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Humanitarian Space

Final Post to Humanitarian Space

In 2004 I started writing this blog as an art student as a way to document observations, showcase my portfolio, and promote upcoming exhibitions.  Three years later, when my personal life goals shifted toward social problem solving, I used that blog to document my experiences in refugee camp design and social research.  The names changed many times, from Current Residence, to MyEarthPrint and Reconstruction Planning.  In 2010 that blog became The Humanitarian Space.

Thanks to you, this blog has been visited by
enough people to sell out Madison Square
Gardens in NYC over 17 times!
Since then I have had the fortune to write for over 300,000 readers.  The blog has captured the interest of federal and city governments, politicians, think tanks, NGOs, students, professionals around the world.  I have received hundreds of emails from readers and have had the opportunity to work on some of the most amazing projects in the world.

I am grateful.

However, it is time to move on.  At least for awhile.  If you read the last post, you will note that my motivation and goals have shifted. While I remain committed to utilizing diverse methods and interdisciplinary design toward reducing poverty and suffering in the world, it is time I now do this by other means.  The strength of my career has been founded on a willingness to take on great risks and immerse myself into the problems. It was thrilling but is not personally sustainable.

Perhaps one day I will pick up where this blog left off.  I have no intention to delete it.  Perhaps I'll start a new one.

Whatever happens, I'll post it here.

Thank you for all the reading, questions, and support over the years.  And good luck to all of you in your own endeavors.

- Mitch

Archive: 9 Posts from HSpace that you wish you had read

Photo: Sutika Sipus. Kabul Afghanistan 2013.  

Here are some posts that stand out from over the last two years.  A couple were very popular, but most of these were real gems that never attracted much readership. Maybe I posted them on a Saturday (lowest readership is always on Saturday) or maybe no else actually finds them interesting.  Regardless, I thought maybe its time to dust them off and give them a second chance.  Enjoy.

Crafting Cities Truly Responsive To Climate Change

Crowdsourcing the End of War

The Linguistic Substructure of Cities and Settlements

Post Conflict Reconstruction is Dead

Human Latency of Smart Cities and Data Driven Reward Systems

Urban Planning Trends are Bad Medicine

Urban Design and Indefensible Spaces

The Importance of Speed for Land Rights in Post-Conflict Reconstruction

The Dark Side of Urban Resilience

Bonus: Stuxnet Lessons For Urban Planning Part 1 and Part 2.

Reconstruction in Mogadishu Somalia: #urbanplanning, #mogadishu, #somalia, #design4dev

Urban Planning and Reconstruction in Mogadishu
For the last 7 years I have labored to understand as much as possible about the city of Mogadishu and to determine viable strategies for reconstruction when the opportunity is presented.  I now have the opportunity to implement these concepts and look forward to introducing simple, yet tangible solutions to many of the city's complex urban planning problems in cooperation with the city government.  Some of the solutions are dependent upon traditional planning and humanitarian initiatives such as concerns with historic preservation and sanitation.  Other concepts are far more innovative, relating to processes in data collection, crowd-sourcing, and GIS.  My business partners and I are presently developing a series of phased low-input, high-input initiatives for the city and will begin implementing these projects in the streets of Mogadishu this March.  I look forward to the project unraveling with some fantastic partners at every step and sharing our progress online.

Yet when I tell others about my work, they often ask, "why Urban Planning in Mogadishu, Somalia?"

The answer goes back a few years to 2004, when I spent 90 days hitch-hiking across Northern India, where I lost my money and acquired malaria in the swampy state of Bihar.    I chose to commit my life to reducing poverty, not with a vague belief that I can make the world better, but rather with the sense that I can make it less inequitable through precise, technical solutions.  It was from that experience I was determined to work in development and to build upon my initial training in art and design through the study of architecture.  After I began my studies, I met Aarati Kanekar, an architect who had worked in post-war reconstruction in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Upon meeting her, I expanded my studies to go beyond architecture, and to focus on urban planning.

