use urban space (Purcell, 2003). Lefebvre extends the right to appropriation beyond space that is already produced, but to produce undeveloped space that would meet the needs of inhabitants (Purcell, 2003). Therefore, the right to appropriation principally stands against conceptions of urban space as private property by the capitalist production process. Overall, Lefebvre’s vision of RTTC is one of radical transformation of urban social and spatial relations (Purcell, 2003).
Current relevance and interpretations of Lefebvre’s RTTC
In 2008, Geographer David Harvey revived and popularized RTTC in his article of the same name: “I here want to explore another kind of collective right, that of the right to the city…there is a revival of interest in Henri Lefebvre’s ideas on the topic…there are various social movements around the world that are now demanding the right to the city as their goal” (LeGates and Stout, p. 272). Harvey wrote his article during the early stages of the global financial crisis, and soon after his article published there were hundreds of thousands of disenchanted people protesting in the streets of Tahir Square in Egypt, Taksim Square in Istanbul, and Zuccotti Park near New York’s Wall Street against a variety of grievances. Harvey (as cited in LeGates and Stout, 2016) appeals to Marxist theory and distinguishes the right to the city as being a collective right as opposed to an individual one because exercising collective power is necessary to change the city and impact processes of urbanization. Furthermore, Harvey’s sense of the right to the city involves empowering the public to shape processes of urbanization and how cities are made and re-made through fundamental and radical approaches. But before the right to the city can be carried out, Harvey (as cited in LeGates and Stout, 2016) claims that “we must first reflect on how we have been made and re-made throughout history by an urban process impelled onwards by powerful social forces” (p. 272), which ever grow in scale and scope as urbanization progresses.
Harvey explains the shift in scope of the urban process from local to global by recounting various ways in which urbanization has helped resolve capital surplus absorption problems throughout recent history, meanwhile distressing marginalized populations and isolating them from those processes. Harvey refers to the ways in which Haussmann and Robert Moses attempted to resolve capital surplus absorption problems in 19th century Paris and in 20th century New York City, whose modernist projects were successful, but due to the scale of development and expansion, they hollowed out the core of their central cities. The brutality of modernity in both Paris and New York City had caused social urban crises. Minorities revolted – chiefly African-Americans in New York City and the Paris Commune that led the French Revolution – who all longed for their city as it was before Haussmann and Moses dispossessed them of their local neighborhood aesthetic and culture (LeGates and Stout, 2016). Harvey recalls, too, the 1968 revolt in Paris that rallied against “high rise giants” that heralded Lefebvre to coin the term “right to the city.”
Harvey fasts forward to contemporary society to underpin urbanization’s role in stabilizing chronic capital surplus disposal problems and international capitalism crises and crashes. He looks at the United States in the early 2000s, when the property market stabilized chronic capital surplus disposal problems through new construction and the rapid inflation of housing asset prices. He asserts the importance of U.S. urban expansion in stabilizing the global market as it borrows roughly $2 billion daily to fuel its insatiable consumerism and the debt-financed war in Afghanistan and Iraq (his paper was published before the termination of these armed conflicts in 2011). Next Harvey illustrates that building booms and mega-urbanization projects around the world have turned the urban process global, not only cities in core capitalist countries, such as, London, Los Angeles, San Diego and New York, but other bourgeoning cities around the world, such as Mexico City, Santiago in Chile, Mumbai, Johannesburg, Seoul, Moscow, Taipei, Spain, and Dubai. To the latter example he claims is soaking up surpluses in “conspicuous, socially unjust, and environmentally wasteful ways” (LeGates and Stout, 2016, p. 275). Harvey then asserts that the new financial institutions helping to sustain the global urbanization boom – by spreading risk but without adequate risk assessment controls – have caused the mortgage market to get out of hand, which in turn caused “a so-called sub-prime mortgage and housing asset-value crisis” (LeGates and Stout, 2016, p. 275).
