By Peter Marcuse

The right to the city: the entitled and the excluded - The Urban Reinventors, Special issue, November 2009

Urban planning is not simply a technical process. It is deeply embedded in politics, and in examining the characteristics of the social science research that is available today on some key current issues, we do not find consistent illumination of issues of social justice.

Not malevolently; the result often comes from a focus on details, on the separate pieces of a problem, without examining the larger picture of which they are part. This paper addresses the treatment of disasters in cities as an example, and explores research on two well-known contemporary cases, the reaction to the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 and the response to the devastation of New Orleans by hurricane Katrina. The argument in both cases is that, while there has been excellent research on individual aspects of each disaster, they neither have been placed in the appropriate broader picture of the underlying causes of the disaster nor examined for the real factors that determined the different responses to the two. The result is inattention to the critical issues of social justice in these two cases, issues partially addressed in the New Orleans case but almost totally ignored in the New York City case. Research on each case is first discussed separately, and then a comparison between the two is used to highlight the lack of a consideration of social justice involved in both.

What is missing, it seems to me, is the broader exercise of the sociological imagination which C. Wright Mills called for 80 years ago, and which Herb Gans, and a honorable number of others, still aim for today. What is missing is particularly one aspect of the sociological imagination which Mills emphasized:

“The merely formal emphasis upon "the organic whole", plus a failure to consider the adequate causes -- which are usually structural -- plus a compulsion to examine only one situation at a time -- such ideas do make it difficult to understand the structure of the status quo.” [...]

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Peter Marcuse, a lawyer and urban planner, is Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning at Columbia University in New York City. He has been involved with urban policy for many years. He has served as the Majority Leader of Waterbury, Connecticut's Board of Alderman (City Council), and a member of its City Planning Commission; later as the President of the Los Angeles Planning Commission; and more recently, as a member of Community Board 9 in Manhattan, as well as the co-chair of its Housing Committee. He had a private law practice in Waterbury for over 20 years before becoming a Professor of Urban Planning, first at the University of California at Los Angeles from 1975 to 1978, and then at Columbia University. He spent two years (1981 and 1989) in Germany (West and East), and has taught in Australia, Canada, Austria, Brazil, and South Africa. He has long-standing interests in globalization, comparative housing and planning policies. Globalizing Cities: A New Spatial Order of Cities (Blackwell, 1999), co-edited with Ronald van Kempen, deals with the impact of globalization on the internal urban structure of a diverse set of cities around the world. Marcuse's newest book, similarly co-edited, Of States and Cities (Oxford University Press, 2002), looks at the role of governments in urban development. He is working on a book on the history of working-class housing in New York City. Marcuse has written widely on social housing; housing policy; red-lining; racial segregation; urban divisions and the dual and quartered city; on New York City's planning history; legal and social aspects of property rights and privatization; the transition from "socialism" in eastern Europe; professional ethics; and the history of housing. He has spoken at both meetings of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. He was an early member of the Planners Network, an organization of progressive planners in the United States, and remains active in its efforts to influence planning for the aftermath of September 11 in New York City in a manner that promotes equity and social justice.Professor Marcuse is on the editorial boards of a number of professional journals, and has been a consultant to local, state, and national government on housing policy issues. The meaning and impact of globalization on housing and urban social spatial patterns wtihin a comparative perspective, with a focus on social justice, is the main theme of his current work. He is also currently involved in, and has written on, the impact of September 11 on New York City and on globalization, focusing on the attack's impact on social justice.

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