DSQ > Winter 2008, Volume 28, No.1

From a disability perspective, what might a vision for the "good city" look like at the start of the twenty-first century? What does the idea of "inclusive city life" mean? This paper argues that the city is under-theorized by Disability Studies, and therefore suggests the field needs to reflect more about city life; examine the interconnections between urban settlement and disablement; and imagine the possibilities, within specific social contexts, for enhanced inclusion and citizenship in city spaces. I use Michael Ignatieff's work on the solidarity of strangers and Iris Marion Young's conception of city life as "a being together of strangers in openness to group differences" to examine ideas about social differences, democratic politics, and inclusion in the public realms of urban Canada.


Industrial societies are urban-dominated societies where organizational networks and institutional structures controlled in urban centres significantly affect and shape most of life for most people (Greer, 1989). Of Canada's three levels of public government, urban governance has received far less attention than the federal government and provincial governments by academics, though that appears to be changing in political science and public administration (Andrew et al, 2002; Bradford, 2004; Hiller, 2005; Lorinc, 2006; McAllister, 2004). In the advocacy efforts of the disability community and the academic analyses in Disability Studies, the city and urban politics remain relatively overlooked and under-theorized as a form of economic and social organizations, a site for policy making, and a fundamental spatial context of everyday human relations.

In this paper, I wish to identify and briefly examine four such viewpoints on city life. My examination is of perspectives on the relations among urban society, the notion of strangers in cities, and social exclusion/inclusion, particularly as they relate to people with disabilities.

Perspectives on City Life

Urban life has always had supporters and detractors. Differing perspectives to understanding cities derive from two analytical dimensions: one distinguishes between studies that are basically pessimistic toward the nature of urbanism and other studies that are relatively more positive about city life; the second dimension distinguishes between studies that chronologically and or conceptually focus on modernist notions of urbanization and those that emphasize post-modernism and identity politics. The characteristics of these two dimensions, when joined, produce four general categories of viewpoints on cities.

The first perspective I call Lonely Crowds: this is the original view on urbanization first expressed in sociology and echoed in other fields that urban life inevitably results in alienation and social isolation. People with disabilities are commonly ignored in this approach. The second is called Vibrant Communities: this is a more positive look at the features of diverse neighbourhoods and urban villages located within large cities. While this perspective celebrates diversities in city life, again people with disabilities are largely overlooked. The third, Excluded Others: this is a post-modernist critique of urban society which emphasizes how many groups, including the disabled, are constructed as "Others" who are then often segregated and subjected to coercive controls. The fourth perspective is Diverse Civic Publics: this too is a post-modernist view of urbanity, though one fairly optimistic at root about the potential for recognizing the needs and rights of social groups, including people with disabilities.

Perspectives 1 (Lonely Crowds) and 3 (Excluded Others), one rooted in modernity, the other in post-modernism, both regard urbanization and cities as producing exclusions extensively, enforcing numerous forms of social closure, and exacerbating social distances amongst different groups (Hughes, 2002). By contrast, Perspectives 2 (Vibrant Communities) and 4 (Diverse Civic Publics) present a positive recognition of diversities in urban communities and, on the whole, are optimistic about the possibility of including assorted groups within mainstream city life.

In relation to the history of theorizing on cities, Perspective 1 (Lonely Crowds) is the oldest, with roots in urban sociology from at least the 1920s and Perspective 2 (Vibrant Communities) emerging in the 1960s in large part in reaction to the first approach. Both share many core ideas and assumptions of 20th century modernism. In neither of these viewpoints do people with disabilities really figure.

The Lonely Crowds perspective on urbanism, however, would readily explain the institutionalization and segregation of many people with mental disabilities as the result of the weakening or breakdown of family supports and rural community networks, the rise of charitable organizations in cities and the emergence of various helping professions. In addition, modernist ideas and practices, as expressed in urban planning and design resulted in "disablist cities" with exclusionary spaces for people with disabilities (Imrie, 1996). The Vibrant Communities perspective, though celebratory of differences conspicuously ignores persons with disabilities whether they be in asylums or other institutions or living at home. This is common in modernist writing on cities and urbanism which, when attention is given to social differences, they typically concern race, age, social class, and gender.

