Renegogiating Social Justice in Spatial Planning

Longlands, Sarah Louise (2014). 'Renegogiating Social Justice in Spatial Planning' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

'At its core, planning is an exercise that asks what life can be.  It raises the hopes of a better life for many' (Hollander and Németh 2011, 360)

The system of planning both in the UK and elsewhere is sometimes regarded as a technocratic exercise, the regulation of land and building quality which is devoid of normative attribution.  However, the historical origins of planning in alleviating poor living conditions and in its desire to imagine and create good places for people to live, suggests that planning is intimately connected to the development of human capabilities and social justice.  Indeed, the emergence of planning as a public policy objective in the UK was prompted by growing concern about the externalities of economic growth and their impact on the human development potential of workers living in Britain's industrial cities.  This paper suggests that planning's role in supporting human development, facilitating social justice and as a mechanism with which to distribute the benefits of growth is in the process of being altered by the phenomenon of growth-privileging.  What Rydin (2013) describes as  growth dependence as a means of generating positive change.   In short, the purpose of planning as a mechanism to support human capabilities is being eroded by governments' desire to realise the short term objective of economic growth. 

In recent years, as a result of the economic crisis of 2008, the challenging fiscal context and the subsequent emphasis on public finance restraint (particularly in the UK) spatial planning policy has come under increasing pressure to privilege economic growth above other considerations.  Whilst this desire to re-calibrate planning's role as a 'driver for growth' is couched within the language of sustainable development, the desired development is arguably narrower than the adjective 'sustainable' suggests.  Indeed, this paper will argue that the main outcome is growth-privileging whereby the planning system is used to generate short term opportunities for private sector development in the hope that this will aid economic recovery through housing construction, inward investment and a rise in land values. 

This paper examines the phenomenon of growth-privileging in the planning system and its implications for human development and social justice.  In a context where growth is keenly sought as a public policy outcome, the assumptions which underpin growth's importance in public policy require critical re-examination.  As Sen (1999) suggests, there is no automaticity about the relationship between economic growth and human development and that to prioritise growth above human development is both economically and socially questionable.  In planning, the privileging of growth above other considerations including affordable housing need, design quality, environmental risk and inner city decay may have the effect of limiting the ability of planning to support human development and call into question the scope of the public sector in place shaping.  Of primary importance to this investigation is whether the human development approach, particularly Nussbaum's (2000) ten central capabilities, can help to critique growth privileging and  provide insights into the role of planning as a driver for human development in the 21st Century.

This paper draws upon the author's own empirical research in two very different growth case studies in the UK, one where economic growth has been sustained, the other where prospects for growth are limited.  This case study research has provided the opportunity to assess the application of a human development approach to spatial planning.  Inspired by Nussbaum's (2000) ten central capabilities and the work of Kumar (2008) this paper examines the degree to which planners in the UK see their role as supporting human development and how they understand the relevance of Nussbaum' central capabilities for their work.   The findings illustrate the commitment of planning practitioners to the pursuit of human development, but that in contrast with economic growth, human development has become an implicit rather than an explicit objective of planning practice, and increasingly concomitant upon the achievement of economic growth.   


Hollander, J. B. and J. Németh (2011). 'The bounds of smart decline: a foundational theory for planning shrinking cities.' Housing Policy Debate 21(3): 349-367.


Kumar, A. (2008). 'Capabilities, Identities and Justice for the Urban Poor.' Institute of Town Planners India 5(3): 01-20.


Nussbaum, M. (2000). Women and Human Development. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.


Rydin, Y. (2013). The Future Of Planning.  Beyond Growth Dependence. Bristol, Policy Press.


Sen, A. (1999). Development as Freedom. Oxford, Oxford University Press.


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