Building the Human City – extracts from David Clark’s visionary book


In Building the Human City – the origins and future potential of the Human City Institute (1995 – 2002) David Clark writes:

The world, of which the city is now an essential and integral part, is one that faces a crucial choice between community and chaos. It is a choice that must be made in the context of a world which enters a new millennium facing the age-old problems of poverty, homelessness and disease…Warfare has become vastly more dangerous [and] the emergence of international terrorism, allied to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, means that no corner of the globe can any longer regard itself as secure. Virulent diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, appear on the scene just as others are apparently vanquished. Most challenging of all, our small and fragile planet is now faced with an exploding world population and the ultimate destruction of a life- sustaining environment…

[But these] problems mask a deeper challenge. Fundamentally, it is not the problems outlined above which threaten humankind most profoundly, but our inability to transform our fragmented world into a world order in which we can affirm our common humanity and ensure the future well-being of our planet…

The humanising power of community

The communal task 

A difficulty we face in seeking to harness the power of community is that, though the threat of global chaos is now easy enough to recognise, the concept of ‘community’, like a bar of soap in the shower, seems to slip from our grasp the harder we try to grab hold of it. Why is this?

The educational task

If our first task in seeking to overcome the threat of chaos is to reinstate the concept of community, our second is to move ‘learning’ to the top of the agenda.

To develop a sense of community powerful enough to prevent the chaos which threatens human civilization, we need to create social collectives that never cease learning how to enrich both their own sense of community and that of others. Our world has to become a global community made up of a multitude of social collectives which are learning communities, from institutions to small groups, if humankind is to survive and flourish in the years ahead.


If accessing and nurturing the humanising power of learning communities is a necessity for the salvation of the planet, then we urgently need to develop a style of leadership appropriate for that task.

The city as a model of the power of the learning community

Whatever we think of this massive change to the nature of human civilisation, the city is here to stay. Thus the city has become the measure of whether or not humankind will be able to live together in a world which is safe, fulfilling and harmonious. The communal quality of life within a Belfast, a Jerusalem, a Bagdad, a New York or a Kabul is a barometer of how well or badly we are doing.

If our cities fall apart, chaos will ensue.

We  opted for the word ‘human’ in the title given to the Human City Initiative because, from an academic perspective, we felt that the concept of the human had so much in common with that of the learning community that the two could be regarded as virtually synonymous. Both related to humankind’s need for a sense of security, significance and solidarity, both were about learning and both embraced the personal and corporate dimensions of human relationships. The core components of a learning community are a sense of security, significance and solidarity, learning as education and the type of leadership required to enhance these attributes.

In his final chapter 7: Liberating the power of the human city, Clark writes:

The image of the human city

What sort of city needs to become an ideal-type for global well-being? Visions are in plentiful supply. But the visions we have for cities are as much social constructs as for any other collective. Cities are what we make them. The challenge, therefore, is to ‘re-imagine’ the city in a way which can make it a communally powerful means of global transformation.

The image of the human city is one that inspires people to connect across a diversity of often divisive social boundaries, cultural, ethnic, occupational and religious. It encourages people to discover what it means to be human in not only a personal, but an interpersonal, inter-agency and city-wide way.

The building blocks of the human city as a learning community

The hearing

The hearing is an important, if temporary, form of learning community. Its essential characteristic is a visioning process which stretches the imagination, opens up new possibilities for human growth, promotes learning as education and, in conjunction with the concept of ‘human city sites,’ enables participants to develop their own innovative and creative agendas for urban revitalisation.

The  emphasis [in the hearing] is not on problem solving or addressing issues as such, but on imaginative ideas that break the mould of traditional practice and harness pent up human creativity.

This visioning process is not a once-and-for-all affair. Its purpose is not to produce a blue-print for the correction of current ills which can then be passed up (or down) the system for implementation. Its aim is more messy, yet more creative. It seeks to enthuse participants with hope for the future founded on visions which may never have been dreamed up before, and to produce an energy which only hope can generate if visions are to be turned into reality.

