Excerpt: Public Imagination, Citizenship and an Urgent Call for Justice, by Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman

Illustrator of people sitting in and walking through a park

“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, 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

Public Imagination, Citizenship and an Urgent Call for Justice

By Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman

1. A Just City Repositions Inequality

The conversation about justice and the city must begin with directly confronting social and economic inequality and prioritizing them as the main issue around which institutions must be reorganized. Contemporary architectural and urban practices must engage this political project head-on. We must question the neoliberal hegemony that has been imposed on the city in recent decades, which has exerted a violent blow to our collective economic, social and natural resources, producing an anti-public agenda whose ultimate consequence is an ever-widening gap between rich and poor.

Today’s urban crisis is exponentially complex, as the consolidation of exclusionary power is both economic and political in nature, driven by one of the largest corporate lobbying machines in history. In the name of freedom, this machine has deregulated and privatized the public assets of our cities, subordinating collective responsibility to serve individual interest. Though the term “crisis” has become ubiquitous, we have become institutionally paralyzed in the context of these unprecedented shifts, silently witnessing the consolidation of the most blatant politics of exclusion, the shrinkage of social and public institutions and their role in the construction of the city. In that way, our crisis can’t be written off as a purely economic or environmental emergency. Rather, it is one of culture—a crisis of institutions unable to rethink unjust and unsustainable urban growth.

If we are interested in the Just City, we must begin by confronting the political machinery that endorses uneven urban development. In other words, we must possess critical knowledge of the conditions that produced our urban crisis. Without altering the exclusionary policies that have decimated our public culture today, urban design and planning will remain decorative enterprises camouflaging the greedy politics and economics of urban development that have eroded the primacy of public infrastructure worldwide.

In this context, the most relevant new urban practices and projects promoting social and economic inclusion are emerging not from sites of economic power but from sites of scarcity and zones of conflict, where citizens themselves, pressed by socioeconomic injustice, are pushed to imagine alternative possibilities. It is from the sense of urgency that a new political agenda is emerging, one in which urban design and architecture will take a more critical stance against the discriminatory policies and economics that produced inequality and marginalization. At this moment, it is not buildings but the fundamental reorganization of social and economic relations that is the essential for the expansion of democracy and justice in the city. Continue reading on…