Excerpt: Turning to the Flip Side, by Maruxa Cardama

Illustration of community

“Five years ago, the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Just City Lab published The Just City Essays: 26 Visions of Inclusion, Equity and Opportunity. The questions it posed were deceptively simple: What would a just city look like? And what could be the strategies to get there? These questions were posed to mayors, architects, artists, philanthropists, educators and journalists in 22 cities, who told stories of global injustice and their dreams for reparative and restorative justice in the city.

Front cover for "The Just City Essays" volume one which shows a drawing of a cityscape with people walking outsideThese essays were meant as a provocation, a call to action. Now, during these times of dissonance, unrest, and uncertainty, their contents have become ever more important. For the next 26 weeks [starting June 15, 2020], the GSD and the Just City Lab will republish one essay a week here and at We hope they may continue conversations of our shared responsibility for the just city.

We believe design can repair injustice. We believe design must restore justice, especially that produced by its own hand. We believe in justice for Black Americans. We believe in justice for all marginalized people. We believe in a Just City.”

Toni L. Griffin, Professor in Practice of Urban Planning, founder of the Just City Lab, and editor of The Just City Essays

Turning to the Flip Side

By Maruxa Cardama

On the flipside you can do anything (…) the flipside bring a second wind to change your world. Encrypted recipes to reconfigure easily the mess we made on world, side B” – Song Flipside, written by Nitin Sawhney and S. Duncan

My brainstorming for this essay started me thinking about the comprehensive list that follows the affirmation of “a just city is a city that…” But my brain fell to the temptation of looking at the task from the reverse angle. What are the key ingredients of the perfect recipe for the mess of injustice in a city? For me, in a nutshell, the key ingredients for injustice are poor, inadequate, or opaque or simply noninexistent frameworks, spatial planning, management, financing and governance. All these inefficiencies put together, we get a city that is trapped in, or inexorably marching towards, injustice.

The main point I would like to make is that frameworks, spatial planning, management financing and governance are essential foundations and enablers for a multidimensional conception of justice in a city. Why? Because justice in a city is about social, political, economic and environmental justice. Once more, why these enablers? Because not only they can, but actually in many cases will, deliver better results if conceived and operationalized with the city-region scale as their wider framework. Justice in a city goes beyond its administrative boundaries. Ultimately a city will not be just if it is triggering injustice in the peri-urban or metropolitan areas or the wider region it relates to.

Frameworks, Spatial Planning and Management

Today cities are home to half of the world’s population and three quarters of its economic output, and these figures will rise dramatically over the next couple of decades. Urban development, with its power to trigger transformative change, can and must be at the front line of human development.

We seem to forget, though, that urban development is a complex process. It is a social process, and one that develops over time. To avoid getting trapped in morally abhorrent injustice, it is about time we collectively realize that urban development, like any other complex social process, needs to be soundly and sufficiently framed, planned and managed. City and regional spatial planning—territorial planning—can be an essential enabler of justice. Continue reading on…