The law is not enough: Seeking the theoretical ‘frontier of urban justice’ via legal tools

Joseph Pierce*, Deborah Martin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


This commentary examines the conceptual limits of urban justice through the use of legal tools, both generally and in actually existing neoliberal urban contexts. Our interest emerges from previous research on social service siting in a region with legal tools that seem exceptionally friendly to spatial justice due to limits on exclusionary zoning. Conceptually, such powerful legal levers might be expected to mitigate the generally observed tendency towards revanchism in contexts of urban government devolution. However, even given exceptional legal accommodations, we found a spatially concentrated service landscape, mirroring neoliberal market-led framings of ‘highest and best use’. Using this prior research as a point of departure, we highlight related findings in the broader literature on the use of the law by urban social justice activists. We argue that even maximally powerful legal protections for justice-oriented actors cannot blunt systematic spatio-political dynamics that lead marketised states towards revanchist outcomes. We call for future research which more explicitly charts the specific frontiers of the potential of the law as a tool for social justice.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)456-465
Number of pages10
JournalUrban Studies
Issue number2
Early online date15 Mar 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2017


  • critical urban geographies
  • devolution
  • law
  • legal geographies
  • social justice


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