Under conditions of globalization large cities present unique challenges for poverty reduction and the realization of rights. The urbanization of poverty also underscores the imperative of downscaling the emerging debate about the developmental state to the city scale. The arguments in this article start from the proposition that a universal rights agenda can and should be fulfilled as an alternative to neoliberal aspirations, and that to achieve this development action will be needed on a series of different scales. The article is structured in three main parts. The first section explores the implications for the state of adopting a rights‐based agenda in the urban context, giving particular emphasis to defining those rights whose meaning arises from settlement planning or management‐based policies and interventions on the individual, household, neighbourhood and more macro‐environmental scale (what we call 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation rights or the ‘right to the city’). The second part of the article is dedicated to illustrating the particular nature of how rights to the city are blocked or achieved, using the experiences of the Greater Cape Town area. The final section of the article makes a more general case for a more radical rights‐based agenda for cities.