Susan S. Fainstein


On her book The Just City

Cover Interview of February 15, 2011

A close-up

The concluding chapter of the book briefly traces the broad historical forces that formed the context for present urban policies.  It explains the effects of national policies on metropolitan areas and identifies the political and economic pressures that produced stronger redistributional measures during the 1960s and early 1970s, and then retrogression following the crisis of capitalism in the mid-1970s.  I list specific local-level policies that, if followed, would create more just cities even in the absence of supportive national policies.

During the 1960s, protests over the quality of public programs and perceived discrimination in their execution occurred primarily within cities.  Cities became the arena in which conflict among racial and ethnic groups took place, and they were the birthplace of movements for sexual freedom.

The uprisings of the period derived from group interests that often cut across class and that had their basis in group identity (blacks, gays) or ideology (feminists, environmentalists). Their success was in obtaining specific benefits, particularly in terms of hiring practices or access to funds for housing construction.  But they lacked a base sufficiently broad for gaining strongly redistributive programs. Then, backlash against the reforms instituted in response to urban movements, within the context of fiscal crisis and global competition, led to policies that subsidized developers and cut back on benefits to low-income households.

I argue that urban planners and policy makers committed to justice can devise programs to counter this trend.

They lack the power to implement policy on their own, and they are restricted by their political masters and by their clients regarding the objectives they can seek.  Nevertheless, urban planners and policy makers have one significant advantage that can empower them to shape policy.  Much of planning and bureaucratic activity involves the collection and aggregation of data and the choice of how to present it.  To the extent that individuals with expertise present analyses not just of benefit/cost ratios but also of who gets the benefits and who bears the costs, they can shift the debate toward a concern with equity.

To do so, however, they require support from some political base.  In this respect citizen participation is important.  Not because citizens always or even mostly place justice at the top of their hierarchy of values, but rather because citizens have an interest in knowing who is getting what.

Beyond sanctioned modes of participation the role of protest movements is crucial to more equitable policy.  Without pressure from beneath, official participatory bodies are likely to become co-opted; when there is a threat from below, governments become more responsive to popular interests. The example of Amsterdam shows that there is not necessarily a trade-off between investment and just outcomes.  (Photo Susan Fainstein.)

In conclusion, there are obvious limits on what can be accomplished at the metropolitan level.  At the very least, however, a concern with justice can prevent urban regimes from displacing residents involuntarily, destroying communities, and directing resources at costly megaprojects that offer few general benefits.

More positively it can lead to policies that foster equitable distribution of governmental revenues, produce a lively, diverse and accessible public realm, and make local decision making more transparent and open to the viewpoints of currently excluded groups.

If the discourse surrounding policy making focuses on the justice of the decision rather than simply its contribution to competitiveness, much will have been accomplished. Discourse and outcomes are surely connected, but it is the substantive content of the discourse, not simply the process by which it is conducted, that matters if justice is to be the outcome.