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Building the Just City

Beyond growth: How to build cities that make life richer for the people who live there.

Happy Kid in Amsterdam, photo by Jacob Johan

In Amsterdam, policies like public land ownership and district governments mean the public has more say in building projects. This leads to more social benefits included in construction.

Photo by Jacob Johan.

For urban planners trying to fix broken cities or to improve thriving ones, the importance of growth is rarely questioned.

But who benefits? Robert Moses, New York’s most famous urban planner, was not known for considering the needs of the city’s low-income communities (his projects often displaced them or the services—like public transit—on which they depended).

Today’s urban planners may operate with more restraint than Moses, but as Susan Fainstein writes in her latest book, The Just City, social justice is still far from the first priority in much urban planning in the U.S.

Fainstein wants to jostle urban planners and policy makers to think more about ways that cities can support all their residents. Her goal, she writes, is to “redirect practitioners from their obsession with economic development.” Instead, she offers a vision in which principles of democracy and equity take precedence over growth.

Her book is both a theoretical exploration of the principles behind planning and a more practical “guide to what to do if justice is the first evaluative criterion used in policy making.” And in showing where a handful of cities—she focuses on New York, London, and Amsterdam—have succeeded or failed, she shows the possibilities that are cast aside when growth is the only good.


Sarah Laskow: What led you to write this book?

Susan Fainstein: I’ve tried to find out why some cities are much more concerned with their low-income populations than others.

Developers in the UK and the Netherlands simply expect to be asked to provide public benefits.

I was concerned with how policy for redevelopment and neighborhood improvement could bring about cities that were more inclusive, more responsive to the needs of low-income people and people of color.

Laskow: The book’s first suggestion for furthering equity is that all new housing development should have affordable housing included. That really took me aback; it’s so different than what our expectations are here.

Fainstein: In the United States, the only time there is a requirement that a project include affordable housing is if it receives a subsidy from the government. And the requirement lapses after some number of years.

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I’m just back from Vancouver, where I was impressed to find a much greater commitment to the provision of affordable housing than in the U.S. Social housing does not, as in this country, stop being available after a certain time period—Section 8, tax credits, and so on all have sunset provisions; they’re all seen as temporary. But that isn’t the case in Vancouver, where housing that’s built for low-income people remains affordable and available to them. Still, Vancouver is an expensive place to live, which leads to other serious equity problems.

In the UK and in the Netherlands, where I focused my research, there is this requirement that all new construction include a social housing component.

Laskow: Why are the expectations about housing in other countries so different?

Fainstein: What’s very unusual about the United States is: if a building project fits into the zoning laws, you can just build it, as a right. But almost anywhere else, you have to have permission to build. That gives the public much more bargaining power—they can demand certain things from the developer.

Of course, developers are only going to give up so much before the project becomes unprofitable. But by and large, developers, including in the UK and certainly in the Netherlands, simply expect to be asked to provide public benefits. They just take it for granted that they will have to do so. So this leads to talks about including day care centers or recreational facilities in construction projects, as well as cross-subsidizing the construction of social housing—developers help provide low-income housing.

In my book, I use Amsterdam as an example. Amsterdam is much criticized by leftists in the Netherlands for reducing its commitments to social outcomes in housing. But in Amsterdam, that means that instead of being 90 percent of new construction, affordable housing is 50 percent. Now, 50 percent is far more than any American city has ever contemplated.

Laskow: What other specific policies seem to be working?

Fainstein: In Amsterdam, land is held by the public, which is critically important because the public receives the benefit of all increases in land value.

If we’re going to have more equitable policy, it’s going to be because people made a moral commitment to it.

The fact that Amsterdam doesn’t organize public education by district has also been important. You can go to any school across the city. What that has meant is that you don’t get the kind of residential clustering that you get here around good school districts. Studies have shown that the population distribution is actually quite heterogenous in terms of class. It’s less so in terms of ethnicity, but even then it’s nothing like the levels of segregation in this country.

In addition, Amsterdam has very good public facilities, including district governments—like 16 little town halls. The districts are to a certain extent self-governing. There’s marvelous mass transit, and it’s cheap. Recreation centers and public space is very widely available.

It’s also important to respect the diversity of a city. In Vancouver, Asians and whites are the two principle groups, along with First Nations, indigenous inhabitants. There are very strong efforts on the part of city government and nonprofits to integrate the city while being respectful of cultural differences—acknowledging these differences in the school system, in cultural symbols, in the development of the city.

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Laskow: What do you hope people take away from the book?

Fainstein: I hope they see a much broader range of possibilities than we currently consider—of ways to bring more justice to housing policy, transportation policy, education, social services.

The major purpose of the book, besides giving a list of policies that would be beneficial, is to make people talk more about those policies. To place them on the table, as opposed to saying: “We just can’t do that here. That’s not possible.”

If we make health care, education, and public space available, then people’s lives are better. They may not be a whole lot richer, but their lives are richer.

If we’re going to have more equitable policy, it’s going to be because people made a moral commitment to it. I believe that planners have the ability and the responsibility to make cities better places for people to live in, particularly low-income people.

I don’t think that they can get rid of poverty or get rid of inequality. But when people have few resources, if we make health care available, if we make education available, if we make public space available, then people’s lives are better. They may not be a whole lot richer, but their lives are richer. And that’s something we can help with.

Yes, there are limits to what can be done at the local level. But at the same time, there’s much more that can be done at the local level than people tend to think.


Sarah LaskowSarah Laskow wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Sarah is a freelance reporter, based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Newsweek.com, The American Prospect, Politico and other publications.

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