What We’re Researching: the Instant City

By Joyce Lee, Harvard Graduate School of Design Community Service Fellow

For the past ten weeks, I had the good fortune of working with AHI as a summer fellow researching post-disaster, post-conflict settlements around the globe –or as we at AHI like to call it, instant cities. For the purposes of our research, we define instant cities as spaces that result from mass, rapid migration from disruptive circumstances. These spaces have a sizable population with food, shelter, water, and other living needs but limited or no supportive physical infrastructure. In turn, this situation creates many humanitarian, economic, operational, and environmental challenges. As an urban planning student with a background in architecture, this subject piques my interest because the confluence of these challenges unfolds at an accelerated rate. And I mean very accelerated. Think: building-and-providing-for-200,000-people-or the-equivalent-of-a-third-of-Boston-in-two-weeks-accelerated (which was the actual case for Zaatari, the Syrian refugee camp in Jordan).

I presume many relief practitioners are drawn to this field of work because of, among many other reasons, the tabula rasa condition of new camps, I certainly was. But in reality, there is no blank slate. Resource-scare site conditions, clashing neighboring host communities, and unclear land titles are all already present at the start of the camp. Yet, many of the camps reviewed this summer do not publicly document these issues unless they become problematic. Are there ways that host countries could be more proactive instead of reactive in this field? Are there possible economic synergies that could take place to make the camp residents and host communities feel more productive? Should states bordering contentious territories prepare refugee contingency plans in advance? This research raised a lot of questions and we started to identify gaps in our knowledge of instant cities. Thus far, our findings are still preliminary, but it is clear that this subject is understudied.

Jalozai Refugee camp in Pakistan

Aerial of Jalozai Refugee Camp in Pakistan. What happens when the camp “closes” and all the aid agencies leave?

Azraq is among the first refugee camps to include a grocery store. Aid agencies hope that this would foster a sense of normalcy.

Azraq, a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, is among the first refugee camps to provide a supermarket for its residents  instead of cooked meals. Aid agencies hope that this would foster a sense of normalcy and dignity.

Given that the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) projects the current 50 million refugee, IDP and asylum-seeking population will swell in the upcoming years, a more robust understanding of aggregated camp conditions could inform better camp designs. Researchers, practitioners and humanitarians need to ask more questions beyond the sectoral indices of UNHCR-led camps. They need to observe and learn from areas that have not been entrenched in the UNHCR doctrine. Overall, some newer humanitarian-led camps, like Azraq in Jordan, have evolved to mirror more conventional city planning and include community-based elements. However, progress in this area has not been widely instated nor has it kept pace with the new challenges that arise in these instant cities.

1 thought on “What We’re Researching: the Instant City

  1. Molly

    This post reminded me of NPR’s Planet Money podcast last week (8/1) on what can change if refugees are allowed to work. As the reporters describe, in most parts of the world, it is illegal to give a refugee to give a job. Not the case in Uganda, though, where the government has allowed refugees to work for the last 15 years (as a result of the UN-recommended Self-Reliance Strategy). Researchers have found that working refugees end up contributing to the Ugandan economy by buying and selling from Ugandans and employing Ugandans – proving that refugees can be a benefit, rather than a burden, to the host state.

    “It’s sort of a label problem. When people come to another country to work, they’re called migrants. That’s what [interviewed refugee] wants to be called: a migrant, not a refugee. … Refugee is not a good word because a refugee wants to be helped. But a migrant; that sounds good….. Being a refugee is temporary; even when you’re busy working, you’re in limbo. You’re waiting.” “Tell them we’re hard-working people, but time is eating us up in the camp. Make use of us!”

    Listen to it here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2014/07/30/336117663/episode-557-doing-business-like-a-refugee.


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