Refugees, displaced people can teach us about urbanisation

Refugees and other forcibly displaced populations can teach urban planners how to build communities in an efficient, human-centred way, argues the designer and architect Hans Park.

Forcibly displaced populations are contributing to the trend towards increasing urbanisation: 60 per cent of all refugees and 80 per cent of all internally displaced persons (IDPs) live in urban areas as they search for employment or access to basic services. This influx of people is blurring the lines between formal neighbourhoods and informal settlements, forcing urban planners to redefine widely used concepts such as ‘slum’ or ‘suburbanisation’.

A good example is the Za’atari refugee camp, which has since grown to become the fourth largest city in Jordan. In an article posted on Innovation UNHCR, a branch of the UN’s refugee agency, the designer and Hans Park says that a label like ‘refugee camp’ can be misleading as it often fails to describe the complete picture on the ground.

The focus should instead be on integrating displaced populations, he writes. In Germany for example, cities like Hamburg and Berlin are adopting innovative approaches to integrate refugees in a sustainable manner such as expanding the role of civil society, using technology to promote community participation and rapidly building non-traditional housing. Other German cities have worked to reform federal laws and make them more responsive to local needs and circumstances.

Urban planners and local governments can also learn from forcibly displaced populations because they are very adept at reorganising their immediate environment to suit their specific needs. “We have seen how displaced people use their extremely limited resources to […] re-shape their shelters, re-direct camp roads, open shops, create markets and even create micro-economies,” says Ruxandra Bujor, a camp management expert with UNHCR.

As Park writes, the forcibly displaced can teach local governments how to create a culture of innovation, one that builds communities in an effective, efficient and human-centred way. “Any other way of building a city will not be innovative, environmentally friendly or socially sustainable.”


Image credit: Freedom II Andres, flickr/Creative Commons

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