Spatial Justice Problems
According to Agyeman (2013), justice and equity can best be thought in terms of recognition, process, procedure, and outcome. Justice is a complex subject; there are many philosophical and ideological perspectives, from utilitarian, to egalitarian, to libertarian. Agyeman takes a capabilities approach which posits freedom to achieve well-being as a moral imperative and should be understood in terms of people’s abilities, experiences, and means – their capabilities. Recognition pertains to how groups are treated in a society and how some people are subjugated for arbitrary reasons such as gender and color. Process and procedure pertain to laws and governance: people’s participation within the legal system, how decisions are made, who makes decisions, and the institutions that bind them. Outcomes pertain to the material results of justice (or injustice) in a society. Undoubtedly, income and wealth play a major role in capitalist societies. Those that lack them cannot meet their basic needs such as shelter and security, often leading to physical and mental health challenges.
While green space makes urban areas ecologically, socially, and economically vibrant recent studies suggest that one form of green space, urban parks, are not always provisioned evenly across cities. Moreover, access and proximity are often stratified along socio-demographic lines such as income, race, age, and gender. People of color are especially likely to live in park-poor neighborhoods, unable to directly benefit from the ecosystem services they provide, blocked from their “right to the city” (Harvey 2012).
This poses serious challenges for many cities as they try to balance land development, affordable housing, conservation, parks, and social equity. Green space access and allocation has emerged as a compelling environmental justice concern.
Maps depicting the percent of the population that self-identifies as black (left) and the percent of UTC cover for Sacramento City, CA (right). From Schwarz et al. 2015.
Many sustainability programs inadvertently place economic values over environmental and social ones, making it prone to abuse as an instrument of city boosters and corporate interests. In some cases they may even perpetuate social and environmental injustices, encouraging new forms of social disparity and environmental degradation (Gunder 2006).
For example, contemporary redevelopment projects are now often coupled with “green” initiatives such as walkability, public transport, and green infrastructure (Dale and Newman 2009). They often add green space to under-served neighborhoods or turn an old railyard to a park, making the area more attractive. Sometimes called the “parks, cafes, and riverwalk” model of urban sustainability (Curran and Hamilton 2012), these projects tend to focus on providing spaces of consumption, often for high-income residents who are being enticed by cities to move to downtown areas. This type of green development tends to drive up real estate prices and displace low- and middle- income residents through gentrification. Ultimately, sustainability may be our “saving grace”, but it may also be enforcing neoliberal values that simply maintain the status quo.
How can a city enact environmental improvements without displacing the people they are trying to help?
The 606, a popular bike and pedestrian trail built on an old elevated railroad line in Chicago Illinois, has recently come under criticism as a potential vehicle for gentrification.