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Reconstruction

Navigating the Interface between Global Problems and Design Solutions

BodyPrint. Graphite on Rice Paper. On exhibit at Current Residence in 2004. Drawing by Mitch Sipus.
I finished art school in 2004 with a bachelors of fine arts in art and design and a desire to use my skills to drive major changes in the world's most difficult environments.  Over the next few years I learned that the biggest challenges were not the issues of underdevelopment, or necessarily learning about the problems, but rather the disciplinary mindset of other professionals.  As many design schools are now training designers to be social problem-solvers, not just product producers, I wonder how many others have encountered this problem.

As a designer working with issues of poverty and conflict, my greatest asset is the ability to look at problems from multiple perspectives and to utilize alternative methods to develop ideas and solutions.  When it comes to understanding the issues, this problem is easily addressed as it is a matter of self education and direct experience.  A trip to the library, a web connection, a plane ticket, and a thorough grasp of social research methods is generally sufficient for one to get a fundamental grasp on a particular problem.  But I found that as a designer with a direct and competent understanding of social policies, environmental challenges, economic concepts, and international law the biggest challenge was and remains working among professionals from those fields.  

No matter how articulate would communicate my expertise on a topic, when asked about my background and hearing the words "art and design," suddenly the conversation would fall apart.  Multiple times I had job interviews in which the HR recruiter kept asking questions about my art and architecture degrees, failing to see the next 5 years of work experience in development. The words "art school" somehow undermined my credibility time and again.

Over a few years,  I needed to make a departure from working as an artist and designer, to gain traction in a discipline dominated by analysts, lawyers, and regional specialists.  I had to work in institutions and gain a direct grasp of their experiences to understand the context in which many solutions to global problems are crafted.   This experience was valuable because I could also see the flaws within those systems. 

Today I am well-accepted among professional circles concerned with global conflict, poverty, and economic development.  The challenge has in some ways begun to reverse, as I continue to pull the problems into the studio, and other designers see my background as a strange departure.  

Personally I find the question of background completely irrelevant.  My work succeeds because it successfully connects disparate methods and concerns, creating opportunities where no one else sees them.  I do not worry about the interface between design, planning, conflict stabilization and development.  As far as I'm concerned, the interface doesn't exist at all.

Back from Mogadishu - The Fastest Changing City in the World

New Construction Underway in Mogadishu, Somalia. Sutika Sipus 2012.
I always intend to write at least twice a week, but lately there has been a delay as I've been on the road.  I recently returned from Mogadishu and am amazed by how quickly the city is changing.  Although journalists continue to tout it as the worlds most dangerous city, I believe it is time to shift the title into something about how the city of Mogadishu has undergone the most radical transformation in the world.  It hasn't even been one year since my first visit, and yet many parts of the city are unrecognizable today.  And new construction is everywhere!  Hotels, travel agents, import/export businesses and even a new petrol station are up and operating.

In the past, the only way to secure fuel for automobiles was through sharing containers of poor quality fuel, now today a modern petrol station is under construction with modern functioning pumps.  A mall constructed in the 1970s was recently renovated, and the Somali National Theatre, the site of a violent suicide bombing last spring has been restored again into a magnificent state.  Certainly problems within the city remain however if the pace continues and can expand throughout the region, the problems have a limited future of influence.

Somali National Theatre. Sutika Sipus. March 2012
Somali National Theatre. Sutika Sipus. November 2012.


After the War: Why Inflation in Mogadishu is Not a Problem

Rapid Development in Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo: Mitchell Sutika Sipus. 2012.
Over the last 24 hours, the interwebs have been buzzing over an Al Jezeera Report about the disproportionate rise in property values in Mogadishu.  Suddenly, after months of positive gains in Somalia, there is panic that those who have suffered so long at the expense of war and poverty will again be abused, but now by the forces of capitalism.  Returnees and speculators are blamed for rapid inflation, making housing and property costs far from accessible for displaced and impoverished populations.  This is a valid concern given that free markets typically facilitate the accumulation of capital faster than the distribution.

