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Human Cities Initiative to tackle urban challenges in China

January 30, 2016
Deland Chan

Why are cities so important to our future? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 54% of the global population lives in urban areas, up from 34% in 1960.  This trend shows no sign of slowing down with an increase of 1.84% every year between 2015 and 2020. With cities adding 2.5 billion people in just the next three decades, what can we do to make cities more environmentally sustainable, economically vibrant, and socially equitable?

That’s where the Stanford Human Cities Initiative (HCI) enters the picture. Last December, the Program on Urban Studies launched the Human Cities Initiative with the mission to guide urban development efforts to better serve the needs of people and communities. Led by Deland Chan, Program Manager for Service Learning and Lecturer in Urban Studies with Zephyr Frank, Director of Urban Studies and Professor in Latin American History, and Kevin Hsu, Associate Research Scientist at Disney Imagineering, the Initiative aims to promote a human-centered approach to urbanization through innovative curriculum, research, and thought leadership with real-world applications.

The Office of International Affairs (OIA) had the opportunity to meet with Professor Frank and Deland Chan to discuss the global impact of the Human Cities Initiative and how it also benefits research and the students seeking to design cities for and with urban dwellers. With support from an OIA seed grant, the Program on Urban Studies organized the Human Cities Expo at Stanford in December 2015 and plans to host a Human Cities @China event in the spring to reach a broader audience while engaging Stanford’s alumni in China on issues of sustainable development.

Q: How did the Human Cities Initiative come about?

Zephyr Frank: The Human Cities Initiative emerges from multi-year efforts in the Urban Studies Program to offer innovative opportunities for community-engaged learning. Under the leadership of Michael Kahan, Associate Director of Urban Studies, and Deland Chan, we have been offering classes, fellowships, and public events as a platform for students, faculty, researchers and practitioners to engage in these issues. As our community grew, it became clear that there was great interest in this work from the broader Stanford community and collaborators in the Bay Area and internationally. We saw an opportunity to catalyze existing momentum, bring it under a unified vision, and create a platform that would allow us to invite more participation and engagement.

Deland Chan: In the past three years, we have provided ten curricular offerings that fit the Human Cities Initiative framework. These classes range from courses that involve real-world sustainability projects such as Sustainable Cities and the International Urbanization Seminar to classes that explore the intersection of design thinking and urban design. We have also organized an annual Urban Sustainability Expo, featuring student presentations and guest expert speakers and funded 10 fellowships for students to work with local NGOs and government agencies. Throughout these efforts, we provide opportunities for students to explore cities from both a humanistic and technological perspective through hands-on learning so they can develop a deeper understanding for the process of urban development and how to work meaningfully with local communities.

Q. With so many urban areas in the world, how did you decide to collaborate with Tsinghua University and Beijing?

Deland Chan: One of the cornerstone classes of the HCI is the International Urbanization Seminar. We named the class, International Urbanization Seminar, as our goal is to take a comparative global perspective where we can learn from urban development practices from cities around the world. We decided to start in China, for two reasons: first, in relation to urban development, China and the U.S. are the largest economies in the world and the largest emitters of greenhouse gases. As such, the challenge of engaging in sustainable development would be particularly relevant with China as our fieldwork site. Second, my co-instructor Kevin Hsu and I selected a site where we could draw from our personal engagement and understanding of Chinese cities. Kevin Hsu has spent many years studying and working in China, and he is currently based in Shanghai working on issues of urban infrastructure. We thought it was important to model interdisciplinary collaboration, and the intention to pursue ethical practices of cross-cultural collaboration and sensitivity to local context in our own work, as these are the concepts that we hope to impart to our students.

The International Urbanization class started with a scoping trip to China where we started in the South and ended in the North, meeting with 16 potential collaborators over four days. We aimed to find the institutional framework that could best support what we wanted to do: create an interdisciplinary course taught by faculty on both sides with a joint syllabus that we would create together, and multinational student teams working on real-world sustainability projects in which local organizations have taken the lead to define the need. Clearly, we set a high bar to achieve our requirements, but we were very lucky to find like-minded collaborators who believed in the value of what we wanted to build.

We began our first collaboration with the Tsinghua University Academy of Arts and Design in Spring 2014. Since then, we have taught the class three times and brought two cohorts of students to Beijing for fieldwork. We have also expanded the partnership to include faculty and students in the Department of Construction Management at Tsinghua University. This year’s class brought together 40 American and Chinese students from interdisciplinary backgrounds such as International Policy Studies, Urban Studies, Design, Computer Science, and Civil Engineering. We start the class with a pre-trip seminar and orientation for Stanford and Tsinghua students in Spring Quarter, then Stanford students travel to Beijing in September, followed by remote collaboration over the 10-week Autumn Quarter. We conclude the class with Tsinghua students traveling to Stanford to participate in the final expo in December.

Q. How do you prepare students for working in a cross-cultural team and in an international setting?

Deland Chan: We begin to recruit students for the International Urbanization Seminar during the Winter Quarter and finalize our cohort at the beginning of Spring Quarter.

