Design for the Just City

To reside in an American city means to always be in pursuit of the values or inalienable rights that embody the Just City – freedom, equality, liberty, and opportunity to name a few.  Some people never question their access, others always question their access, and some fear the threat of loss of their access.  The design, organization and investment in the built and natural environment often provides tangible evidence of this access or the lack thereof.  These environments can separate the have’s from the have not’s; the advantaged from the disadvantaged; the black from the white from the brown; the invested from the disinvested; and the creative from the mundane.

In particular, the spaces of the public can be innocuous for some and a battleground for others. Certain bodies can move through the street without awareness of threat or questioning of intention; there is a preconditioned security and “right to the city” that is entitled and uncontested.  For these bodies, notions of injustice may only manifest when visible cues like surveillance cameras, locked fences, or prohibitive signage reminds them to be on alert.

But for other bodies, moving through the public realm is a guarded and tentative experience. Because of their gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or class, these “other bodies” are innately preconditioned to feel less secure. 

In this seminar, we have used Instagram (#justcityornot) to assemble a catalog of images that record how urban justice—spaces of inclusion and exclusion—presents itself in everyday urbanism. Some images reveal examples of injustice through signage that attempts to control behaviors that both protect and limit.  While other images reclaim justice through diverse expressions of cultural identity as a way to signal that different bodies are to be accepted, not feared.  These images remind us that the way a space is planned, designed, programmed, and maintained – and how it can be adapted by the user—can either unknowingly resist the acceptance of difference and thus cultivate fear, or it can consciously embrace difference by eliminating surveillance, barriers and markers of discrimination. 

This interactive seminar will partner with Cambridge City Council member Nadeem Mazen, the first Muslim American to hold this office, to craft a clear values-based manifesto for a “Just Cambridge” through development of a participatory engagement tool; research about the roots cases and current conditions of injustice in cities; examine case studies on the role of design and planning in combating urban injustice; and finally, developing design and planning interventions for three contested sites in Cambridge.

Course activities will include active course discussions, lectures, guest speakers, site visits, individual and team research and design assignments, and student presentations.  Specific course outcomes include:
1. Define the “Just City” through a participatory engagement process, and summarized using multi-media videos and posters
2. Examine case studies where design and planning have made a measurable impact on social and spatial justice
3. Working with members of the Cambridge community, propose design and planning strategies for achieving social and spatial justice goals for three Cambridge spaces