From the Just City to the Ideal City: Theory and Practice – Blog #73


[This is the text prepared for the concluding plenary session of  the conference: “The Ideal City: Myth and Reality” of RC21 of the International Sociological Association in Urbano, Italy, in August 2015.  Please take as a draft.]

The name of the conference is The Ideal City, and our concluding panel asks, Is the Ideal City a Just City?

That raises two questions:

  1. What actually is the ideal city to begin with, and is it the same as the Just City, or how different?.
  2. And what is the purpose of talking about it? Why are we all here, anyway?

On the first, What is the Ideal city, and is it just a Just City?

The Ideal City should certainly be a just city but I don’t think that is enough. I think achieving justice is a step on the road to the Ideal City, but not the ultimate destination of that road. Justice is essentially a distributive concept, one that calls for the distribution of goods and services according to principles of justice, however justice is defined: as fairness, as equitable, as serving a;; its residents all its resident equally. Justice means, , in the expanded version that I think you , Susan, use it, also means a just distribution of power. So the call for a Just City is a call for a fair redistribution of power, and that is a necessity for any further change in the direction of what we might consider the ideal city. The call for the Just city is necessarily a critique of the city as it now exists, a confession – or an accusation – tha it is unjust, and needs o be changed. But to what? Is a fair distribution of goods and services really all we want of urban life? Or do we also want a city that expands the capabilities of its residents, that promotes their development, which encourages peaceful and supportive interactions among them, which handles the processes of production as well as of distribution and makes work a desirable and fulfilling part of life? Might not the definition of the ideal City be something like a caring city, a city of solidarity, a city of peace and of beauty?

So one advantage of the Just City concept is that it calls attention to the injustice of the existing city, and proposes a redistribution of power that would improve the situation. Implicitly it raises the question of whether the ideal city requires not just an improvement of the conditions of life of the poor, but also a reduction in the hierarchically-gained advantages of the rich. Perhaps unjustly to the rich? Do we really want a city that is just to all, the perps as well as the victims of the existing system?

But – and this is my second question – how can power be redistributed without struggle , and in that struggle, what role does the idea of an Ideal City, or of a Just City, or of a Caring City, play? Indeed, what role do ideas play in struggles for power anyway? I assume that all of us here would acknowledge the desirability of justice, caring, equity, beauty, in cities, and feel some obligation to bring such a city closer to realization. We haven’t come all this way to Urbino (although it a pleasure indeed to be here, and worth coming just for that sake), but we want to do something more, I think, than solve the problem of imagining the Ideal City as if it were a problem like a crossword puzzle or an exercise in logic.

But we also know that ideas are usually weak weapons in struggles over the distribution of goods and services, and certainly in struggles over the distribution of power. Will developing the idea, or even the image, of the ideal city help in that struggle , will it excite urbanites to action, perhaps to revolt, and produce serious change? Are we here simply to enjoy each other’s company, play with ideas, get t meeting different people worth knowing, to publish something we hone here, perhaps, and then go home satisfied that we have done what a good citizen morally ought to be doing? Or is it even possible that developing the Ideal City, as something necessarily remote, hard even to imagine, hardly realistically possible in the real world, is a chimera, and may get in the way of really accomplishing something tangible, something that on the ground will make a difference, something that will produce nothing but papers at conferences and the smiles on the faces of the holders of those who, unlike we academics and thinkers, have the real power?

So the two questions:

  1. Beyond Justice, what do we really want an Ideal City to be? Do we just want a Just City?


  1. If we want Justice and even more, how does developing the idea of the Just City and beyond it the Ideal City, help in the struggle to actualize what we have talked about; how, if at all, does it help in the struggles for a better world, of which it must be a part?

I think the answer might lie hidden right in front of us, in an imaginary conversation between David Harvey, Susan Fainstein, and Herbert Marcuse, which I would be happy to conduct. It would be based entirely on passages from recently published works, starting with Susan Fainstein’s Introduction to Just City:

Harvey (as quoted in her intro to the Just City, p. 6: [Susan, your] conception of the Just City falters. From the start, it delimits its scope to acting within the existing capitalist régime of rights and freedoms and is thus constrained to mitigating the worst outcomes at the margins of an unjust system. [1]

Fainstein: (from Intro, p. 6): This critique is accurate in accusing me of accepting that urban policy making will continue within the “capitalist régime of rights and freedoms,”[but] my analysis is limited to what appears feasible within the present context of capitalist urbanization in wealthy, formally democratic, Western countries.

To which I would reply: But Susan, why limit your analysis this way. If you were to always start with what is feasible , but then extend it to a more theoretical discussion of what further would be necessary to bring about the ideal, to move from your feasible just City to the even more desirable but less immediately feasible Ideal City, would you not convert immediate demands into transformative demands, using each one of your recommendations both to achieve immediate improvements but also show the way to what more is necessary, what the next steps would be to transform what is feasible to day to hat is necessary the day after.

To which my father would add (In recently published lectures a Vincennes outside Paris in 1976.): and that is exactly the role of theory is in the Marxist dialectic .Theory is part of practice, not independent of it, not wishful thinking about it, but based on practice theory is avant-guard, educating and leading, showing the alternative lying underneath the immediately visible and feasible.

His discussion came about in response to the slogan of the militant students of Paris, who took to the streets in May 1968 in protest against what David Harvey has summarized as the discontent with capitalism –perhaps the last time in recent memory that there was actually thought of a radical seven revolutionary success in the struggle against capitalism and for socialism, and heir slogan, on picket signs carried through the streets of Paris blocking traffic and causing disruption generally, was : ALL POWER TO THE IMAGINATION.” The meant specifically, the imagination of what a better world might be like, what today we mean, I hope, when we talk, in somewhat more subdued tones, of the Ideal City.

So I would conclude, in memory of those students but in today’s world, but with a raised fist:




[1] (Harvey with Potter 2009, 46)