Urban Justice

3 mins read

By Matthew Gibson

In popular debate, a range of types of justice are commonly referred to, including environmental justice, economic justice, social justice. To this list, it is vital that urban justice is added. Urban justice is by no means a new concept, David Harvey’s 1973 book Social Justice and City popularised the topic as a subject of academic debate. However, the core ideas of this book and others on the topic have failed to enter the popular imaginary. This article aims to outline how urban justice may play the vital role of broadening our contemporary understanding of justice in the twenty-first century.

As of 2008, the majority of the world’s population live in urban areas. This number is expected to rise to two-thirds by 2050. What makes urban justice so important is that urban-living creates novel social, economic and political situations. The urbanisation of humanity in and of itself does not justify a new category of justice; rather, it is the novel aspects of urban life which create new issues for justice.

The primary novel aspect of human life within the city can largely be found in the construction of space within it. Cities concentrate human populations. In turn, this creates a concentration of the infrastructure required, in its broadest sense, to support that population. This drives a process whereby human life becomes three-dimensional. Skyscrapers, flyovers and underground railways give a depth to human life that rarely exists outside of an urban context.

The New York skyline offers a good starting point to think about how the spatiality of the city relates to justice. The skyline is typified by a drive towards tall, low-density housing for the super-rich. This logic concluded in 432 Park Avenue, the tallest residential block in the Western world, which houses 104 apartments, with each square-foot of space costing over $11,000, compared to an average of around $450 in New York.

Here, high land value is not simply caused by the basic economic process of a high population density combined with relative scarcity. The price of land in 432 Park Avenue and other luxury forms of accommodation far exceeds the market price for land. Extreme economic inequality allows individuals and corporations to avoid the problem of a lack of space within the city and construct space on their terms.

Although the ability to construct space is clearly an inequality in the sense that it is not a privilege all can afford, it is unclear how this is distinctly different from an outcome of economic inequality. Architecture and infrastructure construct space in the city ‒ this is of particular importance as it creates what Susan Bickford defines as an “outside”. The outside is an essentially panoptical space: a sense of constant observation by others. In the city, this panopticism creates a further requirement to constantly police the borders of the “inside”, a nominally private space. It is this process of the construction of social space that is at the core of urban justice.

Returning to 432 Park Avenue and its neighbours, we can highlight how the construction of outside and inside spaces becomes an issue of justice. This row of residential and office buildings is so high that collectively they block out the sun in parts of Central Park. What matters here is that outside spaces are the democratic spaces of the city: the spaces which communities decide how to use. However, as can be seen in the case of 432 Park Avenue, architecture can essentially curtail the possible uses of outside space, limiting the democratic say over its use.

The presence of the outside also generates policed subjects. In the outside space, we are constantly presented with a regulating ‘Other’. There is a constant presence of an observer within the city, whether that be a crowd of commuters or CCTV cameras. Constant, forced observation limits the sense of control and freedom that individuals have, effectively regulating their actions.

Further, skyscrapers – alongside gated communities or large city houses, which have extensive levels of housing built below ground – allow for an easily policed interior. These are essentially spaces that are purposefully removed from directly interacting with the outside by placing vertical distance, in the form of physical barriers, between the inside and out. This leads to differentials in labour that contributes to the construction of the inside. In effect, this means that the space is constructed so that individuals in skyscrapers can avoid both being policed and policing activities.

The construction of inside and outside spaces in the city generates issues that are in contention with more mainstream theories of justice. Ultimately, it is the perpetually reinforcing spatial aspects of urban justice that warrant further consideration of the novel challenges it presents.

By Matthew Gibson

Illustration by Agnes Björk

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