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Thoughts About Human & Kind Cities: Diversity, Identity and New Connections

I was recently interviewed by our friends at Topos Magazine, because of my participation in the Timberland's Nature Needs Heroes campaign. We talked about my vision on urban planning, the priorities for the future, how to make cities inclusive, the role of mobility to do so, and the role and struggle of change-makers. Hope you like it!


How can urban change be brought about? Maybe with the help of tactical urbanism and happy mobility? This, in any case, is the approach of Humankind, an agency for urban change based in Rotterdam. They’re striving to help cities, organizations and urban change makers to tackle the most complex urban challenges and create healthy and livable cities for everybody. topos talked to one of the co-founders, Jorn Wemmenhove, who is devoted to building a better future for the environment and the people who live in it. Therefore, he is now collaborating with the company Timberland to be part of the campaign “Nature needs Heroes”. Jorn told us that we all can be heroes. The question is, how?


topos: What, in your opinion, are the crucial questions on future urban planning? Jorn Wemmenhove: I think it’s exactly about this… asking the right questions. It was Cedric Price who said, “technology is the answer, but what was the question?” He was so right. There is a tendency in urban planning to think that technology will solve our issues. The smart city discourse is still gaining popularity. But really, we are just trying to update a failing system with data, connectivity, and other shiny and blinking things. Technology is not the question, because human beings will always come up with new solutions. We can be positive about that. But we must first know the direction we want to head. In a way, the climate crisis is forcing us to drastically rethink our way of thinking and doing. Urban planning should step up to fight the climate crisis, but also really put human beings at the center of their practice. By better listening to what people want, and better acting on what people need. Crucial questions must be asked about our vision on humankind, and the way we can collaborate to turn this crisis into an opportunity.


In your work, what are the biggest battles you face personally when it comes to making our cities a better place? My work is about creating change. I think the biggest battle is against fear. Even though change is the only constant in life, and so we are naturally very resilient and able, people fear change. And since we’ve been in our comfort zone for too long, change is happening in a quite intense way right now. Fear manifests itself in different ways; selfishness, short-sightedness, insecurity. It is my duty to help people move beyond this fear that can be found amongst the so-called ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. I think those who are actually in the financial position to make changes more easily have a bigger responsibility to take action than those who struggle for daily survival. It is my personal battle to not lose patience with those in power who can’t see that if we do things differently, we can create a more just world with opportunities for all.


Transforming a city to the better and for the well-being of the citizens – who and what is mostly to blame if change does not happen? I think we should not blame to start with. We have to invest in a way of thinking that puts our general well-being at the core. A story that connects and produces better cities together. Most of us grew up in a system that promises happiness through buying products. Slowly we start realizing that this is a mistake. We have the opportunity to rethink this idea, and urbanism is opening up to start planning and doing things accordingly.


Urban infrastructure projects are often very expensive and take a very long time to complete. What is the cheapest city transformation tool you can recommend? And what is the quickest tool for achieving visible benefits for the people? In our toolbox for change, ‘tactical urbanism’ has the highest visual impact. With relatively cheap means it can show the future of the city today. Creating urban experiments and making people experience that change is a good thing. Experiments can be a tool for participation and communication, and also to really test a new design or experience. Testing is not always necessary. Well-designed, safe bike lanes and infrastructure for pedestrians is much cheaper than car infrastructure and has been proven to be super-efficient. Still we spend way more on cars, promoting unsafe conditions, obesity and bad air in doing so. It’s a matter of priorities.


Let’s look into the crystal ball, Jorn. What is your vision of the city of the future? In my vision the future city is green, inclusive and exciting. So, more focus on the real smart solutions, resulting in most people walking and cycling. Better designed and programmed public space, creating more social connections. And these diverse connections can lead to creative productions we have never imagined. I hope that cities will learn from each other, but find their own narrative and identity, so they won’t all look and feel the same.

How do you motivate people to change their city or to accept changes to their city – especially when transformation goes along with altering one’s own behavior? I can imagine that some people go crazy when you’re talking about taking away their parking spaces or pedestrianizing a street…. People feel that change takes things away from them, indeed things like parking spaces, limitless consumption, etc. The key is to show that we can actually all win. We often lack the imagination to really dream about a better future, and the means to get there. I really believe in human creativity to rethink business models, technology, the ways we organize ourselves, but only when we can dream that future. We help people, organizations and cities with this, and show them through experiments that it will be better.


