The body and the city: The knowledge and politics of urban accessibility

In my work as an urban anthropologist, I have researched the relationship between different types of bodies and the city. Particularly, I study how technicians, activists and design teachers have become fascinated and mobilized with urban accessibility.

 Urban accessibility is a relevant domain for the social sciences for it has developed not only into (a) a political idiom of particular approaches to inclusive design following an aspiration for urban democracy and spatial justice; but also, into (b) the driver of many new forms of knowledge of and with diverse bodies, creating new forms of expertise in participatory urban design and government

 In my own ethnographic research, leading as well as supervising collaborative/public work on urban accessibility, I have I have unravelled its knowledge and political dimensions in four ways:

 (i) accessibility as a domain of technologized inclusion

Urban accessibility is usually understood as a domain of technologized solutions for inclusion many times conceived in a standardized fashion. My work shows how standard technical solutions might produce the paradoxical effect of segregating and disempowering the very collectives these designers seek to bring social justice and equity to.

 (ii) the institutionalization of accessibility and emergence of new forms of expertise

Urban accessibility developed into a particular concern for participatory and inclusive policy-making in institutions and normalisation agencies. Studying different cases, a cautionary take on modalities of expert-driven participation is put forward, as they might also imply newer configurations of exclusion.

 (iii) accessibility as a form of technoscientific activism.

Working closely with urban accessibility advocates, I have come to understand urban accessibility as a peculiar political domain: a form of technoscientific activism in design practice. Or, put differently, a kind of design practice that rather than drawing from existing protocols and procedures, entails opening up to an inquiry of plural methods and ways to make cities more hospitable for bodily diversity.

Working in that domain has also had a profound relevance to readdress my own work as an anthropologist (iv) experimenting with forms of collaborative and public ethnography.

Beyond continuing to research in these domains, I plan to expand my anthropological research on urban accessibility into a future line on ‘ageing cities.’

Funding Body: Agencia Estatal de Investigación – Plan Estatal de Investigación Científica, Técnica y de Innovación para el período 2021-2023

Programme: Ramón y Cajal

Reference: RYC2021-033410-I

Start date: 01/01/2023

End date: 31/12/2027

Funds: 236350€