Harvey posits that the most recent radical expansion of the urban process has transformed lifestyles so much so that the quality of urban life is measured by the accumulation of commodities for those with money. Harvey claims that possessive individualism is so strong that there has been a “political withdrawal of support for collective forms of action [which are manifested through homeowner associations acting as] fragmented neighborhood fascisms” (LeGates and Stout, 2016, p. 276). Under these conditions, Harvey claims that “ideals of urban identity, citizenship and belonging, already threatened by the spreading malaise of the neoliberal ethic, become much harder to sustain” (LeGates and Stout, 2016, p. 276). Criminal activity prompting police suppressions in communities where there are highly unbalanced distributions of wealth, Harvey claims, exacerbates the issue, and further obfuscates the idea that cities might function as a collective body politic. Furthermore, surplus absorption through urban transformation evokes the repetition of urban restructuring through what Harvey calls “creative destruction,” in which the poor and underprivileged are marginalized from political power and are the ones who suffer most from this molding and remolding of the urban process. Because surplus absorption through urban redevelopment causes displacement of oppressed groups, Harvey says that “accumulation by dispossession” remains central to the urban process under capitalism. Therefore, Harvey’s main argument for using urbanization as a means for absorbing capital surpluses is because it does so – in ever increasing scales – at the expense of any right to the city that the urban public might have, as has been seen in Paris in 1871, in urban social movements of the 1960s, and throughout the world today. Harvey calls for a contemporary version of 1968 or of the Commune if a broader crisis ensues once the hitherto successful neoliberal, postmodernist and consumerist phase of capitalist absorption of surplus through urbanization comes to an end (LeGates and Stout, 2016).
Signs of revolt are everywhere, and Harvey claims that any could become contagious; however, a connection is lacking between them, and they are difficult to converge because the urban process has become global in scope. Despite bottlenecks, Harvey has seemingly found the point of convergence: “At this point in history this has to be a global struggle predominantly with finance capital for that is the scale at which urbanization processes are now working” (LeGates and Stout, 2016, p. 278). Harvey conceives that if these diverse social movements converge, they should demand greater democratic control over the production and use of capital surplus. Harvey claims that since “the urban process is a major channel of use, then the right to the city is constituted by establishing democratic control over the deployment of the surpluses through urbanization” (LeGates and Stout, 2016, p. 277).
Marcelo Lopes de Souza, a professor of geography at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, avers that the right to the city has become “fashionable these days,” resulting in a trivialization and corruption of Lefebvre’s concept. In his paper, Which right to which city? In defence of political-strategic clarity, Marcelo Lopes de Souza criticizes Harvey’s understanding of Lefebvre’s concept throughout the paper for doing just that. He claims that by maintaining a non-reformist understanding of RTTC, Harvey “reaches beyond the usual academic level of critical analysis in order to make political-strategic evaluations and recommendations. However, from a libertarian point of view, his words sound very much like an attempt to see (partially) new phenomena…through old lenses: namely through the lenses of statism, centralism, and hierarchy” (de Souza, 2010, p. 315). Marcelo Lopes de Souza (2010) posits that in many cases, the right to the city seems to mean the following: “The right to a better, more ‘human’ life in the context of the capitalist city, the capitalist society and on the basis of a (‘reformed’ and ‘improved’) representative ‘democracy’” (p. 317). He then warns that those who choose to uphold RTTC without equivocating must take heed to Lefevbre’s radical path: “’the right to the city’ for Lefebvre was not reducible to the right to better housing, lower rents, etc. in the framework of the capitalist city…but the right to a very different life in the context of a very different, just society” (de Souza, 2010, p. 318).