The Human City Institute’s hearings

The Institute’s hearings tackled the perennial problem of the raising of the hopes of participants only to dash them again. Those who met understood that the purpose was to engage in a mould-breaking and not a problem solving exercise. There was an appreciation of, and respect for the educational nature of hearings which often became journeys of discovery in themselves. Participants were genuinely surprised by the innovative nature of many of the ideas that emerged and went home excited and energised by new hopes, rather than depressed by the conviction that the enormous problems of urban life would never be solved.

The Human City Institute made a number of attempts to stimulate hearings through the use of the arts. In the early days, projects were mooted to enable people to share their visions in response to photographs which exemplified aspects of the human city, as well as projects to encourage school children to draw and paint pictures as to how they hoped Birmingham might look in the future. Discussions were also held as to whether drama could be used in the same way. Though never fully implemented, these ideas offer other ways in which citizens might be helped to bring their imagination to bear on what a human city would look like.

Hearings give visionary energy to the humanising power of the learning community. The liberation of hope brings dedication and commitment, not only to plans for the future, but to associated endeavours in the present. Nevertheless, most of the Human City Institute’s hearings necessarily remained one-off encounters and short-lived communal phenomena unless linked directly to human city sites. Building the hearings process into the life of such sites, the usual form of which is the human group, and across every sphere of city life, remains a major challenge, but also opens many creative and exciting possibilities for the future.

The human group

The power of the human group

One of the most perceptive theses advanced for the humanising power of the communal group is that of Etienne Wenger (1998, 2002). Wenger calls his groups ‘communities of practice’, these being informal collectives which can occur anywhere and at any time. They are shaped by ‘mutual engagement’, ‘a joint enterprise’ and ‘a shared culture’. Their importance lies in three main areas: their adaptability and flexibility in enabling an organisation to achieve its primary task, their capacity for ongoing learning in the fulfilment of this role, and the sense of identity and belonging they can offer their members. Wenger applies the concept of communities of practice mainly to the world of business, but argues that it has universal application.  He believes that such communities have a key role to play in the sustainability of organisations in a global economy, not least through their immediate access to and ability to process personal experiences, insights and ideas.

Wenger’s communities of practice have much in common with our human groups.

Human networks are able to promote the kind of learning which is more about ‘education’ than socialisation, knowledge and skills. Because networking paves the way for surprising experiences and innovative relationships, the mould of old ways of thinking and doing is more easily broken, and learning as a journey of discovery comes to the fore. Networking also opens up the possibility of multi-group membership. This not only enables citizens to overcome previously dehumanising divides, but can offer ‘a critical source of learning’.  Thus networking not only increases the communal energy of the human city but enriches its educational possibilities.

Human networking also offers a vital spiritual dynamic to the human city.  If a city is to reach its full human potential, then what Haughton, writing from a Christian perspective, calls an ‘exchange of life’ (the liberation of human creativity in which the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts) has to take place. Networking as a key form of human ‘connectivity’ and creativity, through which citizens are able to experience new visions and dream new dreams, has the ability to liberate spiritual energy vital for the creation of the human city.

Harnessing the communal power of the human network

For networking to reach it full potential, it must facilitate face-to-face encounters. In the human city, indirect or impersonal engagement can never suffice to enrich and enhance the life of learning communities. Therefore, if networking is to further the building of the human city, it has to provide an opportunity for people to converse on a personal level, and to engage as unique and identifiable persons in innovative and liberating ways across boundaries which have previously kept people apart.

In 1994, the Rockefeller Foundation produced its ‘Millennium Report’ based on the premise that, ‘Without communication – properly understood as dialogue, connection and engagement in the process of being a citizen and living in a community – there is no revitalisation’.  If ‘communication as engagement’ is to liberate the humanizing power of learning communities then a great deal of work remains to be done on how such communication can be achieved.

The human neighbourhood

Breaking the mould of neighbourhood regeneration

In reality, most neighbourhoods are made up of groups or constellations of groups which often relate more naturally to groups of a similar kind in neighbourhoods other than their own. Bonding on the basis of shared territory remains important and can give residents a sense of ownership of and pride in the place where they live. However, the Institute believed that the human city can only come about when local groups are able to network within and across neighbourhood boundaries in order to share ideas, experiences, skills and resources.