But this criticism is wrong.  Inflation is not a problem in Mogadishu.

Certainly many are returning to invest and property prices are rapidly changing.  This is necessary.  The only way for Somalia to rebuild from 21 years of war is for outside investment to facilitate change and for the quality of life to improve, so does the price tag.  

While Somalia does have some natural resources, its greatest asset is its location between the Middle East, South Asia, and all of Africa.  It was founded because it was an important link for international trade, and in recent years Somali pirates were able to poach billions of dollars from international markets because they exploited this strategic location.  With a geography founded on international trade, the recipe for Mogadishu to become a successful city and for Somalia to become a stable nation is to rebuild accordingly.

After the Transition
Rebuilding from the War. Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012.
Within every post-war reconstruction process, rapid inflation occurs.  The sudden influx of foreign money distorts local markets and in most cases creates a two-tiered economy.  Typically, as in the case of Kabul Afghanistan or in Phnom Penh in the 90s, you will find a wealthy foreign class paying exorbitant prices, a rapidly growing class of wealthy business owners, and the bulk of the population stuck with low incomes, low prices for basic goods, high prices for real estate, and an increased ability to acquire luxury goods.  When the wealthy foreigners leave the cities struggle to adjust, and in the best circumstance, distribution of capital becomes a little more even.  This scenario is brutal as the intentions of reconstruction are only partly established and the process is economically painful to local populations.  But Mogadishu has multiple advantages.


The Mogadishu Advantage

1. Lack of High-Level Foreign Interests
There is evidence that Mogadishu will not follow the typical same formula as other post-war cities. Foremost, the collapse of al-Shabaab is the consequence of many different phenomena  some being military, but many also are economic and environmental.  The concluding war in Somalia is not entirely due to outside actors.  

Likewise the reconstruction process taking place has very little to do with outside actors.  So far I have yet to encounter another westerner while walking down a street in Mogadishu, unless the person has returned from diaspora.  I have met many people who work in Somalia with NGOs or foreign aid agencies, but compared to most global development hot-spots, there is barely a humanitarian/development presence in Somalia.  In that same regard, there is funding from EU, Turkey, USA but the budgets are far smaller than for other countries, so at the political level there is limited foreign involvement.

2. Investment by Somali Returnees not foreign expats
Mogadishu at Work. Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012.
At the local level, the situation is similar as outside investment is obtained primarily through individuals who have a committed personal interest in Somalia.  These individuals will not disappear from the landscape with their pockets full of war profits, nor will their presence create a dual economy.  

3. Reclamation is first issue among returnees
Many of those returning to Somalia are less interested in buying new property and are more interested in reclaiming the property they owned prior to the war.  This becomes contentious with the massive quantities with internally displaced persons occupying many of the homes.  There are no property records and the result is clogged courts over property ownership disputes, not rising costs of land.  However I have been working with the Benadiir Regional Administration on this issue and have a feasible solution, it is just a matter of working with the proper ministries to implement the program. Notably, speed is a critical factor in this area.

4. Broad Multi-sector growth and regulation offset inflation
Inflation is only an issue if there is no access to employment or no means to regulate the growth so as to make the benefits accessible throughout the population.  But this is not a problem in Mogadishu.  While Al Jezeera argued that there is an "emerging economic divide" in the population and referred to a single estate at the cost of 8,000 USD per month to rent as evidence. the reporter had the situation backward.  
Within a conflict, there is always rapid rise in prices for luxury housing, because there is so little of it.  In the case of Mogadishu, there are were maybe 5 available properties like this among thousands of bombed out buildings, so 8,000 USD per month is actually  a real deal!  

