I am particularly happy to take part in this Winter Semester’s Public Lecture Series of the Center for Metropolitan Studies (TU Berlin), under the theme “Technologies of the City”.
In this context, next February 5th 2019 I will have the honour to present the following talk:
Infrastructure as ‘the people’: The social-technocracy of Barcelona’s accessible sidewalk standards
Disability rights activists have for a long time advocated for cities hospitable to bodily difference: de-stigmatizing, enabling, and supportive of their bodily diversity. Since the 1970s protests, many cities of the Global North have developed processes to sensitize architects, engineers, and civil servants so that such environments could be made to exist, creating the conditions for urban infrastructures to embody concrete arrangements of ‘sidewalk democracy.’ Drawing from archival, interview and observational work in the city of Barcelona, I would like to show different attempts at this: from the instalment of ‘free-barrier’ policies and architectural standards to more contemporary problematizations around ‘cultural’ and ‘multisensory’ approaches. Grounding on STS and Anthropology works, I would like to provide an account of the particular ‘infrastructural style’ of these undertakings, and the challenge it poses: or how a de-stigmatizing agenda is predated by its very mode of implementation.
To exemplify, I would like to reflect on the ways in which the city’s accessible sidewalks and crossings have been made and implemented to stand as infrastructures for ‘the people’. First, I will delineate the participatory governance processes–involving several representatives and associative movements of people with disabilities–through which the system of ‘urban elements’, including accessible sidewalks, was developed by the city hall. Second, I will show recent civic, techno-legal and techno-political controversies that have arisen after the enactment of a newer state-wide regulation, entailing an alternative sidewalk configuration: this will allow me to pay special attention to a ‘shared streets’ implementation in the iconic Passeig de Gràcia, which created as a response a united front of disability rights activists self-denominated ‘streets for all’, whose articulate demands were put on hold because ‘a technical solution was needed’.
In paying attention to the contested modes of composing those accessible urban infrastructures, I would like to analyze the relational architectures there arising, also reflecting on the challenges they pose to urban democracy. Even though the aspiration is openly and overtly social-democratic–these infrastructures standing for an aspiration to achieve an inclusive society for all, undoing and reworking the stigma of bodily diversity–, I call this infrastructure of public space and mobility an instance of ‘social technocracy’. In order to democratically respond to the many social demands of different stigmatized collectives and activist initiatives wishing to further use the city and move around, the only available strategy is a very paradoxical one: to produce an expert-managed, materially sealed, and procedurally closed-down to public scrutiny type of urban infrastructure. Rather tragically, in seeking to provide urban infrastructures and practices to tackle with manifold forms bodily stigma and social cohesion, newer versions of ‘inclusive exclusion’ are invented, of technocratic origin. Or, put otherwise, the material mode of expression and urban articulation of these political aspirations foregrounds infrastructures as ‘the people’. Against this background, alternative politicizations around accessibility, both intra- and extra-institutional might show us a way through: how, rather than engaging in classic political contestation, a technical democratization of these urban infrastructures is needed to avoid redoubling technocratically the harsh effects of stigma.