Marcelo Lopez de Souza (2010) is reluctant to accept or suggest a unanimous definition for “right to the city,” and posits that as far as emancipatory social movements and radical intellectuals are concerned, it should be regarded as “contested territory” because there are real risks in the vulgarization and domestication of Lefebvre’s phrase by “status-quo-conform institutions and forces” (p. 316). He claims that “right to the city” in the view of conformist institutions (i.e. contemporary NGOs and “development” agencies) often only means opposition to gentrification and an urban politics consisting merely of “politics of turf.” Marcelo Lopez de Souza espouses that this can be a legitimate beginning, but is ultimately insufficient because it lacks strategic goals and a general framework for thinking and action (de Souza, 2010, p. 317). He criticizes Harvey for mistaking the local and regional roots of social movements for a narrow “politics of turf” and parochialism, which de Souza (2010) claims, “grossly misrepresents many of today’s most important social movements” (p. 322-323). Some social movements organize at the local level because the local level is the clear priority, whereas for others it is a matter of necessity:
Poor activists from ‘(semi) peripheral’ countries cannot afford to travel around the world as campaigners…emancipatory movements such as the Zapatistas, South Africa’s Abahlali base Mjondolo (shack dweller’s movement), the most radical parts of the Argentinian piqueteros and the Brazilian sem-teto, and so on…are very often open to ‘transnational activism’…as far is possible given the material constraints they face (p. 323).
Therefore, de Souza thinks Harvey gives the impression that these movements subject themselves to narrow-minded localism, while de Souza (2010) argues that these represent a form of “militant particularism,” whereas other movements have also achieved “supralocal relevance” (p. 328). According to de Souza, Harvey (2010) cannot help himself – as a more or less orthodox Marxist – from “dreaming of unifying ‘visions’, ‘transformed’ left-parties, centralistic and statist solutions, ‘seizing state power’, and so on” (p. 326). Therefore, it is challenging for de Souza to accept Harvey’s push for the convergence of various right to the city movements at the global scale.
Marcelo Lopez de Souza (2010) further criticizes Harvey for suggesting that anti-capitalist revolutionary movements ignore the state and the dynamics of the inter-state system. He claims that “in fact, even Spanish anarchists already knew that a radical opposition to the state…is not the same as ‘ignoring’ the state apparatus” (p. 326), and, “social movements must learn to deal with the state with pragmatism, but also without illusions” (de Souza, 2010, p. 329). Regarding the role of institutions in promoting social movements, de Souza espouses that the “institutional struggle” can – at best – “play a supplementary role in relation to direct action” (p. 329), though institutions cannot replace the work of direct action. Marcelo Lopez de Souza (2010) clarifies the role of the state in the promotion of social movements:
The state is not a ‘partner’…the state apparatus as such is an enemy, even if it is sometimes (dialectically) more or less genuinely open to pressures from below as a government. To which extent this openness can be used by social movements (instead of the movements being instrumentalised by the state), is something which has to be decided on a case-by-case basis (p. 329).
Marcelo Lopez de Souza further suggests social movements talk and articulate amongst each other without seeking uniformity. Finally, he suggests that social movements have to continuously reinvent themselves and avoid “the colonization of radical slogans and concepts” (de Souza, 2010, p. 330) – such as the right to the city – and learn to cope with various challenges along the way.
Theoretical and historical relevance of RTTC to urban planning
Both Lefebvre and Harvey insist that the right to the city revolution must be urban. It could be inferred from Harvey’s hitherto argument espousing the democratization of the right to the city movement that planning in theory and in practice today must adapt to the pressures of current events necessary to reconstruct society, and help the historically marginalized and isolated groups actualize their collective right to shape and create urban space in any given city. However, from the libertarian perspective of Marcelo Lopez de Souza, as actors working for the state – or for NGOs to international and national urban development agencies such as UN Habitat –planners cannot directly participate in right to the city movement. Considering these disparate views, it would be important to understand how planners can promote right to the city concepts – if at all fully or partially – and how the role of planners should adapt in order to help deploy them. This section seeks to explain the role of planning as it has been, especially in terms of facilitating public participation processes, and as it currently is before moving on to explore RTTC as a normative concept that could help us to imagine what planning should be in principle and in practice to promote RTTC concepts.
