Towards a hospitable and inclusive city [EN]

In this brief essay, we will examine how the concept of hospitality can contribute to our understanding of urban environments as we strive for more inclusive cities. ‘Hospitality’ refers here not only to a personal virtue, but more generally to a quality of environments, situations, ambiances, objects, spaces, buildings, or institutions.


In this brief essay, we will examine how the concept of hospitality can contribute to our understanding of urban environments as we strive for more inclusive cities. ‘Hospitality’ refers here not only to a personal virtue, but more generally to a quality of environments, situations, ambiances 1, objects, spaces, buildings, or institutions. We will attempt to present some of the main features of hospitality. To do this, we will follow the path of someone who comes in a place and is about to do something : to engage in some activities, to have some kind of experience, to pursue the realization of some goods, or to receive some benefits. All these events have one thing in common: they can only take place, be held and happen 2 if they are tied to an appropriate location. This means the environment must be adequately furnished and offer sufficient hospitality, in order for those who use it (passersby, visitors, users, workers, residents) feel welcome and find what they need to enable the experiences and activities for which they have come there, whether on their own or as a group. This approach of hospitality is therefore one in which organisms and environments are considered as a unit3. The two following points may provide different perspectives on this topic:

  1. Hospitality is not only a matter of openness. Indeed, hospitality is not always — or not only — about crossing a threshold, tearing down a wall, or opening a border. It is not only about removing physical or symbolic obstacles: hospitality requires more than erasing borders, eliminating “architectural barriers”4 or relaxing requirements to access a given place. Since it can require moments, procedures and mechanisms that involve closure, hospitality is difficult to describe based only on the concept of openness.
  2. Hospitality is not only about welcoming a stranger from far away. The term ‘hospitality’ should be understood in its broadest sense: it does not refer only to situations and places that have the same etymology, e.g. ‘hospital’, ‘hospice’, ‘hotel’, ‘host’, etc. 5 While hospitality is an important factor in places that take care of vulnerable people 6, and while it can also be relevant to movement 7, it also comes into play in countless other contexts related to things that are close and familiar.

Hospitality starts at home

So hospitality does not only deal with vulnerabilities8, “strangers” 9 or “arrivals” 10. We also appreciate experiencing and providing hospitality at home, by welcoming visitors and guests. This is what Paul Ricœur 11 sees as the very essence of hospitality: “welcoming people into one’s home”. When a certain environment becomes hospitable to our personal uses and our most intimate habits [12], we can truly feel at home and enjoy the comfort of “familiar” 12 and inhabited things, making ourselves at “ease” 13. If we recall that hospitality also refers to the benefits of having a home, and by extension to any inhabited place with which we are acquainted, we realise that it’s not only a matter of openness: hospitality requires various forms of closure and appropriation. This does not mean hospitality is only a property of one’s home: it should not be constrained to domestic environments, and instead be sought outside, in various forms.

The paradoxical hospitality of urban public spaces

Even though it becomes somewhat “paradoxical” 14, hospitality is indeed at play in urban public spaces, which are defined as being “accessible”, open to all, and places to share the “experience of togetherness without a common purpose” 15. Lyn Lofland described the modern metropolis as “a world of strangers” 16 and considered the “public realm” to be “city’s quintessential social territory”17, due to there existing a “principle of civility toward diversity” 18. While following in Lofland’s footsteps, French sociologist Isaac Joseph further highlights how large cities subtly welcome anyone, including the most destitute amongst city-dwellers, and provides them with various “expedients”. He even brings up Kant to promote the “public” and “hospitable” aspects of urban spaces, which is sees as nothing short of a practical implementation — in the street, on the very pavement and between urbanites — of the “right to be a permanent visitor” and the “right of review” that Kant had considered on a global scale in his ambitious essay on perpetual peace.

