Pravo na grad (Right to the City) is an organisation engaged in advocacy and public campaigning against privatization and economic overexploitation of space, public and common goods, while promoting the need for citizens’ participation in the management of public goods.
Over the last ten years, the organization has undertaken a number of campaigns and protest actions raising the public awareness on these issues. What precedes these campaigns is Right to the city’s effort in building long lasting alliances with different civil society organizations as well as trade unions. Together with different organizations and initiatives we have led and have been a part of many different campaigns focusing on public goods, social and urban justice. Perhaps the best known examples are the struggles against the devastation of public space in Zagreb city center (We Won’t Give Away Varsavska Street campaign), as well as the campaign against the destruction of Kamensko textile factory in the center of Zagreb, but also the support we provided to a local referendum campaign against golf resorts in Dubrovnik (Srđ is ours) or collaboration with initiatives Volim Pulu (I love Pula) concerned with preventing the commercialization of city’s coastline.
Furthermore, during the last three years we have been a part of local and national campaigns against privatization of public services and public infrastructure. In 2014, together with trade unions and other civil society organization we have launched a country-wide petition for a referendum campaign against the privatization of Croatian Highways (We Won’t Give Our Highways Away). These campaigns are considered as one of most successful and visible civil society activities in Croatia in recent years.
In terms of the city of Zagreb, Right to the city extensively works on establishing relationships and building organizational capacities of grassroots initiatives in the city that fight for public and common resources in their surroundings.
Defending public space: the case of Varsavska Street and Kamensko factory
Right to the City, now a formal association, first started as an initiative established by several civil society organisations in the field of independent culture and youth who, after joining forces with the most visible environmentalist organization in Croatia, Green action, engaged in a campaign against the devastation of public space in Zagreb and managed to accomplish high social mobilization, putting the issue of management of public space on the public as well as political agenda.
The campaign was motivated by City’s systemic mismanagement of public space and public resources that benefited private investors and brought about disenfranchisement of the public in the issues of urban development. More in particular, the campaign was directed against modifications of City of Zagreb Masterplan that allowed for redevelopment of historic public square Cvjetni trg (Flower Market Square) in order to suit the needs of private investor who planned to build there a shopping mall and an underground garage, thus destroying the City’s pedestrian zone and protected heritage buildings.
The campaign for Varsavska Street lasted continuously for five years (2006-2010) and in that period over 80 public actions were undertaken, including a number of highly visible actions such as mass rallies or several citizens’ occupations of Varsavska street, which were aimed primarily at drawing public’s attention and raising the issue to the level of public debate.
Although the campaign did not succeed in stopping the project, the initiative managed to protract its realization for four years, to cut it in size by half and to force City Mayor to revert all changes to the Masterplan. More importantly, the initiative was successful in creating a multidisciplinary coalition of civil society actors (culture, environment, youth) and a broad network of contacts with citizens and volunteers ready to invest their time and energy in the campaign. Furthermore, Right to the City and Green Action have introduced an innovative approach to civil society campaigning, based on continuous public presence and tactical actions against the closed media environment of capital-dominated and populist politics. The strategy has resulted in more than 1,000 appearances in all relevant media. Finally, the Flower Square became more e a nation-wide symbol of unsustainable spatial development and the demand for more citizen participation in decisions concerning space. This, in turn, encouraged citizen groups and initiatives in other parts of the country to engage publicly against the spatial mismanagement which was occurring in their local communities.
After the Varšavska street campaign, Right to the city, together with student movement and Green action, joined forces with the workers of Kamensko textile factory. It turned out that the factory was systematically ruined due to the fact that it was positioned on the “valuable” land in the center of the city. This was the first time that, through before mentioned media actions and wide alliances, the connection between workers’ rights and land use came to the fore. Also, this campaign made it clear that there was a growing need for a closer collaboration between urban and social justice actors.
