In the last decade, the right to the city has evolved as a powerful rallying cry in the struggle against the exclusionary processes of globalization and the commodification of urban space, and in conflicts over who has claim to the city and what kind of city it should be. Drawing on the work of Henri Lefebvre the vision of the right to the city has inspired a global social movement, legislative reform in Latin America and international debates (e.g. at World Urban Forum 5 in Rio de Janeiro). Nevertheless, despite its theoretical appeal, the content remains elusive and implementation is fraught with challenges. This article critically examines the right to the city through the lens of contributions to the UN‐HABITAT e‐debate in November/December 2009, which gave voice to those who might otherwise not be heard. Drawing on these contributions, the article argues for a new conceptualization of citizenship, and for a redefinition of the role of the local state and social actors in implementing the rights‐based agenda that the right to the city entails.