Hospitality at “the edges of citizenhood”

Kant’s concerns regarding the possibility of pacifying relationships between states and civilising those between natives and foreigners encourage us to remember that we should also expect hospitality from the political community. We are also justified in judging this community harshly when it fails to act hospitably, as evidenced by demonstrations in favour or undocumented migrants and against the violence of “arbitrary borders”, which exists at the “edges of citizenhood” 19. In the city, these demonstrations have often involved a mobilisation of hospitality, including by taking over spaces and making them liveable in order to support their struggle. One way in which groups of undocumented migrants have ensured they have a voice is occupation: over the past twenty years, in France and Belgium, the struggle of undocumented migrants has involved occupying many churches and universities. While these occupations were symbolic in nature, the buildings used also had practical virtues: with the addition of basic furnishings, they could offer shelter and (relative) hospitality to the members of the groups involved, while also providing a meeting place for new activists and a point of contact for supporters and the media. The hospitality that was involved in these actions is also evidenced by the fact they generally end with an expulsion.

The hospitality of parcipatory initiatives

The topic of hospitality is clearly relevant at many different scales and in many different places, even when it is not explicitly emphasised. While a number of other examples demonstrate the significant breadth and cross-cutting nature of hospitality, its scope is too often obscured by other considerations and categories. Experiments in ‘urban and participatory democracy’, led by municipal authorities or by the civil society, can illustrate this. The concept of hospitality can be seen as the institutions’ ability to open themselves up to their users and hear their issues: by this metric, hospitality has been a component of many ‘urban policies’ over the past two decades. Such policies involve research and experiments into institutional processes that are more hospitable to the voices of “ordinary citizens”, who are invited to express themselves during meetings with experts on public policies or technical issues. This is a difficult task, and hospitality often ends up lacking: those in charge of the process are seldom willing to work outside of well-defined communication formats and semiotic categories. Comments are deemed “unfortunate” 20 as a result, and the “ordinary citizens” become a vague and “ghostly public” 21 whose irruptions and eruptions are systematically seen as unwelcome.

Inclusion, diversity, and… hospitality?

The fight against ‘discrimination’ (ethnic, racial, sexual, etc.) is often viewed from the perspective of ‘inclusion’ (and its polar opposites, exclusion and segregation), but it also involves hospitality, not just belonging. Of course, tackling the issue of discrimination means looking at faillures in the realization of equal belonging, and attempting to eliminate inequalities in access to a number of environments and social goods. According to Jürgen Habermas, “exclusion from certain areas of social life demonstrates what those who face discrimination are deprived of: a social belonging without limits” 22. Still, even if these areas of social life were free of unfounded discriminatory obstacles, “social belonging” would still not be “without limits”, as it would be marred by various factors of inhospitality. Much like communities require their members to possess and use a number of abilities in order to earn a sense of belonging in their community, taking part in the various areas of social life requires calling upon significant abilities and knowledge that are very unequally distributed among persons. In addition, those without these abilities and knowledge face harsh judgement and obstacles, which can have adverse effets on their integrity especially when they also face discrimination 23: “the issue is not just one of distributive justice, but one of humiliation” 24. In professional environments and marketplace, discrimination is achieved by not letting a person access the space or privileged positions : unwelcomed, they are stopped in their attempt to get involved25. The connection with hospitality is even more obvious, in these fields and others, when the topic of discrimination is approached from the perspective of recognising ‘diversity’. As it is often framed, the question of ‘diversity’ calls into question the hospitality (or lack thereof) of various areas of social life (as well as the physical environments where said life is led) when it comes to a number of factors, behaviours and deficiencies that are unwelcome and require ‘reasonable accommodations’ in order to become well received.

Inclusive design and accessibility

In such cases, with help from the principles of ‘inclusive design’, hospitality promotes creating inclusive spaces that everyone is able to engage with, regardless of their abilities. Provided it is implemented correctly and takes careful account of the environments and objects involved, the drive for hospitality that underlies this approach contributes to fulfilling promises of equal belonging. It achieves this by ensuring that everyone is able to take part in a common world, exist in the same spaces, use similar equipment and receive comparable benefits — despite what separates them in terms of ability and culture. ‘Inclusive design’ has been appropriated by many urban sociologists, because it answers their concerns related to urban public space planning while also being based on the “principle of accessibility” 26. This can clearly be seen in the writings of researchers in ergonomics, which is a field specifically dedicated to such policies: “The goal of inclusive design is to design products that are accessible and usable to the maximum number of users without being stigmatizing or resorting to special aids and adaptation” 27. In concrete terms, the idea is to lower sensory, cognitive and motor “demands” 28 of objects, equipments and mechanisms, in order to make them easier to approach and use by people experiencing a “situational disability” 29. Such concrete policies certainly allow progress to be made, however it is somewhat unfortunate that they focus on just one aspect of hospitality and boil it down to an issue of accessibility, which then becomes the sole purpose of ‘inclusive design’ and is enshrined in anti-discrimination laws in Europe and the United States30.

