A new urban agenda for displaced communities? Unveiling architecture and urbanism principles to strengthen the Right to the City

With a massive number of displaced populations flocking towards cities worldwide, the new millennium challenges urban planning principles. According to UNHCR, 65.3 million people were displaced due to conflict and persecution in 2016 (UNHCR, 20161) –
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  A “new urban   agenda” for displaced communities? Unveiling architecture and urbanism principles to strengthen the Right to the City. By Fernando Murillo With a massive number of displaced populations flocking towards cities worldwide, the new millennium challenges urban planning principles. According to UNHCR, 65.3 million people were displaced due to conflict and persecution in 2016 (UNHCR, 2016 1 )  –  more than twice as many as the 24 million displaced during the Second World War. This marks a historical peak. Traditional city planning is globally recognised as insufficient to respond to the massive scale of habitat needed to satisfy minimum standards for a large number of displaced people. The New Urban Agenda, which was adopted in Quito last year, is intended to point the way forward for the next twenty years to deal with these challenges, based on the progressive fulfilment of human rights. The Right to the City is the cornerstone of the New Urban Agenda to change significantly the attitude of cities towards their populations. Some cities and countries have experienced that shifting from previous paradigms of eviction and social housing supply to a mix of informal settlement regulation, public transport and real estate in an integrated way has positively contributed to inclusive urbanisation. Examples of this trend are the cities of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Medellín, Colombia, which practice citywide slum upgrading, as well as countries like Kenya, Egypt and Indonesia, which have developed national slum upgrading strategies. Most of the UN member states agreed that adopting the New Urban Agenda is a step towards more “inclusive” cities. Yet, before the Agenda can be deemed a success, it is important to take a closer look at how and who should build the Right to the City. Which lessons can be learned from the different experiences worldwide in dealing with the challenges to host migrants and displaced communities? Moreover, are those lessons still relevant when facing the current global displacement crisis? Seven principles for building the Right to the City Migrants who are unable to find proper housing usually build what is globally known as informal settlements. Since these settlements are mostly perceived as illegal, their inhabitants face a constant threat of eviction. To avoid this precarious situation it is possible to identify seven principles to build the Right to the City based on what people spontaneously do, combined with the guidance of professional planners and architects carrying out social work as advisors, a common current trend in the Global South. First, strategic inclusive locations : When erecting such settlements, the communities are driven by survival needs. But once pioneer migrants have identified their most convenient place to settle, usually close to jobs and social service opportunities offered by cities, or choose areas where these resources are accessible through public transport, fellow migrants follow. They self-organise and mobilise their financial and human resources using the multiple formal and informal cooperation networks that migrants 1  normally develop to help each other. Social media contribute a significant step forward in this regard, as they provide a free and easy way forward to build virtual communities. City planners can play a crucial role in connecting these communities with their local authorities by selecting strategic areas away from potential environmental and social threats. Facilitating suitable land and properties for these migrant networks is key to achieve their integration based on a rationale of collective decisions, overcoming individual actions as the only survival option. Secondly, participatory progressive upgrading : The achievement of planners working together with migrant communities worldwide through participatory planning is remarkable. It is not an easy job and requires identifying the proper methodology for specific contexts. But once initiated, participatory planning has the capacity to engage communities in a very positive dialogue in order to develop a progressive upgrading plan based on the wish and possibilities of the communities involved. This gives back human self-respect and value for communities to manage their future, rather than just being recipients of aid. Thirdly, self-building and socio-cultural diversity : Self-building gives displaced families the chance to organise their habitat in a flexible manner according to their uncertain future. This produces diverse kinds of shelters that progressively become transitional and permanent housing. In addition, diversifying housing types creates new identities. This should be supported by basic infrastructures that encourage and foster social networking such as….  