Right to the city: a disability perspective.

Inger Marie Lid, Associate Professor, Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences, ingermarie.lid@hioa.no

Professor Edward Soja was in Oslo a few weeks ago and gave a guest lecture at University of Oslo, Faculty of Theology. The lecture and following discussion included topics on spatial justice and right to the city. In his book Seeking spatial justice (2010:75), Soja notes that early ideas about justice have revolved around urban-based civil rights and the actions of citizenry in a public realm (civil society). According to Soja, these ideas represent one of the earliest notions of specifically spatial justice, a conception of social justice in which geography matters in significant ways.

Soja is deeply inspired by the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre, who coined the notion of right to the city. Lefebvre argues that the right to the city cannot be conceived of as a simple visiting right or as a return to traditional cities. It can only be formulated as a transformed and renewed right to urban life (Henri Lefebvre 2006: 158). A right to the city is interpreted by Lefebvre as a right to urban life, human life in urban materiality. Thus right to the city involves spatial justice. What needs further analysis is that the notion of right to the city also involves a concept of person. Who is the person who should enjoy a renewed right to urban life?

In a city street we can identify values that come to work in urban places. One example is the white stripes in the pedestrian crossing that can be seen as a result of planning and as an expression of value. The urban streets are value based places communicating through design and artifacts that the intended user is, in this case, the pedestrian. The message is that pedestrians should have their place in urban areas and be protected as equal street-users.

From a disability perspective it is crucial to include vulnerability and human embodiment in this concept of person. In the UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD), article 1, person with disabilities are described as: “those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.”

According to CRPD, disability emerges in an interaction that involves vulnerable persons’ experiences of physical structure and social interactions. Body in placemeans friction. Disability involves bodies in place, close interactions and therefore also friction. Disability as human condition challenges also the right to the city. What do the urban places represent for citizens? A city involves private and public life, density, friction and community. A city encompasses work place, culture life, leisure time, restaurants, private life, homes and homelessness, humans, environments and politics.

The right to the city is twofold: It involves a right to be included in the intended citizen concept that informs the politicians and planners and a right to take part in the work to change and form the city as a human works, a product.

Can universal design as a strategy be productive in arguing for a right to the city as a right to urban life? Universal Design is both a technique for inclusion and it is about ethics. Following CRPD, accessibility can be interpreted as a right encompassing physical access to the city as built environment, as well as the access to political processes. Thus, accessibility relates the individual to the environment in spatial, social and ethical terms.

In his famous novel from 1851, Moby-Dick, Herman Melville discusses the differences between fast fish and loose fish stating that:

1. A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it.

2. A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.

Then he moves further by involving human rights in his discussion, arguing that:

What are the Rights of Man but Loose-Fish?

According to Melville, as loose fish, the Rights of Man is fair game for anybody who can catch it. It can be fruitful to approach both universal design and CRPD as a loose fish and strive to catch this fish by interpreting it involving a concept of person informed by recognition of plurality and (dis)abilities as human condition. Here remains a call for empirical and theoretical studies. How can urban research be stronger informed by disability perspectives?