The human institution

Of course the social exclusiveness and injustices of urban life must be addressed. However, until it is realised that the city is not going to become fully human until the wealthy as well as the poor, the strong as well as the weak, across all sectors, are active participants in building learning communities, little will change. 

To transform institutions into learning communities requires a cultural shift of a profound and long-term kind.  

There are some signs that private sector institutions are beginning to recognise the need to espouse the qualities of the learning community. The concept of the business as ‘a learning organisation’ gathered momentum in the late ‘eighties  and, unlike certain ‘flavours of the month’ within that sector, has stayed the course remarkably well. Particularly influential here has been the pioneering work of Argyris and Schon (1978) and, a little later, of Senge (1990), with Hawkins (1991, 2000) offering further interesting insights.

Unfortunately descriptions of the learning organisation have encompassed a confusing array of organisational concepts and models, with extended lists of loosely connected features being par for the course. The private sector’s understanding of ‘learning’ has often been superficial, its pre-occupation being with what we have called instruction and training rather than ‘education’. Nonetheless, the fact that the private sector has begun to espouse the concept of the learning organisation may give some hope of the eventual emergence of the human institution within that sector.

Seeking to promote businesses as more open and inclusive systems has also been the purpose of ‘the social audit’, a venture developed in the UK by the New Economics Foundation. However, this has been taken up by only a very limited number of companies.

Despite encouraging signs of progress, the large majority of institutions within all sectors remain victims of a market-driven, competitive and often divisive culture, only employing their expertise and resources for the benefit of the city as a whole where profit, reputation or survival are at stake.

How then can the idea of institutions as learning communities, and their potential contribution to the building of the human city be made more of a reality?


The Human City Institute’s endeavours in encouraging institutions to engage in some form of visioning about what might be involved in becoming a more human institution is one example of a catalyst for change. Such visioning helped institutions to begin to recognise that, even in a market-drive economy, giving a more human face to the way they operate is not only possible, but could enhance the nature of their organisational culture, image and effectiveness. Furthermore, the very fact of engaging in the process of envisioning what it meant to be a human institution immediately engaged them in a process which is a key feature of the learning community.

Human groups and networks

Close on the heels of the importance of visioning comes the potential of communal groups and networks to promote humanising change within institutions. The fostering within institutions of a wide range of human groups as mini learning communities and, through effective networking, enabling them to share insights, ideas, skills and resources, offers genuine hope for the communal transformation of institutions.

Wegner argues that we should begin to view the nature of the institution ‘not so much as an overarching structure as … a boundary object. It connects communities of practice into an organisation by crossing boundaries. It does not sit on top; it moves in between. It does not unify by transcending; it connects and disconnects’. Where institutions undertake this kind of intermediary role, they offer to those groups associated with them a corporate identity that strengthens each group’s sense of community without constraining and cramping creativity and identity. Thus the institution as a learning community is able to enhance the humanity of the whole by providing the time, opportunity and resources for its component groups to develop a synergy which if they remained separate entities would be impossible.

However, the Human City Institute was only able to promote attempts at institutional transformation at a very tentative level and on a very limited front.  [But its] belief that the visioning process, and nurturing and connecting human groups within large institutions to help transform the latter into learning communities and, as a consequence, beginning to transform our cities into human cities, remain a very important legacy.


The human city is a holistic city. It requires the contribution of all its citizens, from the small human group to the multi-national corporation. Even if institutions begin to develop the characteristics of learning communities, real progress towards the creation of a more human urban culture will depend on their pursuing that goal collaboratively.

The contribution of the human church to the human city

That the church as an institution, along with other faith communities, often fails to recognise the unique role it could play in building the human city, and fears to enter into genuine partnership with other institutions for lack of losing its own identity, is typical of the communal dilemma facing our world. But where it stands apart and will not risk its life for the sake of the common good and the development of a new humanity, it will ‘lose its life’, as its founder once warned. The revitalisation of urban life urgently needs the ongoing contribution of the faith communities as a resource for the shaping, nurturing and practical expression of the vision of what it means, individually and collectively, to be human.

