Susan Fainstein and the Just City

Social sustainability is the bedrock on which environmental sustainability can be grounded and is founded on well-functioning political, institutional and legal systems that deliver just outcomes regarding the distribution of environmental, economic and social burdens and benefits of development and growth. These burdens and benefits are often spatially bound or embedded in spatial structures and infrastructures and their distribution and accessibility in space. The issue of accessibility is central to this discussion and to the idea of increased life chances, concepts widely explored in transport geography and planning (Bristow et al. 2009, Farrington 2007, Farrington 2004).

Hence, urban space and how the burdens and benefits of development are spatially distributed, as well as the decision-making processes involved in this distribution, are a core concerns for Spatial Justice. We adopt spatial justice as a concept that is particularly helpful in exploring the nature and drivers of socio-economic inequalities in cities. In fact,  spatial justice focuses on the spatial dimensions of the fair distribution of the burdens and benefits of development (distributive justice), and on the particular manner this distribution is managed and decided upon (procedural justice).

Soja defines spatial justice as “an intentional and focused emphasis on the spatial or geographical aspects of justice and injustice” and the “the fair and equitable distribution in space of socially valued resources and the opportunities to use them” (Soja, 2009, p. 2). For Carpenter et al. (2015, p.1), “this spatial turn in relation to justice is also reflected by a renewed interest in Henri Lefebvre’s work (Lefebvre, 1968), in particular his notion of the “Right to the City” (Friedmann, 1995; Harvey 2008) which he defines as a “demand …. [for] a transformed and renewed access to urban life” (Lefebvre, 1996: 158)”.

Spatial justice is firmly inscribed in a longer tradition of citizen empowerment and participation that seeks to deepen the democratic experience and to connect it to how citizens decide upon distribution and shape the city. For Soja, spatial justice, “(…) seeks to promote more progressive and participatory forms of democratic politics and social activism, and to provide new ideas about how to mobilise and maintain cohesive collations and regional confederations of grassroots social activists. (…) Spatial justice as such is not a substitute or alternative to social, economic, or other forms of justice but rather a way of looking at justice from a critical spatial perspective” (Soja, 2010, p.60). Crucially for CIvIC, growing inequality, socio-spatial fragmentation and lack of access to public goods by specific groups are threats to the overall sustainability of our cities.

Fainstein (2014, 2006) does not adopt the term spatial justice as her own, but has delved into the problem of justice in the city like no other. She seeks to answer the question: “how do we make and sustain democratic cities in which the diverse needs, capabilities, and aspirations of urban residents are recognized and in which those residents can live fulfilling lives free from marginalization and repression?” (Staeheli, 2013, p.756).

In general terms, Fainstein sees the problem of justice in the city as a conundrum between development and redistribution, in which the collective good supersedes individual good, and where sources of positive change come simultaneously from “social movement strategies and goals as well as appropriate public policy” (Fainstein, 2006, p.26). In this sense, Fainstein criticises “the emphasis by communicative planning theorists on democratic deliberation, whom she sees as focusing too heavily on planning processes and decision-making to achieve just outcomes” (Carpenter et al., 2015, p.4).

Fainstein conceptualizes justice in the city as “emerging through—and being challenged by—the interplay of democratic practices, recognition of diversity, and equity” (Staeheli, 2013, p.756). Democracy, equity and diversity are simultaneously the conditions for justice to emerge, and challenges for justice to exist, by which  the “achievement of justice is a circular process, whereby the preexistence of equity begets sentiments in its favor, democratic habits produce popular participation, and diversity increases tolerance” (Fainstein, 2006, p. 23).

These conditions point to an expansion of a collective project of fair redistribution of the burdens and benefits of development through an interplay between social movements and public policy making that recognizes (and makes use of) democratic decision-making arenas, redistribution strategies and diversity of interests.

Democracy, equity and diversity will provide an analytical framework to understand and evaluate the performance of policies and planning practices in promoting spatial justice used in CIvIC.  CIvIC further conceptualises spatial justice and explores its limits, assumptions, critiques and alternatives.

Democracy, as a category in Fainstein’s just city, is connected to communicative rationality and deliberative democracy theory, which regards planning not as “quasi science” but as an argumentative practice in which processes are socially constructed and their resolution is the result of the interaction of parties involved. “Within a democratic community each party should have its say, and no privileged hierarchy, whether based on power or technical expertise, should exist. (…) Its weakness is in its failure to deal with social hierarchy and political power in existing circumstances.” (Fainstein, 2014, p.7-8). In this sense, democracy is crucial  both for social movements, grassroots and citizens to advance their pleas, and for distributive, open, transparent and accountable policy-making to take place.

Diversity for Fainstein’ s just city is connected to identity. “Liberal democratic theory, by treating individuals atomistically, ignores the rootedness of people in class, gender, cultural, and familial relationships. In doing so and by placing liberty at the top of its pantheon of values, it fails to recognize the ties of obligation that necessarily bind people to each other and also the structurally based antagonisms that separate them.” (Fainstein, 2014, p.9). Fainstein references Young (1990, p. 47) for whom: “ Group differentiation is both an inevitable and a desirable aspect of modern social processes. Social justice … requires not the melting away of differences, but institutions that promote reproduction of and respect for group differences without oppression”. Young “considers that a social group is defined by a sense of shared identity and that a liberal contract model of social relations only conceives of associations based on common interests and fails to take account of groups arising from shared identity” (Young, 1990, p. 44). Under this conception, the argument for justice shifts from a fair distribution to ‘social differentiation without exclusion’ (Young, 1990, p. 238)” (Fainstein, 2014, p. 9). In Fainstein’s conception of the just city, diversity is the ability of different groups to find common ground to live side by side peacefully in the city, without their identity being diluted and without it being trampled by market interests. It is not possible, we believe, to separate Fainstein’s diversity from premises of communicative rationality in which argumentative practices must include a multiplicity of perspectives to generate outcomes that reflect different interests and conceptions of the world.

Fainstein’s conception of equity for the just city makes appeal to Soja’s (2010) concept of uneven development in his investigation of spatial justice. “Like Iris Marion Young and David Harvey, he [Soja] begins with a depiction of injustice and considers that geography is ‘a significant causal force in explaining [inequitable] social relations and societal development’ (2010, p. 63). He argues that the pursuit of justice requires gaining control over the processes producing unjust urban geographies. He does not identify specific programmes to reduce spatial injustice but rather looks to coalitions of groups demanding the right to the city as the vehicles for achieving both greater material equity and also greater respect for marginalized populations” (Fainstein, 2014, p. 12). Fainstein argues that the values of equity, diversity, and democracy may be in conflict, but equity takes primacy, as she argues that policy should give priority to action that benefits the less privileged a matter of distributive justice.