Editorial: Public Space and Urban Justice

About this issue

Issue number
Volume 43 – Number 2


In academic, government and public arenas there is increasing interest in public space as a facilitator of urban justice and, further, that urban justice is not an abstract concept, but has practical implications. Therefore, the question is what are the ways of studying public space to promote urban justice in the city? The intention of this issue of Built Environment is to bring contributions which explore and ground this question.

Over the last decade, public space has received increasing attention and debate in urban research, policy and public debate as a facilitator of urban justice. The 2008 economic crisis underlined these debates, which questioned the role of economic competitiveness as a global socio-economic model shaping the cities along with profit-oriented developments. They addressed the distribution of income inequalities (Buitelaar et al., 2016) as one of the central issues to be challenged in contemporary and future urban planning.

In urban literature, increasing inequalities are closely associated with the decline of a welfare state model (Musterd and Ostendorf, 1998) and a rise in the neo-liberal approach to urban development to achieve economic success and international competition (Gleeson and Low, 2000; Jackson, 2009; Cardama, 2015; Sager, 2011; Lord and Tewdwr-Jones, 2012). This requires marketing strategies to promote the city into a ‘growth machine’ (Sassen, 2005; Fainstein, 2010; Harvey, 2013). It also serves to legitimatize costly interventions in prestige developments such as stadia, inner-city historical areas, waterfronts, business hubs for finance and high-tech industries, and neighbourhoods for creative industries (Zukin, 1995; Hall and Hubbard 1996; Graham and Marvin, 2001). This implies that in order to support the city’s economic prosperity and global competiveness, investments are not evenly distributed but concentrated in some selected areas of a city, and created what is called ‘splintering urbanism’ (Graham and Marvin, 2001). Some of the evident consequences of these laissez-faire developments on public spaces are, among others, the escalation of control on public space by privately owned public space (POPS), shrinkage and limitation of public space to perform as a civic place as well as place for protest.

In order to challenge these conditions of injustice, some action at the global level has been taken at least at a declarative level. The 2016 UN Habitat Conference, HABITAT III, adopted what it called The New Urban Agenda, which focused on public space as a promoter of sustainable cities that facilitate ‘inclusive, connected, safe and accessible’ cities, which are key aspects of urban justice (UN Habitat, 2016). Good public space is seen as a crucial element to achieving good quality of life for people of all walks of life as it supports the local economy, contributes to a sense of community, encourages interaction across social, cultural and economic boundaries, but also increases mobility and contributes to better health and wellbeing (Andersson, 2016). Accordingly, the just city can be achieved by offering equal opportunities to a city’s inhabitants for self-development and enjoyment of a good quality of life (Griffin, 2015).

However some studies showed that despite the reduction of urban inequalities has been a continuous topic on the global political agendas since 1945 (Andersson, 2016; Gupta et al., 2015), the inequalities between and within the states, regions and cities keep growing (Sassen, 2005; Leigh, 2017; Chakravorty, 1996; Saunders et al., 2016). This is also clearly addressed in public debates. For example, the British newspaper The Guardian’s web blog ‘Cities’ presented a series of articles, relating to the ‘unjust’ conditions in the cities in relation to public space through the themes of privatization, exclusion of social groups, lack of accessibility and distribution of amenities (Hatherley, 2016; Garrett, 2015; Engelen et al., 2014, Ayala and Fallshaw, 2017). These articles present examples from a wide geographical area including cities from Europe, Americas, Asia, Middle East, Australia and Africa, and show that the issues related to urban justice and public space are not limited to just some parts of the world; rather they are a global phenomenon.

