A New Humanism: Part 9

Building the habitat and creating a sense of place

Experiencing a sense of community – belonging to a successful network of human alliances – is one of the great pleasures of the places we build.  And at village or at city scales we dedicate an enormous share of our resources to accommodate and symbolize the group’s protection, effectiveness, and cohesion.  Facing the propensity for destruction and violence that’s inherent in person-to-person competition, we strengthen bonds and loyalties with places to meet, act out our agreements and shared stories, resolve the inevitable conflicts and plant symbols of our “social contract” – the places to eat together, judge, worship, trade, play, and celebrate with shared movements, ideas, voices. and action – and finally in the burial grounds that record the continuity of the shared gene pools. 

Civil society’s most honored monuments are the places where a community can read the stories of individual competitors surviving and prospering together – stories of victories, resolved conflicts, bonds of loyalty, generosity and philanthropy, and the favor of a deity. It’s seen in the bold, arrogant commercial and town hall towers of medieval Europe’s newly independent cities – with their symbolism of wealth and power that’s inherent in penetrating a skyline. Today we do the same. We announce our stability and pedigree in the neo-classical languages of power – in finance, universities, and governments – or the engineering of grand transportation infrastructure and waterfronts that tell stories of still larger geographical alliances. And the most moving are the places where citizens see – and hear – themselves being a community, sharing the passions stirred by their myths, arts, and on-going history – the Greeks in their intimate theaters or today’s crowds in museums or performing arts venues. And it can happen in parks, plazas, and arenas where spectacles, music, or sports – at small and large scales – evoke feelings of solidarity, working or fighting side-by-side as a team or as a gang, making connections just as binding – at least for the moment – as genetic kinship. These places where we reinforce and celebrate – respond to – our prospering alliances are the settings where we experience what we call “sense-of-place” and “authentic” communities.


More from Metropolis

In any mix of diverse and mobile populations, under any social structure, the built environments, the public faces of places financed and occupied, naturally express the victories, values, religion or status of the winners. When, for better or worse, they also become symbols of exclusion and oppression, they become physical targets for the outsiders – called, naturally, barbarians, rebels or terrorists. They have been throughout history. And in our globalizing, urbanizing settlements we can expect continued destructive responses to the places we build.  The alienation is just as deeply felt as “belonging,” and the winners are responding as they always have, with hardened perimeters and surveillance – refuge and prospect.

More broadly, though, we respond to the tensions inherent in dense settlements of diverse populations by inventing institutions and corporate “bodies”. These complex alliances have led us each to surrender more individual freedom of action, and we have steered our creativity into replacing person-to-person, family collaboration with larger, more effective systems for managing and controlling our urban ecosystems. Decisions are, in effect, delegated to the teams of trained specialists – the bureaucracies who survive and prosper in politically-driven or business-driven environments. And it’s the visions of human nature conceived in their narrow, compartmented worlds that become the conventional, regulated way to exploit and build the habitat. In this sense, the rest of us are the ones alienated from a whole range of decision-making power. We build in a community governed by institutions and systems acting as if they were people. And that’s proven to be a tough challenge for the design professions.

Institutional and corporate values and visions are essentially administrative ones – simplified, central control, with individual, human personality submerged in standardization, institutional efficiency, and islands of specialized jurisdictions.  As the work in those “islands” becomes more and more the “language” of a built environment, the most significant form-givers of modern habitats become industrialized housing, trade, and transportation combined with disrespect for larger consequences outside each specialty, all symbolized by clear-cuts, mass grading and miles of uncoordinated, unintended impacts. We say they have no “soul” because so many of the visions we see being built seem compromised and distant from our own – and, of course, they are. While there are exceptional public parks and institutional corporate buildings, from State Capitols to the ego-driven headquarters and transportation terminals, in any centralized group effort that’s aimed at a narrowly conceived greater-good, many human values – many predilections – are simply, deliberately, sometimes forcefully ignored. In practice, the ends don’t justify the means.

In response, pioneers in our professions have continually tried to create habitats based on re-ordered priorities. The ventures range from Garden Cities, New Towns, New Urbanism, and Transit Oriented Development to an often-perverse Urban Renewal or, along other tracks, varieties of Smart Growth or a succession of neo-modern styles. Some succeed. And these are the kinds of efforts that I am calling approaches to a broader humanism – breaking open corporate, institutional mind-sets, looking beyond them for integrated human values that we call “livability”. It can be done. The potential is seen in the places that seem to take root and grow naturally within cities – like the mosaic of subcultures called “urban villages” or Chinatown or Little Italy – places to live with “our tribe”. Or, at a city-wide scale are the multiple human pleasures of London’s residential parks, Chicago’s lakefront or New York’s Rockefeller Center.  There, the potential can be seen in the enormous popularity of well-conceived corporate/institutional urban open spaces, where the “villagers” can escape for a time the oppressive formalized systems of businesses and institutions that make a city function, to enjoy the pleasures of connecting again with each other and a benign nature – by their own rules.


Rockefeller Center – a mix of multiple priorities that works in Manhattan


Because the “systems” are necessarily human inventions, we can keep reinventing them. And our own evolved predilections that led us into them are already leading us out. Environmental impact laws, multi-agency collaboration, and broader citizen participation – with more sub-cultures and an expanded range of interests – are introducing promising “mutations” in the systems. But we all, simply as citizens, still need to penetrate deeper into the political and economic decisions that create the infrastructure of laws and hardware – from zoning to power plants – the things that have made possible the security, diversity, innovation, and refinement that underlie the creative attraction of cities – but too often with nonsensical, wasteful consequences. That’s a key assignment for a new humanism.