Now that other housing options are emerging, supported by the construction boom (employment), luxury estates will cost less and populations will have more options.   The widespread economic growth is evident in other sectors, such as the increase in internet access, and there are ongoing efforts to regulate growth, such as the developing initiative to register automobiles.  In Mogadishu, rapid property adjustments is offset by widespread economic gains in employment and improved governance.  As long as the rate of inflation is consistent with overall growth trends (assuming the distribution remains similar to now) an improved quality of life will be attainable to most the population in a matter of years.

Naturally there are other problems.  Lack of maps, no land titles, no business registration, no functioning tax system.  But these are on their way and will be implemented over time.  Trust me, I'm working on it.

The Post-War Ghost Towns of Foreign Aid

Within the context of Post-Conflict Reconstruction, it becomes difficult to isolate the best solution to a given problem. There is a necessity to balance demands for immediate change alongside the benefits of steady, consistent progress.   I see the consequence of billions of dollars of investment into direct urban and economic development everyday in my neighborhood in Kabul Afghanistan, and it leaves me unconvinced that the most direct solutions are always the best or most efficient.  Take for example the Kabul neighborhood of Sher-Pur.  

A "single-family" residence in Sher-Pur, Kabul Afghanistan. Sutika-Sipus 2012.
Originally a low income neighborhood of informal, mud brick housing, Sher-Pur was subject to government land grabs around 2004 and is now Kabul's wealthiest neighborhood.  Built up using mashup of imported architectural designs from Dubai, the neighborhood is full of massive poppy palaces and narco palaces, a reference to the illicit capital flows that drive the construction of these buildings.  These single-family houses frequently contain as much as 45 bedrooms, and many were constructed primarily to facilitate the interests of the international humanitarian regime.  For years, NGOs commonly pay anywhere between 12,000 USD and 100,000 USD per month to rent these structures for their staff.  Yet now as the international community pulls out ahead of the 2014 NATO withdrawal deadline, many of these elaborate mansions are sitting empty.  Sher-Pur is already becoming a ghost town of opulence.

Sher-pur Poppy Palace For Rent. Source Unknown.
At the time of initial construction, Sher-Pur was the simple, direct solution to a given market demand. People were making more money and aid agencies need secure housing for their staff. But it was not sustainable.  Who knows what the future will be for this neighborhood, but I suspect it will deteriorate in scale, but always remaining a haven for wealthy government officials and organized crime.  Nonetheless, Sher-Pur will forever remain a disproportionate concentration of wealth and power in a city where informal housing shelters between 60% and 80% of the population.

Notably, this is not the first time that the influx of foreign aid and new urban development schemes did more to reinforce the dominant power structures than meet the interests of those in greatest need.  When Cambodia began to stabilize, the same thing happened, with foreign aid workers filling the city's colonial mansions and paying inflated rents.  When the aid market dried up, the foreign elite vacated and the houses were empty, ghostly vessels that eventually scaled back into the urban fabric.

Can this process be circumvented?  For example, as Somalia opens up to international aid, will Lido, Mogadishu become a neighborhood for the disproportionately wealthy and then likewise regress?  Or must we continue to distort land use and real estate markets according to the interest of dominant power-structures?  

Building Facade, Sher-Pur Kabul, Afghanistan. Sutika-Sipus. 2012

Rebuilding Mogadishu with Lessons From Kabul

Before : Mogadishu April 2012
It has been difficult to find the time to do any blogging lately.  There has been quite a bit of work to do in Kabul and I've been travelling often, so it is difficult to balance all obligations.  However last week I spoke at a conference at Oxford University, the 3rd International Conference on Space and Place, with a paper entitled "Rebuilding Mogadishu with Lessons from Kabul." 

After : Mogadishu July 2012
The concept is basically drawn from daily experience, as I witness the classical defense structures such as walled perimeters and police checkpoints throughout Kabul undermine the local economy and reinforce some of the root causes of insurgency.  How then can Mogadishu develop in a way that remains secure yet avoids consolidating infrastructure into a tightly wound and repressive fortress?  The answer of course, or at least a proposal for an answer, is yet to be published, but is just around the corner. 

