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The Just City </br>  Susan S. Fainstein | Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY and London </br> Cover

(IBIDEM) no.1 | Questioni |
A starting point for a practical
and methodological discussion
Recensione a Susan S. Fainstein
'The Just City'

Giovanni De Grandis

As early as 1973 geographer David Harvey published a book on Social Justice and the City, and in those same years in France Henry Lefebvre was publishing some pioneering works on cities, books like The Right to the City, The Urban Revolution and The Production of Space. The Seventies also witnessed the rise of theories of justice as the main concern of English speaking political philosophers.
Yet in spite of these premises,
a theory of urban justice did not emerge and it is only in recent years that city planners have manifested a new interest for the topic and a significant body of literature is beginning to emerge. Perhaps the most explicit and ambitious attempt in this direction is Susan Fainstein’s book The Just City [1].


Fainstein is professor of urban planning at Harvard and a leading scholar in the field. Her book however spans beyond the concerns and writings of planners and in particular makes a sustained effort to engage with philosophical literature on justice, democracy and difference. This does not make the book an attempt to simply adapt some existing theory of social justice to the special case of urban justice. The author is well aware that there is a fundamental difference between justice in the modern nation-state and justice in the city: the former is not only a broader social unit, but more fundamentally is a very different political entity, one that is the endowed with sovereign power [2]. In principle then the state has a much greater power to implement or enforce a preferred view of social justice and to effect deep changes in the social and economic structure [3]. Cities typically do not have such power and hence a theory of justice for cities needs to be less ambitious and to take account of the limited power and opportunities of urban political action.

The above premise is necessary to understand the ‘intermediate’ or applied character of Fainstein’s theory. It is not an ideal theory, but a theory of the feasible goals that can be pursued in the context of the existing economic and political structures.
In practice this means that it is a theory that applies not at the level of designing just political institutions, but at the level of the policy process in existing liberal-democratic societies. That is why Fainstein sets clear limits to the scope and ambitions of her proposal. First of all, there is an acknowledgement that changes do not follow from theoretical truths, but depend on how ideas and ideals can reorient existing trends and social forces. This demands attention to historical tendencies and local circumstances. Hence the author does not offer a universal and timeless theory of the just city, but a set of recommendations for contemporary cities in developed and democratic countries.

Second, in terms of ambitions, having excluded the possibility of enacting radical structural changes at the level of city politics, Fainstein adopts what André Gorz called ‘nonreformist reform’, namely a strategy not aimed at radical and structural changes, but capable of moving towards a situation in which deeper social change may eventually become possible. Here the position of the author is an obvious response to the Marxist position, very influential in the literature on cities, according to which within capitalism justice is impossible and therefore only radical structural change can remove existing injustices. Fainstein sees this position as disheartening from the point of view of planners and policy-makers, thence she wants to show that some meaningful advance in promoting justice is possible even accepting capitalism as the given structural framework. This acceptance is clearly a necessary concession to political realism and does not involve a wholehearted endorsement of laissez-faire ideology. In fact quite the opposite is true: Fainstein reminds the reader that the existence of the market does not exclude other types of organization and of economic management. Hence she advocates the opportunity for the state and for local governments to take a more proactive and hands-on role in trying to remove urban problems and injustices and to devise the institutional solutions that would correct some of the problems produced by the working of unregulated markets. Both a direct engagement (for instance in the housing market, since she considers housing the more urgent urban problem) and supporting and offering partnership to the nonprofit sector should be considered. So even if she accepts the market economy as the socio-economic reality to be assumed as given, she advocates a progressive attitude, which is pro-active and incremental, ready to seize «opportunities as they arise and constantly pushing for a more just distribution» (p. 176).

Within the boundaries just explained, political theory and philosophy are to provide the specification and justification of the goals towards which policy makers should aim. In other words, they should provide a conception of justice which is both attractive and practical. Fainstein adopts Nussbaum’s version of capability theory as the most suitable for her purposes. This is probably not a great surprise since capability theory offers more determinate criteria than most other philosophical doctrines, thus I will not discuss this choice. Rather, I think it is more profitable to discuss other aspects of Fainstein’s approach, aspects that are more closely related to the applied nature of her theory and that raise quite interesting political and philosophical issues that deserve attention.

The key features of Fainstein’s proposal can be better understood and assessed by looking at the author’s target audience. While the book aims at affecting the purposes of urban policy, it is addressed to city planners, not to, say, local politicians, entrepreneurs or communities. It is a book addressed to individuals who participate in the policy process as technical experts and this must be kept in mind. Moreover, the book attempts to change the prevailing trends in the field of city planning. In order to do so, the author offers an interpretation of the present situation and mainstream currents in planning. So let us begin the analysis of Fainstein’s proposal by understanding the positions and views that she criticizes and she attempts to go be beyond.