The limits of inclusive design and a broader definition of hospitality

One of the merits of ‘inclusive design’, beyond its focus on a welcoming city, is that it can contribute to a realisation that “metropolises require a lot from their residents”, so much it can be “draining” 31. However, designing urban environments that are welcoming in the broadest sense requires a number of things. This means first seeing hospitality as going beyond mere issues of accessibility, which mainly deal with immediate basic considerations such as the ability to enter a space, to move around without hinderance, to open a door, to activate a device, and so on. Hospitality, however, is about more than just access, and its implementation must not be limited to entrances of urban spaces and buildings. The purposes of these buildings is to host and enable various activities, practical engagements32 and complex experiences that go beyond the basic functions covered by ‘inclusive design’. As we have pointed out at the beginning of this brief essay, a good way to assess the qualities of an urban environment and the various ways in which it is hospitable consists in observing the people who engage with the space and trusting their experience. This allows for an in-depth analysis of the multiple facets of hospitality, and accessibility is indeed one such facet; however, it is far from being the only issue that should be tackled. Let us attempt to identify the components of hospitality.

The many facets of hospitality

First of all, for a person to experience a place’s accessibility (or lack thereof), they must be curious about the place or attracted to it. This means the location must be inviting to visitors and offer something to engage with, which in turn requires that the environment be visible and understandeable to potential visitors so that they feel welcome and have an idea of the benefits they will receive from their presence or activity. This is where accessibility can be an issue, not only in terms of actually entering the space, but also in terms of what the space allows people to do. What does the environment allow in terms of exploration, potential, and activities? What experiences, sensitive impressions and emotional attachments can it create? What does it contribute to creating in terms of collective goods and personal benefits? In other words, who and what is the environment or the building intended to host? Or yet, what is its ‘capacity’? This aspect should be highlighted, as it is often neglected by those who examine hospitality only from the perspective of openness. Clearly, a welcoming environment is an open one. But it must be open specifically to people who come there. Hospitality is therefore not just about letting visitors enter; they must also be received and looked after, which involves accepting them and providing them with a place where they feel comfortable. This means hospitality hinges upon the dimensions, spaciousness, and volume of built environments, but also upon the resistance and plasticity of the materials they are built with; the environments must be able to receive people (who can arrive in large numbers, and this can be taxing for the space itself) and to withstand what may happen. Hospitality has other facets still. Public locations in the city must make people comfortable by making their stay (brief though it may be) more pleasant, by promoting their activities, and by ensuring they can move around freely. This conception of hospitality ties in with what Marc Breviglieri calls ‘habitability’, which “covets the facility of movement, the ease of gesture and the convenience of space” 33. In this sense, hospitality is also a property of places that ensure a pleasant stay, facilitate people’s activity, and encourage them to remain, or that support users by providing them with appropriate space and furnishings. Lastly, there is a protective aspect to hospitality which, once again, might be overlooked by those who focus solely on openness. We can illustrate this aspect by mentioning the concept of ‘shelter cities’, of which Jacques Derrida was a proponent. Cities taking part in this project were committed to opening their doors to persecuted intellectuals and writers. But would these cities truly be hospitable if they did not also shut their doors to those responsible for the persecutions? Since hospitality implies a form of protection and can also be an attribute of a shelter, it necessarily demands some degree of closure and firmness. Derrida noted this protective aspect in his analysis of the traditions that gave birth to the idea of shelter cities, but he did not foresee all its implications:

‘We can recognise the Hebrew tradition of cities that were compelled to welcome and protect those who were seeking shelter from a blind and vengeful justice or from an ‘avenger of blood’ for a crime that they had not committed (or rather not intentionally committed). […] We also see a medieval tradition of relatively sovereign cities, which enforced their own specific laws related to hospitality in order to impose restrictions on the universal unconditional law of hospitality that commanded them to open their doors to people of all origins >without asking questions or ascertaining their identity 34.’