Urban Design and the Indefensible Space


I recall the first time I heard an architect talk about programming a building.  I imagined an elaborate process of computational mathematics and structural engineering blended with social psychology.  Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that programming was little more than a designer saying "this place is for walking between a and b, this place is for sitting, and this place is is for the mixed use of sitting and/or walking."  

Certainly there is some excellent work out there to understand the relationship between human activity and the predeterminations of physical space.  I have a copy of A Pattern Language sitting on my shelf and can't recommend it enough.   But so often the process of programming is approached as formulaic as master plans (frequent readers are familiar with my disdain for old fashioned master plans).  A quick google search will reveal step-by-step guides to programming, but reading through such procedures, one is simply confronted by the usual "rational strategic planning model" to identify user needs within the framework of budgets, time, and materials.  Bottom up and mixed-methods exist as well, but again, how dissimilar is programming from basic decision making?

I suspect we use the term programming because it sounds more impressive.  But more importantly, there is a desire among architects and urban designers to identify and tap into some cosmic body of knowledge that will explain the structural underpinnings of human behavior.  I'm certainly just as guilty as anyone else.  And the evidence of this desire is everywhere.  We have decades of research on central place theory and investigations into complex adaptive systems  along with today's groundbreaking research on the mathematics of cities.  


But as we mine downward into the underbelly of social order, what do we do with these new understandings?  Do we attempt to restructure all of society according to some personal vision like  Le Corbusier, or do we simply reinforce these patterns with our design efforts, even if they are imperfect? There are plenty of tools out there to understand the role of space in human activity, but how do we build upon that?  In many ways we are beginning already to implement these lessons, such as the efforts by Washington DC police to look at how land use and development trends impact changes in crime.  But in this instance, it is about redistributing police officers to points of potential crime. As an urban planner, how can I apply these same tools and concepts on behalf of governments around the world?

This issue has been on my mind a great deal lately I have been designing a public green space for construction in the spring and have been thinking a great deal about how the space can be used, and more specifically, abused.  Unique architectural features that might stimulate social responsibility or interest can easily become transformed into vantage points for sabotage, crime, and violence.  Although security has always been a critical part of city planning, the modern idea of creating a "Defensible Space"  has emerged in the 1960s when Oscar Newman was attempting to reduce crime in low-income housing communities in the US.  His conclusions such as the use of street lights, defined walkways, and indicators of clear ownership have all been successfully implemented in communities around the world to deter urban crime.  

Unique Feature or Tactical Vantage Point?
But as I work in an areas where militant aggression and terrorism are daily realities, I'm curious how I can do the opposite.  Everyday in Kabul I see big massive walls surrounded in razor-wire with reinforced steel doors and windows glazed in blast film.  Not to mention that tall buildings have been utilized multiple times now as strategic points of attack by insurgents. Just the other day I was walking past Share-e-Naw Park and I was looking at its tall iron fences, the clusters of foliage, and the undulating terrain.  Now the park isn't exactly an offensive vantage point, yet nothing about its design actually would deter or undermine an offensive actor.  In fact, many of the elements designed in line with Newman's prescriptions just would just well serve as an asset to a criminal - with limited points of entry and exit, absorbing shadows at the edge of the spot-lit walkway and continually obstructed sight-lines formed by vegetation and corner shops.  

Perhaps a better solution is to create the Indefensible Space.  A space or structure that can only be used for its intended purpose that cannot be destroyed, vandalized, or misused as a means to conduct offensive operations.  Such a space or structure could not be formulaic, but site sensitive, and its programming would emerge more from the process of responsive decision making and data collection rather than from within a studio.  But the intentional proliferation of such spaces could transform global conflict.