The contribution of the human school to the human city

The distinctive contribution of the school to the creation of the human city focuses on learning as education. The school seeks to demonstrate and communicate to other institutions that education is not just about the assimilation of knowledge or the acquiring of skills, but about learning which is person-centred, an open journey of discovery, risks exploring ideas and cultures not experienced before, and is concerned to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a citizen of the twenty-first century. At the same time the human school knows that unless it nourishes its life as a community, little genuine education will occur. As in the case of the church, therefore, the school needs to be seen as an institution that can help every sector to understand what it means to be human, and how to foster and harness the power of the learning community for the benefit of the city as a whole. Thus the human school should be welcomed with open arms by other institutions as a model of the learning community with a vital contribution to make to building the human city.

Cities as partners

There remains an even bigger picture. If the renewal of our cities requires a new quality of partnership between its own institutions, the future of human civilization demands a new quality of partnership between its cities. Co-operation between cities is steadily moving up the international agenda, not least across Europe where Eurocities, the European association of metropolitan cities, already has over a hundred members. Between as well as within all cities and countries, much more needs to be done to promote partnerships which embrace the private, public and voluntary sectors, which affirm the distinctive contribution of every form of urban institution (including the faith communities), and which develop the inter-city and international networking of human groups.

The communalising process  

It is imperative for any city concerned with urban renewal to move beyond what its citizens report to be their immediate needs. The mould of failed urban regeneration will not be broken until citizens and city leaders alike become much more creative in their thinking. One of the problems in the attempt to gather the views of Bristol residents about the future of their city and, indeed, of the Birmingham local authority to tap its citizens’ ideas for the development of the city at the start of a new millennium, was an inability to foster genuinely imaginative ideas.

The stress on imagination is one of the strengths of Landry’s idea of ‘The Creative City’ (Landry, 2000). As Imagine Chicago has also clearly shown, it is imagination which lies at the heart of liberating the humanising power of learning communities. Encouraging the expression of imagination not only creates vigorous participation, but energy for future action. Those involved in urban renewal need to stimulate the imagination of citizens much more creatively if the tired old patterns of community development are not simply to be repeated ad infinitum.

Accessing imagination is an ongoing process. But visions then need to be made a reality.

Visions of the future will always need adaptation in the cold light of day but, as this happens, it is important that the spark which ignited the vision in the first place is not extinguished. It needs to be recognised that nurturing a plethora human groups (wherever possible as human city sites), and enabling their visions to be worked out as humanising agendas, is the next essential stage in building the human city, a stage which requires considerable time, energy and skill, [especially] leadership.

It is essential that the process of building the human city also embraces networking. Enabling groups to engage in visioning will not get very far unless they can be connected, and thereby encouraged, supported and resourced, by means of the networking process. Such networking remains one of the greatest challenges for urban renewal programmes for, though the power of information technology is now immense, even human groups can all too easily become possessive and introverted. Enabling such groups to link and share is essential if their visioning is to lead to the emergence of human institutions and the human city. Far more time and effort needs to be given by those engaged in urban renewal to discover how human groups can be persuaded and equipped to view networking as not only beneficial to their own endeavours but also to the wider city.

Networking not only strengthens human groups as learning communities but opens up the possibility of institutions assuming a more human face. The networking of those human groups located within institutions, potentially has massive implications for the communal quality of institutional life. Yet more is needed. For only when institutions overcome their propensity for exclusivity and establish genuine partnerships with one another, will the building of the human city really get under way.


To build the human city requires a massive cultural transformation. It needs a new vision of community and of learning, as we have defined them, being placed at the heart of urban renewal. It requires a communalising process which begins at the level of the human group. It necessitates our building the city as a learning community through a range of collective social forms, within all sectors, whose ability to liberate the synergy of a shared human endeavour has hitherto been neglected. But for this cultural transformation to take place, a new style of leadership, both corporate and individual, is also required.

The leadership needed to build the human city will be committed to the principles on which the human city is founded. We have integrated these principles into our ‘Twelve Signs of a Human City’. Given such a commitment, it is the role of the community educator, above all as an intermediary agent or agency, which is of paramount importance if the human city, together with its human neighbourhoods and human institutions, is to come into being.

