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Re-understanding planning through justice

On September 12th, Robin Neef and Dr. Barend Wind were invited by the Faculty Association Ibn Battuta to kick off the associations’ extracurricular lecture series. The theme of the evening: When do inequalities become injustices, and what is the role of (Infrastructure and housing) planning in this relation, and how do they mutual relate? They started with diverse theoretical mechanisms behind (in)equality and (in)justice, which were illustrated with day-to-day planning examples to make the abstract theories more tangible. This ended up in an understanding of how contemporary planning practises can result in unequal and, sometimes, unfair situations. Robin Neef (MSc) is a PhD researcher in infrastructure planning and started his PhD research ‘’Responsive Infrastructure through Responsive Institutions’’ in March 2018. Dr. Barend Wind is an assistant professor active in courses on both the bachelor’s- and master’s level. He managed to successfully defend his PhD in 2017 called ‘’Housing Wealth in Europe: Institutions and inequality’’.

In planning practice, Dutch planners are known for their efficient interventions in which two questions are centred: Planning what? and Planning where? However, equally important and often neglected is the question of Planning for whom? And, to illustrate this, Robin used a quite infantile, but very powerful and self-explaining example as seen in figure 1; And because we cannot judge the fish by its ability to climb a tree, planning for whom and taking the aspect of justice into consideration is important. It is clear that the figure mocks with equality. Since the logic of reasoning is not the same for everyone, a certain degree of inequality could be considered fair. However, what type of inequalities do exist in planning, and when do these inequalities become unjust?

‘‘Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.’’

Figure 1: Self-explaining Illustration why we should address the ‘for whom’’ question… Source: lecture presentation. 


In the lecture, six theoretical approaches to justice are elaborated: utilitarianism, egalitarianism, sufficientarianism, prioritarianism, capability approach, and contractarianism. These principles differ in their distributional mechanisms and/or their position on fairness. Consequently, these principles offer a framework to distinguish unequal from unjust situations. These mechanism will be applied later in the article to illustrations of planning practice. First, an elaboration:

Utilitarianism states that an act is morally right if the total amount of good for all minus the total amount of bad for all has a net plus. In this respect every individual is treated equally. Egalitarianism is about ‘’social primary goods’’, and that people with more of these goods can generally be assured in carrying out their intentions. It is based on Rawls’ theory of Justice that there are a few elements (ranked in a ladder) in which people should be equal. Inequalities in higher rankings, such as wealth, cannot be exchanged for inequalities in lower rankings, like the opportunity to be active in politics, because those are unjust. So, the inequalities in higher rankings should be minimized. Sufficientarianism is about creating minimum threshold for fulfilling everyone’s basic needs and to guarantee their continued wellbeing. Inequalities above this minimum, such as inequalities among those that have enough, are less significant or even completely unimportant as compared to those below.

PhD Researcher Robin Neef. Source: Ibn Battuta. 

The fourth approach focuses on the ‘’worst-off’’ subjects: The worse-off someone is, the more benefits matter to that person. Relevant in this approach is that preferences and voluntarily are neglected, because wellbeing is based on objectivity. Assume you can give 10.000 euros to one of two people; one very affluent and one living in poverty. Prioritarianism then would give PhD Researcher Robin Neef. Source: Ibn Battuta. 13 it to the person in poverty, since he or she is the worst-off person. In contrast to Utilitarianism (first principle), it would not matter because the overall net plus increases the same no matter who gets the amount of money. The capability approach states that every individual should have the same chances in life, such as the opportunity to get your driver’s license, but that some inequality stems from the freedom of individuals to choose and act themselves, like not wanting to drive a car, has to be accepted. The last, contractarianism, judges whether an action is right or wrong on whether it accords with or violates principles that would be the object of an agreement, contracts or choice made under certain conditions by members of the moral community. So, simply the rules you agreed upon. However, you could argue what are rules? Those sentences on a piece of paper or the value-laden idea behind it? A great example of contractarianism in this way is the ‘’offer someone can’t refuse’’ from the godfather.

