Refugees And City Planning, An Unlikely Urbanist Opportunity
The global refugee crisis forces us to rethink city planning and housing, with more focus on assuring people's rights and needs. A chance to actually wind up with more human cities.
BUENOS AIRES — In a world affected by climate change, violent conflicts and forced migration, architecture and city planning have a role, and a duty, to help forge a more peaceful community life. This has been a record year for human migration, with 57 million people displaced from their homes, well beyond the 24 million displaced during World War II. Startling images of people traveling in desperate conditions could prompt us to reconsider the basics of planning, this time with a particular focus on basic humanitarian values.
Migratory crises are imposing changes on different societies and leaving visible tracks, both in cities where refugees are heading and in those they abandon. Their adopted cities will one day have to be rebuilt, and to that end, some of the projects I have worked on are yielding fundamental information about the emerging concept of "humanitarian" planning and construction.
Finding answers to the problems and opportunities created by displaced populations requires the use of particular criteria in rebuilding communities. In addition to appropriate migratory norms intended to protect human rights — instead of those exploiting cheap labor — city planning is obliged to come up with models to facilitate peaceful coexistence and collective progress based on cultural interaction. That is a way of creating new communities.
In Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, forced migrations have led to projects that seek not just to address basic housing needs but also to create ties aiding the social and territorial inclusion of the displaced.
Argentina provides a paradoxical example here, with its history of inclusion of European migrants and exclusion of native peoples. While the former group created districts where they could ascend socially, the latter were isolated in reservations. The situation is far from rectified, as native communities are still displaced by the expansion of farming lands. From their reservations, they are now moving to shantytowns or housing projects in provincial capitals. Without a doubt, we planners have a longstanding debt toward these communities and have yet to create housing solutions that satisfy their needs and respect their culture.
The Compass, a methodology developed at Buenos Aires University's architecture department, proposes to link housing professionals, residents and district officials to swiftly diagnose key problems in a given area. That becomes a basis for planning and building proposals whose results are later assessed on the basis of how well basic rights were satisfied.
What we all want
The lack of sewer systems or drinking water are both serious problems and represent opportunities for local self-organization. If we want to incorporate humanitarian norms into cities broadly built around the idea of increasing property values, we must include evidence of housing plans that safeguard the rights of all citizens.
The methodology, applied in several Argentine cities, allowed them to identify the lack of social organization and the extent to which public works and regulations complemented each other. In the cities of Luján, Escobar and Salta, identifying districts with fewer sanitation services that are exposed to repeated flooding prompted a revision of urban land-use regulations. It included new priorities such as protecting wetlands, minimizing closed neighborhoods and promoting social housing models that stimulated communal self-organization and easier access to land.
In Cochabamba, Bolivia, a participatory assessment forged housing policies that use "rotating" funds (communal or pooled funds providing loans to community members) and mutual aid, which began to generate a low-cost housing market. In Suacha, Colombia, large numbers of displaced people had created highly deficient housing conditions. The "communal" response created green spaces as a "mosaic-style" strategy to blend communities together.
Darfur in eastern Sudan provides a good example of how using soil-cement blocks, instead of fire-baked bricks from forest trees, helped curb deforestation and desertification, which was already underway with the movement of more than two million people across a fragile landscape.
Often inspired by existing cultural practices, such projects contribute to healing following situations of extreme trauma, and begin a new cycle of learning, socialization and development.
Even in severe cases like Gaza, housing projects for refugees in the form of three-story buildings destined for one family group, surrounded by semi-public spaces, are eloquent illustrations of concepts that seek to ensure people's rights.
These innovative plans actually recover older practices of building a house on a family plot, making optimal use of limited space, combining high-density living with improved social relationships and including some form of commerce on the ground floor. They also avoid construction of complexes that fail to meet the needs of the displaced, or informal, low-density housing that ultimately proves costly in terms of infrastructure needs and generating conflict.
The massive global refugee problem is an opportunity to humanize our cities and territories. Projects promoting communal ties and self-organization are key in forging new communities. City planners will discover useful rules that communities develop to allow peaceful coexistence. Community-minded ideas become construction projects and norms that help entrench human rights. It is a chance to create a more communal culture that can face social and climatic changes in a way that is both peaceful and efficient.
*Fernando Murillo is an architect with a PhD in urban planning.