On the other hand, Perspectives 3 (Excluded Others) and 4 (Diverse Civic Publics) are recent post-modernist approaches emergent since the 1980s, addressing the identities and experiences of people with disabilities more routinely and explicitly. Perspective 3 (Excluded Others), for example, includes works that examine the impact of urban industrialism in relegating people with disabilities to the fringes of the competitive economy and labour markets (Ross, 2005). The shift from modernism to postmodernism is reflected in the changing discourse in land-use planning and urban development policy in Canada, Britain and elsewhere, from a concern with imposing order on urban growth and basing decisions on the technical and expert rationality of engineers and planners, to a greater emphasis on fostering environmental sustainability, encouraging cultural diversity and promoting social harmony in urban centres (Graham et al, 1998; Filion, 1999).

Perspective 1, cities as lonely crowds, which goes back to the 1920s, is the classic approach to interpreting urban life, represented by the works of Simmel, Wirth and others of the Chicago School of Sociology, plus Packard, and Riesman. A major focus of this approach is on the remoteness and unfamiliarity of urban centres and, therefore, the detachment of people in cities. The Chicago writers developed the theory of "social disorganization" for interpreting urban life in terms of the breakdown of institutions that traditionally encouraged cooperation, resulting in individual isolation (Bulmer, 1987).

Wirth theorized and popularized the notion of urbanism as a way of life associated with large cities, a life style of values and behaviours characterized by personal stress, aloofness and indifference in social relationships.

Riesman (1955) coined the concept "the lonely crowd" in reference to middle class people employed in white collar work living in larger cities and metropolitan centres in the United States. Riesman warned that people are or can be lonely in a crowd, even of one's associates, if they are not attentive to their own feelings and aspirations, and fail to pursue actively their individual autonomy and social freedom. A generation later, the popular sociologist Vance Packard (1974) warned that big-city life in North America was increasing anonymity and isolation; eroding old familiar neighbourhoods; and weakening stable communities within cities.

By contrast, Jane Jacobs (1961) exemplifies Perspective 2 (Vibrant Communities), offering a great deal more positive viewpoint of actual and potential benefits of mass urban centres and city life. Jacobs, in a critique of conventional modernist planning, argued for city forms that incorporated and encouraged diversity, density and democracy. Jacobs advocates for diverse and multi-functional neighbourhoods, with mixed-use development and variety in local facilities and uses to ensure social cohesions, security and economic development. She favours high urban density with short blocks, extensive park spaces and a vibrant public transit system and strongly promotes an active role of citizen participation in planning processes and decisions. Jacobs also believes that most diversity in a city emerges outside of public policy and government structures, through the interaction of countless individuals, groups, private organizations and their divergent ideas and intentions.

Much of these interactions, though, take place in public spaces. Lyn Lofland stresses this idea in her affirmative outlook of living amidst strangers, persons personally unknown to one another. She writes: "The locus of the city as a world of strangers resides in the city's public space. It is here, primarily, that the drama of strangers in the midst of strangers is played out" (Lofland, 1973: x). In more precise terms, she defines the urban world of strangers as the city's public spaces, "those areas of a city which, in the main, all persons have legal access" (Lofland, 1973: 19). Implied in this analysis is the idea of accessible and inclusive spaces, an interpretation of city life with noteworthy implications for Disability Studies.

Perspective 3 (Excluded Others) and 4 (Diverse Civic Publics), as postmodernist approaches, are both skeptical of contemporary urbanity, although Perspective 3 is more a pessimistic critique of the past and present period, while Perspective 4 gives somewhat more optimistic emphasis on possibilities of progressive change for the future. Of course, both approaches critically question the idea of a universal experience of city living, deconstructing the notion of urbanism as "a way of life" and rejecting it as a credible master narrative of urbanization and cities. As well, both postmodernist approaches question the expert power of urban planners and the taken for granted beliefs of progress through economic growth and development. Strangers are culturally constructed and, in an urban context, spatially contained.

Behind today's rhetoric of celebrating multiculturalism and other differences, of recognizing fluidity in social categories, and of valuing plurality in belief systems, Excluded Others writers point to the persistence of inequalities and relations of domination in urban societies. Cities continue to be places of exploitation and exclusion for many women, the poor, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, indigenous peoples, and persons with mental and physical disabilities. In this approach, persons with disabilities remain largely defined and governed by bio-medical and personal tragedy models, despite the rise of rights-talk and renewed attention by academics and activists to the ideal and status of "full citizenship" in the past 20 years. True, some changes and reforms have occurred, yet the policy and practice world remains decidedly categorical, regulatory and stigmatizing for Canadians with disabilities. Cultural practices based in notions of order, health, and normality still include tendencies of "othering" people: to confine, invalidate, exclude, and fix individuals and groups of people seen as having differences and deficiencies (Barton, 1993; Hughes, 2002; Prince, 2006).

Perspective 3 (and Perspective 4) literature draws attention to the rise of oppositional politics in resistance to the restructuring of state service, as well as to the legacies of modernity that remain rooted in exclusionary ideas and practices. Turner (2002), for example, is just one of several authors that points to the commercialization of downtown lands and the contraction of public places within cities, motivated by the desire to boost development and generate revenues. Other writers, in a similar vein, discuss processes of the privatization of public spaces, the marketization of social relationships, and the production of "bounded and barriered spaces" (Imrie, 2000 and 2001). From this standpoint, cities are multiple sites of segregation for persons with disabilities as revealed in welfare state rollbacks, social program cuts and the offloading of responsibilities for public provision onto communities, private firms, voluntary agencies and families (Isin, 1992; Leonard, 1997; Lorinc, 2006).

Diverse Civic Publics, Perspective 4, is the upbeat side of postmodernist critique, offering a progressive future direction for cities and urban life. While sharing many elements with the third perspective, notably the critical analysis, this approach is generally more optimistic about the capacity of local governments and social organizations to shape events, and create cities "where ordinary citizens can lead dignified and creative lives" (Short, 1989: 1). Gerometta, Haussermann and Longo (2005) note that cities are "places of crisis" due to welfare stare restraints, but go on to describe cities as "multiplex places" and as "arenas of social movements and other civil society social experiments." In this account, cities are webs of diverse social groups and relationships where community groups promote issues of social justice, rights and legal guarantees to public services. The assumption is that city structures and spaces are somewhat flexible and adaptable, subject to critique and change.

Wharf, a social work scholar, adopts what he calls "an admittedly optimistic approach" in arguing that through their local organizations citizens can influence social services and community conditions, thereby better preparing them to influence even grand policy issues at the level of the nation state (Wharf, 1992: 10). From case studies on municipal governments, voluntary organizations, social planning councils, neighbourhood-based associations, urban interest groups and social movements, Wharf sees myriad participatory opportunities for citizens to influence policy making.

Disability Studies and Urban Perspectives: Drawing Out Themes

There is no obvious and dominant conception of urbanism and city life expressed in Disability Studies; what we most often find is an implicit amalgam of ideas on what urbanism does or could mean for community inclusion, social cohesion, citizenship and opportunities for self-development. For Disability Studies, the city past and present is a site of many contradictions: comforts and constraints, opportunities and oppressions.

The Disability Studies literature is not nostalgic for an "idyllic past" of pre-urban community living or city life expressed by Perspective 1 (Lonely Crowds) and at times implied by Perspective 2 (Vibrant Communities), the image of the closely knit community characterized by "happy harmony." The history of urbanization for people with disabilities involves a history of institutional segregation, sterilization, charitable responses to needs, stigma and prejudice, and the medicalization of conditions and identities. Urbanization, as a shift from agricultural to industrial labour, fundamentally altered the nature of paid work, family relationships and social networks, producing new impairments associated with factory work and raising issues, from the logic of capitalism, about the employability of people with handicaps (Barnes, Mercer and Shakespeare, 1999). There are few regrets over the passing of these elements of past community life. Many features of "the good old days" were far from good for many people with disabilities. Much of what cities and communities contained and offered in these good old days, were out of bounds for many people with disabilities.

Disability Studies scholars approach the issue of mobility as both a policy principle and a social process that warrants critical scrutiny rather than accepted as a given and simply understood as part of the definition of urbanization. Perspective 1, for example, takes for granted as a straightforward phenomenon the frequent geographical movement of people across living arrangements and locations in North America. According to this perspective, the easy and frequent mobility of people leads to uprooted-ness, a loss of community identity and consequently social fragmentation (Packard, 1974). Disability scholars, in comparison, question the ability to move about both within a city and across cities, even in the aftermath of deinstitutionalization initiatives. Furthermore, mobility is a cherished value and policy goal eluding many people with disabilities. Movement geographically across areas, programmatically across services, and developmentally across life stages and ages can offer, under supportive contexts, benefits of continuity, belonging and a sense of social integration.

Present city living is not idealized either. Urban society still contains any number of what Michel Foucault (1984) called zones of darkness and disorder — misconceptions, fears, silences, obstructions and barriers to recognition, respect and resources. The social model of disability emphasizes how people with impairments are disabled by the failure of societal arrangements to accommodate their needs. In this model, cities are places of socially created and culturally imposed barriers that produce inequalities, disadvantages and exclusions from full participation. The model's theoretical interest lends itself to a consideration of how built environments inhibit the ability of persons with a disability to get around a neighbourhood; to whether transport systems assist or prevent people with disabilities from getting around the city as regularly as they would like; and if community facilities, such as schools, libraries, parks and community arenas, provide adequate supports and assistance for participation by children, youth and adults with disabilities (Crawford, 2006).

While Disability Studies is critical of urban societies, the field is not so profoundly disaffected as to outright reject the existing system. The field shares some of the optimism of Perspective 3 (Excluded Others) and certainly Perspective 4 (Diverse Civic Publics) of what might be possible; of what reforms and innovations might be achievable to obtain more accessible and inclusive cities and diverse urban environments. City life potentially offers a wide range of opportunities for participation in cultural, economic, political and social activities and relationships. There is a faith perhaps in what city life should be and can be like. There is an expectation that public and private organizations tackle attitudinal, physical and institutional barriers; that existing public spaces are preserved and new spaces for social access and interaction created, serving to promote a sense of belonging and acceptance of differences (Beall, 1997). The city need not be inevitably or solely an "impersonal and de-humanizing" place that alienates individuals or certain groups.

Still another urban-related theme in Disability Studies is that a city of strangers is not necessarily a rootless place in which people are unconnected to other people. Cities contain all sorts of strangers, and this need not result in coldness in social interactions, anxieties in interpretations or loss of self (Allen, 2004; Riesman, 1955). As Jane Jacobs (1961) first reminded us many years ago, even the largest cities have countless networks of small-group life and social affiliations. Social differences between groups of people need not create social distances, if public institutions affirm such differences and they are meaningfully reflected in cultural activities and symbols.

The Being Together of Strangers: Diverse Civic Publics

The idea of strangers appears in all four perspectives on urban life. In Perspective 1 (Lonely Crowds), strangers are the automatic result of the massing together of large numbers of people from different locales and backgrounds. Strangers are created and maintained by the modern lifestyle associated with urbanism: the new arrivals, the foreigners, the visitors and tourists, the outcasts. We all become and are strangers. In Perspective 2 (Vibrant Communities), the "ideal street is [one] full of strangers passing through, of people of many different classes, ethnic groups, ages, beliefs and life-styles" (Berman, 1988: 323). Lofland (1973) writes of the infrequent strangers as well as the constant strangers in city life. In the words of Jane Jacobs: "The streets must not only defend the city against predatory strangers, they must protect the many, many peaceable and well-meaning strangers who use them, insuring their safety too as they pass through" (1961: 36). Perspective 3 (Excluded Others), as discussed earlier, sees strangers in relation to processes of "othering" and systemic exclusion.

I wish to consider Perspective 4, Diverse Civic Publics, in more detail through an examination of Michael Ignatieff and Iris Marion Young's ideas on city life and the politics of difference. As a form of social relationships, Young conceives of city life as "the being together of strangers in openness to group differences" and, at one point in her analysis, describes politics as "a relationship of strangers" (Young, 1990: 256 and 234).

Young readily admits that contemporary American cities fall well short of the normative ideal of this perspective, in reality containing and reproducing many injustices, although she believes that the ideals of city life as the togetherness of strangers "are realized incidentally and intermittently in some cities today" (1990: 241).

"In the city," writes Young, "persons and groups interact within spaces and institutions they all experience themselves as belonging to, but without those interactions dissolving into unity of commonness" (1990: 237). Several premises are contained in this statement. One is that people, as individuals and in groups, have the capacity and opportunity to participate and interact with other people. A second is that sufficient and accessible public spaces and institutions exist throughout cities to enable the being together. A democratic politics, Young stresses "crucially depends on the existence of spaces and forums to which everyone has access" to participate — to speak, listen and bear witness (1990: 240). A third premise is that such interactions generate common experiences of belonging, a basic component of citizenship according to most commentators on the topic. Certainly, for people with disabilities, these public spaces require supports, services and likely adaptations to enable all to speak, to listen and bear witness, regardless of their abilities and capacities. The fourth premise is that individuals and groups participating in such public places and institutions are able, at the same time, to maintain a sense of their own distinctiveness, special status or group identity. Perspective 4 therefore contains, as do the other perspectives, a number of empirical perquisites, behavioural expectations and normative claims.

Politics of Difference and Inclusion in City Life

For Young, the ideal of city life is an urban population and environment that features social differentiation of groups without adverse exclusions. Individual and group differences are readily accepted and a diversity of activities and uses of public spaces adequately supported. To promote social justice in the city, this politics of difference "lays down institutional and ideological means for recognizing and affirming diverse social groups by giving political representation to these groups, and celebrating their distinctive characteristics" (Young 1990: 240). In the admittedly unrealized vision of this perspective, city life avoids objectifying and essentializing the other.

This logic of inclusion values difference and variety over sameness. While recognizing in a positive way social group differences, Young does not romanticize such differences or ignore power relations among groups and issues of domination; nor does she reduce social groups to an essential unity, ignoring differences within a group or social category. Rejecting hard and fast dualisms, Young conceptualizes differences "as the relatedness of things with more or less similarity in a multiplicity of possible respects" (Young, 1990: 98). While affirming group identities, this notion of differences enables her to avoid binary oppositions and the dangers of isolating and fragmenting human associations. Strangers in the city are more or less similar in many possible ways. So, for Young, the ideal city life includes the virtues of social differentiation without exclusion; variety in the use of spaces; the eroticism of novelty and excitement; and publicity in the sense of access to public spaces (1990: 238-41).

Ignatieff offers a similar vision of general inclusion realized through the acceptance of particular differences. In our urban societies of strangers, Ignatieff claims people "feel common belonging and mutual responsibility to each other" based on human difference, not so much on some abstract doctrines of the common identity of abstract subjects. As social beings, he suggests, "our obligations to each other are always based on difference," and it is difference which define responsibilities and obligations in specific times and places (Ignatieff, 1986: 28). "Only when difference has its home," says Ignatieff (1986: 131), "can our common identity begin to find its voice." The inclusive city then is one where difference has a home thus enabling the development of a sense of common belonging.

Among the ideas and values that constitute the concept of an inclusive city are accessibility, multi-functionality, equity, partiality and universality. Jones and Payne remark on the meaning of cities as physical spaces for people with disabilities: "Accessibility is therefore a vital key in such interaction. Disabled people in urban environments face considerable discrimination regarding mobility and accessing infrastructure and services" (1997: 134). The following open letter to Canadian politicians at all levels of government underscores a number of jarring realities of the inaccessible city:

I used to adore Toronto. As an able-bodied person, it was relatively simple to get around and I appreciated having access to all Toronto had to offer. I didn't pay attention to the lack of elevators, escalators and ramps. I am 30 years old and have multiple sclerosis now. I am no longer able-bodied but disabled. These days I use a cane or walker to aid my gait, making uncomplicated things more demanding. I now despise Toronto due to its lack of accessibility. I miss the things I once loved and want to enjoy them again but I cannot because establishments are inaccessible. Why am I being penalized for a disease that caused me to become disabled? Why is this kind of discrimination allowed?

I am appalled and frustrated at the lack of barrier free sites in this city, province and country.

The voters elected you into a privileged position to represent all people. You have a responsibility to disabled voters to address fundamental needs. We are being ignored, and I refuse to be treated as a "second class citizen." What will your course of action be? (Bernard and Bernard 2005: 5).

This letter vividly illustrates the "disabling city" — the urban setting that restricts, ignores and excludes people with disabilities from regular participation in everyday social, cultural, economic and recreational activities. The letter expresses elements of a social model of disability analysis, drawing attention to the importance of supports in the built environment, attitudes of city residents, and the actions and inactions of policy makers in shaping how much a person with a disability has difficulty in living, working, playing, studying and generally moving about a city. Pursuing and realizing accessibilities in cities involve, as planners and geographers point out, personal costs and public and private sector costs in time, travel, finances and other resources, of which some are direct and tangible, and others indirect and more subtle (Stewart, 1972; Harvey, 1973).

We easily can read into this letter Young's view of social justice as requiring inclusive policies and Ignatieff's view of politics as "the art of representing the needs of strangers," specifying essential human needs "in a language of political and social rights" guided by commitments to "a decent and humane society" (1986: 12-13). What Young says of her own country, the United States, applies to a greater or lesser degree to Canada and other nations: "Our society is only beginning to change the practice of keeping the physically and mentally disabled out of public view" (1990: 120).

Furthermore, in Young's terminology, the inclusive city and urban space embraces "human particularity," that is to say, "the plurality of moral subjects," plus the ambiguity, variability and specificity of people (Young, 1990: 111). The civic public, she sees in terms of the subjectivity of bodily aspects of the human condition and the specificity of "particular experiences and histories that constitute a situation" (Young, 1990: 100). Young illustrates a growing body of literature that puts forth a model of social inclusion committed to an experiential perspective on issues and contexts. Such a stance, based on attachment, culture and passion in addition to "objective" policy analysis and administrative reason, fits with the interests and goals of the disability movement as well as the social model of disability.

The inclusive home for this subjective difference rests on the foundational value of universality which, for Young, refers to all persons being of equal moral worth; the participation of everyone in social life; and the needs, desires and viewpoints of all groups recognized in encounters with others, on equal terms and conditions of power (Young, 1990: 105-06). Likewise, Ignatieff emphasizes "the democratic requirement of informed consent" while also acknowledging that another element of politics is "the art of representing the needs of strangers" including, at times, "the perilous business of speaking on behalf of needs which strangers have had no chance to articulate on their own" (Ignatieff, 1986: 12).

Thus, a fundamental goal in the vision of an inclusive city is the prevention and reduction of discrimination that occurs when people are unfairly treated because they are viewed through the dominant culture as having a spoiled identity, because institutional practices disenfranchise them of a voice in politics and policy making, because the environment presents barriers and obstacles to their daily living and active participation in the market economy and civil society.


This analysis has offered an initial look at how the "sociology of the stranger" might assist Disability Studies in thinking about the social construction and everyday context of exclusion/inclusion and normality/abnormality. The stranger is not a unitary or essential category: numerous kinds of strangers in cities and communities were noted from this sociological literature. This multiplicity unquestionably resonates with the diversities of impairments and disablement experiences of various social groups, families and individuals.

Potential contributions of Disability Studies to the study of city life are abundant and still at the beginning stages of discovery and applications. Though this paper has been conceptual and theoretical, elements of a policy agenda can be discerned. Much of the literature on livable cities gives little consideration to people with disabilities, and so Disability Studies can advance understanding of urban politics, in highlighting the significance of land use development (Turner, 2002), public transit and other services (Crawford, 2006; Wickham, 2006) for local citizenship as well as national issues of social policy. Investigating these ideas can help craft strategies for community mobilization on accessible and affordable housing, cultural and recreational facilities, and education and employment opportunities.


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