We already have cities full of defensive structures, and when programming a public space in a conflict zone, it cannot be assumed that the typical recipe for creating secure structures meets long-term social interests.  In fact, I would argue that the more classical interventions are utilized to secure a city, the longer that city will struggle with transitioning between conflict to post-conflict stages and beyond.  If you want to undermine the resiliency and economic sustainability of a city in conflict, then build massive walls.  But if you want to reinforce social forces to maximize social order, then a different prescription is needed.


As for cities like Kabul that are already overwhelmed by defensive architecture, the infusion of indefensible spaces into such a landscape could help lesson the oppression of concrete barriers and checkpoints.  The free-flowing indefensible spaces distributed throughout the city could bolster stability and even economic growth.


Clearly the counter-intuitive nature of the concept yields many weaknesses.  But we already have plenty of tools from which to analyze social spaces and to measure the impact of the built environment.    So how do we transform the knowledge gained through all the analytical tools into an effective programmatic and design solution remains an unrefined art.  So while my proposal for the indefensible space isn't perfect, it poses an opportunity to explore the analytics while lessoning the potential for negative consequences.  The greatest risk is that some unimaginative planner will situate a flat, empty parking lot in the middle of a city and do nothing more.  But as for the potential opportunity for design and the art of programming?  That remains to be explored.

Psycho-social healing as Urban Reconstruction and Planning in Somalia


For the last several weeks I haven't been regularly posting here on the humanitarian space, but with good reason.  I'm working on a series of projects right now that have occupied all my attention.  However, I have also been writing and submitting work for online and print publication throughout the fall. 

Today I have a new article coming out over at the Polis Blog, a collaborative blog about cities across the globe.  The article, A city in healing after two decades of war,   introduces the notion that post-war reconstruction isn't just about rebuilding streets and buildings, but is about healing and overcoming trauma.  This is specifically highlighted by the last 21 years of violence that has consumed Mogadishu, Somalia. 

Rebuilding Mogadishu Somalia


A couple days ago I got off the plane in Mogadishu.  Its nice to be back.

In the time passed since my last visit, I've worked hard to develop a pool of new resources for the city.  In addition to the  welcoming support of the Benadiir Municipal Government.  

I'm only here for a week this time before moving on to visit another project, but fortunately current my list of objectives here is concise.  I have three primary goals to accomplish in the next 5 days, but if done well, the repercussions of those tasks will carry on for some time.

I look forward to churning out some high quality products over the next few days.

The importance of speed for land rights in post-conflict reconstruction

Legal Access to Land in Kabul is a constant dilemma (Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)
Afghanistan has seen the completion of various development projects such as the building of roads, the establishment of a Coca-Cola plan, and the rebuilding of the central bank. But everyday in Kabul I witness a hard learned lesson.  The inability for people to access legal title to land has crippled the development of the city.   

Many of the people affected lost their claim to family own land during their displacement, as more than 6 million Afghans have returned from Pakistan or Iran since 2002.   There have also been about 1 million people who were internally displaced by war and have returned to their homes, only to find that they have no means to prove ownership, have been replaced by new occupants, or have found the landscape entirely changed.   There have also been an influx of migrants into Kabul, searching new opportunities or returning from diaspora.   In Kabul,  80% of the residents occupy informal housing settlements.  Many of these settlements are built on government owned land.

The Government of Afghanistan has struggled with informal settlement.  I would say that for 10 years the local and state governments have been rather obsessed with it as an issue, although perhaps not with the mind of solving it.  Many of these settlements are poorly constructed, lack appropriate sanitation, and are seen as a public health threat.  They are considered a bottleneck to development.  A few weeks ago, when conducting a training seminar at City Hall, I asked some engineers what they suggest is the best way to proceed when an informal settlement does not fit into the city master plan.  The response was "send in the police."  

But if a region has a long embedded history of violence, why would a government pursue policies that facilitate discontent, economic striation, legal marginalization, and civil disobedience?  

Open-air drainage ditch under construction in Kabul
That is not good planning.