“Economic man” – costs, benefits, efficiency

At the heart of every decision that creates a built environment are cost-benefit judgments.  Natural selection sorted out human adaptations to an environment in terms of their costs and benefits, and – as with exploration or creativity – it seems to have distilled into human nature a predisposition, both a visceral impulse and mental capacity, to do the same.  Because time, strength, and energy are all limited in relation to the benefits we can imagine for ourselves, cost effectiveness and efficiency – finding the quicker, easier way – are inherent in the ways we shape a habitat or navigate through it. Comparisons of pro and con, profit-loss, marginal cost metaphors, and implicit discount rates are in everyday thought and language, and “optimum” allocation of available resources is a constant, conscious or unconscious bottom line in our intentions, expectations, and every mental map we make. 

In other words, creating a habitat is inevitably an economic venture; we’re making survival choices in the face of limited resources. As a result, cost effectiveness and return-on-investment as metrics of success are just as woven into our human nature as comfort, convenience or meanings and messages. Even when cost-is-no-object or monetary values seem irrelevant, the “surplus” resources making those luxuries possible had their origins in economic thinking.

In practice though, we all know that the calculations are more complex than economic – or any other specialized thinking – can predict. The fever of boom-and-bust cycles shows how the impulsive investment decisions of highly rational, numbers-oriented men and women can be driven by out-of-control body chemistry. Or at another extreme – as seen from our “rational” view of today – is the construction tour-de-force of remote mountaintop monasteries or around Stonehenge. There it seems the incalculable benefits of creating a tighter bond with the natural world and a sense of control justified a staggering costs. 


Stonehenge in Wiltshire, UK – enormous expenditure of human time and energy on a regional scale to produce tangible and intangible benefits – unknown to us.


In any case, creative, rational cost-benefit thinking has advanced all of our technologies, refinements in specializations, patterns of trade, and borrowing and lending – all key factors that bind people together, shape settlements, and underlie styles in built environments. And we’ve organized what we’ve learned over centuries in arrays of codes, regulations, and traditional practices that offer the benefits of some basic levels of health-safety-and-welfare, balanced – at the time they are written – with politically acceptable, thought-out costs of construction, operations, risks and potential losses. But, again, look around. Though they’re being continually updated, they’re still not broad enough.

The full reality

Ultimately, we know the cultures and “personal projects” that survive and prosper are the ones compatible with sound cost-benefit balances and rational decision-making. However, the decision “systems” we have set up give priority to measuring success as concrete and tangible individual gain or loss – to the individual “interests” who do the numbers. And because of the clarity of measuring in numbers, values that are readily quantified tend to be given precedence over those that are not. As a result, the less immediate, less concrete costs, and costs paid by “strangers”, those not among “our” close allies, tend to drift out of the equations completely.

And as a result, a basic role for a new humanism would be to support and expand the efforts now underway in many professions to enlarge definitions and re-balance priorities to reflect more of the real world. We’re often able to integrate competing interests into design processes early, comprehensively, and transparently by making open-minded, optimum use of the best available information and science.  Promising examples are ecologist Ian McHarg’s “method”, outlined later, and public-private agreements to allocate land and water or resources to the competing demands of urban development, agriculture, wildlife or environmental quality on urban edges.  But equally important, our fast-growing computing power, while often used to obscure issues, has added to our brain new magnitudes of capability to capture vast quantities of information – the full reality “out there” – and to model and predict more and more accurately the full costs and benefits of the places we design – and, just as important how they are distributed among the favored and the victims.

Most challenging is still likely to be weighing, and integrating into a larger analysis, hard-to-measure social and aesthetic pleasures in and beyond the beauty-of-the-bottom-line – in other words, clarifying how the intangible arts of the built environment are experienced, not as an “add-on”, but as inherent in form and function. For that reason I have explored this subject in more depth in a later post, The Languages of Humanism.

First, though, I want to take a deeper look at “experience” itself – what is it like to be there?


Santorini – the worldwide magnetism of a concise story of refuge and prospect, the dramatic links to a spectacular natural setting, the culture of an alliance that survived and prospered, the social and economic footprint of village life, a unified complexity that invites exploration


Part 9 concludes the first section of the New Humanism ideas: the “Origins” of human behavior in evolution. The next series of posts explores “being there” – starting with “the mind that encounters architecture,” followed by “the body that responds”.

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This is the ninth of a series of posts that spell out a set of ideas called A New Humanism: in architecture, landscapes, and urban design. They’re about enlarging the way we think about design by applying, in day to day practice, a broader range of insights into the cutting edge sciences of nature and human nature — using them to understand how our evolved mind-and-body actually experience the places we design, and why people respond the ways they do.

Robert Lamb Hart is a practicing architect and planner educated at Harvard GSD and the University of Pennsylvania. He is a founder and a principal in Hart Howerton, a planning, architecture, and landscape design firm with an international practice out of offices in New York, San Francisco, London, Shanghai, Park City, and Boston. He believes that the design professions have been falling behind in their understanding of one of the defining enterprises of the Modern revolution, the application of the maturing, fast-moving sciences of ecology and human behavior — and the compromised results are showing.

Albrecht Pichler, who drew the sketches, is a practicing architect and a principal in Hart Howerton’s New York office.

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