Designing a fair city

November 2023


Expert - Mathilde Vignau

Mathilde Vignau

Doctorate in geography, teacher-researcher at ESPI (Ecole Supérieure des Professions Immobilières) Marseille
Member of the ESPI2R laboratory

Over the last few decades, new issues have come to define contemporary territories. Among these issues, environmental concerns occupy a prominent place, largely legitimized by scientific research. However, territorial sustainability is not limited to ecological issues alone, but also (and concomitantly) integrates profound social concerns. It is in this context that the notions of spatial justice and the just city must be understood.

  • Defending the right to the city

In the academic sphere, the notion of justice was first mobilized by philosophy, which focused on its social dimension (Rawls, 1971). Spatial justice, for its part, was analyzed by the territorial sciences in the 19th century, and became a central subject of study in the work of several critical French and international researchers from the late 1960s onwards (Lefevre, 1968; Harvey, 1974). It represents a particular understanding of social justice, the aim of which is to identify, at different spatial scales (building, street, neighborhood, etc.), all the elements that can maintain or even increase the injustices perpetrated against minority social groups, with a view to resolving them through a set of specific actions.

Among the ideas that form the theoretical basis of spatial justice, the idea of defending a right to the city is particularly interesting. Indeed, the city is an urban reality that all individuals should be able to enjoy to the full. In practice, however, the right to the city remains very partial, and numerous examples demonstrate that urban territories are still vectors of social realities that are as unequal as they are paradoxical. In fact, through their territorial organization, cities maintain wide disparities in wealth between individuals (disparities that are a source of inequality and, in some cases, spatial injustice). Nevertheless, at the same time, they remain formidable experimental laboratories for the implementation of corrective operations to (re)create an urban fabric that, despite the diversity of individual situations, manages to be more egalitarian. In this respect, by working towards a fairer and more equitable spatial distribution of territorial advantages, certain actions and public policies make it possible to defend the right to the city and spatial justice.

  • Characterizing and promoting the fair city

When we look at the notions of spatial justice and the just city, we understand the importance of the players involved, particularly the public authorities in charge of urban development. A number of concrete actions, such as lowering the cost of public transport, increasing the effective number of social housing units or prioritizing participatory approaches at the heart of citizen consultation processes, are all examples of how spatial justice can be achieved.

Moreover, in view of the differences between French territories, spatial justice is mainly characterized as the set of actions that enable a better spatial distribution of wealth and resources. For geographer Michel Lussault: "the idea is always to think about what might make it possible to aim for [...] an optimal organization - an ideal never achieved - of a society's space that would ensure that individuals and groups are in a position of equity when it comes to satisfying their personal and collective needs." (Lussault, 2018, p.935). Nevertheless, it's important to understand that this ideal is rarely evident on the ground. All the public policies and actions taken in favor of the just city do not necessarily have the same effects depending on the urban territories considered. What's more, territorial equality and justice cannot be decreed, and certain land-use planning decisions can generate or aggravate situations of spatial injustice.

  • A (counter-)example from Marseille

The redevelopment of part of Marseille's hypercentre is a striking example. Since the mid-1990s, Marseille has been undergoing territorial transformations which, while effective from an economic point of view, can raise questions from the point of view of spatial justice. Through the Euroméditerranée operation of national interest, initiated by the French government in 1995, the outdated Phocaean waterfront is being transformed into a brand-new district that makes way for a variety of economic, commercial, cultural and residential logics. In theory, thanks to this major project, the La Joliette district in the 2nd arrondissement (which, as of 2008, has also benefited from part of the subsidies linked to the title of European Capital of Culture), is emerging from inertia to regain territorial dynamism. In practice, however, the question of a fair, inclusive, accessible, tolerant, affordable and sustainable city arises in the sense that the radical transformation of the district no longer corresponds to the (relatively precarious) socio-economic profile of the original users, who are mostly excluded from the rehabilitated perimeter.

From a real estate point of view, although several virtuous initiatives exist (construction of sustainable residences, creation of new social housing), the perimeter remains predominantly oriented towards profiles of executives and higher intellectual professions (construction of several residences, hotels and luxury shops), accentuating the undeniable risk of gentrification.



  • Harvey, D. (1974). Social justice and the city. Edward Arnold, London.
  • Lefebvre, H. (1968). Le droit à la ville. Anthropos, Paris.
  • Lussault M. (2018). « Justice spatiale » in, Savidan P. (dir) (2018), Dictionnaire des inégalités et de la justice sociale. PUF, Paris.
  • Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Release date: November 2023

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