Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Means to Better Ends

Susan Fainstein wants us to rethink how we think about how we think about urban planning. When she looks at the body of work from its inception in this country, she finds a focus on economic development dominates the conversation, even in the most liberal of circles, and she wants to set that aside altogether to begin from a different point of view: that of justice. What, she asks, would a city plan look like that took justice as its first factor?
I confess that, as a student of justice, I got a little hung up on her use of the term -- she doesn’t see fit to let us in on what would comprise justice for a little too long for my tastes -- and when she does get around to sharing that she is measuring justice in terms of economic equality and racial inclusion, I had to set aside my need to take other factors into account. For city planning, we could do worse than focusing on these two elements of social justice.
Her investigation into three cities shows how these concerns can be implemented in the forefront in meaningful ways. New York seems do well with the social integration of its immigrant population, even while falling down on racial issues or issues of grave disparity of income. Conversely, she finds Amsterdam a bastion of economic equality, with its land held by the public, with the public receiving the benefits of the development of the land, and with the developers taking for granted their participation in public housing development (down to fifty percent from ninety percent is still a huge amount to contribute to public housing). Likewise, public housing benefits don’t expire in Europe as they do in the United States. Even in London, where Fainstein finds a more moderate success on both racial and economic fronts, these benefits are taken as a given, a permanent feature of what it means to be a city.
Social justice has never been a consideration in the halls of urban planning in the United States. In our fair Star City, the governing document talks of economic development and beautification and design aims, with a nodding passing at language to include economic and social justice, as though making a beautiful and well-ordered city will automatically generate social justice as a by-product, as if equality were a buy-product of capitalism.
I like that Fainstein takes capitalist motives to task. It’s easy to forget that the capitalist system values one thing -- profit -- above and beyond everything else. I’m less inclined to apologize for my anti-capitalist sentiments and conclusions than Fainstein is, but we both find the economic focus one that is destructive and at cross purposes with social justice efforts. For my part, I find economic ends, when taken without an analysis of consequence, to be the very definition of evil, “harm that is (1) reasonably foreseeable (or appreciable) and (2) culpably inflicted (or tolerated, aggravated, or maintained), and that (3) deprives, or seriously risks depriving, others of the basics that are necessary to make a life possible and tolerable or decent (or to make a death decent)” (Claudia Card, The Atrocity Paradigm, p. 16). Capitalism actively promotes the callous disregard for any harm inflicted on others in the quest for increased profit margins, and, as an economic policy, it does so without apology. To take stance as the basis for our social construction is, to my mind, an evil exacerbated.
We are all of us utilitarians when it comes to social policy, or we ought to be. When we look at crafting a policy, we are looking at the manner by which we can achieve the greatest amount of a desired outcome for the greatest number of people. When Fainstein asks us to look at the outcomes of economic equality and social inclusion, she is applying a utilitarian analysis through the curtain of Rawl’s veil of ignorance, measuring the outcomes first and foremost for the least among the populations these policies would affect, especially low-income and disenfranchised residents.
Fainstein lays out clear, practical and eminently practicable recommendations for principles governing public policy. I find the real value in these guidelines to be the way in which they can be deployed by any group, simply by deciding to, at whatever level the group operates. Making a commitment to health care, education and the availability of public space doesn’t require formal or federal programs, though partnerships certainly make things easier.
Her aim is not that we should take up the Marxist sickle and tear down all the private buildings, to take over the factories by force. It is that we can, as urban planners, make a moral commitment to the populations we serve. She finds that, by making this commitment, we can make a material difference in the daily lives of the population. Fainstein doesn’t come out and say so, but the conclusion is on every page: because we can enrich lives before we enrich wallets, we should.
I agree.
If Roanoke took Fainstein’s recommendations, it would hold the land in public trust for public use and public gain; we would see housing developers being held to standards of participation and commitment to public housing solutions as a given, taken as the responsibility required for permission to develop the land. More than anything, I think the fair and equitable distribution of educational resources would have a dramatic effect in Roanoke, as would a meaningful transit system. These together would have the effect of disrupting the clustering of class around “good” schools, a practice that creates a positive-feedback loop of exclusion, as the wealthy move to better schools and the schools in wealthy neighborhoods have more funding through an increased residential tax base.
Being able to get anywhere equally, being able to have a good education at any school in the district, being able to get quality healthcare regardless of income level or employment status or address would make a world of difference for Roanoke. These things are far more important, morally, to us as city planners than a third or fourth craft brewery in the city. We need to start looking at how we, as planners, have created the difference between the neighborhoods and how and why we promote these differences.

I look forward to a time when the city has gotten over its need to separate and segregate, when we choose our neighborhoods through voluntary associations, and that living in one neighborhood versus another has no impact on our health and well being, allowing us to congregate through interests instead of economy, class and status. It’s a Roanoke I would encourage my children to live in.