The ability of the human kidney to repair itself is limited. Consequently, repeated injury can trigger a maladaptive response that is characterized by fibrosis and loss of renal function. The transcription patterns that characterize nephrogenesis in fetal renal progenitor cells (RPCs) are only partially activated during renal repair in adults. Nevertheless, evidence suggests that segment-restricted progenitor resident cells support renal healing in adults. In this Review, we discuss the evidence for the existence of functional human RPCs in adults and their role in renal repair, and consider the controversial issue of whether RPCs are a fixed population or arise through phenotypical plasticity of tubular cells that is mediated by the microenvironment. We also discuss the strategies for generating renal progenitor cells from pluripotent stem cells or differentiated cells and their use in therapy. Finally, we examine preclinical data on the therapeutic use of human fetal cells, adult progenitor cells and adult renal cells.