All these illustrate that in academic, governmental and public arenas there is increasing interest in public space as a facilitator of urban justice and that urban justice is not an abstract concept, but has practical implications. This increasing interest requires attention and practical approaches able to link public space to urban justice must be considered. Therefore, the question is what are the ways of studying public space to promote urban justice in the city? Our intention in this special issue of Built Environment is to bring contributors and case studies together to explore and ground this question.
We approach public space as a concrete, physical space that is accessible to everyone in real space and time, and not as a virtual, immaterial category. Streets, markets, parks, playgrounds and many other spaces attract people from various gender, income, age, cultural groups, who are not necessarily familiar with each other (Sennett, 1970; Sandercock, 2003; Iveson, 2006). By offering opportunities for strangers to be in same place at the same time, public space performs as site of sociability, in the sense of spontaneous social interaction, through simple greetings, or just seeing and being seen, or social gatherings and commercial exchanges (Jacobs, 1961; Sennett, 1971; Watson, 2006). All these forms of interaction and exchange are at the core of vibrant public life of the city and can be observed and experienced the most in public spaces.
These various qualities of public space closely associate with some aspects of the just city: diversity, equity and democracy (Fainstein, 2010; Griffin, 2015).

Public Space and Diversity

Diversity aspects of the just city relate to the capacity to welcome and embrace a variety of people with differing cultural views and practices, as well as land uses. This view dates back to the antiquity as Aristotle famously stated, ‘The city is composed of different kinds of men; similar people cannot bring the city into existence’ (Aristotle, cited in Sennett, 1970, p. 13) and was widely embraced by the early contributors to urban theory (Simmel, 1976; Park, 1915; Wirth, 1938) as well as scholars of urban justice, political science and urban design. Some address the need to recognize group diversity without homogenizing and marginalizing tendencies, as a fundamental aspect of civility – in other words, conditions in which different groups can show respect to each other and learn how to live together (Young, 1990; Fainstein, 2010; Low, 2008). Others approach diversity in terms of variations in land uses and programmes, which attract different user groups and foster vitality in public life (Talen, 2006; Montgomery 1998). Diversity is used as a conceptual tool to measure the outcomes of urban plans, policies and interventions as just or unjust by looking at whether projects dislocate certain urban groups, or whether zoning plans are inclusive for diverse user groups (Steil and Connolly, 2017; Fainstein, 2010; Honneth and Fraser, 2001; Fincher and Iveson, 2008).

Public space provides the means to observe and study the effects of urban interventions on diversity both in terms of group differences and land uses (Low et al., 2005; Montgomery 1998). It enables the study of changes in activities, user types and behavioural patterns in the urban environment. For example, the effects of social mixing policies, which suggest mixing households through introducing new types of housing for higher income groups, often affects a neighbourhood’s diversity through gentrification. In such processes, public space reflects a city’s capacity to embrace social and economic differences, e.g. between people of different income, age, faith or ethnic backgrounds. A lived experience of such diversity in public space not only makes diversity part of everyday life but also celebrates opportunity, equality and justice for all. If properly managed it contributes to the acceptance of diversity in the built environment and highlights the need to consider it in decision-making processes (Zarate, 2015; Griffin, 2015). By enabling citizens as well as visitors to encounter not just what they want to encounter, it reinforces coexistence in the urban environment. Thus public space not only acts as a connector of different neighbourhoods in the socially and economically segregated ‘dual’ contemporary city (Fainstein, 2013; Low, 2013), but also as an indicator of the lived diversity of the city. In addition, Lazear (2000) introduces economic aspects to the concept of the diverse city and public space by claiming that the productivity is higher in urban environments that hold diversity in their public space, as they are capable of new ways of thinking.

Public Space and Equity

The second feature of the just city, equity, suggests a fair allocation of wealth, resources, benefits and opportunities among the citizens. This approach draws on and extends the ancient Athenian city-state as a distributor of power and resources, and has influenced ideas about justice in Western societies, where justice is strongly associated with the legal system, regulated by the law through political, economic and social institutions (Rawl, 1971; Harvey, 1973; Fainstein, 2000; Soja, 2010). In context of urban planning, equity is directly related to the distribution of housing, urban amenities and environmental sources such as clean water, air and urban greenery.

