Why leave everything behind to document human cities?

We have heard many times that over 50% of the population lives in cities; in 2030 that number will become 60% and in 2050, 70%. On the American continent, the most urbanized in the world, urban population now exceeds 80%. This implies obvious challenges: population density challenges urban mobility and complicates management issues such as solid waste management or access to basic services (electricity, water and sanitation, or education). Furthermore, inequality in many cities tends to increase, generating conflicts that threaten social cohesion.

On the other hand, there are positive effects to take advantage of: the spur of innovation and opportunities generated by human interactions are fruits of urbanization that shown no limit. Similarly, well-managed population densification generates less impact on the ecosystem than sprawl.

Cities continue to grow. And we know they will not do so in high-income countries. In fact, it is estimated that the population in 2050 will have decreased in over 43 countries. Population growth is currently taking place in middle or low-income countries (UN Habitat estimates that 93% of new births now occur in these countries). The fastest growing cities, therefore, are in emerging countries, some with significant institutional weaknesses and economic constraints that hinder their ability to meet citizens’ needs.

However, whether in developing, emerging or industrialized countries, urban challenges will increase. This forced us to reflect on the city of the future, knowing we are moving towards a population of 10 billion people where 80% will live in urban areas.

In this regard, we agree with Maurice Strong when he says ‘the battle of sustainability will be won or lost in cities’. This phrase, uttered during the Rio Summit in 1992 and often repeated by Secretary General of the United Nations is more relevant than ever now. This means that sustainable development and social welfare will take place in cities, or unfortunately, will not take place at all.

So, we have left everything behind to document how citizenship promotes a more sustainable and inclusive transition towards more humane cities. And one might think, how does someone manage to do so? Leave everything behind and decide to travel the world following a particular passion? From our experience, most importantly is to have a lot of questions; and to be passionate about looking for those answers.

After several years dedicated to development cooperation, advising international organizations, and promoting partnerships between the private and public sectors and civil society, we were left with the feeling that global governance and major global development goals are necessary – but not enough – to promote the real change our cities need.

The answer, therefore, must emerge from the local governance of cities, especially from the streets and neighborhoods of emerging cities: cities such as large megalopolis whose population outnumber that of several countries and regions, as well as from intermediate cities, which still hold the fate of their own evolution and therefore, the ability to achieve equitable and inclusive development for its citizens.

Political leadership must also come from cities, from political representatives who cannot hide from the citizens they represent in faraway federal capitals. The new political representatives, the new entrepreneurs, as well as the new social leaders, should emerge from the urban and local fabric of cities, with experience working and co-managing public spaces and services with an increasingly participatory, active and involved citizenship.

The Towards the Human City Project was born from these concerns and observations. It is a global adventure that is taking us through the major emerging cities, identifying, documenting and communicating the most innovative initiatives that are making cities more humane in different parts of the world.

A lot of colleagues ask us how we manage all this logistically. Basically, we could summarize it through four major points:

1) Engage your network: Think of your network as a major ally to fulfill your dream. The stakeholders related to your sector, organizations you have worked with, professionals you engage with – they are the biggest potential for co-creation and making things happen. In our case, based on our backgrounds, we spent a lot of time sharing our dream with colleagues at United Nations Systems, Development Banks, academics on urban issues as well as designers and film-makers. Their enthusiasm shared reacting to the project, convinced us this had to happen. Eventually, many of them became active supporters of it.

2) Think who would pay for your added value: As always, money is not everything but it helps a lot ensuring things happen. When planning your project, aim to visualize what are the potential outputs that could be generated through the added value you will generate, and identify those organizations who might be interested in funding them. We have spent (and actually, still spend) a lot of time talking to potential donors and trying to engage producers to share our journey with us and make them participate in the process.

3) Travel light: Obviously, the more costly a project is, the more difficult it will be to fulfill it. Aiming to visit more than 40 cities around the world is costly, but through technological platforms and inspired in the share-economy, traveling has become much more accessible. We always travel through the HomeExchange, a web platform that allows house exchanges between owners (we have never paid a hotel since we started traveling). This also allows us to lead a local lifestyle: we cook a lot at home, travel with public transportation and enjoy cities through their open public spaces. Frequently, we realize we spend less money traveling around filming than being at home in Barcelona or DC.

4) Be determined: Although it does sound a little cliché, a lot of the reasons explaining why we are so sure we are going to complete this dream of ours, are because we are both strongly committed and determined that no matter what, our biggest non-negotiable priority is to spend the next 12 months on the road documenting urban initiatives. If this wasn’t our utmost priority and we weren’t both so determined in making it happen no matter what, I am not sure we would end up fulfilling it.

The route begins in Latin America, where we are visiting many cities of many sizes in countries like Colombia, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. We will then continue to Asia, crossing India, Southeast Asia and China. Finally, we will cross Africa, the continent that is growing the most and where there is greater potential for convergence of urban growth models with environment and ecosystem sustainability.

Through this journey we expect to document 100 relevant initiatives promoting transformation towards more human cities. We are conducting interviews with visionary mayors, committed planners, urban entrepreneurs and social movement leaders in order to gather their insights and potential solutions to urban challenges. We plan to share what we’ve learned on our website, through short videos, articles and infographics. We also intend to produce a documentary portraying inspiring urban stories and publish a series of books on lessons learned from the process. Finally, we will create an electronic platform that contains all the documented initiatives that will serve to connect citizens, tools and knowledge on issues affecting the quality of life in cities.

Obviously, this is a path that we cannot do alone. Therefore, we invite you to participate and support us through Global Urban Commons, to identify successful urban initiatives globally. We also encourage you to leave comments and provide feedback on what we will publish, hoping to incorporate your contributions into our documentation process.

Looking forward to seeing you on the road.


Paula García Serna (@Pgarciaserna) / Fernando Casado Cañeque (@Fernando_Casado)

Vimeo Channel of Towards the Human City: https://vimeo.com/channels/747696

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Website: www.towardsthehumancity.org