In 2005, I completed my first year of graduate school in Urban Planning and Architecture, and was faced with the seemingly massive task of choosing a thesis topic.  Overwhelmed by the task, I thought hard about my essential priorities and determined that I should attempt to locate, define, and focus my lifework upon the world's most difficult problems, to work for the interest of the world's most marginalized and vulnerable populations as this is where the utmost improvement is needed.  Uncertain how to proceed, I turned to Google.  

Concise and innovative urban planning solutions
 are in clear demand in Mogadishu Somalia 
I more or less typed all of my priorities into Google in hope that it would reveal something new to me. Success.  It was from that simple search that I first learned of the Dadaab Refugee Camps.  Embarrassingly, at 23, I was quite ignorant to the problems in Somalia and knew next to nothing of the decades of violence, famine, poverty, and displacement.   As I began to invest more time into learning about the situation, I came to two conclusions. First,  I decided that I would find a way to go to Dadaab to research and work directly with the problems of refugee camp design and planning. Secondly, I also decided that eventually, one day for whatever reason, that circumstances in Somalia would change and the city of Mogadishu will need to rebuild.  

After decades of conflict, it is difficult to be entirely optimistic, but in many ways, the prediction from 6 years ago has begun to manifest.  After al-Shabaab withdrew from Mogadishu several months ago, they have had little success in a multi-front battle against AMISOM/TFG, Kenya, and drone attacks from the US.  Although other forces may have strategic limitations, the fact that Shabaab has continued to change their tactics is evidence of continuing instability on their end.  For the first time since its founding, the Transitional Federal Government has full control of the city of Mogadishu.  With al-Shabaab primarily limited to the Kismaay region, there is even an effort underway to begin relocating refugees from the Dadaab camps back to Somalia.

Mogadishu is an ancient city.  Since the 14th Century it has flourished from its strategic location, an epicenter for trade between the Gulf and the Swahili coast.  It is this strategic location that also facilitates regional piracy.  It also serves as an ideal conduit for the trade between internal production and export.  Although dominated by an array of colonial powers over time, from Oman to Italy, it nonetheless retains an internal, structural capacity to again become a major economic hub.  Its urban density, coastal location, european roadways, and interconnection with other cities such as Afgooye or Kismayo have contributed to an urban resilience of the city.  Perhaps one could conjecture that so much physical destruction has taken place in the city because the structural resilience made it too difficult for armed groups to conduct combat, and consequently only through degrading the city could military accomplishments take place.

Now that city is beginning to stabilize and the Somali people are beginning to return to Mogadishu.  With the massive influx of returnees, the city is faced with new tasks.  Jobs need to develop, roads need to be cleared and repaired, sanitation improved, access to water, and systems need to be developed to deal with property ownership and acquisition.  Without the funds to cover the costs, and with the lack of urban planning for a city in conflict, it will require creative and innovative efforts to stabilize and rebuild.  Of course there are greater regional challenges, as many are also returning to Mogadishu because they fear the dangers of living outside the city.   Obviously the key to the success of the city is connected to the stabilization of the region as well.  But for the first time in decades, there is a chance that something can change.  There is an opportunity.  

Academic Conferences on #Conflict, Reconstruction, #Architecture and Urban Planning 2011-2012

Every time I look for a conference to present research on the intersection of Architecture, Conflict, and Urban Planning, all the best conferences just happened or I missed the call for papers.  Of course one has to be flexible and try to find fitting venues, but it can be a challenge.  Fortunately this week I found a large collection of upcoming conferences for 2011-2012.  I definitely intend to attend at least one of these and I hope to see you there.

Spaces and Flows 2011. Prato, Italy
Conference: November 17-18, 2011.  Call for Papers Deadline: September 22, 2011.
  • This conference is dedicated to mapping the transformative interchange between the global north and south, attempting to map the dynamic power flows and interactions.

Conference: April 11, 2012.   Call for Papers Deadline September 23, 2011.
  • This broad conference is focussed on issues ranging from globalization to war, peace and reconstruction, social transformation and collective healing through media and imagery.

