Tag Archives: Camps

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.

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Living as a Syrian Refugee in Zaatari

Take a minute to read this powerful account (as told to Paula Cocozza at The Guardian) of how Um Fouad, a mother of four, is living as a Syrian refugee in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.  This story hits close to home to us at AHI because much of our work on informal housing is involved with resettlement or rebuilding after disasters (natural, as in Haiti, or man-made, as in Syria), and we believe that today’s resettlement camp is either tomorrow’s city or tomorrow’s slum – depending on the choices we and others make.


Um Fouad has grasped a truth that many wish to deny: Zaatari is becoming more and more permanent, and it already is her children’s home. Indeed, the resettlements that occur post-disaster or post-conflict are often more of an urban form than they are a temporary camp. We’ve seen this happen all over the world and throughout history, and we believe that we can and should learn from that reality. Ultimately, if relief-oriented agencies and people see themselves as urban-planners-on-fast-forward, we can constructively reshape the agenda of relief delivery to one of unexpected urban renewal, where the new city that arises from the rubble is better than the old one the disaster destroyed.

We’ll write more on our projects and work related to resettlements in the upcoming months, and hope you’ll come back to join us. In the meantime, I hope you’ll take the time over the holidays to read about Um Fouad. We feel strongly about these issues and think you will, too.