Reflections on the IRGLUS Workshop on Law, Urban Space and Social Justice

Rosalina Babourkova

The Basque country, home to the city of Bilbao with its world-famous Guggenheim Museum, also houses an important socio-legal institution. In the picturesque city of Oñati, in a Spanish Renaissance building dating back to the 15th century and formerly home of a university law school, one now finds the International Institute for the Sociology of Law (IISL). In early June 2014, a bunch of socio-legal scholars from several corners of the world (Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, South Africa, Bulgaria, and the UK), from distinguished professors to early-career researchers, descended on Oñati to discuss the linkages between the law, urban space and social justice, after having persuaded IISL that the topic was worth their generous support.

As the only PhD student participating in the workshop, I found myself both lucky and honoured to have by chance stumbled upon this ‘revival’ meeting of the International Research Group on Law and Urban Space (IRGLUS). Two years ago, I received Marius Pieterse and Thomas Coggin’s email seeking expressions of interest in such a revival through the internal social networks of my own institution (University College London). Needless to say, I immediately put my name down to participate in a workshop alongside such distinguished socio-legal scholars as Antonio Azuela, Edesio Fernandes and Ann Varley, whose work I had been following for my own research, and who more than ten years ago had published an edited volume entitledIllegal Cities as a result of a previous IRGLUS workshop.  

The combination of Oñati’s fresh air, Marius and Thomas’s ‘remote’ organisational skills, and our most welcoming host institution IISL prepared the ground for two days of friendly but heated discussions on such themes as ‘land, rights and struggle’, ‘planning rights and urban management’, ‘(in)equality, difference and the city’, ‘dimensions of the right to the city’ and ‘land and planning law and the spatial transformation of the city’. Months after this stimulating experience and deeply submerged again in my own research, several messages from the workshop presentations still reverberate in my head: that expropriations constitute a snapshot of the interaction between property and the state, begging the question of how state institutions are recreated in an everyday manner through property practices (Antonio Azuela); that property rights are relational and contingent and need to be continuously reproduced (Colin Marx); that the local may not always be the most appropriate scale at which to enact property rights formalisation (Ann Varley and Clara Salazar); that informal settlements present huge challenges to inequality (Marie Huchzermeyer); that private properties make up the public sphere of cities and form an interface for engagement with the public sphere (Thomas Coggin); that ‘good’ laws per se do not change urban realities – new legal spaces need to be occupied and good laws need to be claimed, enacted and defended (Edesio Fernandes).

While I am putting together these reflections, Marius and Thomas are busy putting together a book proposal to IISL’s partnering publisher, which, we hope, would yield a similarly stimulating publication and worthy follow-up of Illegal Cities.

To view more information about the event, including some photos from the event, click here.

Urban Law Lab