For a city to be a human city, ‘a new kind of professional’ is needed. The latter will be one able to work across boundaries, cultural, social and institutional, to make new and creative connections which will harness the humanising potential of urban institutions. The human city requires leaders who, as community educators, possess the skills of empathy, affirmation, negotiation, conflict resolution and reconciliation. It is a highly creative yet demanding role, at this point in time unrecognised for the abilities and wisdom needed, and not rated as a priority in an urban culture where institutions and their leaders remain as insular as ever. But without leaders equipped and resourced to undertake this boundary-spanning and cross-cultural role, both within and between institutions, no human city can be built.

The role of local government

A great deal rests on the shoulders of local government, as itself a key intermediary agency, if the style of leadership needed to harness the communal power of the human city is to be readily available.

Local government has two especially critical tasks to perform in its role as an intermediary agency. First, it needs to promote the sharing of visions and insights as to what makes a city human. Here the importance of visioning once again comes to the fore as a vital mainstream endeavour for the liberation of civic life from the domination of what is inhuman in all its diverse forms.

Local government’s second major task is to ensure that in building the human city, the insights, experiences and abilities of all its citizens are brought fully into play. This means identifying and equipping a ‘new kind of professional’, community educators, who can operate on behalf of local government as intermediary agents across sometimes divisive functional, occupational, social and cultural boundaries, in relation to all sectors and over a wide range of neighbourhoods. The importance of this type of leadership remains as yet largely unrecognised and, even where acknowledged in principle, is often resisted or neglected in practice. The departmentalism of much of local government itself has prevented the emergence of such intermediary appointments, though the need for them has been argued for some time. Without this kind of catalytic leadership, liberating and synergising the communal power of the city’s humanising communities will not be accomplished.


The practice of urban revitalisation described in this book has focused attention on ‘the local’ rather than ‘the global’. It has done so because of our conviction that the survival of our world lies in the triumph of community over chaos, and that the key to that achievement is the building of the human city in place of the inhuman city.

Though this is a global task, it will not be achieved unless we recognise that the human city is a community of learning communities, and that building such a city has to begin at every level of city life, but notably at the level of the human group. This is why much of our attention has been given to how the humanising power of the latter can be liberated in order to kick-start the transformation of urban institutions, the city itself and eventually our world. To build large, we will need to begin, but by no means end, small.

Nevertheless, if civilization is to fulfil its immense human potential, and thereby avoid the chaos which otherwise looms large, cities across the globe, from Birmingham to Baghdad, from Dallas to Delhi, from Manchester to Mexico, from London to Lahore, will need to address the task of how to become human cities. If our planet is to become the home of ‘a world community’ then the power of community to promote what is truly human has to move to the very top of the agenda. ‘This is the dichotomy of the city: its potential to brutalise and its potential to civilise’, writes Richard Rogers.  It is also the dichotomy facing our world.

The choice is ours.

Appendix 2

What the Human City Institute is striving to promote (March 1999)

  • An explosion of interest in ‘the human city’ as a new vision for a new millennium.
  • A growing recognition of the fundamental importance of the human factor in any sustainable city of the future.
  • A zeal to rediscover ‘the soul’ of the city.
  • Enthusing urban communities to ‘re-imagine’ their cities as human cities.
  • Developing new forms of ‘hearing’ as a democratic means of imagining the human city and its possibilities.
  • Actively involving ‘all kinds and conditions’ of citizen in the creation of the human city.
  • Searching out and affirming the special contribution of the faith communities to the creation of the human city.
  • Specialised groups addressing the transformation of particular aspects of city life as their distinctive contribution to the human city (e.g. the human family, the human neighbourhood, the human school, the human hospital, the human business, the human police force, the human media, etc…….).
  • Establishing self-supporting networks of ‘human city sites’ involving all sectors, crossing every neighbourhood and touching all aspects of the life of city.
  • The imaginative use of information technology to connect, sustain and develop networks of human city sites.
  • The publication of papers and articles, backed up by seminars, workshops and conferences, to stimulate new thinking about the human city at both a professional and practical level.
  • The transformation of government, locally and nationally, so that it becomes the facilitator of those seeking to build human cities.
  • The creation of ‘human city forums’, partnerships working for the creation of the human city, in cities and towns across the UK and internationally.

David Clark (Director)

Businesspeople Meeting in Sitting Area

Appendix 5
Twelve signs of a human city 

1.  A human city is committed to being a new kind of city.

~+~ A human city is a place alive with the energy of hope, enables imagination and creativity to flourish and looks for the revitalisation of every aspect of its corporate life.

