A Manifesto for Human Cities / by Kevin Hsu

In the twentieth-first century, sustainable development increasingly takes place in an urban context. Urbanization impacts air and water quality, alters resource consumption patterns, and poses unique challenges for the environment, energy, and infrastructure. The evolution of cities—particularly in emerging economies, which are experiencing unprecedented rates of urban growth—will prove critical in shaping a greener, more livable future on our planet.

Meeting the challenges of this urban century requires an understanding of the city as a nexus of environmental context, built systems and infrastructure, and human communities. None of these systems operates in isolation; they are deeply interrelated and influence each other on an everyday basis and over the long term.

With societies more connected than ever, the design and implementation of an urban vision often demands transnational and interdisciplinary exchange. The model of foreign experts dropping into a developing country to dispense advice before jetting away is proving untenable because of inherent power imbalances, rising costs, and the questionable effectiveness of solutions that do not account for local context amid global trends. Meanwhile, the current mode of unfettered urbanization is resulting in social dislocation and environmental degradation, particularly disenfranchising those with the fewest resources. Different approaches are needed.

We therefore welcome the exploration, experimentation, imagination, co-creation, and evaluation of "human cities" -- cities that recognize the centrality of human beings and communities and that place humanity and its well-being at the heart of any urban development strategy.

Defining Human Cities

In our conception, human cities strive to develop and maintain vibrant communities, supported by the implementation of responsive, appropriate technology, policy, and infrastructure. Human cities harness the collective power and creativity of their residents; provide material, psychological, and spiritual improvements to the quality of life; respect the value of people’s lives, livelihoods, and cultural inheritance; and cultivate an inclusive and positive civic culture.

We emphasize both a scientific and humanistic understanding of cities in the broader process of sustainable development.

Cities are not simply collections of concrete and glass skyscrapers; they are made up of living communities of human beings. When we speak about development and urban change, we must not forget the people whom we are serving -- the people who reside in these places, who practice daily habits and pass down customs, who maintain their cultural roots and systems of belief, who have a sense of place and identity.

Recognition of existing communities does not mean placidly accepting things as they are. We see possibility and potential where others see chaos or disaster. We do not give in to despair, because we believe in the human capacity for growth, for resilience, and for hope.

Human cities are not a utopian vision, but are grounded in an understanding of the past and present. We do not believe that sustainable urbanism requires building anew. Instead, true sustainability apprehends and celebrates the value of what exists, taking its cue from both historical and contemporary urbanization trends, while remaining open to creative new ideas, adapted from other contexts but informed by local practices, with local participation and consent.

Human Cities are necessarily by and for the human beings who live in them. However, this process can be facilitated by partners of goodwill who respect existing communities and their ways of living. In particular, when communities are not able to articulate their interests, our role as Human City practitioners provide training and facilitation to encourage residents to share their opinions and build consensus.

Finally, we see Human Cities as an evolving concept — not a prescription, ingredient list, or recipe book. Human Cities are not established and completed; they are points of growth in a process of urban development and maintenance. Experimentation continues at all times. Whenever we apply these ideas and practices, we are in fact developing and cultivating this concept further. We can treat our work as a constant set of learning.