Space Wars

I recently learned about “insurgent citizenship”, a term coined by James Holston, and it refers to instances where people take their citizenship into their own hands when the state fails to meet their needs. In his book, “Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil”, Holston examined social mobilizations of the people that “developed not primarily through struggles of labor but through those of the city–particularly illegal residence, house building, and land conflict.” In an article entitled “Victims, Villains and Fixers: The Urban Environment and Johannesburg’s Poor”, Jo Beall, Owen Crankshaw and Susan Parnell talked about the struggles that many still face in post-apartheid South Africa and the insufficiencies of water, sanitation and electrical services to blacks and the poor. Due to the privatization of these services and the inability of many to make payments, they have resorted to illegally tapping electrical connections, using coal and wood instead of electricity for cooking, defecating in rivers in the absence of adequate sanitation or, in some cases, even pouring concrete on meters so that services won’t be cut off completely.

(PHOTO CREDIT: M. Wuerker)

(PHOTO CREDIT: M. Wuerker)

The Water Wars of Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2000 are another great example of insurgent citizenship. The people rose up in resistance to what Jim Schultz of The Democracy Center called the Three B’s: Bank, Banzer, Bechtel. The World Bank coerced the Bolivian government to privatize their water of they would no longer receive funding for their water redevelopment initiatives. Hugo Banzer, former-dictator-turned-president, obliged and privatized the water of Cochabamba into the hands of Bechtel, the San Francisco based, billion dollar corporation that was responsible for the Hoover Dam and the Big Dig in Boston. When the people were forced to choose between eating less in order to pay for water services, or keeping their children from school, or staying home to treat illnesses rather than visit the hospitals, they resisted. They more they resisted, the more violent the struggle got. Before it’s conclusion, the Water Wars of Cochabamba saw hundred of people maimed and injured, including the tragic death of Victor Hugo Daza, who was only 17.

Important though it may be, what interests me the most is not necessarily the fact that people are exerting their citizenship and taking matters into their own hand, but more so the transformative power these insurgencies can have on spaces and the use of the built environment as platforms that channel their resistance. Marcelo Olivera, an activist who was a part of the Water Wars thirteen years ago, said this: “It was more than a battle to get something; it was a battle to physically occupy a space that we considered was ours and we had the right to have this space.” The space that Marcelo was referring to was the town square of Cochabamba where the battle against the privatization of water began. You can check out her interview with Democracy Now! here.

People today can look at public spaces, such as plazas, parks, town squares, etc., as places that aren’t really public. In many cases, there are certain rules and restrictions that dissuade certain persons from engaging with these areas, such as the homeless. However, when certain issues arise that affect ALL people, how quickly these “rules” change! Where once they were divisive and exclusive, these public spaces become ground zero for urban resistance and corporate solidarity. As a result, people become empowered and are able to affect change at the next level. In the article “New Spaces, New Contests”, Benjamin Kohl and Linda Farthing stated that the importance of social mobilization in planning theory cannot be overlooked since the social movements of Bolivia were able to create space in politics that previously did not exist. These movements allowed the poor to assume greater roles in planning and politics and also bred leaders that are now of great importance, such as Evo Morales, the current president of Bolivia and a key figure during the Water Wars.

It is incumbent upon us planners to continue to plan for these public spaces to make them as open and inclusive as possible. Even though we may not see the results we so desire, they can become the platforms by which citizens gather amongst themselves and affect positive, long-term changes in our society. The transformative use of these public spaces can allow us to challenge spaces of injustice and inequality that can then translate into changes of space in politics and the status quo.


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