John Rawls and the Distributive Dimension of Spatial Justice

For the moral and political philosopher John Rawls, societies are typically marked by an identity of interests, since social cooperation makes a better life possible, or in any case, it makes a better life possible than any would have if they were to live alone by their own efforts. But societies are also marked by a conflict of interests, since no one is indifferent as to how the greater benefits produced by their collaboration are distributed. Each person prefers a larger share of the benefits, and a lesser share of the burdens, which gives birth to social arrangements that determine or regulate the division of benefits and burdens, and guarantee agreements on distributive shares. (Rawls, 1971, p. 4).

John Rawls, by Harvard Gazette, Fair use,

It is within this tension that spatial justice will dwell: the fair distribution of benefits and burdens in spatial development and how is it decided upon.

We assume that the social relationships and institutions connected to the workings of a society are inevitably connected to space. Space is both where these relationships happen (it enables these relationships, facilitates or hinders them) and the product of these relationships (the very Lefèbvrian idea that social interactions shape space) (Molotch, 1993).

Distributive spatial justice refers to the fair distribution of burdens and benefits of social interaction in space. This is not only related to the distribution of infrastructures and spaces, but also financial, environmental and social benefits and burdens issued from urban development. An example of this would be progressive taxation, in which landowners must “pay back to society” the gains they have with valuation of land caused by the construction of public infrastructures paid for with public money, for example. As society creates public goods that have a direct impact on the value of land, those who benefit from increasing returns derived from societal action would have to contribute to the upkeep of the same public goods. This is just an example, but issues of land ownership, land value and fair taxation are often key factors in distributive spatial justice.

The distributive dimension of Spatial Justice concerns the fair distribution of burdens and benefits of urban development and equal access to life chances. Photo: the outer periphery of Sao Paulo, in Brazil, where several public goods and access to life chances are not present. Photo: R. Rocco.

Another way to look at distributive justice is through the creation of public goods in the city: clean air, safety, healthy environment, mobility, green spaces, public spaces, etc. As we know, public goods are non-rivalrous and non-excludable, but they do have a geographic nature (they are not accessible everywhere). In this sense, distributive justice is a very literal distribution of public goods around the city. Of course, the mere geographical distribution of public goods is only one part of the story, since the keyword is accessibility (rather than proximity). But proximity and distance do play a role. The same can be said about negative externalities: some populations take the brunt of negative externalities (pollution for example), while the burdens should also be shared (either through distribution, taxation or other tools). 

The discussion on access to public goods is deeply intertwined with the notion of positive rightsand to the notion of life chances.