UN-Habitat’s Global Urban Lectures series began in 2014 and is now starting its sixth season. The lectures feature renowned experts discussing cutting-edge research and practical recommendations on advancing urban sustainability and the Sustainable Development Goals in cities. Season 6 consists of 10 lectures.


In this lecture Roberto Rocco from the Delft University of Technology discusses how the Tragedy of the Commons - how people often use resources to their advantage without considering the good of society as a whole - relates to social sustainability and spatial justice, and how this can contribute to real sustainability in urban development.


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Issues which the lecture addresses

The social sustainability of urban development solutions is often overlooked in favour of economic and/or environmental sustainability. This lecture brings together two areas of study that are generally separate: sustainability and socio-spatial justice. It does so by using Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons to illustrate the issues at hand, especially issues of justice, redistribution, and most specially, democracy and participation in decision making. It does so by using literature by Elinor Ostrom, Susan Fainstein and Patsu Healey on the communicative turn in planning. 


Short analysis of the above issues 

The tragedy of the commons unveils crucial environmental and social impacts of the rational pursuit of self-interest by economic actors, and exposes the tragedy of resource exhaustion if self-interest is pursued mindlessly and free of societal control. It also reveals the challenges surrounding the just redistribution of the fruits of human activity, and how this redistribution is decided. These challenges are discussed through the lenses of Ostrom’s theories on the governance of the commons and Fainstein’s propositions on the just city. These two authors are used here to illuminate how the injustices built into the tragedy of the commons can and are customarily solved through communicative rationality and public justification. Finally, Healey’s ideas on the communicative turn in spatial planning are brought in to bridge Ostrom’s and Fainstein’s ideas into spatial planning theory. It concludes by stating that despite the obvious challenges presented by powerful interests overriding the conditions for spatial justice in the city, there is still great potential in systems of public justification and reasoning to pursue just outcomes in the distribution of spatial benefits and burdens of urban development.


Propositions for addressing the issue

1. Introduction of the Tragedy of the Commons
2. Introduction of a socially sensitive notion of sustainability
3. Discussion on the issue of justice and redistribution of resources and the connection with space and urban development
4. Introduction of the notion of spatial justice as bedrock for social sustainability
5. Discussion on how resources are redistributed (distributive justice) and how this is decided upon (procedural justice) and how these notions can be used by policy makers when designing policy. 



Roberto Rocco is a scholar committed to understanding the relationships between society and the production and governance of the built environment. This means that he investigates how actors and institutions from the public sector, the private sector and civic society interact in planning, designing, governing and inhabiting the built environment, both formally and informally. These basic but foundational ideas explain much of his actions as an educator and researcher at the Delft University of Technology. At TU Delft, he is responsible for course development and coordination in the areas of research methodology in areas of planning and design practice, regional planning and design, governance and sustainability. He leads the TU Delft Summer School Planning and Design with Water, a summer school for 100 students mostly from the Global South in which they explore how to make cities resilient to climate change through water sensitive urban planning and design. He has taken part in several MOOCs and coordinated the Spatial Justice module of the MOOC RETHINK THE CITY.



Hardin, G. (1968). The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162(3859), 1243-1248.
Healey, P. (1996). The Communicative Turn in Planning Theory and Its Implications for Spatial Strategy Formation Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, 23(1), 217-234.
Larsen, G. L. (2012). An Inquiry into the Theoretical Basis of Sustainability. Understanding the Social Dimension of Sustainability. J. Dillard, V. Dujon and M. C. King. London, Routledge.
Ostrom, E. (2009. World Bank, Washington DC."). A Polycentric Approach for Coping with Climate Change.Background Report to the 2010 World Development Report. Retrieved from Washington:
Rawls, J. (2005). A theory of justice. Cambridge, Mass., Belknap Press.


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The Global Urban Lecture series is an initiative by UNI – UN-Habitat’s partnership with universities worldwide.