Susan S. Fainstein


On her book The Just City

Cover Interview of February 15, 2011


Although the resources available to cities are determined largely by higher levels of government and the autonomous decisions of private investors, local public policy making still affects who gets what and is not fully constrained.  The choices of objects for investment (e.g. stadiums v. housing, infrastructure v. incentives to private developers, schools v. convention centers) as well as locational decisions (e.g. where to put the bus station or public housing) are made by local governments.

Particular policy areas in which municipalities have considerable discretion and thus the power to distribute benefits and cause harm include urban redevelopment, housing programs, zoning, racial and ethnic relations, open space planning, and service delivery. Whether the policy emphasis and budgetary priorities should be on physical construction or human capital development, dispersion of low-income households or neighborhood improvements—these are decisions made locally.

My hope in writing a book about the just city is to influence readers to see more clearly who wins and who loses from policies framed in terms of competitiveness.  Public officials, if they evaluated decisions in terms of the norms of diversity, democracy, and equity, would reach different conclusions than if they only focused on attracting more investment than other cities.

Although cities cannot flourish without investment, the welfare of their inhabitants depends on more than simply an assumption that the benefits of any investment will trickle down to everyone.  The justice criterion does not necessarily negate efficiency and effectiveness as methods of choosing among alternatives.  Rather, it requires the policy maker to ask: Efficiency or effectiveness to what end?

The measurement of outcomes in aggregate monetary terms leads to an apparent trade-off between efficiency and equity.  If, instead of asking the overall benefit/cost ratio of a given project, we inquired as to the benefits and costs to those least well-off or those most directly and adversely affected, we would likely reach a different conclusion.

Making justice a priority would change the character of urban policy making.

© 2010 Susan Fainstein