Conference: March 28-31, 2012.   Call for Papers Deadline: November 30 2011.
  • Rooting the discussion in the context of the Berlin Wall, this conference examines how borderlands and contested spaces are not marginal phenomena, but rather contain complex layers of social, political, and urban interactions.  Research grants available.

Conference: August 29 - September 1, 2012. Call for Papers Deadline: October 1, 2011.
  • Discussion of violence as a communicative form, embedded in the built environment and articulated through broader social processes.  

Planning and Conflict in #Dadaab Refugee Camp: Land Use Law, Zoning Regulations

Violence erupted at Dagahaley camp (aerial view above), in the Dadaab Refugee Camps this week.  Rioting was incited when Kenyan police attempted to demolish a Mosque and small businesses.   According to UNOCHA, "Rioting broke out when police sought to disperse a crowd that was protesting an attempt to demolish illegal structures around a food distribution point. Teargas was used, and later live gunshot. Our information is that two refugees were killed and around a dozen injured."

The event raises several questions: for structures to be illegal, what sort of land use laws are in place within the camp? Who determines the legality of these structures?  How does the process work?

As it was Kenyan police attempting to demolish the site, we can assume that the Kenyan government serves as the enforcement body.  Other reports site that the demolition squad was acting on behalf of refugee aid agency that requested the demolition.  The same report cites the Director of Refugee Affairs as having requested the demolition, which is more likely since no aid agency is going to have the ability to use Kenyan Police.  Not to mention, aid agencies are the guest of the host nation, and do not have the ability to declare structures as "illegal" although the state may request the agency to curtail illegal processes.

A question comes to mind however, as the circumstance suggests some sort of zoning law and legal structure to oversee the regulation of land use within Dadaab.  There are planning processes undertaken by UNHCR and the Ministry of Refugee Affairs, as bore-holes, market spaces, and housing blocks are planned within each refugee camp.  In addition, efforts have been taken to relocate many of the settled refugees who occupy low lying land are subject to flooding.  The town of Dadaab and the surrounding camps however do feature a publicly accessible centralized plan nor is there a specific planning office to manage such issues.

In the meanwhile, it is expected that Dadaab will reach a total population of 450,000 by the end of 2011.  Other cities with about the same population size are Cleveland Ohio, New Orleans Louisianna, and Dublin Ireland - yet those cities all have economic infrastructure, transportation, and clean water.  In the meanwhile, thousands of Somalis are stuck living outside the camps, subject to harsh conditions, no water, no food, and violence.  It has been reported that men are working in shifts to guard their families from hyena attacks.  One of the major problems is that the UN refugee registration center is several days journey from the camps, positioning refugees needlessly in the way of danger.

The host government maintains its grip on the land, as the camps are beyond capacity with 370,000 refugees in need of protection. In the meanwhile the extension camp IFO 2, constructed by the Norwegian Refugee Council in 2007 remains mostly empty as the Kenyan Government refuses access to the camp and it remains nonoperational although several ngos are ready to implement services.

Architecture, Conflict, and Urban Planning Publications

In the last few days, as I've finished writing my upcoming piece on the Architecture of Conflict and Militarization in Somalia, it occurred to me that more attention needs to be brought to some of the books published on this subject.  Scholarship within this domain is still in its infancy, however, there are a few works that merit special attention, either for their groundbreaking  investigation or their brilliant analysis.  Below are the three I've most recently read, although the list is far from comprehensive.

Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation
Eyal Weizman 2007

This book was recommended to me by Dr. Adrian Parr, author of Hijacking Sustainability, and I am very glad to have followed her advice.  Hollow Land has become my favorite book in several years, as Weizman masterfully illustrates how the military history of Israel has been channeled through urban planning and architecture for territorial expansion and the oppression of the Palestinian people.  Well research and artfully written, Weizman traces the use of new settlements, zoning laws, inequitable developments in infrastructure, and architectural design as mechanisms of control.

