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All Cities & Citizenship

Theorizing Global Urbanism and Citizenship

In nearly every country, people are rushing into cities—over a million people per week. Though cities globally are growing, they can never be prepared for the change these new residents will bring. Physical, social and political infrastructure must continuously evolve in order to continue serving growing and evolving populations. But cities are reflections and products of the citizens who live in them. Citizens have always been, and must always remain, ahead of the formalized rights, systems, and infrastructure in their countries. As hotspots of talent and connections, concentrations of wealth and power, nations require the constant pushing of citizens in cities to move progress forward.

The notion of citizenship itself begins with the legal recognition of people in a place—a political act, a civil right for certain types of people. T.H. Marshall laid out the foundation of our understanding of citizenship and rights in his 1950 article “Citizenship and Social Class.” He breaks down the rights of Western citizenship into three categories—civil, political, and social—which tend to be formalized in that order. He uses the example of England, which formalized civil rights (individual liberties, freedom of speech and religion, owning property, contracts, justice) in the eighteenth century, political rights (to participate in the relevant government systems) in the nineteenth, then social rights (encompassing economic and social welfare, including welfare, security, and education) in the twentieth. Marshall emphasizes the interdependence of these rights, but that together they form a cohesive framework for full citizenship, a ladder on which societies move up.

In the Global South, citizenship reaches a new scale, where a majority of the world’s population, the majority of whom live in cities, are grappling with the aftermath of colonization and rapid political change in cities. With many countries and cities not keeping close track of residents—Lagos, for instance, has no reliable tally of its poor urban populations—the lines between citizen, resident, and immigrant are blurred.

James Holston coined the term insurgent citizenship to describe “the struggle for the right to have a daily life in the city worthy of a citizen’s dignity” (256). While citizen activism has always existed—American history is filled with stories glorifying the man to stand up and demand the country be better, from the Founding Fathers to MLK—Holston argues the Global South demonstrates a new scale. Jenny Morgan chronicles the fight of poor residents in South Africa in her film “A Place in the City.” Though housing is guaranteed as a right of citizens, some citizens have lived in urban slums the city has been required to upgrade to permanent housing for decades. Yet the housing that does get built can be located long distances from the urban jobs at which residents are employed, making the providing of this “right” resemble forced relocation. The illegal squatting to maintain residents’ toehold in the city is an assertion of rights: that lifelong residents of a city deserve to stay there.

The reasons the state is incapable of or choosing not to respond productively to these assertions are complex. Many countries in the Global South are running under dysfunctional governments descended from their former colonization, and have been sapped of the power to provide the infrastructure, welfare, and systems citizens need. The scholar Mike Davis, dissecting a U.N. report, “squarely indict[s] neoliberalism, especially the IMF’s structural adjustment programmes” (11). These programs have provided a mechanism for Global North economies to “use the leverage of debt to restructure the economies of most of the Third World” (Davis 18), preventing those countries from building the infrastructure rapidly-growing cities need, which would provide the foundation on which rights depend. In the grey area where legal contracts forbid the government from providing services it is legally obliged to, the poorest citizens are the first to suffer.

Thus, citizens must assert agency to meet their material needs and gradually level up through Marshall’s ladder of rights. Holston, writing in 2009, uses Brazil as a case study, demonstrating insurgent citizenship with a classist interaction in a bank line and scaling it to large squatting communities. Other urban scholars have applied the concept to communities and movements across the Global South. It continues today, including in his example of Brazil, where thousands of people making up the the Landless Workers Movement have successfully taken over thousands of acres of land in the last forty years (Nicas). Through peaceful protest and sometimes bloody fights using farm tools, they are constructing new agricultural towns on underutilized land owned by the rich. With dozens of land invasions per year, these workers and families are not waiting for the government to fix the historical injustices in land ownership caused by colonial-era regulation. They are seizing the power to do so by putting the land to use, growing organic produce, and asking politicians if this is not a superior outcome. Many communities are later legalized by the national government, some five thousand acres in area legalized after years of illegal occupation, as laws require Brazil farmland to be actively used.

Traditional concepts of citizenship would paint the Landless Workers Movement as illegal, which the occupations do begin as. But taking into account not only today’s rules, rights, and privileges of citizenship, but where they will be as history progresses, these occupiers as doing more to develop the country’s law and order than police or politicians trying to stop them. With dysfunctional governments, “the responsibility for social and economic welfare is shifted on to citizens” (Kudva and Miraftab 271). Waiting for a state unable or unwilling to help has no legitimacy: “the formal political arena does not offer an adequate site to renegotiate rights and duties associated with citizenship” (271). Much of the focus of insurgent citizenship tends to fall on, to use Marshall’s framework, social rights over political and civil ones. While in the the Global North we often see political and civil rights/citizenship as the foundation social rights exist on, in countries accustomed to subjugation, having housing, jobs, education, and healthcare are more obvious priorities than rights like the freedom of assembly.

As Global South cities grow, grappling with their new social and economic realities of massive-scale urban poverty, we will continue to see “organized movements of poor urban citizens confront entrenched national regimes of citizen inequality” (Holston 248). The less established and productive a government (national or city), through structural adjustment programs or otherwise, the more the system depends on citizens’ insurgency to assert their rights and design their own citizenship, whether through land invasion, squatting, protest, or simply living as themselves regardless of formal recognition. While vilified and hunted by state officers, these are the citizens daring to “articulate essential premises of a new formulation of citizenship” (Holston 253). While not all their visions will be their society’s ultimate conclusion of citizenship, their assertions crucially shape the path forwards.

Works Cited

Davis, Mike. “Planet of Slums: Urban involution and informal Proletariat.” New Left Review. 26 (March), 2004.

Holston, James. 2009. “Insurgent Citizenship in an Era of Global Urban Peripheries.” Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil. Princeton University Press, 2009.

Marshall, T.H. “Citizenship and Social Class.” Citizenship and Social Class and Other Essays. Cambridge University Press, 1950.

Miraftab, Faranak and Neema Kudva. “Urban Citizenship”. Cities of the Global South Reader. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Morgan, Jenny. “A Place in the City.” Journeyman Productions, 2 Dec. 2008,

Nicas, Jack. “If You Don’t Use Your Land, These Marxists May Take It.” The New York Times, 30 Apr. 2023,