Think of almost any place where people live: why does it have its current shape? Why do people live where they live? There are no doubt quirks of geography or history involved. But places are also shaped by money, politics and law – in short, by power.
Exploring these questions is the work of Justin Steil, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Steil’s research largely focuses on cities, illustrating the ways in which politics and law sustain social divisions on the ground.
Or, as Steil puts it, “The most important theme that runs through my work is: how is power exercised through the control of space and access to particular places? What are the spatial, social and legal processes of inclusion and exclusion that generate or can resolve inequalities, in general? »
These mechanisms can be found everywhere. Affluent suburbs with large minimum lot sizes limit growth and access to high-ranking school districts; gated communities take this separation process even more literally; and many US metropolitan areas have island-like jurisdictions that have split off from surrounding major cities. The city’s residential geography often displays the legacy of redlining (discrimination laws) and even century-old incidents of mob violence used to hold back integration.
“I really enjoy trying to figure out what are the specific laws, ordinances, and policies, as well as the specific social processes, that continue to drive inequality,” Steil says. “And ask: how can we change this to generate greater access to resources and opportunities?”
While investigating questions that broadly span the topic of power and space, Steil has published numerous research articles and book chapters as well as helping to edit volumes on the subject. For his research and teaching, Steil was granted tenure at MIT earlier this year.
Combining law and town planning
Steil grew up in New York, where his environment helped him realize how important politics and urban laws are. He attended Harvard University as an undergraduate, majoring in African American Studies, and spent a summer as a student in South Africa in 1998 as the country launched its new democracy.
“It had a big impact,” says Steil. “Both to see the power of grassroots organizing and social movements, to overthrow this white supremacist government, but also to understand how the apartheid system worked, the role of law and space – how the landscape and the built environment had been consciously designed to keep people separate and unequal.
Between graduating from college and completing his doctorate, Steil embarked on an odyssey of jobs in the nonprofit sector and worked in multiple academic disciplines, touching on pressing social topics. Steil worked at the City School of Boston, a youth leadership program; the Food Project, an agricultural program in Massachusetts; two nonprofit organizations in Juarez, Mexico, focused on domestic violence prevention and environmental justice; and the New Economy Project in New York, which studies predatory lending. In the midst of this, Steil took the time to earn a master’s degree in urban design and social science from the London School of Economics.
“I learned so much studying urban design and really enjoyed it,” Steil says of this program. “But I also realized that my personal strengths are not in the design. … I was more interested and more capable in the field of social sciences.
With that in mind, Steil was accepted into a joint Ph.D. and J.D. program at Columbia University, combining a law degree with doctoral studies in urban planning.
“Much of urban planning is determined by law, by property law and constitutional law,” says Steil. “I felt that if I wanted to research and teach these things, I had to understand the law.”
After completing law school and doctoral courses, Steil’s dissertation, written under the supervision of the late Peter Marcuse, examined the policy responses of two sets of sister cities – two in Nebraska, two in Pennsylvania – to the ‘immigration. In each of the states, one city was much more receptive to immigrants than the other. Steil concluded that cities receptive to immigration had more local organizations and civic ties that reached all economic classes; instead of being more atomized, they were more socially cohesive and eager to create more economic opportunity for those who wanted to work for them.
Without such connections, Steil notes, people may end up “seeing things as a zero-sum game, instead of seeing opportunities for new residents to animate, enrich, and contribute to a community.”
In contrast, he adds, “sustained collaboration across what people might have seen as differences toward a common goal has created opportunities for dialogue about immigration, its challenges and benefits, to imagine a future which could include these new neighbors. In some of these cities, the emphasis was on being communities where people took pride in working hard and respected others who did it.
From PhD to EMT
Steil joined the MIT faculty after completing his doctorate in 2015 and has continued to produce work on a range of issues in politics, law, and inclusion. Some of this work bears directly on contemporary housing policy. With Nicholas Kelly PhD ’21, Lawrence Vale, Ford Professor of Urban Design and Urban Planning at MIT, and Maia Woluchem MCP ’19, he co-edited the volume “Furthering Fair Housing” (Temple University Press, 2021), which analyzes recent political clashes over federal fair housing policy.
Some of Steil’s other works are more historically oriented. He has published several articles on race and housing in the early 20th century, when anti-black violence and race-based laws kept many cities segregated. As Steil notes, US laws have been rewritten so that they are no longer explicitly based on race. However, he notes, “This legacy, rooted in the built environment, is very enduring.”
There are also significant effects stemming from the property tax-based local education funding system in the United States, another policy approach that effectively leaves many Americans living in areas very different from metropolitan areas.
“By fragmenting [funding] at the local level, and then redistributing resources within those smaller jurisdictions, it creates powerful incentives for wealthy households and individuals to use the Land Use Act and other laws to exclude people,” says Steil. “That’s part of why we have this huge crisis in housing affordability today, as well as deep inequalities in educational opportunity.”
Since arriving at MIT, Steil has also taught extensively on these topics. The undergraduate courses he teaches include an introduction to housing and community development, a course on land use and civil rights law, another course on land use and environmental law and one on environmental justice.
“What an incredible privilege to be here at MIT and to learn every day, from our students, our undergraduate and graduate students, and my colleagues,” Steil said. “It’s fun to be here.”
As if Steil didn’t have enough on his plate, he takes part in another MIT-based activity: For the past few years, he has worked as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) for the MIT Volunteer Corps, after having trained as MIT EMT students since they arrived on campus.
As Steil describes it, his volunteer work involved “starting at the bottom of the totem pole as an entry-level EMT and being trained by other students and progressing with my classmates.”
It’s “amazing,” he adds, to work with students and see “their dedication to this service and to MIT and Cambridge and Boston, how hard they work and how capable they are, and what a strong community is formed through it. ”