Because the problem of land ownership was not reconciled in 2001 or 2002, when the city had 1.5 million people, it now struggles everyday with the consequences amid a population over over 5 million.  We have no effective postal system.  We have few street names.  Only now, 10 years later, are the streets being paved around the city and drainage ditches are being dug out.  We have no underground sewage system.  Utilities are a jumbled mess and electrical fires are common a common occurrence.  Nearly all of this chaos could have been avoided had the local government supported the provision of land rights to new occupants. Not to mention the grave economic loss to the city as land loses its productivity when has no determinable owner.  In the meanwhile, corruption has skyrocketed over land access and many people point fingers at the Mayor of Kabul.

I understand the desire to return to one's original home or to strive for urban policy that will provide high quality services.  But these personal interests must not cloud ones judgement.   In post-conflict environments, the speed at which policy is shaped and implemented is essential to avoid slipping backward into chaos.  Policies must be objective and realist.

For years the World Bank has encouraged the Government of Afghanistan to simply recognize many of the informal communities around Kabul.  Now in a massive undertaking, the USAID funded Project LARA is being implemented nationwide at the cost of 41.8 million dollars!  In an attempt to solve all the problems of land use, access, and development, this sprawling project could have been easily avoided about 10 years ago.  With a price tag of 41.8 million, there is also no guarantee of success.

Unfortunately,  I suspect many other countries will not learn this lesson from Afghanistan, and will instead choose to repeat the same decisions as made in Afghanistan.

Why is Post-war Reconstruction and Conflict ignored by Urban Planners

Informal housing adorns Kabul's mountains, complete with no water, no sanitation, and no roads (Photo: Sutika Sipus)
A quick look at some of the more popular urban planning websites and forums, such as Planetizen, Engaging Cities, Cyburbia, or the American Planning Association, and one will discover  articles on a vast array of issues such as rehabilitating industrial sites, methods for inclusive public participation in urban design, suburban sprawl and conservation, and occasionally the generic term "international development."  While I occasionally search these forums to see what new ideas have popped up, its disappointing to find that little of the content relates to my own daily work in cities like Kabul Afghanistan or Mogadishu Somalia, or within future projects in Libya and Nigeria.

Yet whenever I look at these forums, the same question always crosses my mind:

Why are conflict and post-war reconstruction not central to the discussion of 
 Urban Planning as a profession or Urban Planning education?

The Recently Completed Darulaman Road in Kabul (Sutika Sipus)
The topic is rarely discussed, yet reconstruction has been a mainstay of the planning profession throughout history.  One can quickly cite examples of planning and reconstruction, such as the rebuilding of London in 1666,  the rebuilding of Europe after WWII with the Marshal Plan, or the current reconstruction effort in Afghanistan.  Throughout each example there has been a massive demand for skilled individuals with the balanced knowledge of design, infrastructure, economics, and social sciences to design and implement sustainable initiatives.  In Afghanistan alone, USAID has spent 7.9 billion dollars on reconstruction efforts over the course of 10 years, with large portions of that funding directed toward road construction, agricultural development, and education.  Yet where is the discussion of Afghanistan on popular planning forums?  


So who is rebuilding cities in conflict?
In the 6 years that I've been working in urban planning, most of that time has been spent in conflicted or complex territories such as refugee camps, urban slums, or conflict cities.  Throughout this process, I've encountered only 4 other urban planners working in these environments!  There are always plenty of engineers, former military, active military, or aid/developments professionals with social, legal, and political science backgrounds but I've found that planners maintain certain advantages.
  • Planners are trained with a balance of contextual and technical knowledge that promotes clear communication between team members.
  • Planners have an innate understanding of  administrative and management skills
Defensive Perimeter, Kabul Afghanistan (Sutika Sipus)
  • Some consulting firms like to market themselves as skilled in "strategic design" but actually have little or no ability with design-thinking or the design process
  • Architects and engineers rarely have the ethnographic research skills to recognize and integrate subtle social processes into their design
  • Many architects and engineers do realize the value of basic site visits and create plans that are not consistent with the local economy or patterns in land use
  • Most professionals in social or political skills have the research skills, but are weak in areas of communication, presentation, and further more do not have the hard skills to design solutions from the research.  At best, they can only advise on policy or suggest solutions for others to design.
Because urban planners have so much to offer, I've found those working in the field of post-war reconstruction quickly gather respect by their employers and colleagues.  Sure, the sample pool is small, but it has been consistent enough to make me ask, so where are all the other planners?


