The Fair City part 5: Urban Aesthetics & Spatial Justice

Richard Sennett’s perspective on the role of “disorder” in urban life was further developed in his book The Conscience of the Eye. In this work, Sennett strengthens the relationship between urban diversity and broad political perspectives, and argues for a connection between a concern for urban spaces and concerns with social justice. Building from the Greek concept of sophrosyne or “poise,” Sennett argues that a “city ought to be a school for learning how to lead a centered life” (loc 108).

To care about what one sees in the world leads to mobilizing one’s creative powers. In the modern city, these creative powers ought to take on a particular and humane form, turning people outward. Our culture is in need of an art of exposure; this art will not make us one another’s victims, rather more balanced adults, capable of coping with and learning from complexity. (loc 117)

In On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry argues that the “willingness continually to revise one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education” (loc 79). If this is the case, this notion of the educative impulse seems complementary to Sennett’s notion of the city as a school. Does not the flaneur’s traversal of Paris suggest a “willingness continually to revise one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty”? Many poets and urbanists have written about their psychogeographic explorations of the urban streetscape as affective passages through constantly shifting scenes of aesthetic beauty and urban sublimity. Many of these same writers have evinced an empathic awareness of disparity and inequality among urban denizens. Consider Baudelaire’s poem “The Eyes of the Poor,” in which a young man dines with his fiancé in a Parisian cafe. An impoverished family lingers on the street out front; they stare through the cafe’s windows, their eyes wide so as to take in the gleaming opulence inside. The woman asks the cafe attendant to send the family away, as their destitute appearance is interfering with her ability to enjoy the ambiance. Seeing her lack of empathy, the man realizes that his love for her has turned to hatred. In these examples we can see how the urban experience can cultivate a concern for both aesthetic forms and just relationships.

The examples presented in this essay also support this connection between a concern with the built environment of the city and a concern for equality and social justice. Early academic discourses of the 20th century metropolis emphasized the “artless” and chaotic of these sites, partly as a reaction to the sensory overload produced by the urban experience, but also the condition of heterogenous populations of varying ethnicities and backgrounds living in close proximity. Pathological discourses of urban populations relied on aesthetic evaluations to justify policing practices in urban communities. Often these policies adversely affected already vulnerable populations, exacerbating conditions of urban inequality. The issue of gentrification is currently a key concern facing U.S. cities. The advent of gentrification has accompanied a general “reclamation” of urban cores by affluent agencies and individuals, who are eager to revitalize blighted and disinvested neighborhoods into more aesthetically pleasing forms. These aesthetic evaluations have become increasingly significant for the governance and maintenance of urban spaces and bodies. As David Harvey states in Rebel Cities, “signature architecture and the cultivation of distinctive aesthetic judgments have become powerful constitutive elements in the politics of urban entrepreneurialism in many places” (p. 106). The pertinent question facing urban citizens, as posed by Harvey, is “whose aesthetics really count?”


Harvey, David. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. New York: Verso, 2012.

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

Sennett, Richard. The Conscience of the Eye : the Design and Social Life of Cities. 1st ed. New York: Knopf, 1990.

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