Linking struggles: supporting different local campaigns
In this sense, especially since the Varsavska Street campaign ended, Right to the City started to focus on a nation-wide campaign to integrate spatial contestations in different localities throughout Croatia, thus wanting to demonstrate that Varsavska was only one instance of systematic spatial mismanagement. In that sense, the groundwork for these activities was already completed in 2007 when we initiated the National Forum for Space, a country-wide coordination of activist groups and experts. Additionally, the organization focused on supporting local initiatives from Croatia, mostly those in coastal towns such as Pula or Dubrovnik. Dubrovnik’s initiative Srđ je naš (Srđ Is Ours) was fighting against a large scale golfing and real estate project meant to be realized on Mount Srđ that overlooks the historical UNESCO-protected city center. The planned resort was supposed to take up a huge area (359 hectares) that would be taken away from public hands. The initiative gained both local and national visibility and succeeded in acquiring enough signatures for a local referendum on the project. In the end, 84 % of citizens who turned out at the polls voted against the project,however, the referendum failed because Croatian law insist on a high 50 % voters turnout for a local referendum, while the turnout in this case was 31,5 %.
Building coalitions, protecting public goods: building broad civil society and trade union alliances
Over the last three years, Right to the City has widened its focus to now include issues related to protection of public goods, services and infrastructure. We have thus directed our efforts towards engaging in broader coalitions that could on the one hand counteract the dominant processes of privatization and liberalization implemented by the governing elite and on the other offer a platform for citizens’ participation in these processes that could democratize current economic and political processes.
A first step we have undertaken in that direction has been to build coalitions with trade unions and civil society initiatives dealing with issues of labour, social security, public sector etc. The coalition is today most known for a highly visible and successful petition for a national referendum campaign against the privatization of Croatian Highways which remain in public ownership up to this day.
Partnership with trade unions and civil society has been slowly and carefully built since the beginning of 2013 by creating mutual trust and issues of common interest between diverse set of actors. First, in 2013, several civil society organisations gave their support to the celebration of Labour Day, traditionally organized by trade unions, thus pledging their commitment to advance common social goals, after which a series of meetings and public events occurred with an aim to find a common point interest between these actors.
Soon, the issue of privatizations or the so-called ‘monetization by concession’ of Croatian Highway was announced by the government and thus became a potential focal point for social mobilization. In 2013 and 2014, an alliance was formed between trade unions and civil society initiatives who organized a range of press conferences and public actions, announcing their fight against the privatization of Highways as a struggle for protecting the public goods. Finally, the activities culminated in a referendum campaign.
The organizing committee of a referendum campaign “We Won’t Give Our Highways Away” was formed in September 2014 with one goal: to organize collection of signatures for a national referendum. It consisted of 14 organizations: two road workers’ unions, seven civil society organisations (among which also the Right to the City) and all five trade union confederations.
However, the overall aim of the referendum campaign was threefold: to prevent the concession of highways as our public good, to actively include citizens in decision-making process on this issue and finally, to create long-term alliances between civil society organisations, trade unions and citizens around the issues of management of public goods.
Soon after the establishment of organizing committee, a wide network of organizations and citizens around Croatia was established and more than 2300 volunteers collected signatures all around Croatia. Final result: more than 530 000 valid signatures collected.
Although the Supreme court in their ruling rejected our request for referendum, the highly visible media campaign and enormous social mobilization halted the privatization of highways up to this day, while the referendum campaign strengthened alliance between trade unions and civil society organisations, as well as managed to put the issue of protection of public goods on social agenda.
Continuing our work on defending public goods
In order to take another step forward in our struggle for public goods, Right to the City participated in 2015 in establishing a platform for public and common goods “Ours to Own” – a platform of civil society organisations for cooperation with trade unions and other actors on the issues of protection of public and common goods. The platform builds on coalitions and networks established and strengthened in all our common past struggles.
Continuing on previous work, the platform will try to respond to new waves of privatization of public goods by strengthening broad coalitions, creating tactical platforms and including citizens in our public actions. However, we also plan to advance our work by not only reacting to new attempts of privatizations but also by advocating new models of participatory management of public goods, such that would promote transparency and involve citizens in decision-making processes related to management of their strategic resources.
Right to the city is part of several European and global alliances such as European coalition for right to housing and the city and global Right to the city network.