What is a “Just City”? A research trip to Zürich

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Zürich’s District 4 is a traditionally industrial working-class area now under gentrification pressure: note the “hipster” graffiti in the foreground

In 2014, the number of people across the globe living in urban areas surpassed those living in the countryside for the first time. Cities are where more highly-skilled and better-paid jobs tend to be clustered. They have a wider range of cultural attractions, restaurants, educational and shopping opportunities than rural places. These features encourage in-migration to cities, which are also places where many people move in order to make new friends, meet potential partners and express themselves in a way that is not always possible in villages, for example living openly as LGBT or among members of a similar ethnic or religious minority. These attractive features drawing people into cities are also coupled with potential urban problems, such as segregation, displacement of established communities, and issues with crime. It is therefore worthwhile to think about how cities can be made better for the people who live there.

A great deal of urban planning literature is devoted to understanding the impacts of planning and investment upon cities and the people who live in them. The “Democratic Foundations of the Just City” project is a collaboration between the universities of Birmingham and Zürich to understand the impact of city governance upon making a city more or less just, defined here using Fainstein (2010)’s model:

  • A “just city” is one that avoids ghettoization, that is, the involuntary spatial concentration of disadvantaged groups (such as ethnic minorities or people on a low income)
  • In a “just city”, there will be access to affordable housing of a decent standard for all citizens
  • The process of gentrification, whereby working-class areas transform into middle-class ones and lower-income citizens are displaced, will be mitigated in a “just city”
The Domkirche is an icon of Zürich’s Old Town – we see here one of the many trams, with a 24 hour integrated transport network connecting the city with its suburbs

We are researching three different second cities in Western Europe. Birmingham is the second city of England, a highly-centralised state where decision-making power is held by central government and municipal authority and freedom to act is often quite restricted. In the field of housing, “Right to Buy” has severely depleted the social housing stock available to low-income people. Moreover, intra-city connectivity is very much dependent on private car use, with most rail lines in the city having been closed, a tram line having only very recently reached the city centre, and the bus network in the city being privatised and deregulated.

Zürich, on the other hand, is a city with extensive powers devolved to the municipality, following a particularly Swiss model of maximum devolution in domestic policy. The city also boasts an extensive integrated public transport network made up of trams, trains, buses and even boats. Zürich is a global financial centre and has areas of great wealth – although this isn’t the entire story, as there are also areas of relative deprivation. The final city in our comparative study is Lyon, the second city of France – another historically highly-centralised country but one in which several government reorganisations and experiments with housing policy have taken place over the past few decades.

The shores of Lake Zürich are where many of the most expensive houses in the city are clustered

During the trip to Zürich, I was able to interview Swiss urban planners and those working in the field of housing policy to add rich qualitative material to our extensive quantitative data, meaning we have already mapped areas of particular concern with regards to ghettoization, gentrification and difficulty in accessing affordable housing. Soon my Swiss colleague, Roman Zwicky, will be visiting Birmingham to carry out another round of interviews, before moving on to Lyon. We intend to disseminate the findings not only in academic journals but also in workshops for policy professionals with recommendations to improve the outcomes for those living in the cities of the 21st century.

This blog was written by Liam O’Farrell, Policy and Data Analyst, City-REDI, University of Birmingham.

The opinions presented here belong to the author rather than the University of Birmingham.

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