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A Guide to Spatial Justice

Excerpted from Spatial Justice: A Frame for Reclaiming our Rights to Be, Thrive Express and Connect (2011-12)

Enjoying tea in front of the Imaginary (T)ea Stop by Marilyn Forman, part of public space research implementation along the Fairmount Line MBTA station in Four Corners, Dorchester, led by the Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI) September 2014. Photo by Ayako Maruyama.

| 5 min read

Spatial justice, most simply, is the intersection of space and social justice…. With a stronger understanding of the relationship between space and justice, we can create counter-moves to fight spatial injustice and also begin to answer the question, “How can we create spaces that promote equity, access, health, and justice?”

The following guide is meant to help you jump start your inquiry into spatial justice by assessing the terrain with a spatial lens. You can use the set of questions for personal reflection or small conversations throughout your community.

Spatial Claims: The Right to Be

As in basic community building and organizing efforts, in spatial justice work we begin with those most affected. Those who live, work and play in a particular place should experience a sense of their right to exist in that place. They should be central in telling the story of that place, working to understand that place more fully, and offering clues into what is possible for that place to realize. These questions help you uncover and continue to return to the social and cultural gifts of a given place and work to ensure spatial claims for those most affected or at risk for spatial injustice and removal. 

  1. Who uses the place, who does not and why?
  2. How is the space used?
  3. What talents and gifts do people have here? 
  4. What is unique about the history and culture of the area?

Spatial Power: The Right to Thrive and Express 

Spatial power is evident across political, social, cultural and physical realms. It is about how a given place creates the conditions that support or curtail its people’s efforts to succeed. Furthermore, people’s ability to shape, decorate, celebrate and contribute to their spaces increases their spatial power. These questions help you look deeper into the right to thrive and express both publicly and privately, individually and collectively. 

  1. What qualities would you use to describe the place? 
  2. How are people able to practice, contribute and create here? 
  3. What messages and behaviors does the space suggest? 
  4. What prevents anyone from full participation in personal or public life?

Spatial Links: The Right to Access and Connect 

Many clear elements of spatial injustice—as well as opportunities for justice—lie in plain sight, easily visible in our physical environment. We encounter the physical environment every day, and yet we have not always had practice in learning to see and assess the impact and possibilities for intervention. The right to access and connect requires two specific elements: understanding fracture and working with the existing ecology of a place. These questions help you consider what realities exist in your spatial environment, what assets and challenges it may offer, and how to align your interventions with principles of spatial justice. By understanding fracture and the natural ecology of a place, we can begin to heal both the fragmentation of our places and our efforts for change. 

Understanding Fracture: 

A key component to spatial justice lies in taking the time to fully understand what the nature of fracture is that you are dealing with. All communities suffer from some sort of fragmentation. Some fractures lie in the history and legacies of development in that given place. Some lie in social conditions, impacting the culture of the people and the place. Through discussions with a range of stakeholders, the fracture can be illuminated, offering the opportunity for multiple efforts to work at reknitting and healing the fracture at different levels.

  1. What barriers exist in the physical environment? 
  2. What breaks and obstacles can be found in the system? 
  3. What invisible, historical or social barriers divide people? 
  4. What historic memory exists in the place and the people here?

Ecology of Place: 

You also want to pay attention to what natural ecology already exists in a place. This way you can work with, rather than against, what wants to exist in that place. These questions ask about spatial links and connections. The ecology could be natural, like an environmental ecosystem, or it could be more of a social ecology about how people like to live there and what’s important to maintain. 

  1. What connects this place to other places? 
  2. What natural and social flows exist in the place? 
  3. What institutions relate to and affect the place? 
  4. What dreams and aspirations exist for the place?

In this spatial moment… A spatial justice lens can offer new possible solutions to the complex social justice issues at hand. For example, it reminds us of the multiple potentials of public space—for protest, dance, occupation, and play. Rethinking our assumptions about who gets to use space can help us imagine new types of space, like pedestrian-first roads, queer-friendly parks, and community-owned business districts. It can challenge us to think into the future about what laws will enable these uses of space, or remind us of traditional laws that have respected rights to gather plants, share land, and protect the environment. 

Together we can reclaim our rights to be, thrive, express and connect.

For context, see Part 1 and Part 3 of this series.

Pataje istwa-w