Justice and Equity in Urban Planning

10.9.2012 | While on vacation last week, I took two books with me– a John Connolly mystery and a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time now, “Justice and the American Metropolis,” a volume of essays edited by BRR’s Todd Swanstrom and Clarissa Rile Hayward. I finished both–which attests to the quality of the poolside amenities. Oh cabana boy.

Being new to the urban policy field, but long immersed in the social welfare field, I found that “Justice” expertly ties together the threads of both fields in a way that made me see new connections between life on the margins and regional politics and policies. It also prompted me to dust off my volume of John Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice,” whose ideas keep cropping up in different forms throughout– along with a veritable history of Left and Center-Left thinking on justice and equity.

In this era of free market individualism, it’s a good reminder of how “choices” are often not so free after all. Housing, schools, neighborhoods are all affected by a myriad set of complicated, frequently invisible, forces that shape our options and opportunities. In fact, as Swanstrom and Hayward argue, it is this deep, dense, and opaque set of forces (“thick” injustices, as the authors label them) that make them too easy to ignore. Their complexity, and moral complexity “make it difficult to assign moral responsibility for injustice, and to motivate collective political action to change it.”

One of those forces is the increasingly splintered political jurisdictions across metro areas.

As the authors argue, this proliferation of local jurisdiction–nearly 40,000 across the U.S. today–has potentially undermined the view that we’re urban citizens sharing with our fellow citizens in the next jurisdiction not only material benefits but also civic responsibilities beyond our enclave. (They might add a even more minute layer of enclave: the gated community.)

One idea that caught my eye was this: that people who work in a town or suburb that they can’t afford to live in should be able vote on local laws and policies that affect them, such as zoning policies that keep the costs of housing high or selective.

The Journal of Regional Science, which says that the book ”deserves a wide audience,”   does a much better job than I of reviewing the separate chapters. Mark D. Bjelland, reviewing the book, notes that the 10 essays in the book are:

“written by an excellent group of authors trained in political science, public policy, and law. It displays a unity that many edited collections lack, in part due to contributors’ repeated efforts to ground social justice discussions in concrete examples from American cities and metropolitan areas.”

The journal also reviews another book by BRR members:  Margaret Weir et al’s “Urban and Regional Policy and Its Effects” (vol. 4).

Actually, the set of book reviews in the current issue (and likely past issues as well) is a fabulous resource for urban planners and regional thinkers. It covers regional thinking on such things as climate change and water use to an overview of urban design, to history and theory of urban design, to the “going local” movement.  Worth a read.


Sarah also wrote about Justice and the American Metropolis here.

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