The career track for most urban planners
Understandably, many graduates from urban planning programs are going to work for local or regional governments or private sector architecture studios.  I know a lot of planners who work for cities like Houston or Portland, and they spend most of their time sitting in public hearings, debating the merits of city zoning changes or traffic plans.  Often this was not the career path imagined while in school, but rather it was the mundane reality they discovered upon graduation.  This isn't unusual as graduate school frequently gives one a false sense of global influence, as if the future of humanity were dependent upon the outcome of your thesis research, but if planning education is so dynamic, why is normative planning practice so dull?  In this case, we as urban planners can blame no one but ourselves.  With so much training and capacity, not to mention an understanding of organizational structure and project management, only to end up working in a field overflowing with of boiler-plated building codes? No one else is at fault.

The more interesting work in the planning profession is frequently undertaken from an architectural perspective, but again, limitations arise.  The world continues to lust for new urban forms and beautifully rendered master plans.  Not a problem.  Yet where is the broader disciplinary attention to healing traumatized landscapes, rebuilding war torn cities, and nurturing emerging economies with scaled, responsive infrastructure?  Typically these sorts of plans are more glitz than substance, and lack the relationship to local informal economic structures or conflict remediation options to be viable.


The Planning Advantage
Art Deco Architecture in Mogadishu Somalia (Sutika Sipus)
Having started my career as an artist and designer, before transitioning into architecture, planning, and refugee law, credit my foundation in creative problem solving as my greatest asset. Working in conflict cities and post-war reconstruction as an urban planner is not a simple task.  It requires flexibility, creativity, and long hours.  It carries personal risks to myself and my family and demands great sacrifice.  

Yet it is also the most rewarding capacity in which I can apply my abilities to facilitate the collective interest of communities around the world.  By working in challenging conditions, I actually have the opportunity to do far more than my teachers in grad school ever suggested was possible.  I have the daily opportunity to work with all facets of planning, to work with people from many different backgrounds, and to creatively explore options for development that might be otherwise quickly tossed out the window. 

Sure, sometimes I have to sit in long meetings, but rarely is it over something as droll as stoplights.  I hope as more planners discover and read this blog they will be compelled to expand their own definition of the urban planning, and in the near future I will have the chance to find more individuals in the field with the sophisticated training necessary to solve some the worlds greatest problems.

Mogadishu's City Hall Leading the Way into the Future

city hall, mogadishu, somalia, sutika sipus
The Historic City Hall of Mogadishu Somalia (Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)
The rebuilding of Mogadishu may be faced with a multitude of obstacles, but there is no doubt about about the power of its beauty.  I'm not referring to the exotic fascination many have over its ruins, but rather am pointing toward the poetic architecture and rich, vibrant street life.  It may not yet have all the amenities of wealthier cities, but it contains a brilliant charm magnified by the frenetic energy of all those returning to take part in the historic reconstruction of the city.  

The historic City Hall captures the essence of this beauty.  Presently it is occupied by displaced families, yet its stunning white facade adjacent to the ocean, beside a recently restored arc d'triumph, is evocative of all the opportunity that lay ahead for the city.  The architecture is grande and dignified, with broad sweeping archways referencing the influence of Italian colonialism and the cultural leanings of the Swahili Coast.  The building is long and flat, wrapping itself around a large central courtyard with a fountain in the middle.  Ringed by large trees and beneath the canopy of rippling clouds, the City Hall stood strong before a visage of destruction as if the quality of leadership was hewn into its stone foundation. 

