Why is urban design an important tool for justice?
“The point of cities is the multiplicity of choice.” - Jane Jacobs
A city is people and environment. It contains both social and physical systems. The city we experience today is not static. It is instead a dynamic entity that is marked by the social, economic, political, and cultural systems at play. Like we have previously explored the Industrial Revolution, we find our cities at the intersection of such processes. Thus, forming the layers of urban history and imprinting human ingenuity in time and physical landscape. Hence, changes in these systemic forces affect the physical landscape of cities. But, can changes in the physical landscape bring about changes in systemic forces?
The Covid-19 pandemic has made structural inequality apparent. Cities and their economies collapsed following an almost global shutdown. It has revealed how significant populations of the city face ‘distributive injustice’ that renders them incapable of surviving in the cities. Hence, causing large reverse migrations. It is a problem generated due to the processes that were actualised over a century before. The pandemic reveals how the dispossessed people allow for the production systems to exist and function. And how they produce knowledge and change in our cities. (Posel and Marx, 2011)
The historical processes of monopolies were unlike current forms. They did not change the way people communicated with each other and produced knowledge. Their produced objects - like textile, electricity, automobiles, steel, concrete, and railways - influenced the rudimentary physicality of space. The current forms of monopolies influence public behaviour in space. These include digital media, the internet, and augmented reality. Monopolies now control the way communication takes place. They are working to control the production of knowledge itself. (Plantin, 2018)
Take, for example, the data and knowledge that Google produces on the map arises from people’s participation in public space and sharing that knowledge with Google. However, Google does not share the profits, technological knowledge, and power with the public. But, they actualise the processes that now shape our cities. We are currently witnessing the formation of many 21st Century monopolies such as Airbnb and Uber; Airbnb with its ramifications on the availability of affordable rental space in cities while Uber with its ramifications of public shared transport. Both feed and tap on the potential of unused resources, like an empty car or an empty house space. They are gaining capital through effectively managing demands and regularising them on digital platforms. They remain unexplained autonomies and authorships in the design of the public sphere. Much like their counterparts of the late 19th and 20th centuries that continue to exist and manifest their power simultaneously. (Plantin, 2018)
The struggle for Urban Design, where monopolies shape the public sphere, is evident throughout history. Urban Design acts as an external agent by entering a scenario in ‘distributive injustice.’ Distributive injustice is when the public lacks equity, accessibility or minimum capability to continue surviving or growing in the free-market competition. The external agent tries to understand the accumulative effects of the people, their competition and the system at large. Doing so gives recognition and allows means of participation to the dispossessed.
An Urban Practitioner decides to map out the relationships. They weigh the costs and benefits of interventions demanded by the public and the ones meted out by the system. These interventions are usually distributed amongst the public in space and time in complex geography. And, thus, this provides ‘deliberative justice.’
The fermentation of political action creates a vehicle or an institution. It brings both the system and the public to the table to encourage exchanges and reach a consensus. Thus, providing ‘procedural justice’ through the notion of informed consent.
The practitioner ensures the provision of some form of reconciliation to the public. It in itself is a silent admission of ‘Truth.’ Thus, providing ‘restorative justice.’
Ultimately, this leaves the public with a form, process, and ethos of proactive knowledge production. Thus giving them the insight, confidence and dignity to add meaning to public spaces. Facilitating them to be a part of the city-wide adaptation processes in an attempt to provide ‘epistemic justice.’ (Sheller, 2018)
Urban Design practice, therefore, is the very form of deliberate, organised action to provide solutions to public spaces that benefit the outcome for some without reducing the conditions for the others. It addresses the conflicting interests of everyone’s underlying actions, guided by the phenomenology of desires, needs, and the will of those affected. A phenomenology developed in correct and adequate representation, and then matched with coherent choices for partial or complete satisfaction. And its role is now more important than ever; with the newer forms of technologies that on one hand can ensure the transparency and non-market collaboration essential to make better choices for well-being, and on the other hand, the newer forms of monopolies that threaten the very processes of knowledge production that are the modalities Urban Design uses to exist and provide justice in the public realm. (Novara Media, 2019)
Today, individual action and free competition are not enough for the public. The neoliberal reforms of governance and the diminishing role of Welfare States dispossess the public. Thus, it is essential to remember the birth of Urban Design as that very ‘visible hand’ which is capable of enforcing direct interventions and setting up efficient systems that validate the incentives and disincentives of individual choices. (LeCavalier, 2019)
Design Justice is a movement to challenge the privileged and power structures. These structures use architecture and design as a means to perpetuate injustice throughout the built environment. The movement demands the profession to design for the disempowered, oppressed, and disinherited. In practice, this means we organise and train communities as design advocates in the pursuit of just spaces. We design knowledge-building opportunities across the country, thus creating a collective capacity around the inequity issues of the built environment.
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About the Writer
Ajinkya Jamadar is an architect with an inclination towards Sustainable Development and Urban Ecologies. He has previously worked at Bangalore based architecture firm Biome Environmental Solutions. He is a graduate of the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal.
About the Editor
Aishwarya Jadhav is an architect, urban researcher, and software trainer by profession. She is a travel enthusiast, architectural photographer, and literary writer. She is a graduate of the School of Geography and Planning, Cardiff University, UK and the Sir J.J. School of Architecture, Mumbai. She has experience working at Urban Liveability Forum, Dharmalaya Institute for Compassionate Living and Abhikalpan Architects and Planners.
About the Illustrator
Ayadi Mishra is an undergraduate architecture student at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal. She is a writer, illustrator and graphic designer. She has experience working with An Architect, Ethos India, WPF Creatives, Nivedha Foundation, SkyManga. She has attended summer school at the Hunnarshala Foundation for Building Technology & Innovations, Bhuj, and has been a finalist in Solar Decathlon India.