Planners Plan But Toward What End?

Book Review: The Just City. Susan S. Fainstein. Cornell University Press, 2010.

Go to a planning meeting these days, or go to a meeting of planners, and what you'll likely hear first off is how hard the planners are working on including everyone that could even marginally be affected by an issue, and how the latest technology, from Facebook to video conferencing, has been used to this end.

Susan S. Fainstein's big point in her new book, The Just City, is that this is not necessarily a good thing. There was a time when planners had ideals beyond mere inclusiveness. There was a time when planners worked toward those ideals. That time should come again, says Fainstein. While her book is muddled in parts and mixes issues, it is inspiring overall as a welcome antidote to the almost exclusive focus these days on planning methods and participation and the technology used for such.

According to her, contemporary city-making suffers from too much process and too few ideas. Fainstein's book suggests that we should pay more attention to the ends rather than the means in planning. Her point is that we spend more time thinking about how to make plans than on what we are planning.

What Fainstein believes the ideal of planners should be is Justice, with a capital J. She represents a line of thinkers defending that tradition. The book's stated hope is to "lessen the focus on process that has become dominant within planning theory, and redirect practitioners from their obsession with economic development to a concern with social equity." It calls for focusing more on the "substantive content" or big ideas rather than only on the plan-making.

Her own take on it is centrist and she attempts to build links between left and right, looking for a common ground. Justice for her is made of the difficult balance between democracy, equity, and diversity, concepts that are tested in theory as well as in the case studies presented in the book. Her proposed solution is to implement incremental reforms that would improve the lives of city residents.

In the book's six chapters and 200 pages, Fainstein gives a historical and conceptual assessment of equity, democracy, and diversity as pillars for justice. This is done through a revision of current philosophical approaches to the problem of justice, a historical overview of justice in the practice of planners, and three case studies on the inner workings of planning in New York, London, and Amsterdam. The final chapter provides a summary of criteria to evaluate policies and plans according to justice based on the case studies.

One could agree or not with her preference for justice and its pillars as the critical idea to pursue. As an example, her sidelining of sustainability could be debated. If we are going for the big ideas after all, shouldn't we try to get them all at once? After reading her arguments it's clear that demonstrating how justice can act as the priority in contemporary planning is a worthwhile effort, and she advocates strenuously through the pages to make that case. I think that all of us should take a page from this book and make sure that we find that idea of the city we believe in. The ensuing search for more ideas of what a good city is would be productive and can promote dialogue between planners of different stripes.