When it comes to the public spaces, equity implies the provision and regulations of public space, as well as their access regardless the social and economic profile of the population (Low and Iveson, 2016). This raises questions about the distribution and accessibility of public space. For example, in Western Europe, the provision of public space is well regulated, but increasing land prices and processes of gentrification have influenced the use of public space by certain groups, excluding some. In Asian and Middle Eastern cases, where expensive residential towers in exclusive enclaves are constructed and gated communities created, the accessibility of public space for general population is notably decreased. Such developments are to be found around the globe and not only create fragmented city areas, but for the excluded parts of population decrease confidence in right to ownership, inclusion and belonging to the public spaces ‘because of the frequent reminders expressed by those who presume to judge and challenge those rights’ (Griffin, 2015, p. 8). Segregation of urban territories also causes environmental hazard (Graham and Marvin, 2001; Harvey 2013).

Another rising issue is the differentiation of users of public space in terms of their mean of transport. Even if in the Western world there is a strong movement towards sustainable mobility, the continued motorization of the urban population disadvantages non-motorized users who are often of disadvantaged social status (Cowie et al., 2016). To address these complex issues, different policies and interventions have been introduced aiming to mitigate the inequity (such as urban renewal policies, housing policies and urban design interventions); often these have safeguarding and development of public space as one of their core measures.

Public Space and Democracy

The democracy element of the just city refers to representation and public participation in the urban planning process which are often regarded as measures of how inclusive and democratic this process is (Mitchell, 2003; Isin, 2000; Mollenkopf and Castells, 1991; Rudd, 2009). In scholarly work there seems to be a wide consensus on advantageous effects of participatory urbanism for a more just city. However there is an ongoing discussion on definitions and attributes of truly participatory processes as well as approaches to get citizens effectively involved in decision-making (Kaza, 2006; Denters and Klok, 2010; Moore and Elliott, 2015; Parnell, 2016). These discussions are very relevant to the design and management of urban public open spaces as truly common grounds for urban life (Madanipour, 2010). By definition these are contested places, appropriated by different groups. The various interests, needs, expectations and contestations that come together in these spaces need to be equilibrated in the participatory process. Unless this process is inclusive, the more influential groups’ interests will prevail which marginalizes others and effectively limits their right to the city.

Public spaces offer conditions to study practices of representation in terms of political participation and claims to use public spaces. One of the measures is the level of individuals’ and groups’ incentives in the co-design of public spaces (Kaza, 2006). This is not conditioned only by the planning system procedures and the ability of authority to be an attentive listener (Moore and Elliott, 2015), but also by people’s motivations to participate based on their personal costs and benefits. The other indicator is the level to which public spaces act as places of protest or spaces to initiate change in the established socio-economic and political systems (Juris, 2012; Rosenstone, 2016; Uitermark et al., 2012). In either case, the level of participation can be an indicator of inequality – the lower the level of participation, the higher the degree of political inequality and the more serious the problems of representativeness (Rosenstone and Hansen, 1993). On the other hand. the inflation of grassroots practices in public space design can be an indication of an (un) just city as that may indicate the unfulfilled needs of certain user groups (Pares et al., 2012).

Some studies suggest that indicators such as gender, educational and income levels, occupation, ethnicity, living arrangements and belonging to certain types of groups are the key factors that distinguish people who participate from those who remain uninvolved (Xu, 2007; Rubin and Rubin, 2001; Steggert, 1975). Further, the physical design and aesthetics of public space are a measure of its level of democracy, as it influences who will feel invited to use public space and who not. Therefore design of public space should be a product collaboration of users with designers, in which designer leads the process (Schupbach, 2015).

The relations between public space and the features of the just city show us that public space may offer just/unjust consequences for the ability of urban policies and practice to combat the conditions of injustice from three perspectives: diversity, equity and democracy. The papers in this special issue reflect on these three perspectives, based on examples from cities, which vary in size, and their historical and contextual backgrounds.

