AESOP 2014 – Track Ethics and Justice in Planning 

The Just City: A Roundtable  - July 10th, 2014 


Claudia Basta, Wageningen University | Stefano Moroni, Milan Technical University 

Panel members:

Michael Gunder, University of Auckland | Francesco Lo Piccolo, University of Palermo | Raine Mantysalo, Aalto University | Alan March, University of Melbourne | Tore Sager, Trondheim University of Science and Technology 

With The Just City (2010) Susan Feinstein revived the attention on the city as the privileged context where public policy, the market, citizens’ rights and cultural diversity intersect to give form to new challenges for the advancement, or retreat, of social justice. Rooted in the critical social theory tradition, her discourse on urban justice draws on the theoretical reflections of contemporary philosophers like John Rawls and Martha Nussbaum, Peter Marcuse and Michel Foucault. Fainstein’s effort is to retrace, as common ground of their perspectives on justice, the theme of equality. Fainstein’s firmest point is that it is the equality of citizens in terms of fundamental rights – especially regarding the participation in public decision-making - that shall constitute the starting point and the ultimate objective of any just urban policies. In this vein, Fainstein emphasizes how priority should be given to policies aimed at distributing urban resources in such a way to secure a decent living for low-income and disadvantaged citizens. By emphasizing the moral priority to be given to the poor, somehow Fainstein closes the gap between her Marxist background and the accent posed on the most disadvantaged citizens by liberal theorists like Rawls (1971, 2001). Both, essentially, view securing a ‘bottom line’ of means for the most disadvantaged citizens as the primary object, and objective, of any politics of justice. 

Without indulging on discussing Fainstein’s conclusions, it shall be mentioned that her final recommendations – extremely relevant to urban development worldwide - revolve around the new balance to be found between market-driven and social-driven urban policies. Regardless of such conclusions, however, the most valuable aspect of her work is having cemented the centrality of the theme of justice in planning. Starting from this renewed centrality, the discussion developed in the Round Table “The Just City”, held in Utrecht as part of the AESOP Congress 2014, revolved around the more general question of what is, and what makes the city of today ‘the just city’ on which philosophers and urban scholars reflected along the past centuries. The main points touched by the discussion and the contributions of the members of the panel are shortly summarized in the sections below. 

Pluralism, uncertainty, citizenship and deliberation: a complex discussion 

That the contemporary city is the place wherein growing forms of diversity meet and signify each other – both materially and symbolically – is an observation whose banality does not undermine its significance. When looking at cultural diversity, the demographic of Amsterdam – one of the cities studied by Fainstein in her book – offer a good example: according to the Dutch Statistic Bureau, inhabitants of non-Western origin make up approximately one-third of the population and more than 50% of the city' s children (CBS, 2006). After having concentrated in the main cities of the quadrilateral region including The Hague, Rotterdam, Utrecht and Amsterdam, inhabitants of foreign heritage started to move to smaller towns, spreading more homogeneously in a country in which – despite an established framework of social welfare – urban segregation, in the past few decades, became from evident to problematic. 

Diversity is not solely – and perhaps not even most importantly – a cultural issue. However, cultural differences do certainly contributes to make of citizenship, cohabitation, representativeness and public deliberation – to mention a few - more complex matters. In Europe, the increasing (and often conflictual) polarization of political debates on welfare and civil rights in conservative and neo-liberal vs. progressive and populist extremes unveils the emergence, whether explicit or implicit, of new perceptions of what 

citizenship is, and of what citizenship implies. In the majority of European countries, affected by the same increasing distance between concentrated richness and growing poverty which characterizes the world in the aftermath of the financial crisis erupted in the first decade of the century, the further distance between ‘we’ and ‘the others’ seems to relate not only to the distribution of income (e.g. OECD, 2011), but also to an often unspoken, yet tangible discomfort regarding ‘which rights give right’ to citizenship. The paradox of multicultural cities is precisely that of having connoted the distinction between native vs. foreign and autochthonous vs. allochthonous with a more fundamental distinction between citizens vs. non-citizens. By following current debates on the boundaries between tolerance and integration of different traditions, spread by the media on daily basis, what seems to emerge is a notion of ‘citizenship’ no longer associated to a status obtained by virtue of birth of naturalization, but as something rooted in the cultural heritage one has accumulated throughout generations; somehow, it is only this latter ‘citizenship’ that seems to confer the right to be represented, to participate in political debates and to carry the overall set of rights European democracies have conquered over centuries. 

