A Comprehensive Ideal of Self-Determination

Last week Susan Fainstein gave a talk on her new book, which revisits the major theme of her career–the just city–by trying to develop an urban theory of justice. Her criteria are diversity, democracy, and equity, three philosophical principles (or questions) she develops from the work of John Rawls, Martha Nussbaum, Nancy Fraser, and Iris Marion Young. I’m not entirely familiar with all these writers nor have I read Fainstein’s book. Her lecture, however, caused me to revisit the question I continually struggle with, namely the role of urban planning, which in this context, can be posited as whether urban planning helps or ultimately hinders the actualization of a just city.

Many people often ask me what exactly urban planning is anyway. Although I’m ultimately unsure, I keep two working definitions in mind.

Urban planning is about the distribution of resources.

Urban planning is an intervention meant to disrupt the current conditions within the built environment.

The former I’ve learned in school, the later I’d describe as empirical observation. There is a temporal quality to each, the former (the more traditional definition) suggests a need to plan long-term and comprehensively, to think carefully about how want, need, and demand for resources might change over time. There is an economic assumption (i.e. supply and demand), a spatial assumption (i.e. distribution), and an alluding to the ethical (i.e. that universal rationality will guide us in our decisions and actions). To achieve this requires a bird’s-eye view of the environment, to undertake such distribution we must distance ourselves from the actual existing space and context. In this sense, definition one lends itself to a top-down, urban planning-as-expert approach.

The latter for me is ambiguous, it accepts that urban planning is potentially liberating and potentially destructive. An intervention could be planned or unplanned, immediate or long-term. It moves away from the assumption of a universal rationality and allows urban planning to be done by anyone, using almost anything.

The one author I have read from Fainstein’s list is Young, a brilliant thinker on ideas of democracy, inclusion, and justice. Two points Young continually circles back to are the ideals of self-determination and self-development. However, nowhere did (and I would argue can) this ideal surface in Fainstein’s examples (geographically summarized as London, New York, Amsterdam, and Singapore) and, when I think of it, I find this absent in others who are writing about urban planning and the just city. Let me be clear. I’m not questioning whether these authors do or don’t support ideals of self-determination and self-development, I am questioning whether or not urban planning (planning actualized) is not inevitably in conflict with these ideals.

Let me try to be more clear. The ideals of self-determination and self-development are democratic ideals as in they are a product of the American revolution and hundreds of years of philosophical thought, and actual history. Urban planning, if we adhere to the first definition, is also based on democratic ideals, namely, the distribution of resources for the greater good of society. But of course, this is in direct contradiction to the ideal of self-determination. How can you be self-determined if someone else, someone who claims to be an expert, chooses where, when, and how your resources are distributed? Some may call this the capitalist-democracy contradiction, I would like to, if possible, extend this contradiction, move it away from systems of governing to something perhaps more fundamental.

For Spinoza, freedom was understood of as necessity and self-determined, which is distinguished from in-determined or what we might call un-freedom. I think Young would approve of Spinoza’s definition of freedom and I think this definition is how I understand the relationship between urban planning and the just city. In other words, planning as an intervention, an intervention that is a necessity, a necessity that is so obvious it is done almost without planning. What do I mean? I mean that by accepting that second definition of urban planning we understand that the people running Dollar Van Demos in Flatbush, Brooklyn, the entire site of Dharavi, India, Bansky, anyone who is intervening/altering the urban environment out of some feeling of necessity is essentially contributing to an urban theory of justice through urban planning.

In this way, I hope to begin thinking more about Andy Merrifield’s claim that the right to the city is too narrow a concept. I would like to remove the ‘planning’ from ‘urban planning’ so that I may dismiss the idealism associated with planning (i.e. that we can plan for a better, a more ‘just’ future) and focus on the urban, which comes with its own set of ideals that eventually need to be unpacked and challenged.


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