Humankind often speaks of happy mobility – what does this mean exactly? Happy mobility is a way of thinking about and implementing mobility beyond moving people from A to B. It is based on promoting active mobility, great public spaces, and access to the city for all. We started a program some years ago promoting cycling as a means of socio-economic progress in Rotterdam. Even in a well-developed city like Rotterdam people face mobility poverty. Not everybody has access to mobility when they need it, for example, to get to a job at the other side of the city very early in the morning. Especially those excluded from our system face those situations. We showed that the bicycle could solve a big part of this issue. Since we are changing our mobility systems anyway, this is our opportunity to help everyone move forward.


Your approach includes city participation to an often high degree. What do people tell you when it comes to explaining what they want, what they need in their city? It is essential that more people become part of city-making. It shouldn’t be a world consisting of a few developers, architects, politicians, and just a couple of well-connected citizens. It is challenging to make this happen. We need to educate people from a young age that we can shape our cities together. When active, people often know what they want, but not always how to get it. It is up to urbanists – and again, we can all be one – to translate the wishes into solutions. This year we were working in a slum in Argentina, and people requested to close their street with a gate to stop violence. But what they were really asking for was a safe public space where their children could play in the street. Especially in this very complex context, we try to show different ways of creating this together.


What are the best techniques for making cities more walkable? We often talk to municipal authorities who wonder why so few people are walking on their so beautifully built sidewalks. What they forget is that, especially when it comes to walking, the city plan is even more important. Pedestrians take shortcuts, sometimes looking for the shortest route, sometimes for the route with the best experience. If the sidewalk doesn’t really connect their A and B, they won’t use it. But many cities around the world don’t even have sidewalks, or the sidewalks are in such bad conditions, elderly people or those using a wheelchair can’t use them. We run workshops to make people experience the city from their viewpoint, so they take them into consideration.


How can we make our cities more inclusive and diverse? It starts with education, of course. But young people learn a lot in the streets. I think we can still really make a quality step concerning our public spaces. Well-designed and programmed, that’s where people meet, hang out and become acquainted with others. We must plan them with space for all the different groups, and although we all have different needs and preferences, we all need social connections. It is up to urban planners to design in order to facilitate these meetings. One additional comment: Greening our cities is increasingly a main focus, especially in the richer neighborhoods. We must really strive for this green revolution to be inclusive. All humans need access to green space.


Livable urban public spaces are crucial for promoting social life in cities – How can we make public places more livable? Can you name your 5 favs of public places worldwide and explain why you like them? When I was 20 years old, I co-founded the non-profit organization El Desafío Foundation, working with youngsters growing up in poverty in Rosario, Argentina. A city with many big challenges, on mobility for example. But every Sunday they close many big avenues to traffic and open them up for the people. The result is amazing, you can hear the birds sing again or see grandparents get out with the entire family.


I also love Habima Square in Tel Aviv. It looks like a green oasis and is well used by different groups throughout the entire day. In Rotterdam the public park Kralingse Bos offers amazing views on a lake with the skyline in the background. The Madrid Río park is another favorite place. They took out a lot of car infrastructure to create a beautiful linear park, restoring the important connections to the water for all Madrileños. And the fifth example are all the streets with space for cycling and walking. We too often forget that our streets are public spaces as well. With compliments to cities with visionary leadership like Paris and Buenos Aires, who dare to invest in those streets.


Jorn, you’re collaborating with Timberland. You’re part of the new campaign “Nature needs Heroes”. Why does nature need heroes? What is your mission in this context? We’re in this together. We must all take action to keep this planet livable. Timberland understands this, has been working with communities for decades, and is undergoing a transition to find out how to make the most positive impact possible. By planting 50 million trees in 5 years, but also by connecting to change makers in cities. I am delighted to be one of them and play my role. Humans have been disconnected from nature and it’s time to restore this lost connection. We must invest in green to save our planet, but we also need green to invest in our mental health. In this sense, heroes need nature. And of course, we can all be heroes. I am doing what I can to help Timberland and others make the right decision based on my expertise. And open up the world of urbanism to new and exciting collaborations.

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