The Ankara paper presents in a historic perspective in the case of Gençlik Parkı, a central public park in Ankara, Turkey. The park was initially used as an inclusive public space, reflecting a modern vision of the newly established Turkish Republic. This vision changed slightly especially after the 1980s, along with the neo-liberal policies. In this context, conditions of injustice became visible in the park, for example through uneven patterns of accessibility to urban amenities, the sale of urban green areas to private developers, or giving additional development rights to political allies. By describing the typical development phases of the park within a wider socio-economic historic framework, the paper problematizes the nature of urban development and modernization, and how they can lead to a less just urban form.
The next paper investigates, from the perspective of urban justice, urban transformation processes within street amenities in immigrant neighbourhoods in Amsterdam Metropolitan Region. It approaches the issue through the visibility of immigrant amenities – such as shops, restaurants, and places of worship – with distinctive cultural signs and practices, that are recognizable in public space. Cultural visibility provides empirical evidence for the role of these immigrant street amenities in stimulating public life and the changes of their role in the context of neighbourhood transformation. The study highlights the decline of visible Turkish amenities in the neighbourhood undergoing urban development processes that promote gentrification. This contradicts the policy objectives aimed at enhancing immigrant integration and relates to the diversity and democracy aspects of urban justice.

The case of Ljubljana, Slovenia, which follows, shows how planning for urban walkability can contribute to the equity aspect of the just city. Urban walkability is interpreted as a capacity of the built environment related to the design of public space and the distribution of the land uses. It focuses on two development phases of the city: the socialist framework and the contemporary neo-liberal socio-economic framework. It argues that planning for walkability must not be used as an exclusivity measure from which only privileged parts of the city or only a certain group of citizens can benefit; rather it should be equally distributed across the urban territory.

The next paper, whose focus is the Columbian city of Medellín addresses the issue of a city authority’s interventions in public space. Recent governments have invested massively in a design-led physical upgrading of the city’s public space with the goal of increasing both spatial justice and the city’s competitiveness, tackling both inner-city areas and peripheral informal settlements. Through a multi-method qualitative approach, the paper focuses on the case of one informal settlement. It questions whether the current programme’s focus on image creation and international competitiveness has detrimental effects on the empowerment of the settlement’s residents. The findings of the study show that there is a conflict between equity and empowerment measures in the various stages of the participatory process, which raises issues relating to the equity and democracy aspects of the just city.

The dominance of real estate development on the individual initiatives, which claim to use public space, is addressed next in the Lebanese case of Beirut. The research is based on a study of one farmers’ market and emphasizes exchange value over use value of public space. It focuses two periods of the market, in 2007 and 2016, and explores how and to what extent such a market is able to generate spontaneous social interactions and exchanges between different groups. The study concludes that, despite the unstable political and social context, the market is able to act as a place of sociability, which is key for the diversity of the just city.

The final paper adds another important perspective by addressing the issue of the (under)representation of children in making urban planning decisions that affect public space in Auckland, New Zealand. In broader terms it challenges the formal protection of the rights of specific user groups to be part of meaningful participation, as it argues that these rights are rarely processed in practice. The paper focuses on the processes and outcomes of the Auckland Council’s children’s participation event for the redevelopment of an inner-city square. Based on the findings, the research discusses the prospects for the children’s effective participation becoming a part of city making processes, which is crucially related to the equity and democracy aspects of the just city.


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This special issue has its origins in a conference entitled ‘Becoming Local Bucharest’ held at Ion Mincu University of Architecture and Urbanism in Bucharest, Romania in 2014. The conference brought together a group of scholars to explore and compare the relations between different features of public space and the just city. This conference evolved out of the activities of the Thematic Group ‘Public Spaces and Urban Cultures’ established under the AESOP (The Association of European Schools of Planning). We would like to express our gratitude to Ion Mincu University of Architecture and Urbanism and we owe special thanks to Gabriel Pascuriu and Celia Ghyka for hosting this event. Finally, our appreciation is to all the authors in this issue for their commitment to the project, their responsiveness to requests for revisions from us and from reviewers.