Urban studies program launches Human Cities Initiative

Jan. 4, 2016, 11:11 p.m.

In December, Stanford’s urban studies program launched the Human Cities Initiative to promote urban development that prioritizes the quality of life for city inhabitants.  

The initiative will encompass existing curriculum as well as future events that will emphasize a human-centered approach to urbanization. A daylong Expo on Dec. 4 kicked off the Human Cities Initiative with presentations of student projects and “lightning chats” with local nonprofit leaders.

Urban studies lecturer Kevin Hsu ’08 M.S. ’11, who co-leads the initiative with urban studies lecturer Deland Chan ’07 M.A. ’07 and director of urban studies Zephyr Frank, believes Stanford can be a leader in this new approach to city planning.  

“We hope [the initiative] will energize Stanford to be a hub for discussions and debates about how cities develop,” Hsu said.

According to Hsu, cities can be compared to technology: The “hardware” or physical infrastructure of the city is important, but so is the “software,” or the people inhabiting it. He believes that urban development sometimes neglects this “software” when it fails to adequately consider the human experience and citizens’ thoughts on what will make their neighborhoods and cities better places to live.

Chan pointed to shifts in San Francisco’s use of public space as one illustration of the human cities mindset.

“Particularly since the 1950s… land use has really been about orienting the city for the car and not for the person,” Chan said.

However, Chan believes that some cities are refocusing on human spaces. After San Francisco’s 1989 earthquake destroyed a double-decker freeway running along the Ferry Building, the city decided not to rebuild it and instead replaced it with a public area now home to farmers’ markets and strolling pedestrians.

Chan explained that the department has been developing the Human Cities Initiative for several years now.

“[The initiative is] not quite anything new because we’ve been building on and working on elements of it for the past three years,” she said.

Courses like URBANST 145: “International Urbanization,” which is in its third year now, and URBANST 104: “Civic Dreams, Human Spaces: Urban Design with People,” first offered this past fall, have incorporated the theme of human cities.

“Civic Dreams, Human Spaces” grew out of three d.school pop up classes — short design workshops that tested out different pieces of the curriculum, beginning in the spring of 2014.  

In addition, this fall the Program on Urban Studies launched a new concentration in urban sustainability, which allows students to study sustainability through both social and environmental lenses.

Chan said the concentration seeks a “holistic” understanding of cities — an idea that resonates with the larger Human Cities Initiative.

While the initiative has long been in the works, it officially began with the Dec. 4 Expo, which Chan estimates approximately 100 people attended.

The event featured speakers from the Community Art Stabilization Trust, which helps provide affordable living space and practice space for artists in San Francisco, and the Homeless Homes Project, which builds small houses for the homeless in Oakland.

Students from the classes “International Urbanization” and “Civic Dreams, Human Spaces” also presented.

“I think our main goal was for the students and the collaborators who were involved to feel a sense of co-creation and ownership of the Expo,” Chan said. “The students had a lot of creative say in how they wanted to present their work.”

Tucker Bryant ’16 and his group members from “Civic Dreams, Human Spaces” shared a public art installation designed for San Francisco’s Market Street. The installation would invite passersby to write or draw on a tablet and have their work projected large-scale onto a wall.

Bryant’s group spoke with Market Street residents to better identify their desires for a public space. According to Bryant, many described a lack of ownership over and connection to their living area.

“The idea for us was to combat that issue in a way that would bring people out of personal space into the public realm,” Bryant said.

Students in “International Urbanization” travelled to Beijing in September for two weeks of field work with students from Tsinghua University, with whom they subsequently collaborated on projects throughout the quarter. Eleven Tsinghua students came to Stanford to help present these projects at the Expo.

Sneha Ayyagari ’17 and her Stanford-Tsinghua team shared their work with the nonprofit Clean Air Asia, designing a campaign to educate Beijing’s senior citizens about air pollution and how to protect their health.

“I’m excited about the Human Cities Initiative, and I think that it will provide a good space on campus for these conversations and interactions to continue happening,” Ayyagari said.

The initiative will host more events later in the school year, Chan said. In addition, starting winter quarter, the program will recruit students for next year’s “International Urbanization” trip to China.

Chan and Hsu both described the Human Cities Initiative as highly interdisciplinary and said that they seek participation from students of all backgrounds. They pointed to this past quarter’s “International Urbanization” class, which included a wide range of majors — from earth systems to mechanical engineering to east Asian studies.

“Think of this as an open invitation,” Chan said. “We’d love to see more people be part of it.”


Contact Hannah Knowles at hknowles ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Hannah Knowles is senior staff writer from San Jose who served as Volume 253 Editor-in-Chief. Prior to that, she managed The Daily's news section.

Login or create an account