What COVID-19 teaches us about the Right to the City of street vendors?

October 31, officially known as UN World Cities Day, has been re-interpreted by activist across the globe as the World Day for the Right to the City. To mark that important date, the Global Platform for the Right to the City (GPR2C) and its members have developed a series of initiatives and campaigns, known as the Urban October, culminating in October 31. UN Habitat will be also hosting the Global Observance on that date in celebration of World Cities Day, with the sub-theme Valuing our communities and cities.

StreetNet International is one of the members of the GPR2C and this Urban October, we want to highlight the importance of street vendors as crucial elements for vibrant, democratic, and inclusive cities. We also echo the demands of UN Habitat and ask for more participatory urban governance which values street vendors and other informal traders as integral for sustainable urban development.

What is the Right to the City?

According to the GPR2C, the Right to the City is:

“…the right of all inhabitants, present and future, permanent and temporary, to inhabit, use, occupy, produce, govern and enjoy just, inclusive, safe and sustainable cities, villages and human settlements, defined as commons essential to a full and decent life.”

The Right to the City is a concept that understands cities as living social, political, and economic entities. At a time when cities all over the world are being targeted by privatization of public spaces, gentrification and housing and infrastructure crisis, the Right to the City reminds us that urban spaces are not exclusively for and by the wealthy, nor do they exist just to make a profit.

The Right to the City correlates with Sustainable Development Goal 11: Sustainable cities and communities and the New Urban Agenda, key documents that enshrine international commitments to develop democratic, diverse, sustainable and inclusive cities for all.

What does it have to do with street vendors and other informal traders?

As urban expansion exacerbates across the world with the growth of new cities and megacities, citizen’s rights and livelihoods are often trampled upon by new regulations, urban planning, and investment. And when cities are under siege by profit and commodification, street vendors are one of the most affected groups.

A WIEGO analysis across four continents found how policies to “clean up” the cities implied the destruction of street vendors’ livelihoods. Repressive legislation that ignores the crucial role of the informal economy leads to evictions, demolitions, violence, and oppression. Street vendors and hawkers are routinely expelled from city centers and other public spaces, threating their livelihoods and survival.

Some countries have already understood the crucial role of street vendors and hawkers regarding the sustainability and democratization of urban spaces. These countries and cities have invested joint management of public markets and in policies designed to support informal traders’ transition to the formal economy. These good practices must become mainstream and ensure street vendors, hawkers and other informal traders are agents for development and change in urban spaces.

We should note that women are overrepresented in the informal economy in developing countries, and any policies designed to exclude informal traders from public spaces will have a disproportionate impact in terms of gender, especially when we consider many women are the sole providers of their family units. Furthermore, whenever regulations penalize informal economy workers, women are exposed to all forms of gender-based violence, especially sexual harassment, and exploitation.

It is important to remember that women also have a Right to the City, and urban policies must tackle the persistent inequalities between women and men.

What did COVID-19 teach us about the Right to the City of street vendors?

The global pandemic has been devastating for informal traders. Evictions, demolitions, and violence intensified as street vendors were faced with an impossible choice: either respect the restrictive lockdowns and risk starvation or go to work and risk contamination and police brutality.

However, many affiliates of StreetNet International were also able to seize this moment to demonstrate how street vendors, hawkers and other informal traders can be agents of public health and support authorities in managing a critical situation.

From joint space management of markets, to monitoring of health regulations, or providing key inputs to national post-COVID-19 economic recovery plans, StreetNet International and affiliates have proven time and time again how informal traders are not an obstacle to development of healthy, democratic and sustainable cities, but rather catalyzers of change.

The solidarity and cooperation of street vendors and other informal traders is also a valuable lesson in how mobilizing informal economy workers to have a united voice can influence public policies. From crowdfunding campaigns, to pilot income-generating projects, to vigorous advocacy and lobbying actions, organizations of street vendors, hawkers and cross-border traders are ensuring no one will be left behind.

What are the international priorities for the sustainable development of cities in 2020?

UN Habitat has laid out the key ways in which we can value our communities and cities in 2020:

–        Economic value: The UN urges States to consider community organizations and informal economy workers in urban governance and planning. Cities must invest in assisting the transition from the informal to the formal economy in a way compatible with human rights and social protection.

–        Social value: Community engagement is key to innovative and inclusive cities. Urban communities must be involved in the planning and policymaking of cities, and that includes organized groups of street vendors and other informal traders.

–        Environmental value: Environmental degradation disproportionately affects poor urban communities. Cities cannot be environmentally sustainable until these communities are integrated in participatory urban governance and their voices are heard.

–        Innovation value: Flexible and dynamic cities have responded successfully to the pandemic by investing in new ideas and systems. Cities should invest in being welcoming and encouraging to innovators and become fertile grounds for new solutions to persistent challenges.

UN Habitat clearly summarizes policy recommendations to integrate these priorities: “Going forward managers, decision makers and stakeholders, should include communities to co-create a different type of city, one where communities can contribute with their skills, knowledge and local assets which can increase cities’ capacities to address climate change, potential pandemics and the ongoing long-standing urban challenges.”

How can I learn more about this topic and join you in defending the Right to The City?

You can follow the campaigns and agenda of the GPR2C to discover ways to be involved, including joining the platform.

To know more about the Right to the City and street vendors, hawkers, and other informal traders, you can check out these resources:

–        Working in public space: A manual for street vendors (WIEGO and Cities Alliance)

–        Where are the inclusive cities? Street vendors globally face increasing hostility (WIEGO)

–        Street Vendors and the Right to the City (Gaspar Garcia Center for Human Rights)

–        What Does “the Right to the City” Mean to a Street Vendor in Lima? (Next City)

–        Right to the City: Mobility, health, safety, work and culture for all (UNICAB) [In Portuguese]