What is it about?

One of the most influential theories of justice in planning theory and practice has been, without doubt, that of John Rawls. The very idea of the just city is indebted to Rawls’s view. However, the way in which Rawlsian theory of justice has been imported into planning often seems debatable. This article aims to discuss this aspect critically. The objective is not merely to discuss certain planning approaches inspired by Rawls; it is also to investigate, in more general terms, what meaning and role (any theory of) justice could and should have for planning and urban policies.

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Why is it important?

In revisiting John Rawls’s view, the article is structured around two points: first, a critical discussion on how Rawls’s theory of justice has been generally applied to urban policies and planning; second, an exploration of an alternative way to interpret and apply certain Rawlsian insights (often undervalued) in this field. The article is not intended to defend and recommend Rawls’s normative theory as a whole (i.e. in its entirety), but to evidence certain Rawlsian contributions of a general nature that are particularly important. Nor is it the aim of this article to contribute directly to the development of a specific substantive idea of the just city; instead, it is to highlight fundamental methodological and analytical caveats that are crucial in this regard. Rather than a “theory of the just city”, this article develops a “meta-theory of the just city”: that is, an approach specifying precautions and conditions for any coherent and convincing just city theory.


This article critically rediscusses John Rawls’s theory of justice from the point of view of planning, in an attempt to contribute to the debate on normative planning theory. After criticising the incorrect way in which the Rawlsian perspective has often been imported into planning theory and practice, it highlights two of Rawls’s crucial (meta-theoretical) insights which are instead usually not considered: the idea of the basic structure, and that of background justice. Taking these two ideas seriously suggests that, in planning, we need a multi-strata view of institutional action and a canvas conception of the just city. This implies that any substantive theory of the just city should satisfy at least six (meta-theoretical) requirements: (i) the no-flatness clause, (ii) the no-isomorphism clause, (iii) the no-exhaustiveness clause, (iv) the anti-contingency clause, (v) the open-endedness clause, (vi) the anti-adhocness clause. These six conditions may be interpreted as a reformulation of the classic ideal of the “rule of law” in relation to just city issues. In light of all of this, an interesting point is the opportunity to shift the planning discourse from the very much debated, but less crucial, distinction between “processes” and “outcomes” to the more important contrast identified here between “background justice” and “allocative justice”, which is the real point in urban matters as well. In short, we cannot but agree that outcomes must be taken into account when pondering on urban justice (this is not yet an issue): but the real questions is what kinds of outcome matter, and how they should be taken into consideration.

prof. Stefano Moroni
Politecnico di Milano

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This page is a summary of: What can urban policies and planning really learn from John Rawls? A multi-strata view of institutional action and a canvas conception of the just city, Planning Theory, March 2023, SAGE Publications, DOI: 10.1177/14730952231163274.
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