Rethinking Refugee Communities: Planning and Design Toolkit

by Don Weinreich and Eliza Montgomery

ennead lab |

From left: Azraq refugee camp, Jordan, June 2014, Photo: Eliza Montgomery; Kigeme refugee camp, Rwanda, January 2014, Photo: Don Weinreich

Refugee settlements are a response to human displacement. Displacements are nothing new, but they are occurring at a greater rate than ever before due to conflicts, politics, economics, religious affairs, and ecological factors. Soon, climate change will exacerbate the displacement problem even further.

Too often, the world views the arrival of refugees as burdensome, even threatening.

We want to turn this problem on its head and create opportunity. We know that amid this tragic and terribly complicated situation of dislocation and disruption is the very real possibility for improving the lives of the refugees as well as the lives of their new neighbors. This is possible when humanitarian actors have the right information and the right tools and can deploy them quickly.

In reality, informal urban refugee settlements and refugee camps are de facto cities. The best of them have infrastructure, links with surrounding populations, and entrepreneurship. Their populations enjoy some degree of freedom, and movement is permitted across boundaries. What these conditions generate is opportunity, dignity, and hope. Unfortunately, these positive conditions are more the exception than the rule in refugee communities, particularly in isolated encampments.

Refugee settlements where these conditions do exist are far better than those where they do not. Design can make a difference: insensitive design can have a negative impact, as can a dearth of design. When there is too little, residents will create a functional but potentially dangerous infrastructure. When design is too prescriptive, the residents become disengaged and lose agency in making the place their home. Just because a place is inhabited does not mean it is habitable in aspirational or humanistic terms. We are not alone in this thinking. Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times architecture critic, has made similar observations, as have knowledgeable insiders at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), including former Deputy High Commissioner Alex Aleinikoff and planners like Monica Noro and Werner Schellenberg.

Essential to this thesis — that holistic, sensitive, bespoke design produces better results — is a redefinition of some longstanding assumptions:

1) “Refugees” are “actors” with “agency,” not “burdens” waiting “idly.”

2) “Hosts” are “partners,” not “benefactors.”

3) “Informal settlements” and “camps” are “cities” to be connected to their surroundings, not isolated communities.

4) Humanitarian aid should be deployed to benefit both refugee settlements and partner communities, not solely for the refugees.

5) Superior settlement design — an imperative, not an option — can be accomplished in very short timeframes and at no added cost.

6) The projected lifespan of a refugee camp cannot be reliably determined, and therefore the response must assume an indefinite timeframe and build accordingly.

In December 2013, Ennead Lab held a refugee settlement design charrette workshop with experts from many fields — architects, landscape designers, policy makers, UNHCR program managers, and planners — to rethink the process of settlement design and planning from contingency phase to integration/exit phase. Image courtesy EnneadLab

As architects we are trained as “design thinkers.” Our interest in refugee settlements springs from architecture’s long tradition of helping to carry the torch of humanitarianism. Design can do more than solve the immediate physical problem. We want settlement design to create opportunity for the refugee citizens. We are optimistic realists. This situation can get better. It is going to take a lot of people working together, and success will come in stages. This is why we are developing the Master Planning Toolkit as a universal framework for all participants in the refugee response system, including refugees and hosts. The Toolkit will allow us to work together to create more integrated and forward-looking solutions. We have all seen the results of poor planning and the failure to accept the protracted lifespans of camps. This can and must change.

By taking an inventory of the resources, and lack of resources, in both the refugee population and partner communities, we can design the planning strategies to fill the gaps, ultimately benefitting both communities. Image courtesy EnneadLab

We began our work in 2012 with a survey of the existing refugee response system. We imagined that the lives of refugees and their neighbors could be better if refugees were participants in designing their new settlements, if refugees had the opportunity to use their own strengths and talents, if settlement plans were site- and culture-specific, if settlement designs accommodated the potential for a protracted stay, if host communities benefitted from the presence of refugees, and if the infrastructure of the settlement became a shared and permanent asset for the neighbors/hosts.