The right to the city presupposes that ‘citadins’ have the ability to define social problems and formulate and implement plans to address them; this pragmatic connection has been traditionally foreign to the field of planning and has yet to fully materialize. Charles Hoch from the University of Illinois at Chicago writes in Doing Good and Being Right: The Pragmatic Connection in Planning Theory how the philosopher John Dewey’s idea of human action and theories conceived by several mainstream American planning theorists have attempted to reconcile between two dichotomies: the planner’s efforts of doing good (which emphasizes the effect of planning on society) and being right (which emphasizes the methodological or technical qualities of planning and rationality). For planners interested in being right, according to Hoch (1984), “planning denotes a technical activity that is justified by the ability to analyze events coherently and accurately” (p. 335); whereas planners interested in doing good “refer to planning as a predominantly moral and political preoccupation” (p. 335). To bridge the gap between doing good and being right, Hoch explains that mainstream planning had used a framework to combine identification of problems, formulation of plans, and democratic participation; however, the resulting framework underestimated the power of bureaucratic authority, economic exploitation, racial and sexual discrimination, and other forms of social domination that diverge communities and hinder their ability to collaborate and determine mutual goals (which are all common features of RTTC). Particularly with regards to public participation, Hoch (1984) claims that mainstream planning theorists were unable to bridge social conflict and antagonisms through participation in pragmatic inquiry considering the struggles planners continuously face with power relations: “in light of the numerous empirical accounts of centrality and dominance of power relations in the formation and realization of plans, it seems difficult to adopt the essential elements of pragmatic planning theory in any consistent and practical manner” (p. 342). Hoch exclaims that planners cannot ignore the practical development of plans, which are guided more by politics than by argumentation over who is right or who development should benefit. He advocates for a reconstructed pragmatic theory of planning that defines problems in terms of the histories and locations of people, and explores how people learn to collaborate via strengthening emotional bonds amongst diverse groups of people, securing a common purpose, and legitimizing democratic participation, despite the uncertainty posed by control of corporate and government bureaucracies so that planners can help facilitate this pragmatic process (Hoch, 1984).
If the idea is for planners to utilize the right to the city as an orienting principle to guide more equitable development, then the current legal framework for participation needs to radically change so planners can facilitate this process. In Reframing Public Participation: Strategies for the 21st Century Judith Innes and David Booher maintain that collaborative participation methods can better meet public participation goals and have greater merit and legitimacy than the standard, legally required methods of community participation of today (i.e. mandatory hearings and comment periods), which are insufficient because they cause mistrust and can often be counterproductive. Collaborative participation engenders more effective representation in which all communities are represented in a multi-way set of interactions, builds the capacity for civic engagement, and fosters meaningful and inclusive dialogue, which allows for issues to be dealt with in constructive ways. Integral to the collaborative participation process, is that it requires for each interest group (i.e. community members, developers, and city officials) to be open to engaging in mutual learning, and that their views are malleable to such the extent that they can reach consensus, which is the objective.
If planners offer the dispossessed rights to urban space and property title it does not mean the poor have the capacity to exercise those rights. Ananya Roy, a professor of Inequality and Democracy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, posits, “it is the right to the city that is at stake in urban informality [and] in the struggles of urban space in American cities” (Roy, 2005. p. 155). Therefore, Roy (2005) urges planners to be concerned with distributive justice – “to whom things belong” (p. 155) – and to pay attention to “the use value claims that constitute the right to the city” (p. 155). Much of the policy response to urban informality has been towards slum upgrading and land titling; however, the challenge for planners, according to Roy (2005), remains to realize wealth transfer, not just wealth legalization: she uses cases in Bogota, Colombia and Peru to thereby suggest that ending informality does not necessarily de facto end poverty (p. 152). Thus, Roy (2005) raises the question: “Is the right to participate in property markets the same thing as participation in property markets?” (p. 152-153). Roy (2005) references Donald A. Krueckeberg, a former professor and Associate Dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policymourn at Rutgers University, when she avers that property is a set of relationships held between the owner and others’ claims to the thing; thus, property is a set of rules that establish who has the power to include or limit who has legitimate claims on property. In this view, Roy (2005) confers that property systems are monopolistic, and that it is insufficient to offer the dispossessed the right to participate in property markets without policymakers guaranteeing the right to participate in the market “by directly addressing inequality” and distributive justice issues (p. 153). Planners, then, according to Roy (2005), are important for the development of informal urban areas in conformance with distributive justice because the planning and legal apparatus of the state maintain the power to construct and reconstruct legitimacy and illegitimacy, and to determine what is informal from what is formal (p. 149). However, Roy (2005) posits that states are not benevolent actors in the promotion of legalization, and that promoting distributive justice requires “working through rather than against institutions power” (p. 155). To the question of whether it is possible for planners to be subversive when complicity to the system predominates, Roy (2005) is reluctant to state, “this is a question that planning has long struggled with and that cannot be fully resolved” (p. 155).
