Tahl Kaminer, Lecturer in Architectural Design and Theory, Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.
As the world becomes fully urbanised, with a majority of the global population living in cities, the question of justice itself becomes increasingly urban. The implications of this include, on the one hand, the city as the locus of protest and dissent, recently visible in the Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, New York, the protesters in Syntagma Square, Athens, or the protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo. On the other hand, the centricity of cities to the world population means that issues such as economic and social justice or human rights are increasingly discussed and debated via the lens of the urban condition.
These urgent issues are visible everywhere: the spatial segregation of cities which reflect social, economic and political divisions and the marginalisation of the urban poor; the vast gaps in housing qualities and basic amenities within diverse cities and between cities; the dislocation of urban poor from city centres; the continuous development and re-development of cities for the benefit of the few and determined, to a great extent, by narrow private economic interests – interests which rarely coincide with the greater good of society.
If the economic policies of the last decades suggest a re-distribution of wealth from the masses to the few, urban development reflects a similar logic: the cleansing of city centres from the ‘unwanted’ – migrants, the poor, unemployed and unskilled labourers, as a means of reclaiming cities for finance capital and its necessary white-collar employees, whether via gentrification or other forms of urban transformation. The rising prices of homes in cities, accompanied by the absence of new council housing in Britain and a limited availability of ‘affordable’ housing, are not limited to the United Kingdom, and reflect trajectories of global scale. The morphology of the city has fragmented, a physical expression of the fragmentation of society itself, as governmental powers have been curtailed to allow private developers to speculate with property and more flexibility in their operations on the urban tissue.
Public space, once a symbol of civic society, has been mostly privatised; the privately-owned shopping mall has replaced the city square as the locus of societal interactions and exchanges, albeit exchanges of particularly consumerist and economic value in a space marked by exclusion – whether of homeless, of ‘hoodies’ or others. The remaining public space has been reorganised, smoothed, often annexed to consumerism, and placed under the surveillance of CCTV and police. Neighbourhood gardens have been fenced, with access limited, at first, to locals, and nowadays exclusively to locals who pay additional fees. Every aspect of the city has been turned into a commodity, it seems, and carries a price tag.
The members of the middle class, originally supporters of the airbrushing and cleansing of inner cities, are at last developing a consciousness that it is not only the subaltern who are expelled, but that they too can no longer maintain a foothold in city centres. With limited financial access to affordable housing or to good education in the inner cities, the middle class now recognises that the revitalised city emerging in the 1990s is a city for the privileged. From ‘reclaim the streets’ to ‘the right to the city’, slogans and movements have been formed to counter the injustice of the contemporary metropolis. The demands of the middle class as well as the poor are straightforward: the demand for living wages; for affordable (and decent quality) housing; for affordable (and decent quality) education; for quality public space – and specifically, that all these will be available to everyone, everywhere, that no area of the city becomes the exclusive domain of a privileged social group. These demands are at the heart of the global call for urban justice. As the current crisis is not only economic, but also social, political, and urban, it provides an opportunity to restructure, to change priorities, and initiate new policies aimed at creating a more fair and just city.