All of those aspirations notwithstanding, we soon came face to face with reality, realizing that conventional models and processes were not appropriate to the problem. In 2013 we were invited by UNHCR to participate in the design of a new camp for Congolese refugees in Rwanda, at a site called Mugombwa. To start, we made a 12-month-long design schedule. This schedule consisted of the multiple design phases typical of architectural projects: site research, conceptual site zoning, and design development. We presented it to UNHCR, only to be informed that 20,000 refugees were arriving in two months and site work had already begun. We needed to pivot and adapt.

Because of emergency time constraints, many settlements are erected without proper site analysis, resulting in erosion and unsustainable environmental consequences. We identified the most important critical drivers and employed rapid site-analysis techniques to identify the best site-zoning configuration. Photo: Don Weinreich

This moment, which has forever altered the way we think about design, was the birth of the Toolkit concept. We realized then the burning need for fast, simple site-analysis and design tools that would not only create a programmatically and environmentally functional place, but would identify and foster the mutual benefits and sharing of resources among refugees and partner communities within the constrained reality of an emergency timeframe. If this were possible, humane instant cities would result.

The draft Toolkit is currently being refined and tested through case studies both within UNHCR and in academic settings such as Stanford University and Pratt Institute. Image courtesy EnneadLab

This blossomed into the Master Planning Toolkit, developed with the support of UNHCR and Stanford University. It contains a system of “tools” to improve the humanitarian response and to serve as an aid to all humanitarian designers. The project grew out of an investigation and cataloging of adaptable “good practices” and the creation of new ones where none existed. What follows is a quick overview of some of the analytical methods and the accompanying tools.

1) The first concept, and the backbone of all the tools, is the Resource Surplus-Deficit Analyzer tool. The underlying goal is to optimize opportunities for synergies between the host community and the refugees. The tool identifies resources essential to both but lacking in the host community. For example, if an existing locale lacks schools or wells or medical clinics, the refugees, along with accompanying humanitarian aid, can provide these resources to serve both populations. This principle should drastically change the way that site selection and settlement design is executed, and the tools we are developing will assist that change.

2) The second component is the Settlement Typology Analyzer. This catalogs various settlement patterns to help planners establish appropriate strategies for settling refugees among existing communities. The left hand diagram, “separated settlements,” is the traditional camp model. However, the Toolkit emphasizes that the others, especially the urban models, are equally viable, and in many cases more appropriate.

Refugee settlements should not be confined to a separated settlement typology. Different cultures and environments require different settlement typologies and community scales. Image courtesy EnneadLab

3) The Four Main Tools are the Site Selection Tool, the Site Analysis and Settlement Design tool, the Measurement and Verification tool, and the Catalog of Good Practices.

Operating at three physical scales: macro, meso, and micro; and five stages of settlement evolution: contingency, emergency, transition, durable, and exit/integration, the tools enable refugee-settlement planning to be more holistic by defining the means to link refugee and host communities for their mutual benefit. Image courtesy EnneadLab

We have witnessed the adoption of the Toolkit’s principles within UNHCR in Geneva. We learned recently that the agency’s Shelter and Settlement Section has created a working version of the Site Analysis and Settlement Design tool to identify the effects of an incoming refugee population on the host site and to bridge gaps with humanitarian resources.

UNHCR’s senior planners have shown a high level of interest in and support of the Toolkit as a real-world methodology and as a means to further educate less seasoned planners. Image courtesy EnneadLab

This approach can be applied to the challenge of resettling refugees beyond the developing world and outside regions of extreme conflict. We are exploring the application of the Toolkit to existing American cities with declining populations. In one example, cities with an abundance of underutilized infrastructure can become destinations for an incoming refugee population. On the flip side, the refugees can bring a new kind of entrepreneurship to improve the city’s economy. We are working on tools to define the design strategies that will foster this exchange.

An analysis of Gary, Indiana, strives to pinpoint the spatial strategies in which the resources and strengths of an incoming population can potentially improve Gary’s urban environment, while utilizing the city’s abandoned resources. Image courtesy EnneadLab

We are engaging with allied fields in policy, economics, public health and culture to ensure that the Toolkit will deliver its full promise. Critical to this effort will be the continued field testing and refinement of the tools in collaboration with NGOs, the UN, or non-profit organizations.