Without explicitly referencing the right to the city, in 1978 Harvey wrote, “On Planning the Ideology of Planning,” which implies deploying RTTC concepts into the practice of urban planning. According to Harvey, the role of the planner is to help ensure the creation of a built environment that serves the purposes of social reproduction, creates conditions for balanced growth, and avoids crisis and civil strife as best as possible through repression, cooptation or integration. Like Roy, Harvey says that in order to achieve redistributive justice, planners must consider how everything in the urban system relates, including the tensions between competitive, monopolistic, and state production of the built environment with regards to conflicting class and divisive requirements (i.e. the tensions between different interests of the landlord, laborer, developers, capital managers of financial institutions, local business interests, etc.). In the 1960s, this meant the planner acted as an advocate for the poor and underprivileged by responding to urban riots to control civil strife, however by the late 1970s, Harvey wrote that the ideology of urban planning shifted to fit the economic realities of the time. Here Harvey alludes to the idea that the ideological stance of the planner must adapt to the pressures of current events to reconstruct society.
The planner’s role may need to change in order to execute RTTC concepts into planning practice in order to better respond to racial, economic and environmental justice issues. Although urban planning theorists such as Roy and Harvey have urged planners to create political environments that ensure more equitable growth and development, it remains an obstacle for planners to achieve in reality. Perhaps the political spheres and bureaucracies in which planners work prohibit them from being completely subversive, as Roy suggests, but that hardly means planners should succumb to complicity with the status quo or repressive policies, especially when redistributive injustice remains a threat to the world’s poor and politically marginalized. Given the political environments in which planners operate, it remains unclear whether planners can steer clear from falling victim to trivializing and corrupting Lefebvre’s concept of the right to the city, as Marcelo Lopes de Souza warns. If the planner’s role seems insignificant in the context of the right to the city given this context, perhaps to make it more meaningful involves working to legitimize democratic participation processes, creating opportunities for communities to be represented in a multi-way set of interactions, and strengthening emotional bonds amongst diverse groups of people, as Innes and Booher and Hoch suggest – and to do so despite the uncertainty posed by control of corporate and government bureaucracies.
 Furthermore, the convergence of different movements with seemingly similar objectives “in plain view” has historically proven to distort the original intentions of those movements and has wildly distorted desired outcomes. The urban crisis in the United States is notorious for conflating different economic and social issues. James DeFilippis from the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University writes in, Collective ownership and community control about how the convergence of the community control movement with elements of the black power movement, including the promotion of black economic development and the push for black capitalism, for example, and the ambivalence about particulars allowed black capitalism to become the dominant form of black economic “community” control by the end of the 1960s. Therefore, “The radical potential of demands for black economic power thus became co-opted and transformed into simply a debate about how to best reproduce capitalist practices in black urban neighborhoods. The road of collective community control and empowerment was not taken” (DeFillippis, 2011, p. 274).
DeFilippis J. (2011). Collective ownership and community control. In: Fainstein SS and Campbell S (eds), Readings in Planning Theory, Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 268–291.
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Harvey D. L. (1978). On Planning the ideology of planning. In: Burchell RW and Sternlieb G (eds), Planning Theory in the 1980s: A Search for Future Directions, Rutgers University Center for Urban Policy Research.
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Innes, J. E., & Booher, D. E. (December 2004). Reframing public participation: Strategies for the 21st century. Planning Theory & Practice, 5(4): 419-436.
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Purcell, M. (2003). Excavating Lefebvre: The right to the city and its urban politics of the inhabitant. GeoJournal, 58: 99–108. Retrieved from link
Roy, A. (2005). Urban informality: Toward an epistemology of planning. Journal of the American Planning Association, 71(2): 147-158.