Justice in the Global City

Our world is globalising; it seems we all know and accept this, but increasingly it is suggested that this globalising world is a cause of injustice. Our contemporary moment is defined by a sense that the injustices we face are profound, multidimensional and global, including political discrimination, racist oppression, gender inequality, a neo-imperial international order and profound lack of economic fairness.

The need for some form of global justice seems obvious, yet the path towards it is much less clear. Despite our recognition that we need to find a more justice social arrangement with global scope, contemporary literature on global justice struggles to comprehend our present reality and existing debates are characterised by excessively idealised approaches. On one side there are attempts to redeem the nation-state as a site of justice, focused on how nationalism can be constrained and community rights balanced against minimal global duties within the state system (Miller 2007, Moore 2001, Rawls 2001). While on the other side we have a growing number of appeals for a cosmopolitan conception of justice, rooted in individualism, liberal rights and global institutions (Brock 2009, Hassoun 2012, Jones 1999, Miller 2010, Scheffler 2002). Most work in political theory is not grounded in the contemporary contexts of injustice, but rather draws on idealised national and cosmopolitan accounts of political community that do not actually exist, leaving academic work abstracted from our most pressing problems. However, this need not be the case and this project addresses the limits of contemporary global justice literature by arguing that we need not begin with idealised national and cosmopolitan visions, but rather that we should start with the lived experience of injustice and build upon existing struggles for justice.

 Justice and the Global City addresses this gap in the literature, as I explore the question of justice in the context of the global process of urbanisation and the globalisation of cities. I argue for the centrality of the Right to the City in making urban life more democratic and egalitarian for the diverse denizens of global cities. In order to consider the question of justice in context the project focuses on the global city as a distinctive and contemporary political space in which changes in the capacity and nature of the state, alongside the partial and disruptive force of globalised economic flows and transnational institutions, contribute to profound social problems for urban communities, which do not map onto idealised conceptions of the polis. Along with the distinctiveness of the global city as a political space, it is also vital to understand its centrality as a contemporary political space, as the world is increasingly urbanised and cities are ever more independent of national governance structures. This project contributes to and builds upon an important dissident strand of justice theorising that rejects excessive idealism and abstraction, particularly by feminist theorists (Fraser 2009, Jaggar 2014, Young 2011). It will also contribute to existing literature on urban justice, which has tended to apply existing theories of justice to the urban space rather than theorising justice from contemporary urban experiences (Fainstein 2010, Marcuse et al 2009, Oomen et al 2016).


The project begins with a critique of contemporary theories of justice, looking first at how theorists begin their reflections on justice by building idealised visions of the political community. For example, John Rawls’ work assumes a liberal democratic nation state that is economically independent and bound together by internal ideological cohesion. While, alternatively, Jürgen Habermas’ cosmopolitan reflections begin with the inadequacy of the nation-state as a site of democracy in a globalised world, his solution is to relocate democracy to a still non-existent global space where individuals are motivated by a commitment to constitutionalism and democratic rights, and connected through a global discursive space and fragmentary supranational institutions. I go on to argue that we should begin thinking about justice in concrete contexts of injustice and that the global city is a key site for encountering the most pressing problems we face. This leads to an examination of how global cities are sites of the dispossession of communal resources, growing material inequality and increasingly hierarchical and exclusive political structures. The project then develops the idea of the Right to the City as a claim made by denizens of global cities to have a voice in creating the cities they live in and to participate in the institutions that effect their lives. This claim challenges conventional coordinates of political membership, privileging the denizen over the citizen, and articulates an ethico-political demand for the transformation of the contemporary urban environment, moving from one defined by exclusion and exploitation, to one defined by inclusion and cooperation.

The significance and potential of a Right to the City is then explored in the second part of the book by theorising with existing struggles for urban justice, identifying key areas of urban life in need of transformation. First, I look at the issue of housing and land, highlighting how a Right to City requires a transformation of our relationship to housing/land, moving from one focused on individual ownership of housing/land as a commodity to one focused on housing/land as a collective resource controlled by the community. Second, I turn my attention to the issue of public space, particularly the closing down of public space by private interests within contemporary cities and the opposition to this via tactics of occupation and protest that reveal the denizens’ collective capacity to politicise space through action. Third, I investigate the dynamics around security and policing in cities, where security/police forces are both increasingly militarised and privatised, while being aimed against marginalised populations constructed as a threat to the global city’s function as a profit-making enterprise. In contrast, I consider the importance of movements for communal wellbeing, which involve not only opposition to police/security brutality but focus on the mental and physical wellbeing of individuals and communities, as well as that of the natural environment. Wellbeing in this context is not understood in bio-political terms but rather in terms of wellness and self-care. Finally, I consider the potential for challenging urban economic systems that are increasingly globalised and dysfunctional for the global city’s diverse denizens, particularly through attempts to democratise urban economies, ranging from initiatives for participatory budgeting to building workers’ cooperatives to returning public resources to community control.

In the final section of the book, I reflect on how these diverse claims coalesce as a demand for a Human Right to the Global City that aims to democratise the global city. I also reflect on how a politics of rights claiming can develop into an account of just political relationships within and between globalised cities. Justice and the Global City provides an innovative re-articulation of the idea of global justice and a new examination of the prospects for positive social change in the global city.

For further work on this project please see:

‘The Political Movement for a Human Right to the City’ in Critical Perspectives on Human Rights, Birgit Schippers ed. (Rowman and Littlefield International, 2017).

Is there a human right to the city? Rethinking the politics of rights,’ OUPblog, 9 June 2016.


Brock, G. (2009) Global Justice: a cosmopolitan account, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fainstein, S. (2010) The Just City, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Fraser, N. (2009) Scales of Justice: Reimagining Political Space in a Globalizing World, New York: Columbia University Press.

Hassoun, N. (2012) Globalization and Global Justice: Shrinking Distance, Expanding Obligations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jagger, A.M., ed. (2014) Gender and Global Justice, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Jones, C. (1999) Global Justice: Defending Cosmopolitanism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marcuse, P. et al, eds. (2009) Searching for the Just City: Debates in urban theory and practice, London: Routeldge.

Miller, D. (2007) National Responsibility and Global Justice, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Miller, R.W. (2010) Globalizing Justice: The Ethics of Poverty and Power, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moore, M. (2001) The Ethics of Nationalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Oomen, B. et al, eds. (2016) Global Urban Justice: The Rise of Human Rights Cities, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rawls, J. (2001) The Law of Peoples, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Scheffler, S. (2002) Boundaries and Allegiances: Problems of Justice and Responsibility in Liberal Thought, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Young, I.M. (2011) Responsibility for Justice, Oxford: Oxford University Press.