The uncommon city: Bodily diversity and the activation of possible urbanisms (book in project)

Book in project, under preparation: version November 2019.

Estimated completion: December 2020.

OUTLINE

This book is an anthropological exploration of bodily diversity and its impact in the material and knowledge politics of city-making. In particular, drawing on field and archival work of independent-living or disability rights movements, together with accessibility struggles taking place since the 1980s in the city of Barcelona, I trace a wealth of activist initiatives—both intra- and extra-institutional—caring for an epistemic, material and political activation of urban design. Following an understanding of care in STS and feminist technoscience as an activation of the possible, the book wishes to unfold the wide variety of ways in which a concern with bodily diversity mobilises the uncommon prospects of the city, opening up other possible urbanisms.

These initiatives have or had at their core the production of singular situations—made out of policy documents and building codes, infrastructures and standards, collaborative design processes and prototypes, and manifold sensitising devices and documentation interfaces—through which designing technologies, urban landscapes or institutions and political spaces is to be attempted from the appreciation and articulation of bodily diversity: from the demographic identification of bodily patterns to the invention of inclusive and universal design, also connecting with the contested history of urban accessibility struggles, or the perpetual emergence of many access issues in contemporary forms of city-making where bodily diversity appears as the main concern to address by different actors.

However, rather than describing how design becomes activated as a practice having a clear focus and a procedural take to these problems through ready-made participatory methods—that is, as if their democratising aspiration was just to incorporate in the design process known groups who engage in identity politics and a struggle for their rights using particular public infrastructures or equipments granting social integration, understood as solutions—, I describe these situations as opening up careful, troubled and troubling, experimentations with urban design practices, inventing distinct notions, meanings, and materialisations of ‘access.’

By that I do not just mean a troubled and worrisome exploration into designing ‘more inclusive’ forms of relatedness, but mainly a perpetual mode of troubling the ways in which we can or could relate, tell and describe the invention and materialisation of modes of togetherness: from ‘inclusion’-driven democratic project of accessibility politics to initiatives prying open interstitial topologies of ‘mutual access’, whereby the relational and material affordances to understand and host not-so-known, if not emergent bodily diversities are devised and tested.

Such an exploration gravitates around a re-description of and a multi-modal (in a plurality of modes and media) engagement in a series of activist design and urbanism initiatives, searching to learn from their hyperbolic aspirations, fraught methods and experimental practices to open up bodily diversity as a problem-space for the remaking of our cities. Building on them, urban design or urbanism could then be recounted as a peculiar inquiry: a perpetual questioning on what/who counts and how to make that happen through concrete—and usually very troublesome—acts of making and material interventions.

Indeed, by remaining constantly open to the many unknowns populating these practices, a more accurate approach to the meanings of these design practices is here attempted. One showing the contours of a different city: what I wish to call the uncommon city (una ciudad poco común, in Spanish; or una ciutat poc comuna, in Catalan). ‘Uncommon’ here referring to the divided and fragmented effects of modernist urbanism, dismissing when not violently crushing bodily divergence as a form of ‘otherness’ – but also, and more importantly, the unexpected and inspiring possible cities luring in its background: The city of rejected embodiments that come back with a vengeance, not just in the mode of violent revolt; rather, as a spectre, a panthom, an alteration or, rather, an activation of the modes of attempting to live together in the city.

In the book, this uncommon city appears in at least two forms: (i) elicited as part of a democratic transition from invisibility to recognition: that is, in the inclusive aspiration to institutionalise bodily diversity at the very core of regulated and public modes of city-making, building access through standards of inclusion, opening up participatory avenues in municipal planning; and (ii) as the insurgent city of the ‘functionally diverse,’ one that lies in the shadows of planning, always there luring in the background, in fragile webs of family, friendship and activist ties, which sometimes liberate as much as they can suffocate;  an uncommon city emerging periodically to public scrutiny in times of crises, when the institutional project shows its cracks and incapabilities to host a liveable togetherness.

As I unfold, the uncommon city always lies in abeyance as a problem and as a challenge: the city already built as an effect of segregation; but also the possible city to be imagined and materially speculated. A city that, as in Calvino’s Invisible Cities, is as much a hologrammatic projection and a spectral figure of imagination as it is the lived and practiced city of those who tend to remain invisible, uncounted and living on the hinges, at the gates of urbanity and polite society, whose main project might be to unsettle it, but also to cover from its totalizing gaze, crafting forms of opacity to protect from it in dimmed light.

