2023-2027. The Body and the City (research line)

In my work as an STS-inspired urban anthropologist, I have been researching the relationship between different types of bodies and city-making in modernist Euro-American settings. More particularly, I have studied how, as a result of variegated activist struggles, technicians, activists and design teachers have become fascinated with and mobilised by bodily diversity, developing urban accessibility into: (a) a political idiom of particular approaches to urban design, many times enacting distinct forms of ‘technologized inclusion’ (e.g. through infrastructures of standards); and (b) a driver of more plural and experiential forms of knowledge, creating new forms of expertise in participatory urban design and government, following an aspiration for technical democracy and spatial justice.

As part of my Ramón y Cajal fellowship (RYC2021-033410-I, funded by the Spanish National Scientific, Technical and Innovation Research Programme 2021-2023) at the Open University of Catalonia’s CareNet-IN3 group, I will continue working in these domains. Indeed, I’m currently writing a book monograph, titled ‘An Uncommon City: Bodily Diversity and the Activation of Possible Urbanisms’, condensing my research on these topics in the last ten years.

I plan on expanding my interests towards the study of the genealogy and challenges of ageing-friendly cities / late life urbanism: Those urban arenas transformed for older people to thrive and be better taken care of beyond ageist configurations. Trying to locate this inquiry in particular fields and sites, I am interested in how most of these urban welfare-driven infrastructural developments have tended to happen by and for Euro-Americans: ranging from age-segregated resorts or senior co-housing projects to multi- and intergenerational dwellings, not to speak of accessible sidewalks or waterfronts, parks with shades and fountains, street benches, adjusted time traffic lights, and all kinds of modes of transportation (scooters or bikes, but also cruise-ships and low-floor buses). In studying them I wish to pay special attention to the mutual transformations of bodies and urban infrastructures that the Euro-American ‘baby boomers’ are both an effect and a vector of. More on this below.

An Inquiry into Boomer Landscapes

I am particularly invested in approaching this—in collective and individual research projects—from the study of landscape. I believe this might enable to investigate a twofold relation—in between patchy, more than human planetary entanglements, and detached human exceptionalist enclaves—that might allow telling other stories of the perhaps most ambiguous and allegedly-benevolent side of the modern project: Welfare, which in spite of its many incarnations, chronical incompleteness and violence, technocratic or neoliberal predicaments, remains central in Euro-American ways of life, particularly for the post-war generations. But with this term I refer not just to the assemblage of social policies (pensions or unemployment benefits), public healthcare, education, or secure employment; rather, to the mode of inhabiting these have enabled.

Whereas in STS and Anthropology care practices and politics are regularly discussed drawing on environmental and ecological metaphors—so as to describe who cares where in more than human configurations, as well the forms of neglect and attention there enacted— what if we took ecological tropes more seriously to provide alternative readings of Welfare beyond social policy, interpersonal and human-machine configurations? Could ‘ecologizing Welfare’ enable perhaps to re-appreciate the side-effects of ‘the more careful’ side of the modern project, where ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’, as the saying goes? How to engage in an exploration of these assemblages without debunking and dismissing the many potential goods Welfare as a project of life protection might have entailed?

To do this, we might want to follow the steps of Bruno Latour ‘bringing Welfare down to Earth:’ in attempts at describing, using the collaborative repertoires of the social sciences and the arts, the peculiar terraforming effects of Welfare. Thus unfolding, in great detail, the minutiae of the planetary transformation Welfare has enabled: on the one hand, changing bodies, territories and interspecies relations; on the other hand, setting in motion a vast infrastructural machinery whose problematic and exclusionary environmental effects are seldom known, or shadowed by the many goods it fosters. That’s where a descriptive approach to the historiographic and ethnographic study of landscape could be of great relevance.

On the one hand, the study of landscape might be a relevant scale of analysis to describe the emergence through time of ‘situated biologies’ of ageing, happening as an effect of modernist Welfare arrangements for older people to thrive in the last decades—from mundane and professional care practices, active ageing policies, and social technologies to vastly urbanised and environmental public health interventions or forms of governmentality—, enabling people to age ‘more’ and ‘better’ than never before: where particular enactments of Welfare result over time in peculiar bodily configurations and terraformed landscapes? But also, on the other hand, to pay attention to emergent vulnerabilities of ageing bodies that arise within those terraformed welfare landscapes, now increasingly prone to anthropogenic disaster—ranging from extreme weather events to pandemics: where given Welfare assemblages result in catastrophic urban environments, especially for certain bodies?

I wish to excavate the experimentation with modes of inhabiting and care emerging in those sites, since they might be paving the way for an ecologically-aware Welfare otherwise: exploring their crucial environmental predicaments and challenges, as well as intergenerational promises and hopes. I call this an inquiry into boomer landscapes. Even if the term ‘boomer’ has recently acquired derogatory connotations, what interests me is to approach the double-edged hopes around Welfare that this particular generation has carried forth, and how bodies and territories have become tangled up as a result. Certainly, whilst the research process, its collaborations, and more concrete project applications might further specify, change or expand these plans, there are two Spanish cases helping me think through this, and which I would like to study in detail.

First, I want to pay attention to the urbanisation of the Costa Blanca in Alicante, dubbed The Pensioners’ Coast: one the main attractors to the Mediterranean sunbelt, luring senior tourists and pensioners from Central and Northern Europe since the 1960s, as well as migrant workers to provide care services for them, forming interesting enclaves beyond Benidorm (its best-known spot, which has gone from being ridiculed as a brutalist mass tourism high-rise jungle to being admired as a compact sustainable retirement metropolis). Doing archival work and collaborating with different actors of the region, I aim to describe the history of experiments with care, and the mutual transformations of older bodies and environments that have been underway along the 200 km-long coastline, resulting in many personal and public care infrastructures, from dwellings to the beach, materialising diverse dreams of the good life and interdependence; hence arranging places where accessibility becomes landscape, in different senses of the term: from the more infrastructural or territorial interventions to community-driven eco-villages.

Second, I am interested in addressing the public health struggles to protect older bodies in places suffering from everyday starker heat waves or the problems of urban heat island effects, a harmful side-effect of modernist urban developments. This is the reason why I plan to do multi-sensory research on the complex and hard to grasp ways in which these bodies have featured or have been central in recent attempts at researching urban climate and the effects of heat on human health, thus leading to the design and implementation of a vast network of climate shelters in the metropolitan area of Barcelona, addressing children and older people amongst their target users. This might be relevant to appreciate in a historiographical span, given the city’s social-democratic tradition of public infrastructural development, a pioneer in Europe in inquiring and dealing with heat weaves. Beyond this, I’m also interested in understanding how these shelters might be part of wider and more mundane intergenerational approaches to ‘weathering’ with heat, where care becomes an atmospheric inquiry.

But this preliminary list is likely to change or grow over time as the inquiry progresses…