~+~ It is a city which is a dynamic community of communities that offers a powerful sense of security, significance and solidarity to all its members.

~+~ It is ‘a rainbow city’ which delights in diversity and difference in pursuit of the common good.

~+~ It is a city which creates a new culture and a new language9 to embody and communicate what it means to be human.

~+~ ‘A human city enables those who share a vision of the human city to work together with others to make that vision a reality.’

2.  A human city is committed to all its citizens.

~+~ A human city is about ‘value for people’ before value for money.

~+~ It is where ‘all matter and each counts’.

~+~ It is a city where people acknowledge and respect one another, where they care and share.

3.  A human city is committed to affirming the whole of human experience.

~+~ A human city treasures the human achievements of its past, and celebrates the human endeavours of the present.

~+~ It is a city committed to human wealth creation.

~+~ It is about the fulfilment of all that it means to be human; in body, mind and spirit.

~+~ It is a city with a heart and a soul.

~+~  It is a compassionate and ‘faith-full’ city.

~+~  It is a place of fun and laughter.

4.  A human city is committed to a life-enhancing environment.

~+~  A human city gives life to those who live and work there, or visit it.

~+~  It is safe, clean and healthy.

~+~  It is a city within which people can move about easily and comfortably.

~+~  It is full of natural beauty and architectural grace.

~+~  It harnesses and uses all its resources in ways that sustain the planet.

5.  A human city is committed to social justice.

~+~  A human city recognises, repents and confronts the suffering that inhumanity causes.

~+~  It places the concerns of the poor and the marginalised high on its agenda.

~+~  It is committed to the vision of a just, peaceful and inclusive city, revitalised by forgiveness and reconciliation.

~+~  It upholds human rights and human responsibilities.

6.  A human city is committed to truth and integrity in public life.

~+~  A human city fosters a culture of trust founded on mutual respect and honesty.

~+~  It is about open, informative and straight communication within all spheres and at all levels of civic life.

7.  A human city is committed to the transforming power of the human group.

~+~  A human city is dependent on a multitude of human groups contributing in their own ways and situations to the creation of a human city.

~+~  It is a city where ‘small is beautiful’.

~+~  It values the human scale and the human touch.

~+~  It is a city with a human face.

8.  A human city is committed to being a place of lively and creative encounters.

~+~  A human city provides spaces and places where people can meet and talk.

~+~  It encourages its citizens to come together to share their experiences, stories and concerns.

~+~  It provides forums for vigorous discussion and debate about the meaning and nature of the human city.

~+~  It fosters many forms of networking which can link and connect those striving to build the human city.

9.  A human city is committed to genuine partnership.

~+~  A human city recognises that the humanity of the part and the humanity of the whole are inextricably linked.

~+~  It is a city which brings together diverse sectors (public, private and voluntary), neighbourhoods, cultures, faiths and generations in innovative and creative ways.

~+~  It is a city which fosters the commitment, empathy, tolerance and tenacity which all true partnerships require.

~+~  It is a city which works with any other city that shares its vision.

10.  A human city is committed to democratic leadership and participation.

~+~  A human city gives a voice to all who live and work there, and hears what they say.

~+~  It enables its members to participate in the decisions that affect them.

~+~  It is a city which believes in the mutual accountability of all who live and work there.

~+~  It is a city where those who lead use their power to empower others.

11.  A human city is committed to learning for living.

~+~  A human city is a learning city.

~+~  It is involved in an ongoing quest to discover what it means to be human.

~+~  It is a city which creates a multitude of opportunities for attentive listening, innovative exchanges, open dialogue, ongoing reflection and the birth of new understandings.

~+~  It is a city which provides an education for life.

12.  A human city is committed to ongoing change.

~+~  A human city is about fundamental and continuing change because its concern is the transformation of the inhuman into the human.

~+~  It is a city which never ceases to challenge and redeem those things which would destroy its humanity.

Dreamscape MP900449128

One thought on “Building the Human City – extracts from David Clark’s visionary book

  1. Pingback: Happiness At Work #43 ~ highlights in this week’s collection | performance~marks

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