Stephen Graham 2010

Graham traces the development of the city as a conflict zone, identifying trends of surveillance and militarization within the urban fabric.  Overall, this book has rather 'high-tech' demeanor, something akin to the aesthetic of Blade Runner.  Written in a straightforward, academic manner, Graham efficiently illuminates the integration of terrorism, militancy, and security within the urban and economic geography of the contemporary world.

Robert Bevan 2007

Although war always creates collateral damage to the environment, Bevan argues that contemporary warfare has increasingly targeted Architecture as a means to defeat the enemy.  With a great deal of focus on events in Yugoslavia and the actions of totalitarian regimes within China and Afghanistan, Beven identifies the role of Architecture and its destruction within the social consciousness.  He further investigates  the inherent processes of destruction within modern efforts to reconstruct the post-conflict landscape.

Violence Taking Place: The architecture of the Kosovo Conflict
Andrew Hersher 2010
Hersher has worked for the UN Tribunals in Kosovo, examining the manner in which architecture was explicitly appropriated, destroyed, and utilized as a tool of war and power.  I've only recently picked up this book and haven't gotten too far into yet, but already, I can say it is highly recommended.

The New Sphere #Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Response Standards 2011

I am quite excited to see that the new edition of the Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Response standards are coming out this April.  Although the printed edition is not yet available, the pdf is may be directly downloaded from the website here.  After a cursory glance, there is a significant improvement within the new edition, as it presents information in a more concise manner.  The new standards are not perfect of course.  As Under Secretary General of the ICRC says in the video below, there are times that meeting the standards may not be feasible, such as the provision of adquate space for shelter within Haiti, however, it is important that humanitarian actors utilize the Sphere standards to understand the repercussions of planning settlements with overly concentrated density; such as furthering gender divisions and escalating health dangers.

I have a particular interest in the Sphere Settlement Standards, having previously researched the feasibility of such standards to meet the demands of refugee camp planning in a protracted settlement.    My previous research concluded that Sphere lacked the tools to facilitate protracted communities within refugee camps as it did not engage the tools, assets, and networks that developed over time.  Furthermore, I felt that it was insufficient for meeting the needs of populations displaced by violent conflict, as it failed to tie the needs of the population to the pyscho-social conditions of their legal status and departure.  By not considering how the roots of displacement are reflected within new social and settlement patterns, intervening agencies arguably provide less benefit than may appear.  

Fortunately the new Sphere Minimum Standards covers many similar issues, or at the very least, many of the of the emerging issues facing the humanitarian community including: civil-military relations, the role of protection and vulnerable populations, a discussion of rapid and long term assessments, monitoring and evaluation, aid worker performance measures, and most importantly, a recognition of the relative values of these standards depending on circumstance.   All of these new tools and frameworks accommodate a more community-centered approach and demonstrates the new Sphere 2011 as a significant improvement.  Of course the real value of its improvement is to be demonstrated over the following years through implementation.

Mapping the Humanitarian Terrain

I've been incredibly busy lately, so the posts have slowed down, but today I discovered UNOCHR's dynamic regional maps on the ongoing multi-sector status of various regions and felt its worth sharing.   I'm always impressed by UNOCHR's website, although I'm often frustrated that the wealth of information available is so hard to locate or discover.  Just click the image above to explore the site.

I also discovered the monthly humanitarian update, its not very detailed, but it does at least present a decent overview.

Lastly, for today's post, I'm attaching a brief article from the ICRC on the perils of combining humanitarian aid with military support.  The author makes the point that humanitarian actors need to be clear in there policies, not just politicians or military commanders, that humanitarian aid should be independent of military support.  He also raise the point that "humanitarian space" may not actually exist, although most humanitarian's lament the space as merely shrinking.  Ultimately he argues that while conflict becomes increasingly fragmented, it is important to draw clear lines between military and humanitarian actors so as to assist the most vulnerable populations and with the least risk.  

