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

Book in project, in preparation: version June 2020

Estimated completion: late 2021 / early 2022


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, 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 fragile and 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 experimentations 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 activations is here attempted. One showing the contours of a different city: what I wish to call an 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 and inappropriate/d embodiments that come back with a vengeance, not just in the mode of violent revolt; rather, as a spectre, a panthom, an alteration or, better, an activation of the modes of attempting to live together in the city, in diversity.

In the book, I trace the appearance of this uncommon city in at least two forms of activating design practice: (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 non-normative 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 the opaque, 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, an 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 endeavours, 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 work: 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 duties. 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 design activations how to undertake 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 troublemaking 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.

A group picture of En torno a la silla. Centre: different people on chairs and wheelchairs, sitting in a circle outdoors (one of them standing, most wearing hats, one under a parasol). Background: a mountain range in the Pyrenees. Credits: CC BY NC ND 2014 En torno a la silla


The uncommon city?

An introduction

  1. Urban emergences: An anthropological inquiry on how submerged bodies come to matter in city-making
    • Emergent bodies: Thinking from a basement in Barcelona
    • The Enlightenment in dimmed light: How to study the emergence of many-times submerged embodied urban phenomena?
      • The ‘contemporary’ as a figure of thought to map out how emergent forms of life (Fischer, Rabinow) are being techno-scientifically articulated. Yet, this recounting of the Modern project still produces an asymmetry in the types of knowledges dimmable ‘relevant’ or ‘reasonable’ (usually elite and expert rationalities)
      • To counter that my particular fork of this project is an STS-inspired urban anthropology attuned to the many times submerged and recurrently emergent –albeit disregarded– popular and subterranean urban practices and their plural knowledges (Glissant, Simone): a pluralistic anthropology of the contemporary, also comprising the fragmentary fight (Neyrat, Rafanell-i-Orra) of those struggling to survive in the midst of enlightened violence and inattention (Benjamin, Murphy). Put in other terms: this is a project undertaken from the experiences of those outliving the violence of care inscribed in Welfare and in other traditional forms of the social (Foucault, Rose, Donzelot; Stevenson, Ticktin, Giordano), however much we might be wanting to repair and resuscitate these caring modes in times of even more violent neoliberal warfare undoing any form of mutual protection, be it social-democratic or otherwise (Muehlebach, Kehr)
      • Following these insights, here are some coordinates orienting my project into these urban emergences:
        • Urban care as the research object: following the democratic activation of design practice and city-making paying attention to some of the uncertainties derived from emergent embodiments whose composition in the urban mix is complex when not not-wanted or neglected, and hence submerged
        • Documentary interfaces as method: learning to appreciate the emergences whenever they leave a trace and keep afloat, or engaging in supporting so they could do so, trying to avoid them from submerging into oblivion from the peculiar lens of my long-term ethnographic and brief historiographic experiences in Barcelona and beyond
        • The uncommon city as the conceptual device allowing me to unfold this urban inquiry into how bodily diversity came to matter in city-making and its traces: an inquiry searching to decenter Barcelona’s modernist urban project, not only paying attention to its most violent effects but also to the moments and situations in which a city otherwise–the uncommon city–emerges
        • Relearning one’s tricks of the trade as the project’s approach to the politics of knowledge, a true discovery derived from the emergences encountered in my inquiry. Indeed, undertaking an anthropological project in the midst of activated design practices has made me learn to appreciate its impacts on my own practice: not only in the experimentally collaborative anthropology done with others that I learnt in Barcelona as part of En torno a la silla; but also the inspiration I took elsewhere, feeling activated to make those experiences emerge when teaching architects in Germany
  2. Urban care: Emergent bodies activating the possible in city-making
    • Care as a matter of urban design: The feminist and more-than-human turn in post-crisis Spanish Design and Architecture
    • From the support of life to the activation of the possible: A journey into the feminist ethics of care (Fischer & Tronto) and its speculative reappraisal in feminist technoscience (Mol, Stengers, Puig de la Bellacasa)
    • Tracing design activations: Inclusion & mutual access
  3. Documentary interfaces: Urban ecologies of emergent bodily diverse knowledges
    • Documentary interfaces is a term I use to refer to situations to frame, elicit, and discuss diverse bodily experiences and the environmental and material affordances to host them; but also the particular media employed to produce a trace of experiential knowledges in various forms of record
    • This is an STS take to the materiality of knowledge–notably in inscriptions and documents (Latour, Mattern, Riles, Hull)–beyond epistemological and elite renderings, tracing the impact and the many-times violent form of world-making of the Modern project
    • I focus on different situations of the production of documentary interfaces, both in ethnographic forms of collaboration and in historiographic materials from Barcelona: (tension between historiographic–found, complicated problem of primary sources–and ethnographic–found and made, together with them–sources), but also finding inspiration elsewhere (Imrie, Hamraie, Williamson, Kullman)
    • This will allow me to unfold an urban anthropological tale, with each chapter starting from and unfolding a wide variety of these traces, so as to understand how bodily diversity comes to matter in city-making in specific ways
  4. The uncommon city: Emergent Barcelonas
    • Decentering the city: What kind of an urban anthropology is this one focusing on the care for urban emergences and their traces?
      • From urban assemblages to urban cosmopolitics (Farías & Blok): The urban problem of co-habitation, or living together when who we are and what gathers us together is a fallible exploratory endeavour
      • Political ontologies of the city multiple: Learning from divergent ‘uncommons’ (Blaser & de la Cadena, Escobar) and black ‘undercommons’ (Harney & Moten, Simone, T.L. King) as sources of inspiration
    • The City of Wonders? An uncommon tale from a deeply modernist city, namely Barcelona
      • Taking Barcelona from below (foregrounding DIY practices and the lives of non-hegemonic embodiments) and beyond (exploring its connections with other places in subterranean modes, not just as a ‘model’– following recent works in urban history of science (Hochadel & Nieto-Galán) that seek to provide tales of the contested versions of modernity, and the plurality of publics and modes of knowledge
      • From the ‘City of Wonders’ (the modernist tale) to the role of ‘extraordinary bodies’ (Garland-Thomson) in uncommoning the city: From the late 19th and early 20th century exposure and consideration and exposure of rarities and oddities to the contemporary articulations around ‘functional diversity’ and their non-normative alliances
      • A caveat: Why I use ‘bodily diversity’ as a marker of the uncommon and not ‘disability’? I know this might be a problematic decision, given the relevance of the category in fights for right and justice. However, with no attempt at diminishing this, and acknowledging that terminology will always be an object of contention, I have taken this choice because of two main reasons: (i) one is that I would like to nod to contemporary non-assimilationist struggles for bodily diversity (e.g. older / queer / crip peoples of colour, not to mention ‘deaf gain’ or ‘neurodiversity’); (ii) but also, and perhaps more importantly, because I would like to praise and cherish the self-representational political vocabulary (diversidad funcional) that I learnt in Barcelona from the activists of the Independent-Living Forum, using the term in opposition to other more institutionalist usages of the CRPD
  5. Relearning one’s tricks of the trade: Overview of the book’s sections
    • Of – Inclusion (a genealogical and interview-based study of how Barcelona came to articulate its different versions of urban accessibility laws, regulations and infrastructures ever since the 1980s; also showing observation materials accompanying workers of the Municipal Institute of People with Disabilities, a unit of the City Hall)
    • Through – Mutual access (an account of 4 years operating as ethnographer-cum-documenter in the collective En torno a la silla, here narrated as a radical approach to care: comprising DIY endeavours, searching to prototype, experiment and forge other modes of togetherness)
    • As – Troublemaking (a series of ethnographic reflections on the modes of undertaking anthropology these endeavours made me learn: the problem-making anthropology done with others undertaking experiments searching to design and redesign urban relations, from prototyping to pedagogy)

