Elinor Ostrom and the Procedural Dimension of Spatial Justice

The procedural dimension of Spatial Justice makes reference to how the burdens and benefits of social interactions in space are decided upon. In order to advance in the discussion of procedural spatial justice, we use Elinor Ostrom’s theories (Ostrom, 2015). 

By © Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-sa-3.0), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10997825
By © Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-sa-3.0), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10997825

Ostrom investigated the “tragedy of the commons” (Hardin, 1968) empirically and found that agents in communication could rapidly arrive at ways to regulate the use of resources in order to preserve them and/or distribute them fairly, or at least distribute them in ways that are acceptable socially. The work of Ostrom gives much welcome credence to the “communicative turn” in spatial planning and to Habermassian thought. Habermassian communicative rationality is concerned with clarifying the norms and procedures by which agreement can be reached, and is therefore a view of reason as a form of PUBLIC JUSTIFICATION (Bohman & Rehg, 2007). This public justification is irrevocably intertwined with the notions of justice and truth. Following Rawls, truth concerns validation, and justice determines acceptability: what is acceptable or not acceptable as outcomes of reached agreements.  

In this sense, the communicative turn in planning recognises that communication plays a central role in achieving agreements about how spatial burdens and benefits should be distributed. It goes further to posit the inclusion of “alternative rationalities” that is, the need to include oppressed groups in the dialogue and communication so as to maximise the chances of just agreements being reached. In fact, the exclusion of certain groups from communication and decision-making leads to unfair/unjust outcomes for those groups. This idea is at the root of procedural spatial justice and includes issues of democracy, participation, accountability, transparency and so on.

The work of Ostrom is crucial because she investigates the institutions that are set up to decide upon the distribution of burdens and benefits and makes a distinction between formal and informal institutions [1] that have a role in how resources are governed (we use the word “governed” in the sense of “governance”, that is, how decisions are taken and who are the stakeholders involved, including the power struggles and imbalances between those stakeholders).

Following Ostrom’s ideas, formal institutions are the institutions set up formally to manage resources, and which have generally written constitutions and are governed by written or systematised customary law. Informal institutions, on the other hand, are those related to culture, values, practices, inherited worldviews, etc that influence the way in which formal institutions work. This has consequences for the way we look at the governance of urban space, because we are drawn to look not only at the way this governance is set “on paper” but also at the way things are done in informal or unwritten arrangements.

It is perhaps naïve to expect that “just procedures” will produce “just outcomes”, especially just spatial outcomes. The ‘space of simultaneity’ of Doreen Massey (Massey, 2011), for example, is essentially a space of power relationships, in which some actors may be oppressed by powerful interests. A Marxist understanding of these power relationships will attach this oppression to the role of the liberal state in guaranteeing the privileges of the ruling classes, especially through the protection of their ownership of the means of production, including urban space.  But again, we must reaffirm the potential of public systems of spatial planning to pursue just outcomes in the distribution of spatial benefits and burdens in liberal democratic societies where there is public accountability and therefore, a chance for public justification.