Global Urban Humanities: Editing the City

Susan Schweik
August 22, 2013
Icon of a person in a wheelchair

To jump-start their conversation for an upcoming working session, the Arts Research Center asked participants in the Global Urban Humanities: Engaging the Humanities and Environmental Design Initiative to "reflect upon a keyword that provokes, confuses, inspires, and/or annoys you in current thinking about urban and/or urban arts engagement."  

Below Professor Susan Schweik muses on her chosen keywords, "Editing the City."

Recently New York City’s official adoption of a new disability accessibility icon has gotten a lot of press: a dynamic figure in a wheelchair zooming through blue space, in sharp contrast to the familiar poky, static handicapped parking-lot sign. (See, for instance, this example.) What I personally have found more interesting, though, is the deliberately unofficial approach advocated by one of the icon’s original designers, artist and researcher Sara Hendren at Harvard’s graduate school of design. She began, with collaborator Brian Glenney, with a graffiti-like sticker pasted informally over any old blue sign, with the old wheelchair icon still showing underneath. Hendren writes of the project to imagine and promote a different vision of disability and prosthesis: “There was something tempting, of course, about the idea of a wholesale re-design—just slap it on, and change the entire message. But I liked the deliberation in evolving the icon instead. I wanted to draw attention to the old image (since it’s one of those that’s at once familiar and utterly forgettable)—and to suggest its becoming something else. And then I stumbled on MONU journal [which]… named this very thing I’d been vaguely insisting on. MONU’s claiming that it’s urban editors, rather than urban planners, who are at work making our built environment. Freed from the grandiose mandate to create new utopias, replacing old with new, architects and planners of all kinds will be charged instead with ‘selecting, correcting, condensing, organizing, or modifying the existing urban material.’”  
“Editing” for Hendren is a kind of modest and free utopian enterprise (one very much in line with the kind of DIY ingenuity through which disabled people have always tweaked and mcgyvered the built environments around them). But editing, as deaf artist Joseph Grigely points out in his Textualterity, can also be understood as a process potentially antithetical to disability—eugenicists and neo-eugenicists “treat the body as a text,” Grigely writes, one that is “to be ‘edited’ eclectically” till it is perfect, in much the same way as “editors treat the text as a body (describing it in pathological terms).” In many ways, cities call for the editing of bodies in these terms.
What does it mean to be an urban editor, and how are these kinds of “urban editing” practices co-existing with and challenging (or not really, or hardly) “urban planning”? Is “editing” too modest or provisional a goal or process or tactic? In what ways can urban editors or planners build new modes of disability in rather than new ways of cutting disabled people off and out? 

For more reflections by participants in the Global Urban Humanities Initiative, visit the Arts Research Center's blog

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