The Just City and the Environment

Arnold Toynbee reminded us that “a city is a human settlement whose inhabitants cannot produce, within the city-limits, all the food that they need for keeping them alive. This feature is common to cities of all kinds” (Cities on the Move, 1970: 8). Nowadays, the expansion and densification of cities represent an environmental challenge, if not a threat, to the natural environment in many ways. We a need a notion of the Just City that comes to grips with environmental justice. In this quest, the notion of the urban in its relations with a natural environment that is often and too hastily referred to as rural should be reconceptualized. Searching for the possibility of reconciling cities with environmental justice should thus take stock of the relevant literature on sustainability that emerged in the late 1980s, and grew with varied emphases since then. In the face of alarming trends of environmental destruction, new development thinking and practices started to attract widespread interest. The term sustainability entered the vocabulary of development studies following the publication of the Brundyland Report in 1987 (WCED). This report defined the deterioration of human environment and natural resources as a developmental challenge. On a parallel axis, Richard Register (Ecocity Berkeley: Building Cities for a Healthy Future, 1987) proposed the term Ecocity, meaning “the city built with and not against nature”. Register warned that in response to climate change, “immediate action is needed to be viewed in the context of long-range goals and overall vision”. Not long after, in 1990, the UN convened the international community to address the urgent problems facing the world, as there was a fast “deterioration of the ecosystem on which we depend for our well-being” (UNCED 1992). The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development marks “the beginning of a new global partnership for sustainable development” (UNCED 1992).  Register’s work, along with the UN initiative, gave rise to new literature on sustainable cities.

Sustainable cities are referred to as environmentally, economically and socially resilient urban surroundings for their citizens without compromising the need of the future generations to thrive in the same environment. Stemming from these discussions, sustainable city life has become one of the 17 Global Goals that make up the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Goal 11, which is titled Sustainable Cities and Communities, aims to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. It stresses that sustainable development cannot be achieved without significantly transforming the way we build and manage our urban spaces (UNDP 2020). Both the academic literature and the UN reports seem to place equal emphasis on the profitability of the cities and on environmentally relevant factors such as transportation, water, sanitation, air pollution and carbon emission. However, it seems that while the original notion of sustainability was warning against the main drives of the growth-led market economy, the concept has been defined in the urban context to confirm rather than to challenge the logic of capital development. The critical approach to urban planning from ecological sustainability perspectives gave rise to a new concept of slow cities prioritizing a slow way of life over the speedy markets. Slow cities literature puts emphasis on small businesses, short commodity chains, farmers markets and socially responsible enterprises. Drawing on this rich literature, with its internal variations, this section aims to build a theoretical framework for an environmentally just city with a fair amount of input such as energy, water and food, and a fair share of waste and pollution. Within this framework, the environmentally just city will be conceived upon a rural-urban axis that treats these concepts not as dichotomous but as internally related.