Urban Design & Social Justice: A Foundation

From our 2018 PARK(ing) Day pop-up in Central Square, Cambridge.

At CultureHouse, we believe that urban design can be used for the common good, and that good design should be an essential part of the toolkit for social justice. Social justice issues, be they heterosexism or racism or environmental injustice, are influenced by the built environment of our cities. We think that fact should be at the forefront of the minds of designers, planners, and community organizers.

This autumn, one of our team members, Allie Girouard, is researching the intersections between social justice and urban design. She hopes to shed light on the design implications of her studies in sociology and to articulate how CultureHouse and community spaces like it are a part of the larger movement for justice. She’ll be sharing some of her work on our Medium page, highlighting key academics, activists, books, issues, and theories in the area of justice-focused urban design. We hope that by the end of the year, we’ll all (you included) be a little more knowledgeable on how our work can create the conditions for a just city.

Before we dive into specific elements in a city, we need to examine how we define cities and how we can change them.

The most basic thing to keep in mind is that a city is “the marriage of people and their surroundings” (that is, the sum of both physical and social systems). An interviewee in the documentary Urbanized described the city as a “physical manifestation of the big forces at play”. That’s a big part of the reason I’m interested in this topic — how do the “big forces” and systems we talk about in sociology manifest themselves in the built environment, and how do the social and the physical structures interact.

Urbanized is a 2011 documentary about the design of cities produced and directed by Gary Hustwit. It’s the third film in his Design Trilogy, which also includes the films Helvetica and Objectified. Definitely check it out — it provides a good foundation on contemporary issues in urban design.

Next, we have to ask ourselves the question: What cities are we really talking about? Urbanized takes care to articulate the different experiences of “western” “rich” Global North cities and cities in the Global South. It highlights slums in Mumbai — forcing the Western viewer to confront the fact that their conception of the issues facing cities is really of the issues facing the kind of cities they’re familiar with.

It becomes obvious that issues in urban design are not universal — while there are some common problems and solutions, history and context matters. We should all keep that in the front of our minds. Susan Fainstein’s The Just City also explores this conflict between universality and specificity, in the context of definitions of “justice”. Fainstein argues both that justice is a culturally specific concept and that some universal ideas of what is “just” can and should be extricated. This level of nuance should be brought to bear on modern urban planning — we can, and need, to both promote justice broadly and recognize local specificity (it’s just pretty hard to get right).

The Just City is a 2010 book by urban planning scholar Susan Fainstein. Fainstein conceptualizes the “just city”, the primary qualities of which are equity, democracy, and diversity. Fainstein’s book is very dense and theoretical — but book in conjunction with the documentary bring to light some key issues for us to all think about.

An illustration from The Just City Essays: 26 Visions for Urban Equity, Inclusion and Opportunity, available online here.

One last theme these two sources, in conjunction, force us to think about is the role of co-creation and democracy in urban design. The Urbanized interviewees advocate for “systematically involv[ing] people who live those realities to find the best way forward” and asking “for civic input on the very spaces you are trying to change”. Fainstein complicates this issue, articulating the differing beliefs of communicative theorists and just-city theorists.

Communicative theorists believe the test of policy depends on who is included in its formulation, on the inclusiveness of the process.

Just-city theorists believe the principal test of a policy is whether the outcome of that process is equitable.

The answer is, of course, that both process and outcome should be taken into account, but the distinction is still helpful. I definitely err on the side of overstating the symbolic importance of democratic input. I had always sort of tacitly believed, like the communicative theorists, that a just process would result in a just outcome. But Fainstein demonstrates that there’s no guarantee of that — a majority can, and often does, overrule the interests of a minority even in “democratic” processes. And as CityLab recently reported, those who come to community forums are not representative of communities at large. We should continue to promote co-creation, but bring Fainstein’s critical perspective to bear on those topics. There’s a difference between community input and true co-creation — and that difference is powerful.



CultureHouse improves livability in local communities by transforming unused spaces into vibrant social infrastructure.

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CultureHouse improves livability in local communities by transforming unused spaces into vibrant social infrastructure.