Since the late 1990s, the ‘urban citizenship’ literature has accentuated the burgeoning potential of the city as host to more democratic interpretations of citizenship. A more recent literature highlighted the ‘local trap’ in such assumptions, arguing that the local cannot exist outside of neoliberalization. This article examines some of the recent institutional transformations in Istanbul’s local government and seeks to understand where these might be situated in this discussion. Three institutions dealing with disability are scrutinized with regard to their power dynamics, discourses and practices. The argument is that, although superficially such developments seem to represent some of the tendencies highlighted by the urban citizenship literature (in terms of their scale, timing and appeal to a group previously excluded from modern citizenship), deeper analysis shows that these often promote charity‐ rather than rights‐based approaches. This is because the push factors in the emergence of these institutions are not the urban struggles on the part of the disability community, but rather the ruling party’s populism, the impact of supranational agencies and the demands of non‐disabled residents at district level. Each of the three institutions examined is shaped primarily by one factor, leading to differing degrees of charity‐ and rights‐based practices. Arguments concerning the prospects of more democratic interpretations of citizenship at local level need to consider experiences in diverse settings.