You can arrive at the idea of spatial justice from two directions.
The first is theoretical, looking at how many different people have defined space (don’t think outer space and final frontiers, think the space around you, the space that you call your home, your community, your city, your country…), how they have defined justice, and where these fall short. And because a lot of theory seems to focus more on the ‘big’ ideas themselves, and less on how and where those ideas play out in practice, they tend to treat space like an empty stage. Your neighborhood becomes just flat background, and so in theory it is important to reclaim the importance of how our communities impact us and how we impact our communities. Doesn’t sound like too much of a stretch, does it? That’s what some people who study geography do, and one claim is that the idea of spatial justice is big news.
You can also arrive at this same idea through your own experience. The reality of the American inner city is that everything is unjust in certain neighborhoods in a way that it is not for others. You go to South Central and you have to ask yourself: Where are the banks? Where are the clinics and hospitals? Where are the grocery stores? Where are the parks? Why are there no full-time jobs paying wages above poverty level? How can a for-profit methadone clinic exist, much less operate across the street from an apartment building full of kids? Why do the high schools have thousands of students yet fail to provide the classes required by the state university for matriculation? Why has the city government allowed slum housing to become so widespread that a local doctor has to remove cockroaches from kid’s ears at least three times a week? How can tens of thousands of people remain homeless in a city with so many boarded up buildings? And it shames me deeply that in the presence of all of these absences, you also have to ask yourself, where are all the white people? Unless you are in a gentrifying area, where the rectification of these absences almost always joins with the brutal displacement of people of colour.
This is the meaning of geography in a capitalist and deeply racist city. The fury of it. People living and working in the ghetto? We know perfectly well it is different in other neighborhoods that are whiter and wealthier. We know that this is not accidental. We might be fuzzy on the history and the exact actors, and some of our people might even have bought into how those with power like to blame the poor for their own poverty, but we all know that banks, city officials, employers, corporations, and absentee landlords are also responsible. How does this translate into academic language? It means we know that we live in a space that is socially produced. Inequality, injustice, and racial segregation do not just fall from the sky. And every time we fight, every time we change the space around us for the better, well voila, spatial justice.
It is both the pain and anger of our experience, and the love for our communities, that demand change. These drive us to explain our reality concretely, to find out why things are the way they are and what we can do to change them. From this perspective to say with all the weight of theory that we face injustice in all of the spaces in which we live, that these injustices have deep impacts on us, and that we can in turn work to change these injustices, is only a very basic starting point. What we need is a way to bring theory and experience together with mutual respect, to build one upon the other, to put them into practice, to make change real.
Not many people seem to know how to do this. But stay tuned as we seek some of them out…
A portion of the above has been excerpted from a response I wrote to Edward Soja’s Searching for Spatial Justice from a journal called City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action, definitely worth checking out!