How does A Theory of Justice by John Rawls relate to urban planning?

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At first glance, the connection between the exalted philosophy of John Rawls(1921-2002) and the mundane world of urban planning is not readily apparent. But upon further analysis, it is obvious that the two are inextricably linked.

America was a nation of yeoman farmers throughout its first century. Although some...

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At first glance, the connection between the exalted philosophy of John Rawls(1921-2002) and the mundane world of urban planning is not readily apparent. But upon further analysis, it is obvious that the two are inextricably linked.

America was a nation of yeoman farmers throughout its first century. Although some farmers were more prosperous than others, the differences in their circumstances were not usually enormous. They faced similar challenges and hardships in making a living by cultivating the soil. In the late 19th century, however, America became an urban nation. The cities had vast slums. Further outside the cities, there were comfortable suburbs. The extremely rapid and haphazard growth of cities helped create the inequality that prompted Rawls to write his magnum opus, A Theory of Justice.

Rawls' central tenet was that people should have equality of opportunity. A child born in a crime-ridden slum does not have the same opportunities as those available to a baby born in an affluent suburb. All people should enjoy a basic standard of living, but poorly designed and maintained cities made that impossible. Therefore, urban planners need to be mindful of social equity at all times: All people deserve decent housing and adequate sanitation. The equality of opportunity that Rawls sought was simply not attainable as long as the neighborhoods into which people were born were so unequal. All communities should have, for example, schools and swimming pools. Cities and their neighborhoods must be at least somewhat equal for Rawls's veil of ignorance to function.

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Rawls' idea is that we should proceed from the mindset that while we may have all of our needs met, we should make our plans based on the premise that this may not always be the case. In other words, we need to have empathy for the least amongst us, and plan accordingly.  For urban planning, that implies that while we have homes, we should see to it that homelessness is addressed. While we are not hungry, we should see to it that there are no urban food deserts.  While our children may go to good private schools, we should be planning for excellent public education in our cities.  While we may live in security high-rises, crime in the streets should be a priority to protect those who must confront it on a daily basis.  The whole idea is that we never know what may become of any of us, and if we set up a city in which all can thrive, no matter what the challenges may be, we will have created an excellent urban environment. 

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Rawls does not specifically discuss urban planning in the book, which is more theoretical and philosophical than most books about such a pragmatic topic as urban planning. Essentially, Rawls argues in the book that if we were able to choose the kind of society we lived in, we should do it from behind a veil of ignorance, meaning that we don't know what our own abilities, or position in society will be. Without knowing where we would fall in society, we would probably choose a society with the kind of social safety nets that protect everyone's basic welfare. Because urban planning is fraught with social issues, we could suggest the same thing about it. All sorts of issues related to urban planning have social implications. Gentrification, equal access to utilities, schools, public parks, and de facto segregation are all issues that involve the kind of fundamental justice that Rawls advocates for society as a whole. If we could choose the ideal city, all things being equal, we would choose a city where we had access to the same things as everyone else. In many ways, concrete issues like city planning are arenas where Rawls's ideas of justice might be (but all too often are not) put into practice.

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