human cities

How do we investigate, develop, and maintain Human Cities? by Kevin Hsu

We previously introduced a working definition of what constitutes a "Human City." A closely-linked question is how we can actively investigate, develop, and, importantly, maintain Human Cities in urban centers around the world?

First, we urge taking a comparative approach to the question of sustainable Human Cities, as urbanism is increasingly understood in an international context. Furthermore, in unpacking and describing these urban developments, we must investigate trade-offs and choices regarding land use, energy, transportation, and water resources.

An overarching framework for sustainability is centered on four pillars: environmental quality, economic vitality, social equity, and cultural identity. We will expound upon each of these pillars in later posts, but we believe that each component is vital to a Human City.

Returning to the question of strategy, to facilitate the phenomenon of Human Cities in the real world, we must identify the distinct challenges of urbanization at different stages of development and devise technological and policy innovations, urban interventions at the city and neighborhood scale, and design strategies that effectively address those challenges.

There are roles for individuals from diverse backgrounds—scholars, practitioners, activists—to become advocates for a more humanistic approach to development and to see this concept developed and maintained in real-world settings.

Some strategies for developing the concept of Human Cities and then putting these concepts into practice include the following:

1. Thought Leadership and Research
Forward-thinking cities around the world are experimenting with new approaches to human-centered urbanization. To lead and support these efforts, scholars can adapt global concepts and tools for specific local contexts. We will collect case studies of cities from different regions and consider how localities can successfully tackle human-centered sustainable development. We will synthesize innovative ideas and publish original scholarship to advance our framework of sustainability. We aim to develop a research, design, and development ethic that is interdisciplinary and that involves community stakeholders through participatory, community-based research.

2. Education with an Innovative Curriculum
We must craft educational experiences that inspire the next generation of urban thinkers, planners, designers, and engineers and that cultivates an ethic of environmental stewardship and humanism in how we approach the development of cities and urban spaces. In developing these educational offerings, we believe a set of methodological approaches focusing on community-engaged scholarship, cross-cultural collaboration, and human-centered design serves this goal well.

3. Implement Concepts in Real-world Settings
We believe universities are poised to reinvigorate engagement with cities and serve as a common platform and good-faith actor. Institutions of higher education can link industry, governments, and residents together to jointly develop and maintain human communities. Simultaneously, students and faculty can test, refine, and ultimately advance a more humanistic understanding of sustainable development by incorporating concepts into new and existing projects, in consultation with the communities these projects are meant to serve. These partnerships highlight the challenges, opportunities, and ethics of how we engage diverse communities, using participatory design strategies.

4. Build a Broad Network of Advocates and Practitioners
We encourage dialogue and building connections among design firms, developers, local governments, and educational institutions to advance a more humanistic approach to the sustainable development of cities. This network will create more opportunities for real-world projects and support the dissemination of ideas generated among many nodes of creativity, implementation, and lived experience.

Evolving Human Cities

Truly sustainable cities require culturally-appropriate solutions that incorporate international practices, but remain sensitive to local needs and sensibilities. We believe the approach of developing and maintaining human cities provides a way forward that connects key stakeholders, advances our understanding of sustainable development, and empowers societies to meet present and future challenges.

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.