For Stanford students, we offer a pre-trip preparation seminar in the Spring where we meet several times to provide an orientation to China's history and geography, a preview of the projects and relevant background information, and also provide a chance for the cohort to get to know each other. As we have built a strong alumni community over time, we often invite former students to come back and engage with the new cohort by sharing what they have learned and what they could expect from the experience. This approach has helped to provide context for this work, so that we are not just parachuting into Beijing without context. To date, we have engaged many students who may have never been to China or whom this may have been their first time traveling outside the United States.

We also provide orientation to the Tsinghua students. Last year, we were able to travel to Beijing where we met the students in person and shared our expectations for the course. We begin building out the community quite early on; each of the students creates a video blog (v-log) entry and has access to the student directory so that Stanford and Tsinghua students can meet each other virtually before they come together in person during the Beijing workshop in September.

Once we arrive in Beijing, we spend the first few days orienting ourselves to the city, where both Stanford and Tsinghua students undergo a common experience of visiting historical and contemporary sites and learning to navigate Beijing together. The three-hour bike ride throughout the historical hutong neighborhoods is especially popular. Many Tsinghua students say this is their first time exploring the city in such sway, even though they may have lived in the city for several years. After developing this common understanding and establishing a common language for working on these issues, the teams delve into fieldwork. We provide plenty of guidance and tools for conducting fieldwork in a way that meets the 3E’s: experiential, empathic, and ethical. We want our students to conduct fieldwork in a way that allows them to experience how people live in the city, builds empathy for existing communities and their way of life, and is also rooted in ethical practices for conducting research in a rigorous and respectful manner.

Q. How did the students continue working with their teammates after they returned to Stanford?

Deland Chan: Both Stanford and Tsinghua students enroll in a course at their respective institutions after the two-week field trip in September. Some new students may join the class at this time even if they did not participate in the fieldtrip—however, we strongly discourage students from just going on the fieldtrip and not continuing with the course, as this would undermine their ability to engage in their projects and have an immersive experience in crocs-cultural collaboration.

Stanford students meet twice a week for afternoon seminars, where we have readings and seminar discussions about urbanization topics in China and the U.S. We also have a weekly evening lab session, timed with the morning session in Beijing time, in which the Tsinghua and Stanford students participate in group teleconferencing sessions. When we are not meeting in class, the students continue to keep in touch via e-mail and WeChat. We encourage students to designate a meeting time so they can check in on the projects at regular intervals throughout the quarter and also get to know each other as people.

Q. Why is experiential learning and cross-cultural collaboration an essential part of the course and the Human Cities Initiative?

Deland Chan: The goal of the Human Cities Initiative is to train the next generation of scholars and designers to think holistically about urban development. We hope they will take into account issues of scale and usability, and what Kevin Hsu and I call the “four pillars of sustainability”: environmental quality, social equity, economic vitality, and cultural continuity.

To make this real, we believe in field experience and the strengths of experiential learning. By engaging firsthand with the people and environment of Beijing, our students have the unique opportunity to learn to ‘read’ the city as one of their academic texts. They benefit by grappling with real urban context and learning to assess community needs as a part of their education. They can apply these skills to any field or career, to develop solutions to pressing problems facing our cities throughout the world.

Zephyr Frank: I would like to echo Deland’s response to this question and to add an additional dimension.  Part of the problem with planning for urban development in the past was a tendency to privilege abstract concepts and what I would call “expertise from a distance.”  The experiential learning and cross-cultural collaboration that takes place in the Human Cities Initiative works against this tendency. By fostering this mindset, we hope to help train a new generation of thinkers on complex urban issues with an emphasis on collaborative, place-based activities.

Q. What type of students do you hope to attract to the International Urbanization Seminar and the Human Cities Initiative more broadly?

Deland Chan: We welcome students from interdisciplinary backgrounds who are looking for a unique course experience. We hope to attract students who are open-minded and curious, passionate about urban sustainability, and willing to learn from their peers at Stanford and Tsinghua who may approach urban problems using different methods. Most importantly, we hope to attract students who are willing to engage deeply with local communities through hands-on fieldwork. There is no substitute for learning about cities other than being out there, hitting the pavement, and engaging with real people.

Q. How does the Human Cities Initiative extend your research?

Zephyr Frank: I have spent the past fifteen years studying the urban history of Rio de Janeiro.  In that process, I have learned a great deal about how plans for urban development can go wrong.  I have also learned to appreciate the many ways that the residents of the city, the “users,” have adapted to change and shaped their environment in spite of the mistakes made by planners.  In this regard, I am able to extend my interest in everyday tactics for urban life to comprehend contemporary cities.  In addition to this, I have an ongoing research agenda focused on transportation infrastructure, cities, and political change in Brazil that draws upon student researchers and their manifold talents.  The students who participate in the Initiative will be prime candidates to assist me in my research on cities in Brazil and elsewhere around the world.

Q: What are the next steps for the Human Cities Initiative?

Zephyr Frank: The Human Cities Expo clearly generated interest and attracted many people from within the university and outside who are asking how they could be involved. We hope to continue building these relationships. We plan to continue offering great classes, putting together our annual Human Cities Expo, and finding more opportunities for Urban Studies to convene people interested in cities and urban sustainability.

To learn more, please visit the Human Cities Initiative.