Derrida is overlooking the fact that the same universal unconditional law of hospitality, while it compels cities to open their doors, also compels them to close these same doors in order to protect “refugees” from their “persecutors”. But there is no need to call upon such a dramatic and current example to fully grasp this specific dimension of hospitality: more generally speaking, a building’s purpose is to protect its occupants and allow them enjoy its insulating properties (thermal, sound, or visual), but also to simply have a covered and closed space where they can escape the elements. This shelter must however not become a prison that holds its occupants hostage by restricting them to rigid standards35. Hospitality involves freedom of exploration, but also freedom to leave at any time without being trapped in a space that makes people feel claustrophobic instead of enabling spontaneous and innovative uses.

  1. In an essay on ambiance where he addresses historical semantics, existential psychopathology, and phenomenological aesthetics, Jean-Paul Thibaud reminds us that the Latin verb ambire suggests protection, as it initially referred to a movement of both arms closing in a warm embrace: a welcoming gesture if there ever was one! Thibaud J.-P., 2012, ‘Petite archéologie de la notion d’ambiance’, Communications, #90. 

  2. For a helpful perspective on activitites taking place, see M. Berger’s analysis of E. Goffman. Berger M., 2016, ‘L’espace public tel qu’il a lieu’, Revue Française de Science Politique, #1, vol. 66. 

  3. These environments themselves can be qualified in many different ways and appear in various forms; see Pattaroni L., 2016, ‘La trame sociologique de l’espace’, SociologieS. 

  4. Sanchez J., 2007, ‘Rendre accessible’, in Poizat D., dir., Désinsulariser le handicap, Toulouse, ERES. 

  5. The words themselves explicitly reveal some relation to the concept of hospitality.  

  6. Breviglieri M., Stavo-Debauge J., 2006, ‘Sous les conventions. Accompagnement social à l’insertion : entre sollicitude et sollicitation’, in Eymard-Duvernay F., dir., L’économie des conventions. Méthodes et résultats. Tome II. Développements, Paris, La Découverte. 

  7. Stavo-Debauge J., 2017, Qu’est-ce que l’hospitalité ? Recevoir l’étranger à la communauté, upcoming; Stavo-Debauge J., 2015, ‘De The Stranger d’Alfred Schütz au cas Agnès d’Harold Garfinkel’, SociologieS; Stavo-Debauge J., 2009, Venir à la communauté. Une sociologie de l’hospitalité et de l’appartenance, PhD thesis in sociology, Paris, EHESS. 

  8. Cusset Y, 2010, Prendre sa part de la misère du monde, Paris, La Transparence. 

  9. Le Blanc G., 2010, Dedans, dehors : La condition d’étranger, Paris, Seuil. 

  10. Derrida J., 1996, Apories, Paris, Galilée. 

  11. Ricoeur P., 2006, ‘La condition d’étranger’, Esprit

  12. Thévenot L., 1994, ‘Le régime de familiarité’, Genèses, #17. 

  13. Breviglieri M.,1999, L’usage et l’habiter. Contribution à une sociologie de la proximité, Paris, EHESS, PhD thesis, 463 pages; Breviglieri M., 2012, ‘L’espace habité que réclame l’assurance intime de pouvoir. Un essai d’approfondissement sociologique de l’anthropologie capacitaire de Paul Ricoeur’, Études Ricœuriennes/Ricœur Studies, 3-1.   

  14. Joseph I., 1984, Le passant considérable, Librairie des Méridiens; Joseph I., 1998, La ville sans qualités, La Tour d’aigues, Aube; Stavo-Debauge J., 2003, ‘L’indifférence du passant qui se meut, les ancrages du résidant qui s’émeut’, in Cefaï D., Pasquier D., dir., Les sens du public, Paris, PUF; Breviglieri M., Stavo-Debauge J., 2007, ‘L’hypertrophie de l’œil. Pour une anthropologie du « passant singulier qui s’aventure à découvert’, in Cefaï D., Saturno C., dir., Itinéraires d’un pragmatiste. Autour d’Isaac Joseph, Paris, Economica. 