The Women of Egypt

I have continued to spend most of my time with all attention watching Al Jezeera here.  In the meanwhile, I have been frequently asking the question, where are the images of the women involved in the protest?  In contrast to western portrayals of how women are treated in the Islamic countries, women are a central part of Egypt.  I'll never forget the day I first walked into the Mugamma, the central location of all day-to-day government business, and discovered nearly all the employees were women.  The majority of the time I have had to conduct business at the university, with the government, or at a bank, it has always been with a woman.  While men might often be the most visible presence in the street, I always found that the women actually made the city function.

I've been looking for a collection of images from a variety of sources from facebook (here's a good source), I am reposting those below with some links to other sites as well. If anyone has additional information, hit me up via twitter @msipus or with the comments below.  I'd like to add much more to this collection.

Men and Women Equal in Peaceful Protest Against Mubarak

Women Protesting In Yemen

For those with a deeper interest on the subject, here are some published articles I found online:
El-Mahdi, Rabab."Does Political Islam Impede Gender-Based MobilizationThe Case of Egypt" Totalitarian Movements & Political Religions; Sep-Dec2010, Vol. 11 Issue 3/4, p379-396, 18p

Women and Language v. 26 no. 1 (Spring 2003) p. 73-8

El Guindi, Fadwa "Gendered Resistance, Feminist Veiling, Islamic Feminism.Ahfad Journal; Jun2005, Vol. 22 Issue 1, p53-78, 26p

Coca Cola and Global Poverty

I am a big fan of Coca Cola.  I know the company has a long history, full of problems and criticisms, but I still admire their product.  Not only do these folks know how to make carbonated high fructose corn syrup taste really good, but few other companies can compare in terms of global recognition and distribution.

Because of its widespread distribution, I've been able drink Coca Cola all over the world.  From the streets of Cairo, to the back alleys of New Dehli, or even in the heart of the Gold Triangle in Burma, you can always buy a coke.  It makes things easy when feeling a little homesick, because you don't need to take up precious space in the backpack, but can simply drop some change at any local shop.  There is no language barrier, because the brand is always pronounced the same, and no matter what the language, the iconic script and bold red are universal.  

Earlier today I found a blog where another aid worker had some observations on Coke in relation to public health development in Tanzania.  Coke is clearly a leader in logistics and her blog entry highlighted a few things the development community could learn.  It also inspired me to write down some of the thoughts that I've had for a few years on the role of this product within humanitarian and development work.

I've always relied upon Rapid Research Appraisal techniques when entering new communities although I never actually learned about this term until I was in grad school.  The idea is to simply recognize socio-economic indicators specific to that community and to map their geographic distribution to better understand how that economy and society function.  For example, I was told by a former professor that when working in the Philippines about 35 years ago, he noticed that the wealthier households would often have denim blue-jeans hanging on their clothes lines.  Likewise in Malawi he noticed that the richer households in often had more metal containers near the front door than other households.  By making these observations he could instantly map, either mentally or on paper, where the richest and poorest households were located within a community that might otherwise look completely homogenous to an outsider.  This can be very important as it might also provide important information regarding personal security or key issues in local conflicts.  Although I would never advocate that these techniques alone form the basis of policy decisions or project design, they nevertheless  important body of  data in a fast and fairly accurate fashion.

Although each culture, society, and economy will have its own custom set of indicators that must be distinguished and observed by the outsider, I've found that Coca Cola is an excellent universal indicator as a consequence of its globalized distribution and identity.  While traveling or working within some of the worlds lesser developed nations, I've  found Coke functions as a reliable indicator of regional security, poverty, and access to Western ideas.  The accessibility and cost of Coca Cola and Coke merchandise can serve as a excellent means to quickly analyze the social economic landscape of a new community.  

While Coke is always available within city centers, it is also available at an inflated cost.  As one travels further away from the city center, the cost will decrease until a certain point in which the inflated cost of the urban economy has subsided to the rising costs of transit.  As the distance increases from the city, the logistical expenses are compounded with the increased cost of electricity, the limited access to refrigeration, and the reduced access to populations who can afford the beverage.  The greater the distance leads to a higher cost and limited distribution.  At a certain point, one has ventured so far from the city center that Coca Cola is completely inaccessible until you advance into the distribution zone of another city center and the same price/access trends function in reverse.