The book has two main polemical targets:
• Planning as technical expertise in the service of the imperatives of economic growth, efficiency and attracting private investments.
• Collaborative (or Communicative) Planning, which is basically the attempt to involve and give voice to local communities, an attempt inspired by Habermas’s theory of communicative action and by the ideal of Deliberative Democracy.
Fainsten’s main aim in the book is to put social justice in the planning agenda, which in the last decades has been dominated by the imperative of growth and of attracting funds and investments: «Justifications for projects in terms of enhancing competitiveness dominate the discourse of city planning» (p. 1); «the desirability of growth is usually assumed, while the consequences for social equity are rarely mentioned» (p. 2). Planners, according to Fainstein should aim at making the city more just by trying to promote equity: justice should rank high in their agenda, as «the first evaluative criterion» (p. 6). So her aim is to replace the economic imperative (promoting growth, improving efficiency and competitiveness, attracting capitals and investments etc.) with an ethical commitment to social justice and equitable distribution of resources within cities. Just like Rawls famously claimed that justice is the first and fundamental virtue of political institutions, Fainstein claims that justice should be the first concern in urban policy-making [4].

Coming to Fainstein’s second polemical target, it should be noted that she broadly sympathizes with the ethical and political aspirations of Collaborative Planning, and she acknowledges that it was a healthy reaction against a top-down approach to planning. Nonetheless she is disillusioned about the prospects of collaborative planning and of theories of justice that relies exclusively on procedures and democratic participation and discussion. She does not accept the proceduralist view according to which correct procedures are all that is needed to achieve just outcomes. Furthermore she objects against the idealist and power-blind attitude of communicative planning: it pays too little attention to differences of power between conflicting interests, to structural inequalities and their ideological consequences, to the need of backing words and decisions with mobilizing forces that can turn them into action («words will not prevail if unsupported by a social force carrying with it the threat of disruption» p. 33). Through its insufficient attention to structural inequalities and imbalances of power, communicative planning and deliberative democracy (its politico-theoretical counter-part) fail to deliver all that they promised. «In its reliance on good will, communicative planning theory typically passes over structural conflicts of interest and shrinks from analyzing the social context that blocks consensus building» (p. 28).

Fainstein points the attention also to the fact that there have been important examples of beneficial social programmes that have been designed and implemented by bureaucratic administrations without any involvement of citizens: «we cannot deny out of hand that insulated decision making may produce more just outcomes than public participation» (p. 32). So democracy alone cannot secure justice: democracy and participation cannot ignore how they are affected by the inequalities in power, wealth and resources, by the fundamental role of conflict in politics and by the role of emotions, rhetoric and demagoguery in public discourse and social movements. So Fainstein concludes that «there is no necessary link between greater inclusiveness and a commitment to a more just society» (p. 49).

To sum up, Fainstein’s intention is 
«to formulate and defend a set of principles that constitute the core of just urban policies that can be developed at the local level. For the moment the key point is that making justice the first principle by which to evaluate urban planning and policy is essential and is not met without attributing to it a substantive content» (p. 12-3). «It is my hope to shift the conversation within discussion of planning and public policy toward the character of urban areas, lessen the focus on process that has become dominant within planning theory, and redirect practitioners from their obsession with economic development to a concern with social equity» (p. 19).

Giovanni De Grandis
Philosophy Department
UCL - University College London

[1] Other recent significant examples includes: Soja, Edward W., Seeking Spatial Justice, Univesrsity of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 2010; Marcuse, Peter et alii (eds.), Searching for the Just CityDebates in Urban Theory and Practice, Routledge, Abingdon UK and New York NY, 2009; Brenner, Neil, Marcuse, Peter and Mayer, Margit (eds.), Cities for People, Not for Profit: Critical Urban Theory and the Right to the City, Routledge, Abingdon UK and New York NY, 2012; and the online journal Justice Spatiale/Spatial Justice,
[2] Fainstein herself does not talk about sovereignty, but I think it is useful and enlightening to put the issue in terms of sovereign power.
[3] Of course this power of a sovereign body to realize a given conception of justice is in practice radically more limited than in principle. Yet, although contemporary political philosophers writing on justice have paid very little attention to the concept of sovereignty, they have often written as if the philosophical issue was simply to single out the correct theory of justice, thus suggesting that there was an implicit assumption that state power was an effective and already existing mean to realize a philosophically sound normative theory of justice. This assumption is clearly questionable. But this is not the point here. What is important to notice is that while such fictional assumption could be seen as an excusable idealization at the level of state politics (i.e. the level commonly adopted in political philosophy/political theory) it becomes immediately untenable when the discussion takes as its subject larger or smaller political units, i.e. entities whose power is subordinated to or derived from a partial transfer of sovereignty by the state.
[4] Rawls famously opened his highly influential book on justice by stating that «Justice is the first virtue of social institutions». And shortly after explained that «laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust» (Rawls, 1971, p. 3). Fainstein points out the analogy with Rawls in her “Spatial Justice and Planning”, Justice Spatiale / Spatial Justice, n. 1, 2009, p. 1.