How Space & Society Interact
Spatial justice is a relatively new term in urban planning and design, having been coined in the late 2000s by urbanist and scholar Edward Soja. In his book, Seeking Spatial Justice, Soja asserts that resources, services, and access should serve geographical locations in an equitable way. Often, voices that have traditionally been marginalized throughout American history bear the brunt of spatial inequality, largely because the community itself was not included in the planning of their own habitat.
Spatial justice is essentially about designing urban spaces to promote diversity and inclusion. The University of Oregon has a groundbreaking new program within its School of Architecture and Environment called The Design for Spatial Justice initiative. The fellowship program supports visiting faculty as they research and instruct on the community-centered design practices for spatial and environmental justice. These design practices take into account gender, race, ethnicity, indigeneity, sexuality, economic inequality, and how communities can thrive when they are allowed to design and decide their own spaces.
One of the visiting faculty members, urbanist Karen Kubey, laments that architectural education in the United States is based on the Beaux Arts model from 19th-century France. Instead, she argues that the architectural education system and profession should reflect the current state of affairs in the United States, specifically empowering diverse and equitable communities. As the design industry becomes increasingly complex and technologically advanced, it’s important to retain that humanistic lens when designing community spaces.
Spatial justice doesn’t have to begin on a large scale, and sometimes it’s just not feasible. But, small-scale changes, such as collective gardening, co-housing, and identity-driven public spaces, are all steps in the right direction. Creativity plays a large role in spatial justice, and by encouraging a collective existence among community members, inclusivity and equity can flourish.
There is a clear relationship between design and the structure of power. Substandard housing and obstructive roadways and infrastructure are not uncommon in existing urban communities. Rent control, mass transit schedules and locations, as well as the environmental impact of new construction all play a role in spatial justice with urban communities. Schools, hospitals, and public-use spaces all contribute to equitable socio-spatial relations. Cities that host the Olympics, for example, should take into account the local community’s opinions and wellbeing when it comes time to build the necessary infrastructure. Tokyo, Japan, is changing the way the Olympics are envisioned, with environmentally friendly and recyclable materials, as well as repurposed buildings.
Practices, institutions, spaces, and aesthetics can either encourage or obstruct the achievement of urban equity and environmental justice. In a time where grassroots social activism is widespread, particularly in the political arena, urban dwellers should have access to the same collective voice to champion their living spaces. When we change the way we think about communities, then we effectively foster a new wave of social and spatial justice.
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