Pope Francis invokes Right to the City amid focus on migration

The pontiff’s visit to the United States included a major theme on issues at the heart of sustainable urban development.

Pope Francis visits Our Lady Queen of Angels School in New York, 25 September. (Eric Thayer/Pool via EPA/Landov)

NEW YORK — During a whirlwind six-day U. S. visit to Washington, New York City and Philadelphia, Pope Francis referred to issues at the heart of 21s-century sustainable urban development. Although he made no direct reference to urbanization or Habitat III, next year’s conference on cities, in his address to the U. N. General Assembly on Friday, his remarks to the faithful reaffirmed his commitment to cities.

In his Friday night homily delivered at New York’s Madison Square Garden, the pontiff referred to the “right to the city”, a growing movement to assert access to urban living as a human right. The following day, during a speech in Philadelphia, he addressed a largely Latino audience in Spanish and affirmed immigration’s role in changing the demographics of U. S. cities.

[See: Pope’s U. N. address doesn’t reference Habitat III, despite rumour]

Throughout his first U. S. visit, Pope Francis also challenged the world’s largest economy to accept its share of refugees emanating from the European migrant crisis.

“Living in a big city is not always easy,” the pope acknowledged to a crowd of 20,000 at Madison Square Garden. “Yet big cities are a reminder of the hidden riches present in our world: in the diversity of its cultures, traditions and historical experiences. In the variety of its languages, costumes and cuisine.”

Francis continued: “Big cities bring together all the different ways which we human beings have discovered to express the meaning of life, wherever we may be.”

[See: Pope Francis, the urbanist]

The homily came after a long day traversing New York City’s extreme inequalities, from a tour of Central Park, now ringed by luxury condos, to an East Harlem school serving low-income students. He reflected on this contrast and those it leaves behind.

“But big cities also conceal the faces of all those people who don’t appear to belong, or are second-class citizens,” he said. “In big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath ‘the rapid pace of change’, so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no ‘right’ to be there, no right to be part of the city.”

Sanctuary city

French philosopher Henrie Lefebvre first coined term “right to the city” in 1968. It has since been adopted by social movements advocating for shack dwellers, squatters, rural-to-urban migrants and the urban poor.

In 2001, Brazil wrote the Right to the City into federal law with the City Statute. In 2010, Rio de Janeiro hosted the fifth World Urban Forum under the theme of the Right to the City; later that year, a group gathered in the Mexican capital to ratify the Mexico City Charter for the Right to the City.

For Pope Francis, an Argentine who ministered to the poor in Buenos Aires, it is conceivable that he encountered the Right to the City as a recurring theme among Latin American social movements.

[See: Pope Francis, mayors pledge action on climate and the urban SDG]

In Philadelphia, the pope’s backdrop Saturday was one of the most prominent “sanctuary cities” in the United States. In April 2014, Mayor Michael Nutter signed an executive order indicating that the fifth-largest U. S. city would not comply with federal immigration authorities — namely, by not providing names to the federal immigration-enforcement agency, which can deport undocumented residents. (The city’s presumptive next mayor has pledged to maintain this policy.)

“Among us today are members of America’s large Hispanic population, as well as representatives of recent immigrants to the United States,” Pope Francis told the crowd.

“I take this opportunity to thank all those, of whatever religion, who have sought to serve the God of peace by building cities of brotherly love,” he said, “by caring for our neighbors in need, by defending the dignity of God’s gift of life in all its stages, by defending the cause of the poor and the immigrant.”

Be welcoming, not afraid

Immigration and the refugee crisis in Europe was a constant theme throughout Pope Francis’s three-city U. S. tour.

He referred to himself as “the son of an immigrant family” while speaking at the White House. In an address to Catholic bishops, the pope said, “Now you are facing this stream of Latin immigration, which affects many of your dioceses.” In light of his own background “as a pastor from the [Global] South,” he urged bishops to “not be afraid to welcome them.”

Finally, the United States has agreed to accept a relatively small number of Middle Eastern refugees, even as hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees have streamed into Europe. There, most most will settle in cities. At the United Nations, the pope urged world leaders to resolve the migrant crisis swiftly and equitably.

Next month, local authorities and experts will convene in Geneva at the U. N. Conference on Migrants and Cities to discuss the severe stress that rapid migration has put on cities and local governments, from the front line responder communities in small Greek islands to the final destinations of larger German cities.

[See: Learning the language of cities in crisis]

Joan Clos, secretary-general of Habitat III, acknowledged the migrants conference as an important milestone on the road to Quito, alongside next year’s World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. “We couldn’t imagine a better scenario,” Clos said, “in order to take advantage of the agenda in order to reinforce that sustainable development is about urbanization.”

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary