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city spaces, city living, disability, pace bias

City spaces, pace bias, and the production of disability

How does our body shape our experience of living in a city? How do urban spaces support or undermine the well-being and agency of people with bodies of particular shapes and capacities? Most obviously, spaces may be inaccessible to wheelchair users or those with other kinds of limited mobility. But there are all sorts of other ways in which spaces can include or exclude those with different capacities. Deaf people need to be able to see one another to converse, so their ability to use spaces with narrow, single-file-only walking areas for normal kinds of social interactions is curtailed. Noisy or chaotic areas may be unusable for people with sensory processing disorders. Theaters with small seats, or hotels or hospitals with narrow beds, may be unusable by large people.

More generally, Susan Wendell argues,

The public world is the world of strength, performance, and production … We have built spaces around the idea that “normal” bodies can lift things, move quickly, and be available any time for ‘production.’ Public space has been structured as though no one of any importance in the public world… has to breast feed a baby or look after a sick child…. Much of the public world is also structured as though everyone were physically strong, as though all bodies were shaped the same, as though everyone could walk, hear, and see well, as though everyone could work and play at a pace that is not compatible with any kind of illness or pain, as though no one were ever dizzy or incontinent or simply needed to sit or lie down. (For instance, where could you rest for a few minutes in a supermarket if you needed to?).

Wendell, 1997, 40

Her point about supermarkets was especially striking to me when I first read it; everyone needs food, yet we have created physical spaces for obtaining food that are built upon ableist assumptions, and around the principle of getting people through the store as quickly and efficiently as possible, never mind who gets excluded or left behind. These assumptions of ability and “productivity” are built into the material form of most of our shared city spaces, and into our embodied norms for how to use them.

I want to focus on one fascinating dimension along which bodies are included in or excluded from spaces, namely pace. Wendell explores pace differences as a socially powerful form of bodily diversity, and pace bias as a pervasive form of ableism. She points out that we are trained up to value speed of work and motion, and we treat those who move or “produce” at a slower pace as less valuable, rather than as simply temporally different.

My recognition of pace bias in myself when I read Wendell’s book was a major revelation for me; while I had tried to critically reflect on my own racism, sexism, fatphobia, and the like, it had never occurred to me that my own pride in my fast pace, and my frustration with those who moved or talked slowly (whether because of biological or cultural differences), was a form of ableist bigotry. But the quality and value of what one does isn’t connected in any obvious way to how fast one does it. It is an internalized piece of insidious capitalist ideology to think that those who are slower-paced are less valuable because they are less “productive.”

City spaces each have their own entrenched pace. Places are structured by what David Seamon calls place ballets—bodily habits and routines that are intertwined with their environments. People move in distinctive ways in train stations, grocery stores, and school yards, for instance, and these movements are shaped by and give meaning to the physical structure of these spaces. You cannot coherently move as you would in a grocery store if you’re standing on a train platform, and vice-versa: place ballets are essentially constituted by the material places in which they are situated. The point that is important to me here is that place ballets have a rhythm and a pace to them. This pace, although culturally variable, usually develops around the assumption that these spaces are for traditional “productive” bodies, and that faster is better. If someone cannot keep up with the pace of a space’s place ballets then this will put them out of sync with that space and make it less usable for them. This mismatch between the pace of a person and the pace of a space may literally produce disability, even in someone who would not be disabled in a space with a slower-paced place ballet. 

We see this regularly in busy city spaces, where some bodies can’t keep up, and get pushed around or left behind. To some extent, this kind of exclusion is no one’s “fault.” City spaces develop paced place ballets through slow sedimentation, and we cannot plausibly expect everyone to slow down to match the pace of someone slower than the norm. The problem is that a slower pace is not just a mere difference that causes a spatial mismatch; it is deeply disvalued. City spaces don’t just happen to be fast paced; this fast pace is valued as integral to “productivity.” Because speed is valued by most users of city spaces, the pace of their place ballets is maximized. As the pace of a space increases, a larger number of people can’t keep up, and more people end up disabled by their material context. Capitalist ideology thus produces disability, as well as a built-in lack of interest in accommodating this kind of disability. 

There are ways in which we could remake spaces to accommodate a wider range of paces, without directly altering people’s “normal” pace. To give one example, on university campuses, classes are generally scheduled ten minutes apart, on the assumption that ten minutes is how long it takes a “normal” student to hurry across campus. Notice that hurrying is taken without question as the way that an able-bodied student should move through campus space. This scheduling directly shuts slower-paced students out of many classes. Increasing the time between classes to twenty minutes, even if this is more than most people strictly speaking need, would directly reduce disability on campus and accommodate more students. 

While some spaces can be re-paced, it seems to me impossible that all spaces can be designed to accommodate all bodies and all paces. Some spaces will be fast-paced by their essential nature: the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, in virtue of its function, it’s material structure, and its entrenched practices, will always be an extremely fast-paced space. But the goal of creating inclusive cities is not to create cities in which everyone is at home in and able to use all spaces, despite starry-eyed myths of universal design. It’s ok that cities are to some extent territorialized, and that some spaces have insiders and outsiders; having our own territory within our city is an essential part of living well within it. The Black men’s barbershop down the street from me is not a space for me; my boxing gym is not a space for wheelchair users, and that’s ok. That some spaces must remain fast-paced is not itself an injustice. 

Supporting every city dweller’s right to be included in their city means making sure as best we can that everyone has meaningful access to a wide range of spaces, sufficient to support a flourishing urban life. We need to recognize that right now, access to spaces is not just differentiated, but unequal, in the sense that privileged city dwellers have more and better access to a wider range of spaces, and more agency within those spaces. In particular, people with fast-based, non-disabled, normatively shaped and sized bodies have privileged access to most city spaces. We must think about who spaces are built by and for, and who they have come to accommodate as they have developed place ballets over time. We need to build cities that allow everyone access to a variety of spaces that support their well-being and agency.

Recent Comments

  1. Adrian Chriswell

    This is just an utterly fascinatingly new concept for me, and I presume most others, and yet so patently obvious as it was read.
    As a 57-year old ‘island boy’ who spent long and short durations in European and American large cities, I also now understand the ‘vast inpact’ empty spaces brings and why an empty West Indian beach is more recharging than a crowded Florida beach.

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