In the uncommon city there lies a project of commonisation or making common that doesn’t depart from clear-cut ‘common grounds’ – urban, bodily or otherwise – but from the iridescent wealth of possibilities that the unknown – both what has been left out and what cannot be known for sure, once and for all – has to bring us together. The unknown ‘us’ always in the making: fragile and volatile, and always on the verge of being volatilised by the strong violence of expert and identity-driven modes of attempting to articulate our adjacency. Grounded on such unsteady grounds, the uncommon city, hence, is a concern many actors, and not just the classic experts contribute to elicit, enact and make viable. The uncommon city, thus, appears always in newer forms whenever some become fascinated to materialise alternative modes of the urban departing from a consideration of what might separate and divide in ways that, rather than enacting powerlessness and defeat, activate their variegated knowledges and practices in the attempt to invent and experiment with fraught modes of togetherness to do so.

Interestingly, the uncommon city not only impacts on the works of architects, planners, or policy-makers. As I would also like to show, such concerns also had a direct impact on the relevance, role and modes of engagement of my anthropological practice, also activating me to go beyond just providing ethnographic insights on uses and users for the expert remaking of our cities. To address this, in the book I also dwell on my intense material and relational involvement in several of these initiatives, mostly as part of my work in the En torno a la silla collective. I describe in detail the impact these undertakings had on my own practice: both on the ways in which I had to experiment with designing collaborative fieldwork devices—namely a digital ecology of open documentation—, and how it granted me access to several moments of unlearning and relearning, opening up to the many forms of joint problem-making there present; but also, how I tried to inherit from these moments in my experimental pedagogical approach to the teaching of architects, designers and anthropologists after I moved to Germany: creating manifold situations foregrounding a conceptual and experiential concern for these issues.

All this allows me to reflect, in closing, on the activation, and the impact that researching in an activated research field had on my ethnographic inquiries and my teaching practices. Hence, I also explore what would happen if anthropology sought to venture carefully but decidedly in designing and redesigning urban relations, from prototyping to pedagogy: What would that mean for other anthropological works beyond this particular field? Could we relearn from these activated design practices how to practice anthropology as a material and interventive mode of crafting more plural modes of togetherness, as an exploratory task of generating relations with many times known, but sometimes yet to know beings with which to share the world? Even more so, could anthropology develop into a form of urbanism, a city-making or urban design practice?

As I see it,  in these particularly fraught times of ours—with new totalitarian divides and unprecedented more-than-human challenges for urban life—perhaps it is more important than ever to continue attempting to materialise uncommon cities everywhere: generating ecologies of support, offering the possibility not only to thrive in cities whose rampant violence cannot be denied any more – precisely at a time when Welfare ideals mostly appear in the guise of a ‘social technocracy’ –, but also to envision urban forms where we could attempt to relate with one another, even at the hinges of unrelatability.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Bodily diversity and the material and knowledge politics of city-making

The uncommon city: On becoming activated by bodily diversity

Care by means of design?

  1. By other means? How care came to matter in city-making
    1. The feminist legacy of care
    2. Below and beyond: Material and knowledge politics
    3. Taking care in recent urban design
    4. Care as the activation of possible urbanisms
  2. An overview of the compilation
    1. Tracing design activations
    2. Activating anthropology through/as design

Design activations, I: Inclusion

Give us an institute and we will raise an accessible Barcelona

  1. Participatory governance: Institutionalizing urban accessibility issues
  2. Creating a ‘Barcelona model’ of urban accessibility? Building an infrastructure of urban elements

Infra-statecraft

  1. Normalising inclusion: The transformation of accessibility regulations into a market-driven extrastatecraft
  2. Distributed expertise: The challenges of sensitizing a city hall

Social technocracy?

  1. Sidewalking democracy: The contested urban infrastructuration of disability rights
  2. Why will there always be accessibility revolts? The logic of inequality of inclusion, or how to turn a problem of representation into one of knowledge politics

Design activations, II: Mutual Access

Functional diversity: A politics of design?

  1. Diverse non-normative alliances: Atmospheres of collective self-experimentation beyond the ontological occupation of design
  2. The ‘indignados’ functional diversity commissions: Materialising alternative partitions of the sensible

Radicalising care: En torno a la silla as a platform for joint problem-making

  1. Going beyond ‘the catalogue’? Prototypes to trouble market-driven arrangements
  2. Joint problem-making: Tinkering (cacharrear) with relations, materials, and environments

Technologies of friendship: Accessibility in the ‘how to’ mode

  1. Technologies of friendship: A relation around the ‘how to’
  2. Mutual access: Exploring a fragile DIY ecology of support

Activating anthropology through/as design

Experimental collaborations

  1. Activated research: Re-learning anthropology with others in times of crises
  2. Ethnography through fieldwork devices: Designing an ecology of open documentation
  3. The pharmakon of collaboration: Thresholds and limits of experimentation

Intraventions

  1. Design in Crisis: Becoming activated in a teaching mode
    1. Learning ‘not to see’
    2. Architectural ‘intraventions’
  2. Anthropology as a careful design practice?

Conclusion

Uncommoning the city: On the ever-present need to invent possible urbanisms

**

Picture CC BY NC ND 2014 En torno a la silla