The Just City

November 18, 2010

Susan Fainstein's book is the result of some 20 years of intense research and thinking on the subject of the "just city", and it seems likely to me to become something of a classic. It provides an introduction to a highly theorised world of planning; planning as social science, rather different from that of the people browbeaten by bureaucracy who I am used to dealing with in my local planning office. One thing that is notable about her work, though, is that it is not theory for theory's sake. Her aim is to influence practice.

Clearly this book has evolved in an Ivy League environment where there is the time and resources to pick over words in heated discussion with colleagues. It is perhaps because of this that a large proportion of the book is taken up with defining the complex meaning of justice and its meaning for city planning. Here Fainstein identifies the main parameters for the assessment of the just city; equality, democracy and diversity. Sustainability is also recognised as an important factor, but it is beyond the limitations of this book.

Three chapters are devoted to an assessment of levels of justness in recent developments in New York, London and Amsterdam, focusing on a series of case studies in each city. This I found fascinating, and perhaps even a bit of light relief after the complexity of the preceding chapters. Fainstein presents a series of injustices that defy belief in the Western world, the development of the new Yankee Stadium in the Bronx being a case in point. Indeed, it appears that the emotive issue of sport and the kudos it attracts often seem to cloud the judgement of otherwise essentially well-meaning city officials.

Fainstein's slightly deadpan style serves only to make her accounts more compelling. A recent history of planning in London, written with equality, democracy and diversity in mind, is really useful as a teaching tool. Here the Docklands development, Coin Street and the 2012 Olympics are placed under scrutiny, with the last of those three, perhaps not surprisingly, receiving poor marks on the grounds of equity not least because the "huge expenditure involved took away resources from other parts of London and the country more widely without providing them any benefits beyond the glory of hosting the Games".

In Fainstein's view, there are "ample reasons to think that the benefits will mostly evaporate at the close of the Games" and that London's experience will be similar to that of other Olympic cities such as Sydney. The only benefit of the Games, she predicts, may be improved integration between East London and the rest of the metropolis. In her league of cities, New York has the worst record and Amsterdam the best. London sits somewhere in the middle.

She notes that there are two possible responses to the injustices illustrated by the book. The first is to recognise the impossibility of achieving even small amounts of justice within the dominant system of global capitalism. The second, which is one that Fainstein herself adheres to, is that much can be achieved through incremental change. The book's final chapter is therefore devoted to a discussion of policies that are conducive to social justice in cities. Her vision is of a world where market forces no longer dominate decisions about city planning and justice drives the world of policy. I share her dream, but recent developments in Britain suggest that it may be a long time coming.

The Just City

By Susan S. Fainstein. Cornell University Press. 224pp, £19.95. ISBN 9780801446559. Published 22 July 2010

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