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November 11, 2016
by Bill Millard
Speakers and organizers of “Global Migration, Refugees, and a Role for Design.”

In our current political climate, the take-home message from the recent United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) – that migrants and refugees can be a positive influence on cities – comes as a breath of fresh air. The speakers on the AIANY Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee (DfRR) panel “Global Migration, Refugees, and a Role for Design” included Habitat III participants and design professionals who are working on alternatives to the prevailing model of relief-settlement urbanism (gridded tents, minimal infrastructure, negligible allowance for human dignity). They offered sane, humane observations about ways architects, planners, and city officials can step in where nation-states have failed.

When DfRR Co-chair Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, and Perkins Eastman principal Theodore Liebman, FAIA, traveled to Quito for the recently concluded Habitat III, they brought back a nuanced awareness of the inseparability of migration and urbanity. A migrant settlement invariably becomes a kind of city, as forms of infrastructure, commerce, and culture arise with or without the aid of formal institutions.

The global migrant population comprises some 244 million people, by the calculations of DfRR member Erik Jester, Assoc. AIA; if they were an official nation, it would be the fifth most populous on earth. They cross borders, he notes, for a range of reasons: socioeconomic “push/pull factors,” political and military conflict, climate and ecological change, and resource stress. The world may see a billion migrants driven by climatic changes, and seven of 10 people worldwide are expected to live in cities by 2050. These trends create complex challenges in resource allocation, management, and culture. Jester quoted UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s description of migration as “an expression of the human aspiration for dignity, safety, and a better future; it is part of the social fabric, part of our very make-up as a human family.”

The “Jungle in Calais,” an encampment of an estimated 7,000 or 8,000 refugees seeking to enter the UK, noted Urs Gauchat, Hon. AIA, architecture dean at New Jersey Institute of Technology, exemplifies the tension between integration and incarceration that characterizes approaches to these populations. Currently being forcefully removed by police to more than 400 centers across France, the Calais migrants have improvised a multinational variant of jugaad urbanism that includes shops, restaurants, and a makeshift church built of sticks, plastic, and duct tape. Mobile phones are the essential conduit to the world under such conditions, providing (among other things) news about closed borders, so traveling people can change direction quickly. They and their counterparts elsewhere are up against familiar obstacles, particularly fearmongering xenophobia. Austrian politics, Gauchat observed, has become polarized over the issue, with the center losing its grip. Yet most displaced persons end up absorbed into functioning societies, not warehoused in camps. They constitute a talent pool that could re-energize economically contracting cities like Buffalo and Düsseldorf. The task ahead for urban leaders, he summarized, is to program cities to accept migrants as productive citizens.

Ted Liebman, FAIA, traced the evolution of conceptual frameworks through Habitat conferences I (1976), II (1996), and III (2016), noting that the human-rights emphasis of the 1960s and ‘70s expressed in Habitat I was succeeded by a retrenchment toward specific groups’ claims on inclusion in Habitat II, then a more data-driven recognition of relations between refugee/migrant interests and issues of resources and resilience in Habitat III. Liebman hailed the recognition of win/win migration scenarios by figures like Mayor Berry Vrbanovic of Kitchener, Ontario, who noted that “they arrive in Canada because of its inclusive, welcoming nature, the value it places on diversity, and the opportunities the country provided them. We’re proud to say as Canadians that Canada’s response to the Syrian refugees has been strong and compassionate… [willing] to be part of the solution, to welcome these new Canadians.”

New York City’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (OIA) has taken steps to ease people’s assimilation into this challenging city, reported OIA Commissioner Nisha Agarwal; this, too, is a win/win for the city and newcomers alike. Even though New York’s high costs make it a secondary rather than primary resettlement site, Agarwal pointed out that 37% of New York’s population and 40% of its work force is foreign-born; immigrants account for about one-third of the city’s total annual economic activity (some $257 billion in 2013). Programs like the IDNYC card, an essential instrument for newly arrived people who are otherwise vulnerable to prejudicial treatment by anyone from their children’s schools to the police, have succeeded, in part, by not being limited to the undocumented, offering library access, prescription benefits, and admission to cultural institutions. Children arrive here in large numbers (second only to those in Texas), mainly from violent circumstances in Central America. OIA has helped steer them into school enrollment, not child labor, and worked to connect them with health services by placing staff from the NYC Departments of Education and Health in immigration court.