The scholarly and social debates gravitating around ‘which rights give right’ to citizenship and to participation are of paramount importance for advancing any related discourse on justice. Whether one, or more ideas of social justice can fruitfully cohabit within a society characterized by diversity is, somehow, the most fundamental point of the debate. Whether social justice ought to be advanced through institutional frameworks only, or whether citizens and planners ought to contribute to it (also) through self-organization and activism, is another point which is more and more debated in literature. 

Pluralism, participation, citizenship and activism in planning have therefore been the focus of the ideas shared, respectively, by Raine Mantysalo, Francesco Lo Piccolo and Tore Sager

Another point of attention – and an indicator of social (in)justice of recognized, albeit still poorly documented significance – is the distribution of risks among citizens living in more and more ‘infrastructured’ and complex cities. This has been the focus of the contribution of Alan March. His ideas recall Ulrich Beck’s first formulation of the ‘risk society’ (1992 : 1996), according to which, next to income, the most significant indicator of inequality in post-modern societies is the unequal distribution of man-made risks. Beck’s theory engendered a wide debate among sociologists, economists, risk scholars and ethicists and arrived to contaminate environmental justice and social exclusion literature (e.g. Coenen and Halfrake, 1999). In a similar vein, Alan March considers the inequality of exposure to risks – which, together with technological, include interrelated environmental and social risks like climate change and natural disasters – the main indicator of social injustice. The challenge for urban planning, whose evident constraint is operating in conditions of uncertainty, is striving to promote durable justice across generations by levelling inequality on the one hand, and preventing the consequences of risks on the other one. 

Whether and within which margins can social justice – and its various interpretations – constitute a framework for advancing more equal and inclusive urban environments constituted the final theme of discussion proposed by Michael Gunder. Perhaps, the question ‘what is the just city?’ is flawed by the very assumption that one and only idea of justice exists and can be agreed upon, and that no competitive ideas of ‘what is just’ can fruitfully cohabit in pluralistic societies constructing and transforming places and meanings dynamically. 

Following Michael Gunder’s contribution, Stefano Moroni suggested the necessity of demarcating more clearly between issues in “institutional ethics” (as regards local government action in particular) and issues in “professional ethics” (regarding certain professions in particular, for instance land-use planners and architects). Ethical questions are quite different in these two cases; however, they all converge towards the establishment of a rigorous line of investigation in the field of ‘ethics in planning’; arguably, the most urgent debate to be advanced, collaboratively, by ethicists and planning scholars. 

The just city, or just planning? Some conclusive remarks 

In the course of the Round Table what seemed to emerge as the cornerstones of the debate on ‘justice in planning’ can be summarized in three fundamental questions, namely: 

  1. Is it possible – and desirable – to refer to one overarching theory of justice to inform and guide urban planning policies? 
  2. Is promoting social justice the main scope of urban planning, or rather one of the many – often competitive - objectives dictated by its social mandate? 
  3. What is the relation among citizenship, participation, activism and just planning? In particular, ‘which rights give right’ to citizenship, and how can the exertion of citizenship contribute to advance or retreat justice in society? 

Regarding the first question, Claudia Basta concluded that an overarching theory of justice, grounded on a shared understanding of equality, is not only necessary, but pre-conditional to the formulation and following evaluation of any public policies; of which, note, urban policy is perhaps the most impacting on the lives of citizens. The question of whether more legitimate ideas of justice exist is, in this sense, misleading; there exist, of course, multiple understandings of justice and of what and how the ‘just city’ ought to be across different continents and cultures, as much as different ideas regarding equality are represented by individuals of the same or different groups within the same culture, nation and city. 

Nevertheless, the universality of human rights adopted as moral and legislative guidance by democratic societies worldwide is and must remain the fundamental and unnegotiable guidance of any form of public interventions in and on the lives of individuals and, therefore, in and on spaces and places. Whether or not such individuals are formal citizens, inhabitants, or simply guests of a city in which part of their lives develop, their fundamental liberties – of speech, belief and movement – their rights – whether negative or positive – and their capabilities – such as self-sustainment and social affiliation – remain the foundational principles upon which society ought to be structured, governed and transformed. 

It stems from our most deeply-rooted intuitions that human beings share a fundamental form of equality in terms of rights and dignity; and it is such fundamental equality that ought to inform and steer public policies of any nature. The central – and definitely most problematic – points are rather (1) what the ‘indicators’ of such equality are, and (2) whether urban planning has a role to play in advancing it in society. To paraphrase Sen, reasoning on the ‘equality of what?’ and on how advancing such equality in society through just urban planning are therefore the urgent questions to which ethicists and planning scholars are called to give durable answers. 

The Round Table ‘The Just City’, held in Utrecht in July 2014, constituted a valuable step in this direction.