The Fair City part 1: Aesthetics of Urban Order and Justice

In his book The Uses of Disorder, Richard Sennett valorizes the uncontrolled events and heterogeneous populations of cities as creating environmental conditions necessary for healthy personal development and the maturation of open and engaged worldviews. Published in 1970, the then 25-year-old Sennett was writing in the immediate wake of urban riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In the book, Sennett is primarily concerned with the negative effects of white flight from urban cores, and the proliferation of comparatively homogenous suburban developments and “gate communities”. For Sennett, encounters with the difference and “disorder” found in a thriving urban center are essential for personal development, helping citizens learn to live a balanced life and develop nuanced political views. The notion of disorder that Sennett emphasizes is directly drawn from the social pathology literature of the time. Rather than pathologizing these elements of urban life, Sennett conceptualizes diversity and difference as vital components of the urban experience. Disorder, Sennett argues, is an essential and productive element of city life.

Discourses based on a dichotomy of order and disorder have long been applied to urban spaces. Cities and citizens have been “ordered” not only through planning schemes and infrastructure, but also through public policies and discourses. Through employing the language of disorder, these discourses have functioned pathologically to conceptualize certain citizens, spaces, and practices as either harmful or beneficial. At times it is urban residents themselves that are considered “disorderly,” based on predominating perspectives of the “good city” and the “good citizen”. In other cases it is the urban environment itself that is deemed “disorderly”. Visible litter, graffiti, and buildings in disrepair are common examples of physical disorder in city spaces. Sometimes, it is the present of certain people that makes the environment disorderly, as has recently been the attitude taken toward the visibly homeless in U.S. cities.

Many notable urban theorists have expressed the importance of social justice in urban life. Authors such as Sennett, David Harvey, and Susan Fainstein have written about justice in the city as well as the search for “the just city.” In his classic book Social Justice and the City, David Harvey writes “the shaping of space which goes on in architecture and, therefore, in the city is symbolic of our aspirations, our needs, and our fears” (p. 31). This notion serves as the foundation for Harvey’s investigation into the relationship between urban development and social justice. For Harvey and related scholars, the city has served as a useful unit of analysis for both the examination of and the intervention into visible disparities and social injustice.

These two perspectives on cities, of cities as disorderly spaces and of cities as representative of social justice, are linked through their attention to aesthetic concerns. In On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry considers the etymological link between beauty and justice: fairness:

A single word, “fairness,” is used both in referring to loveliness of countenance and in referring to the ethical requirement for “being fair,” “playing fair,” and “fair distribution.” One might suppose that “fairness as an ethical principle had come not from the adjective for comely beauty but instead from the wholly distinct noun for the yearly agricultural fair, the “periodical gathering of buyers and sellers.” (loc 827)

A key constituent of both notions of fairness, Scarry notes, is symmetry. She cites John Rawls’ definition of fairness as “symmetry of everyone’s relations to each other” to further emphasize this connection. Balance and symmetrical distribution is an ideal for both aesthetic beauty and social justice. Cities have often served as sites where social inequality is made visible, as unequal development and distribution of resources is set in stone. This essay argues that this link between aesthetic awareness and social justice is an important aspect of the urban experience, and that cities are particularly adept environments for cultivating both values.

The first section of this essay focuses on scholarly discourses of the city and how they influenced regimes of urban planning and governance. Particular attention is paid to the social scientific approaches developed in the early 20th century that developed into the “social pathology” perspective of U.S. sociology and political administration. The second section presents a case study of the “broken windows perspective” in urban studies and governance. This case demonstrates how aesthetic evaluations have served to promote regimes of urban policing and criminal justice. The third section considers the current trend in U.S. cities of gentrification and displacement as it relates to these concerns with urban aesthetics and social justice.


Fainstein, Susan S. The Just City. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010.

Harvey, David. Social Justice and the City. REV – Revised. Vol. 1. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009.

Sennett, Richard. The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity & City Life. [1st ed.]. New York: Knopf, 1970.

Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1999.

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