In the light of housing planning, Dr. Wind adds to this that people have 1) Civil rights 2) Political rights and 3) Social rights. However, the last one is different as it is no individual right, and that it depends on ‘redistribution’ and therewith the conditions in which other people live. An important point is to mention that this ‘redistribution’ comes through government policy and market mechanisms as we will see in the second example.

Contemporary planning practice examples

To give a more practical understanding of the relative abstract concept of justice, I will provide two examples given by both lecturers. The first example is given by Robin Neef who has interviewed liaison officers involved in the A2 area-based infrastructure planning project in Maastricht. The example illustrates how different attitudes towards justice, that different stakeholders might have, result in different spatial-infrastructure configurations. Subsequently, the second example given by dr. Barend Wind relates to housing planning in which redistribution of housing types is criticised and discussed related to justice planning for different kinds of people (based on their socio-economic status) and thereby creating (un)equal or (un) fair opportunities between them.

In Maastricht, an area-based approach was chosen to address deficiencies of traditional, sectoral and line-oriented planning, such as increased public resistance and the shift from government to governance. The four main stakeholders are the Executive arm of the ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, Rijkswaterstaat (RWS), both the National agency and the Regional agency, the province of Limburg and the municipality of Maastricht. The intention here is not to portray actors as blind to certain justice principles. Rather, the spatial and distributional consequences of various justice principles are highlighted by illustrating when certain justice perceptions manifest themselves differently between actors at various moments in the planning process.

Dr. Barend Wind. Source: Ibn Battuta

First, the national RWS appeared to frequently act with a contractarian approach: their task is to primarily uphold infrastructure planning agreements and priorities, such as the National Market and Capacities Analysis (NMCA). For example, infrastructure projects are to increase traffic flow and safety as prioritised by the MIRT rules, they are not granted base on an accessibility minimum. Second, the regional agency revealed prioritarianist concerns, for example when inhabitants could not cope with local infrastructural interventions. Third, the province of Limburg uphold a larger spatial perspective to, among others, the liveability and ongoing accessibility of surrounding villages. Therefore, it may be argued that sufficientarianism is a key concern when emphasising on a certain minimum level. Finally, the municipality of Maastricht portrayed capabilitarian characteristics. A quote by the municipal liaison officer that illustrates this is (loosely translated): it may not be the case that the city is regionally and internationally accessible, but that the local neighbourhoods are inhibited of being constrained by infrastructural developments that land-lock them in. Next, you can see an example of housing (re-)distribution. I will simply explain the example given by Dr. Wind and ask questions related to it. I do not provide you with the right answers (these are probably not even ‘right answers’), but I want you to think about justice and the consequences and potentials related to it.

Assume the following situation. Mr. Bakker has a low income and lives in rental property with energy label D. Mr. Huygens has a high income and is owner of a house with energy label A+, so sparing money on energy consumption. Mr. Huygens also wants to invest his money in a second home and hires it to (someone like) Mr. Bakker. Then, a cash flow between both men is created consisting of monthly rent payment. Next to this, the government wants to improve the general energy label level in their country because of sustainability reasoning. Mr. Huygens will neatly upgrade his second house of which the rent rises. However, Mr. Bakker cannot pay the rent anymore and faces financial troubles and may become homeless. What happened?

Because of the redistribution of 1) the market mechanism (Huygens’ ability to buy a second house) and 2) governmental policy (requiring every house to be more sustainable), Mr. Bakker becomes, in the worst scenario, homeless. Is this justified? Is there no social right to fix this situation somehow? May Mr. Huygens not buy a second house? How about his freedom to invest his money how he wants? Or, should the government not demand every house to become more sustainable in the near future? In this respect, the theory of justice from John Rawls, in which he recommends equal basic rights, equality of opportunity, and promoting the interests of the least advantaged members of society, can provide a solution. Maybe, we (the government) should gain more tax incomes and redistribute these among the less affluent in order to create more equal opportunities. And, thus, maybe the government should act according to the egalitarianism principle? But, is that fair?

Source: Ibn Battuta

Special thanks to Robin Neef and Dr. Barend Wind for their contributions to this article!

This article was first published in Girugten (Year 49 of Girugten – issue 02 – november 2018).



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