Of – 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


  1. Normalising inclusion: The transformation of accessibility regulations into a market-driven extrastatecraft
  2. Sensitising devices: How small actors affect a big and distributed city hall

Social technocracy?

  1. Sidewalking social 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)

Through – Mutual Access

Functional diversity: A politics of design?

  1. Diverse non-normative alliances: Fragile atmospheres of collective self-experimentation beyond the ontological occupation of ableism
  2. The indignados functional diversity commissions: Materialising alternative arrangements in the crisis of Welfare

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

  1. Going beyond ‘the catalogue’? Inappropriate/d people prototyping, rethinking and troubling market-driven solutions
  2. Joint problem-making: Tinkering (cacharrear) with relations, materials, and environments for ‘mutual access’

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

  1. Technologies of friendship: A relation around the ‘how to’
  2. A DIY ecology of support: Attempting to become ‘self-managed guinea pigs’, and documenting the experience

As – Troublemaking

Experimental collaborations

  1. Activating wild research: Re-learning urban anthropology with others in times of crises
  2. Ethnography through fieldwork devices: Engendering ecologies of open documentation
  3. The pharmakon of collaboration: Thresholds and limits of experimentation


  1. Design in crisis: Becoming activated in a pedagogical mode
    1. Learning to be affected by bodily diversity
    2. Experimenting with architectural ‘intraventions’
  2. Troublemaking, preventing, refusing: Anthropology as a careful urban design practice?

Uncommoning urbanism: A manifesto for city-making with diverse bodies yet to come


Picture credits

Broken cracks, floor tiles (2018) by BURO 341 (a picture of a grey smashed floor tile)