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Excerpt: Cities in Imagination, by David Maddox

Illustration of city in a tree

“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 designforthejustcity.org. 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

Cities in Imagination

By David Maddox

Resilience is the word of the decade, as sustainability was in previous decades. No doubt, our view of the kind and quality of cities we as societies want to build will continue to evolve and inspire new descriptive goals. Surely we have not lost our desire for sustainable cities, with ecological footprints we can afford, even though our focus has been on resilience, after what seems like a relentless drum beat of natural disasters around the world. The search for terms begs the question: what are the cities we want to create in the future? What is their nature? What are the cities in which we want to live? Certainly these cities are sustainable, since we want our cities to balance consumption and resources so that they can last into the future. Certainly they are resilient, so our cities are still in existence after the next 100-year storm, now due every few years. And yet…as we build this vision we know that cities must also be livable. Indeed, we must view livability as a third indispensable leg supporting the cities of our dreams: resilient + sustainable + livable.

But we have to hope that justice hasn't gone out of style. Because while resilience is the word of the decade, we’ve struggled with just cities for a much longer time. Largely we have come up short.

So this imagining needs a fourth leg. These are the cities of our dreams: resilient, sustainable, livable, just.

Let’s imagine.

We can imagine sustainable cities—ones that can persist in energy, food and ecological balance—that are nevertheless brittle, socially or infrastructurally, to shocks and major perturbations. That is, they are not resilient. Such cities are not truly sustainable, of course—because they will be crushed by major perturbations they’re not in it for the long term—but their lack of sustainability is for reasons beyond the usually definitions of energy and food systems. We can imagine resilient cities—especially cities that are made so through extraordinary and expensive works of grey infrastructure—that are not sustainable from the point of view of energy consumption, food security, economy, or other resources.

We can imagine livable cities that are neither resilient nor sustainable.

And, it is easy to imagine resilient and sustainable cities that are not livable—and so are not truly sustainable.

Easiest of all is to imagine cities of injustice, because they exist all around us. The nature of their injustice may be difficult to solve or even comprehend within our systems of economy and government, but it’s easy to see.

The point is that we must conceive and build our urban areas based on a vision of the future that creates cities that are resilient + sustainable + livable + just. No one of these is sufficient for our dream cities of the future. Yet we often pursue these four elements on independent tracks, with separate government agencies pursuing one or another and NGOs and community organizations devoted to a single track. Of course, many cities around the world don’t really have the resources to make progress in any of the four. Continue reading on designforthejustcity.org…