Spatial Justice in the United States and China

Introduced by renowned urban theorist Edward Soja in 2000, the idea of “spatial justice” is a specific approach to spatial design and urban planning to effectively address key issues such as human rights, social inclusion/exclusion, citizenship, democracy, poverty, racism, economic growth, and environmental policy. It works to address these issues through strategies like increasing accessibility and eliminating discrimination in cities and communal spaces. While the concept of spatial justice might be universally applicable, it has a locality in different parts of the world. In the United States, spatial justice is about equal rights. In China, spatial justice focuses on equal resources.

The United States: Equal Rights

One of the earliest examples of spatial justice in the United States is the “City Beautiful Movement” that began in the early 20th century. Facing rapid urbanization and an increasing number of immigrants, many local governments started to develop a more modern and advanced public spatial system. The new system was pragmatic for its addition of large public areas like parks and street roundabouts, which provided sufficient space for the growing population within cities. The new system also promoted public health through new facilities like sewers, which provided cleaner water and reduced the spread of disease. Overall, this movement aimed to bring about harmonious social order and echo the early Republic’s sentiment of the “City upon a Hill.” As a result of this movement, urban citizens, rich or poor alike, could enjoy better public spaces and facilities. It should be noted that, however, part of the main motives of the “City Beautiful Movement” was to benefit the middle-upper class, who feared the growing urban masses of poors and immigrants would lead to more violence and a potential epidemic if their living conditions and public environment remained the same.

Shortly after the “City Beautiful Movement,” the government proposed the first public housing program, furthering spatial justice efforts in the U.S. In 1923, under the order of mayor Daniel Hoan, the Milwaukee city leadership in Wisconsin initiated “Garden Homes”, the first public housing program in the nation. Though this project faded away with limited success, it nevertheless was an early attempt to enhance spatial justice in an era that was  marked by economic inequality through its efforts to provide affordable housing to low-income citizens.

Spatial justice continued to evolve with public desegregation development during the civil rights movement from 1950s to 1970s. Although early spatial justice efforts addressed income inequality, certain demographics, namely African Americans, still did not have access to many public areas, such as Arkansas’ Hot Springs National Park.  Before the mid-20th century, most of the bathhouses in the park were segregated and only open to white people. African Americans were not even allowed to build their own “All-Negro” bathhouse. Eventually, after decades of efforts by civil rights activists like Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King Jr, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 ended the era of public discrimination and segregation. The history of spatial justice promoting equal rights in the United States did not end in the 1970s. Since then, more minority groups have fought for their rights and justice. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed by President George H.W. Bush. This legislation imposed accessibility and special accommodations requirements in public spaces for people who have disabilities. For instance, wheelchair-access ramps were constructed in all public buildings, and public transportation now reserves space for the disabled.

In short, spatial justice in the United States promotes equal rights for citizens through spatial and facility designs that increase accessibility to public space for more people.

China: Equal Resources

The idea of spatial justice is somewhat different in China. It emphasizes the importance of equal resources rather than equal rights.

After winning the civil war in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party established a government with communist ideals: the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In the next two decades, the Communist Party redistributed wealth through a series of political movements, such as the Agrarian Reform Law of 1950, “Against the Three Evils” (1951), and “Against the Five Evils” (1952). To further demonstrate the ideology of the Communist Party, the Chinese government built many new public and communal buildings and spaces such as parks, museums, city halls, and communes.

The early years of the PRC set the priority of future development in China: equal resources. The government realized that it was imperative for the population to have sufficient resources to maintain their livelihood. China prefers stability, whereas the U.S. values democracy.

After China adopted market economy in 1980s, the country became the second largest economic entity in the world in merely 30 years. In order to cater to the urban expansion, China has developed one of the most efficient and affordable public transportation systems in the world. From high-speed rail to metro subway, Chinese citizens enjoy more freedom of traveling.

However, the economic boost comes at a social cost as wealth disparity skyrockets and the environment deteriorates. Young people find it increasingly hard to get a job and buy an apartment after college graduation, and urban citizens suffer greatly from air and water pollution. To tackle these issues, the government has implemented countless public housing projects and environmental enhancement or do-over programs. One of the great examples is the Donghaochong Creek Remediation Project in Guangzhou, Guangdong. The Donghaochong Creek is a small city river that used to be full of industrial pollutants. Beginning in late 2009, the Guangzhou city government started to transform the Donghaochong Creek by reducing water pollution through advanced technology. Today, the Donghaochong Creek is a major public space in the city and has an urban greenway that connects different parts of the city together. There is even a newly constructed Donghaochong Creek Museum, serving to advocate for environmental protection.

In incumbent Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2018 national New Year Address, Xi announced that “Over 13 million urban and rural jobs were created… more than 10 million rural residents were lifted out of poverty” and concluded that “we will win the final phase of the war on poverty. This will be the first time in thousands of years of Chinese history that extreme poverty has been eliminated.” The President’s ambitious goal certainly received praise domestically but also drew serious criticism internationally. It is clear, however, that the PRC’s motivation behind all its development in spatial justice is not one that focuses on equal rights of the citizens, but equal resources for the citizens.

Locality Beyond Spatial Justice?

As the world today becomes much more interconnected and integrated than before, cultural and political exchange among countries and regions happen more frequently. Under many circumstances, the same word, phrase or expression does not have the same meaning and applicability in different countries or cultures. This article, then, attempts to demonstrate such ideas by examining the concept of spatial justice through the lens of multiculturalism.

In his original research, Edward Soja only discusses spatial justice explicitly with reference to the city of Los Angeles. But as we have seen from above, this idea can nonetheless be universally recognized and applied to with careful differentiation of locality. Specifically within the United States, spatial justice focuses on equality of rights while it is more about equality of resources in China. Fundamentally, this locality is the product of different history, ideology, and social customs. To a great extent, if we can interpret world issues, especially when it comes to international relations, through recognizing regional or cultural difference and identifying specific locality, we might be able to tackle challenges and solve problems more precisely and efficiently.