Anthropologist Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman raised core questions about “the Right to the City,” an inclusive concept first proposed by philosopher Henri Lefebvre and mentioned in Habitat III’s New Urban Agenda document: “Who owns our cities, who creates them, and for whom?” Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau, she said, places that right at the center of any discussion of justice, sustainability, equity, and inclusiveness. Bottom-up urbanism, rather than top-down regulations, defines urban public space as “the literal commons.” Related principles appeared in a video transmission by the Netherlands’ chief government architect Floris Alkemade, discussing extensions of the Dutch public-housing tradition from its origins in relatively stable periods to its current challenges in accommodating an influx of asylum seekers.

At Ennead Architects’ research arm Ennead Lab, Don Weinreich, FAIA, leads the project Rethinking Refugee Communities, working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Stanford scholars, and recognizing that camps need revisions to cope with the realities of long-term residence. Weinreich suggests that refugees can contribute resources and fill gaps in host communities’ needs, so that the “spontaneous urbanization” of refugee-host contacts is more exchange than charity. This can occur through measures appropriate to different spatial and chronologic scales. The macro-scale or country-scale instruments explored by his group include a GIS-based site-selection tool; meso-scale or regional approaches might involve a new health center located between a community and an emergency settlement; and micro-scale interventions emphasize connectivity and porous borders. UNHCR has tested Ennead’s toolkit in Rwanda, learning how it can be deployed quickly, with cultural specificity, under emergency conditions.

Recapitulating some of her observations in Cities without Citizens, Deborah Gans, FAIA, noted that “refugee camps are cities, whether we like it or not…. cities of tomorrow [predicting] emergent forms of urbanism.” She referenced the bottom-up redesign of Dadaad, a Kenyan town with a vast UNHCR base. In Dadaad, “a kind of tactical urbanism” reflects the work of three distinct mercantile, agricultural, and pastoralist clans who have contributed to “tripartite bioclimatic settlements that could define a self-sustaining city.” Similarly, post-Katrina New Orleans residents rejected the Urban Land Institute’s Green Dot plan to abandon low-lying areas to wetlands, instead favoring the permaculture of local ecologic, economic, and social planning. Gans recognizes that ground-up initiatives face limits; organizations like ACORN Housing can collapse, and states need to empower settlers as citizens. The nation-state in general, Gans observed in the closing panel discussion, is frequently the living-room elephant: the political entities whose borders migrants are crossing rarely respond to those people’s voices. It falls to cities and professional communities to hear those voices, panelists agreed, giving substantive form to the Right to the City on levels suitable to the complexity of the problems.

Event: Global Migration, Refugees, and a Role for Design
Location: Center for Architecture, 10.24.2016
Speakers: Nisha Agarwal, Commissioner, NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs; Floris Alkemade, Chief Government Architect, Netherlands (via video); Deborah Gans, FAIA, Founder and Principal, GANSstudio; Urs P. Gauchat, Hon. AIA, Dean, College of Architecture and Design, New Jersey Institute of Technology, and Board Member, Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization; Erik Jester, Assoc. AIA, Senior Associate/Project Manager, +LAB Architect, and Program Co-chair, AIANY Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee; Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, Urban Anthropologist and Director, THINK.urban; Theodore Liebman, FAIA, Principal, Perkins Eastman, and Board Member, Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization; Don Weinreich, FAIA, Management Partner, Ennead Architects; Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, Professor, CUNY, and Co-chair, AIANY Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee (moderator)
Organized by:
AIANY Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee, AIANY Social Science Research and Architecture Committee, and Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization

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