I have never been anywhere in the world and discovered it untouched by this fizzy sugary beverage. This is no surprise as Coca Cola has plants everywhere, even Somalia!  I have found however that when the product is expensive and more difficult to access, it is also a place where outside/foreigners rarely visit.  In such places, the local population often has limited access to education, viable employment, or social mobility. These places might also be more dangerous, or might require great planning to access and later exit.  I've also had a hunch, though not been validated by any serious methodology, that in such places people are also less likely to be have a significant understanding or knowledge about western nations or people, because I have trouble seeing how reliable information about America could access a landscape barren of this ubiquitous American product.  Of course at other times I've seen people in such places secure access to satellite television, radio programming (such as the BBC), globally distributed cell phone networks with migrant relatives in other nations, and preciously handled newspapers from far away.  Consequently the value of Coke as an ideological indicator is only valid when assessed in relation to these other phenomena.

I've sometimes wondered, if I actually find a place that has never heard of Coca Cola, should I even be there?  There is no decent answer to this question, as its too circumstantial, but I think its worthwhile to ask anyway.   

The Art of Rapitecture

I just got home from a day of constantly running around, and now I'm about to pull an all night long homework session.

I met with the guys from VIP today and we started laying the groundwork for their album.  They also introduced me to a French rapper who is living here in Cairo that I will start working with also.   Its amazing, as producing these hip hop records is simply something that I thought would be fun but I didn't really expect much to come from it.  Instead, I am finding a very receptive audience and many excited artists who view this as their chance to make the sort of music that they asprire toward.   So now I have three different albums in production, and this Friday Unigunz will be debuting much of our work in a live performance here in Cairo.  Another glimmer of good news is that a UK radio show called Refugee Radio, which broadcasts on Monday nights in Brighton and Hove, is interested in doing a special on the project.  You can learn more about the radio show at

In other news, school is getting close to ending... so close, but just not close enough.  If getting older doesn't make me lose my hair, I quite sure that continuing my education will.  I started this term totally fried, so at this point I'm beyond crispy.  One more semester... just 3 classes more...

Tonight I need to write a collection of papers, one on Sudanese refugee camps, one on the dynamics of money transfers by migrant communities, and another on the distinctions of refugee vs. general migration policy.  You know, its been nice to learn the intricacies while I've been here, but more than anything it makes me miss doing Development Planning.  I miss creating diagrams and drawings, elaborate presentations to convey the results of my studies and being able to talk about the intercourse between large concepts such as social justice and the particular components of architecture or urban design.  Working with migration, economics, and foreign policy within the context of Planning made it so much easier to grasp while my more recent academic research remains within the abstract.

Speaking of which, I just remembered that I need to submit an abstract to a university in India right now.  I've written two separate papers on Humanitarian Space thus far and if the University of Delhi is interested, I might present my research on the complications of Humanitarian Spaces within conflict zones at a conference called Imagined Horizons: Spatial Configurations of the Present.  For anyone interested, here's the opening paragraph...

"Humanitarian operations within conflict zones often require military support to satisfy security demands, a practice frequently at odds with the humanitarian objective to deliver aid to demanding populations in a politically neutral manner.  This contradiction is most evident within the necessary action to carve out humanitarian spaces for the implementation of aid programming within conflicted regions.  The creation of such spaces frequently demands military support, leading to an increase in conflict by additionally politicizing the role of humanitarian aid and thus politicizing a landscape created for logistical purposes.   Furthermore, by impinging upon the pretense of neutrality, humanitarian actions supported by militarization adversely affect the expression of rights among displaced populations who must occupy the same territory.  This imbalance is likewise reflected within the physical transformation of the humanitarian space, as a space created for the sake of institutional operation and human rights expression, is converted into a zone of controversy and power."