A more level playing field? Change how the field is used
Cheong Suk-Wai meets a thinker in this fortnightly column, which alternates with her book review column The Big Read
For all of his adult life, American geographer Edward Soja has been championing spatial justice, or transforming urban areas to improve the quality of life of the poor
ASK American geographer Edward Soja why he has devoted his entire adult life to championing the idea of spatial justice, and he says: “I guess you could call it trying to increase happiness everywhere.”
That is because his life’s work has been to watch closely for ways in which cities are developed, lest they lead to prime land becoming playgrounds for the rich while the poor are left to languish in ghettos, steeped in pollution.
The focus of spatial justice is squarely on cities because its overcrowded environs intensify resentment and the sense of unfairness among people.
He was in Singapore recently to talk about spatial justice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He had first visited Singapore in the 1980s and then late last year, to talk to architectural students of the National University of Singapore about his work.
Professor Soja, 73, says: “I try to get people to realise that planning and deciding public policies all shape public places, and sometimes create bad spaces.
“But, more importantly, if we have made things worse, we can make things better too!”
His main argument is that by scrutinising how people interact in living spaces, you will begin to see all kinds of injustices, such as the best schools and roads being usually in the wealthier neighbourhoods. “This is a geography we have created,” he points out. “It is not something natural or inevitable.”
So understanding the dynamics that lead to, and entrench, inequalities will help you map out what he calls “the uneven geography of power and privilege” and enable everyone to see immediately which areas within a city need the most attention.
The one thing to remember, he says repeatedly during this interview, is that spatial justice cannot result in complete equality.
“That’s never going to happen,” he stresses, because living on Earth’s uneven surface – with those on mountains much poorer than those in valleys – creates its own inequalities.
“Friction and distance in geography are the main elements that lead to unequal human development,” he notes. “So where there is space, there will always be inequality.”
More seriously, he points out, once certain segments of society gain an advantage over an area, they not only prolong that advantage, but also sometimes extend it over wider areas.
“Whether it be occupying a favourite position in front of a TV set, shopping for food, finding a good school or finding a location to invest billions of dollars (in)… human activities not only are shaped by geographical inequalities but also play a role in producing and reproducing them.”
The point then, he says, is to improve life for the disadvantaged slowly but surely, while “embarrassing the wealthy” into lowering the barriers between them and the have-nots.
He muses: “One of the great myths that have to be dispelled is the idea that progress is a zero-sum game, that to improve the poor, the rich have to suffer terribly.”
For example, he points out, Singaporeans should acknowledge that part of their country’s stunning wealth today “came from the shoulders of its immigrant population”, given how much cheaper it has long been to hire foreigners for work here.
The rub is, he adds, the problems of the poor rarely get most people’s attention, and this lack of visibility makes it all the more harder to get justice for them, spatial or otherwise.
In that, Prof Soja has a cautionary tale to share: In 1996, a California court compelled Los Angeles’ public transport authority to put the needs of poor commuters above those of the rich for 10 years. That was after the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union (BRU) sued the authority for discrimination because it spent more money building highways than subways or buying more buses. This meant that those who owned cars benefited more than those who were dependent on public transport.
Unhappily, Prof Soja adds, the footnote to this landmark case was that in 2000, when a Spanish-speaking Hispanic man in Alabama sued the transport authority there because the all-English driving test discriminated against him, the US Supreme Court ruled that any American who alleges discrimination had first to show that the discriminating party intended to be unfair.
Worse, the same court added, no private person or organisation could sue the US government for discrimination. That stopped the impact of BRU in its tracks.
So, yes, spatial justice is still very much a work in progress.
In that vein, he pooh-poohs economists who reason that most people today are jobless because the Information Age has rendered their jobs obsolete and that is why they have dropped out of the market. “That’s silly because there are so many other things causing it, including changing geographies in cities that are creating new inequalities.”
For example, few would link a spike in divorces, suicides and spousal and child abuse to the daily drudge of commuting to and from work. But Prof Soja’s long and deep studies of his home base Los Angeles show that spending four hours to travel from one’s home to one’s office, and back, exerts such a toll on one’s self-worth that it is a major factor in families breaking up.
So by, say, finding ways either to reduce time spent travelling or to enable employees to live closer to their workplaces, the bonds of family are less likely to fray.
Prof Soja’s parents were uneducated Polish immigrants. His father drove a taxi while his mother was a housewife. From the age of 10, he says, he was fascinated by maps and travel stories, although he travelled “only in my mind”. Now a married father of two and grandfather of three, he is a distinguished don in urban planning at the University of California at Los Angeles as well as the London School of Economics.
In December last year, the 109-year-old non-profit society Association of American Geographers awarded him its Lifetime Achievement Honour for reshaping the relationship between people and the city.
Pioneering Singaporean architect William Lim says of Prof Soja, who is his friend: “For more than 30 years, Edward has shaped spatial justice such that it is now a respected conversation topic.”