This makes informal settlements the perfect platform for the poor to literally become part of the city. Fourthly, socio-territorial inclusion: Introducing basic social services like health and education and community centres to build up the confidence of disadvantaged groups and to support them in claiming their rights is crucial for their actual integration. It is equally important to connect the roads of informal settlements with the surrounding city network to ensure integration into the urban fabric. Fifthly, mixed land uses and adequate densities: Community self-regulation can develop areas in which mixed land uses and increasing densities sustain diverse affordable housing schemes, matching the inhabitants’  incomes and preferences. Sixthly, the economy of agglomeration provides the foundation for local development:  With adequate densities and enough available space, displaced communities are able to open small shops and warehouses to generate a basic income. Training and provision of tools and materials for entrepreneurs also help to support good income generation schemes, benefiting local markets. In the Global South, informal settlements often provide qualified construction contractors and in some cases, migrant communities grow fruits and vegetables in peri-urban areas. These win-win situations, where guest and host communities benefit equally, require creativity. Such creativity is generally absent in public responses to the needs of displaced groups . The state’s responses are  usually designed on the basis of massive cheap solutions which turn out to be very expensive in the long run due to their consequences of social alienation. Seventhly, safe and peaceful environments:  When informal settlements are supported technically and get the right kind of attention from their local governments, environmental risks and potential social conflicts can be prevented. Introducing strategic activities and infrastructure can minimise such risks, and thus enable much safer and more resilient living conditions in these settlements.  To understand whether these seven principles are not only relevant for migrants but also for displaced communities, it is important to analyse the differences and similarities between the two groups of arrivals in the city. On the one hand, economic migrants need to sustain local economies in their countries of srcin and their new homes alike, which is not the case for refugees. Migrants usually arrive at their destination smoothly as workers and only bring their families with them once they have settled. This is very different from refugees who arrive in great numbers, a sudden influx of people that in turn creates housing shortages. Precarious transitory “emergency camps”  are often turned to as a remedy, intended as short-term solutions that often remain in place for decades. On the other hand, economic migrants commonly have a self-help strategy linked to their territorial social networks with other compatriots. This is different to displaced groups who arrive without any links to people and their new territories. Furthermore, expectations are different; migrants leave their homes looking for a better future, while displaced people were forced to leave with devastating psychological, social and economic consequences. So, a New Urban Agenda tailored to displaced communities is certainly needed. The different situations of migrants and displaced communities Some examples of applying the described principles require a clear understanding of the complexities of different contexts. The case of refugees in Palestine living in urbanised and consolidated camps for more than 60 years reflects the amalgamation and integration into their surrounding cities. A project to improve living conditions for refugee families in the Gaza Strip whose houses were demolished in military actions 2  was designed on the principle of integrating the new neighbourhood into the existing fabric. Density was increased by building houses with up to three stories which were shared by the same family on the same piece of land, as well as by mixing land uses to facilitate local economic agglomeration. However, Palestinian refugee camps in neighbouring countries still show a different reality as people are living in isolated and marginalised settlements and are unable to access jobs and social services, thus experiencing significant levels of segregation. Even in those cases where adequate shelter and services are provided by humanitarian agencies in the ongoing refugee crisis there is a risk to incubate conflicts if refugee leaders do not have the possibility to enter into a dialogue with local administration, with clear roles and responsibilities, exploring available options to deal with habitat issues. If refugees can go back to their places of srcin, then the transitory shelters provided will simply be a recycling problem. But if for any reason they need to remain longer, temporary solutions will be unsatisfactory. Displacement is already a very stressful experience that should not create additional stress. On the contrary, it should serve the purpose to link people and cultures, turning tragedy into a positive experience. The case of cities in Colombia that have integrated displaced communities after a long internal conflict reflects the referred principles put into practice. Especially participatory planning has demonstrated how, after several failed governmental intents to provide basic housing units in order to cope with the rampant 2  The project was built in Khan Younis and Rafah by UNRWA (United Nations Refugee Work Agency) targeting the construction of 12,000 housing units initiated in 2005 and still under implementation. For further details, please see:  housing shortage, displaced communities could be smoothly empowered through participatory methods. 