  15. Joseph I., 2007, L’athlète moral et l’enquêteur modeste, Paris, Economica, p. 117. 

  16. Lofland L., 1973, A World of Strangers. Order and Action in Urban Public Space, New York, Basic books. 

  17. Lofland L., 1998, The Public Realm. Exploring the City’s Quintessential Social Terrirory, New York, De Gruyter, p. 9. 

  18. Ibid., p. 28. 

  19. Deleixhe M., 2016, Aux bords de la démocratie : Contrôle des frontières et politique de l’hospitalité, Paris, Classiques Garnier. 

  20. Berger M., 2012, ‘Mettre les pieds dans une discussion publique. La théorie de la position énonciative appliquée aux assemblées de démocratie participative’, in Cefai D., Perreau L., dir., Erving Goffman et l’ordre de l’interaction, Paris, PUF. 

  21. Berger M., 2015, ‘Des publics fantomatiques : participation faible et démophobie’, SociologieS

  22. Habermas J., 2003, ‘De la tolérance religieuse aux droits culturels’, Cités, #13, p. 167. 

  23. It should also be noted that environments, buildings, equipment, and spatial organisations can also be significant sources of humiliation, such as the type of architecture that Isaac Joseph called ‘sadistic’, referencing Mike Davis’ famous book on Los Angeles.  

  24. Margalit A., 1999, La société décente, Paris, Climats, p. 15. 

  25. Stavo-Debauge J., 2011, ‘En quête d’une introuvable action antidiscriminatoire. Une sociologie de ce qui fait défaut’, Politix, #94. 

  26. Joseph I., 1997, ‘Prises, réserves, épreuves’, Communication, #65, p. 132. 

  27. Persad U., Landon P., Clarkson J., 2007, ‘A framework for analytical inclusive design evaluation’, International conference on engineering design, 28-31 August, Cité des sciences et de l’industrie, Paris, France. 

  28. Ibid. 

  29. This concept translates the idea that disability is the result of an incompatibility between an individual’s abilities and the actions that their physical and social environment requires. In this context, disability is the product of interacting with an environment that is unsuited to a person’s abilities. Saby L., 2012, ‘Ville muette, ville mal audible. Identifier et comprendre les situations de handicap liées à une autre perception de la ville’, Les Annales de la recherche urbaine, #107, p. 75. 

  30. Still, proponents of the concept seem to suspect that a wider form of hospitality comes into play, as evidenced by their choice of words: they often refer to the semantics of welcoming as they call for making spaces accessible through various means. This is the case, for instance, of Jésus Sanchez or Viviane Folcher and Nicole Lompré. The former noted, in 1993, that such an accessibility policy means making disabled people, minorities, and, ultimately, all individuals, feel welcome in spaces such as schools, businesses, cities; the latter two wrote, more recently, that the policies can be described as a requirement to design physical and symbolic spaces that welcome in the broadest sense a diversity of individual abilities and enable them to achieve similar results. See: Sanchez J., 1992, ‘Accessibilités, mobilités et handicaps : La construction sociale du champ du handicap’, Les Annales de la recherche urbaine, #57-58; Folcher V., Lompré N., 2012 ‘Accessibilité pour et dans l’usage : concevoir des situations d’activité adaptées à tous et à chacun’, Le Travail humain, #1, vol. 75, p. 108. 

  31. Breviglieri M., 2013, ‘De la difficulté à entrer en contact’, Ambiances, §3. 

  32. Thévenot L., 2006, L’action au pluriel, Paris, Découverte. 

  33. Breviglieri M., 2006, ‘La décence du logement et le monde habité’, in Roux J., dir., Sensibiliser, la Tour d’Aigues, Aube, p. 92. 

  34. Derrida J., 1997, Cosmopolites de tous les pays encore un effort !, Paris, Galilée, p. 43-46. 

  35. See Marc Breviglieri’s reflection on how exploration is restricted in overly safe cities: Breviglieri M., 2015, ‘L’enfant des villes. Considérations sur la place du jeu et la créativité de l’architecte face à l’émergence de la ville garantie’, Ambiances

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