3  This empowerment resulted in urban renewal and expansion schemes instead of responses resembling mere mass production. Countries like Zambia, as another example, are offering long-standing refugees the possibility to become citizens. In addition, they provide land and support for those who decide to remain in frontier areas, where the two major refugee camps are located (Meheba and Mayukwayukwa). This crucial part of their national policy aims to protect and develop the frontier areas of a country with a vast territory but small population 4 . The experience of Sudan and South Sudan is unique in several aspects. The displacement within the country, first towards Khartoum, the capital, and later, especially after the independence of South Sudan, towards Juba and other state capitals, was followed by a national strategy to host returnees. Urban planners agreed to create new neighbourhoods and towns, applying site and service principles, in order to prevent different social groups with different values and cultural backgrounds from competing for land and infrastructures. Principles like participatory planning, self-help, and socio-territorial inclusion were pursued despite many challenges due to the high speed of returnee flows and unpredictable political environment. Efforts were made to reduce the gap between humanitarian shelter and permanent housing through transitional approaches, but at a limited level that was not able to match the massive scale of the demand 5 . Unfortunately, recent conflicts saw the demise of these achievements, leaving the population without basic human rights such as safety from violence. Visions of the “ideal” city disregard the human qualities of existing conditions Refugee camps and informal settlements provide enormous opportunities for out-of-the-box solutions based on multicultural values and experiences that are shared by displaced communities. In South America, for example, the presence of migrants in informal settlements opens up opportunities to create new built environments with vibrant economies and cultures. Among others, this is the case in Buenos Aires, Bogotá, El Alto or Quito, where a “new Andean Architecture” is emerging as a result of new income generation schemes. Combined with the wish of these populations to be recognised as different from the rest of the city and to express pride in their indigenous srcins, colourful facades, particular combinations of public-private spaces, popular fairs and the like gain popularity.   Thus, self-organised communities establish vibrant new neighbourhoods.   Unfortunately, the benefits of these unregulated and often spontaneous solutions tend to be overshadowed by the fear of informality. Informality is perceived globally as a threat to order and the rule of law, and is thus seen as something to be prevented as much as possible. However, if urban informality is understood as a logical response to basic unsatisfied needs and to an insufficient provision of adequate regulations and support structures, then the described principles can lead to realising human rights. Plans should be adapted to reality and not the other way around. Imagining “ideal” cities based on purely technical solutions and ruling out basic human dimensions of “real” cities i s a naïve exercise that should be avoided. 3  See   Especially from page 48 in advance. 4  Zambia population is 17,186,468 inhabitants in 742,992 Km2, that means a density of 23 persons per Km2. 5  For further details, see page 93 at  The tension between visions of the “ideal” city and “real” cities is certainly not new. Since the ancient world, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Incas designed “holy” and “imperial” cities, where the ruling elites  built an environment that was supposed to symbolise the highest values of their civilizations. But for ordinary people, the nature of a city was decided simply by the behaviour of its inhabitants. One example is the biblical description of the “holy” city of Jerusalem as a “murdered city that kills its prophets and messengers, ” redeemed at the end of time as a “celestial city”  and re-built in perfect geometry. Yet, how will the cities of today be remembered in the years to come? We do not know but it is for certain that planning frameworks influence the behaviour of inhabitants living together. The current talk about “ideal” urban solutions , such as “smart”, “resilient” or “sustainable”  cities presented to us as desirable, may lead to social control, surveillance, walls, militarization, segregation and exclusion. Such tendencies are in conflict with people-centred , “real” solutions , especially if displaced communities are not part of planning solutions and if these solutions fail to meet their needs. The legacy of our cities will depend of the availability of a framework for ordinary people to live in peace and to collectively achieve progressive and universal human rights. Such rights start with the freedom to imagine a different city that welcomes community self-organisation, and that supports people taking action by self-building their homes with enough resources and infrastructure to ensure that no one is left behind.
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