Mogadishu, City Hall, Sutika Sipus 2012
City Hall, Mogadishu Somalia (Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)
Before the front of the city lay the ruins of the a cathedral, once the largest in all east Africa.  Waylaid by the war, the walls still stood strong, though they supported no roof.  Though looted and abused, the church gave testament to the days in which Italian architecture and influence reigned throughout the city.  It was not a sad place however.  Children laughed and played on the steps, and while standing where an alter once stood, I looked upward to see a flight from Turkish Airlines descending to land at the Mogadishu airport.  With flights three days a week, direct from Istanbul to Mogadishu, the service is fully booked for months with returning Somalis and business investors. Mogadishu is rapidly changing, and I was only moments from discovering just how much this was happening.

Mogadishu Market, Somalia, Sutika Sipus 2012
Bustling Market in Mogadishu, Somalia (Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)
When I walked around City Hall to the rear of the building, I found it already part of a flourishing community.  In the rear of the building a group of volunteers were providing vaccination services to those in need.  And just meters away, I walked into a flourishing market full of t-shirts, tomatoes, steel buckets, furnishings, and the most delicious lemon juice I have ever tasted.  The market wasn't reserved only to one street but seemed to go on forever, with side streets equally packed with goods and people.  Banks and money wiring services dotted the sides, crammed in between restaurants and vendors.  

Mogadishu Market, Somalia, Sutika Sipus 2012
Everywhere you look in Mogadishu, business is happening
(Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)
From the periphery of City Hall, the streets did not merely point toward a better future for the city but resonated with the fruits of the present.  All through the city, businesses are popping up and people are returning to take advantage of this moment.  For 21 years Mogadishu was bombarded with the explosions of war and only in the dark corners could one hear the whisperings of hope. But today it is filled with the explosions of opportunity and light, electrified and optimistic, Mogadishu is tomorrow in the making.

Images in the City and the Illusion of Governance

Marketing Campaign to Stop Opium Production in Afghanistan (All Photos: Sutika Sipus)

Every day on my way to work I pass by a large poster of Afghanistan President, Mohamed Karzai.  Holding a child, pasted high above the heads of pedestrian traffic and adjacent to the Ministry of Education, the leader of the country composes himself as the father of us all.  There are many images like this in Kabul, and while the image of the late mujahadeed Ahmed Shah Masood is far more prominent, the consistent personification of national leaders has had me thinking about what it means to govern.

After all, how many despotic regimes forced their citizens to host images of their leaders above doorways, in offices, or in their homes?  Many of those governments eventually collapsed, yet others remain strong and persistent.  I'm thinking about the USSR, Cuba,  North Korea, and Libya... but I'm also thinking about the times I watched a movie in Thailand and had to stand for a commercial about the King or perhaps more subtly, all the times the national anthem is played before a baseball game in America. 


Poster of Ahmed Shah Masood in Kabul 
Be it a song, picture, or poster, these are the tools the reinforce the idea of governance.  Yet in places like Afghanistan, perhaps these images are more important.  How does a centralized government capital like Kabul maintain a connection to outer regions such as Khost or Helman?  Beyond a constant occupation of the city streets with police and military, how can a city government reinforced the idea of its power within the minds of the population? 

Governance is like any other product.  It has a market of consumers, that market has a threshold, and to expand its consumer base it needs to do two things: it needs to continually reinvent its appeal and it needs to advertise.

Advertising governance is simply a manner of reinforcing the terms of the social contract.  It is a direct way for an administration to say "we are doing what you have asked us to do, please continue to support us."  Though too often overlooked, the process of giving an image to the government is critical within areas of lower stability as there is generally a deficit of reliable information in the streets.  Rumors and conspiracies abound.  Journalism is frequently a fantasy and truth is subjective.  For a municipal, regional, or federal government to maintain control it needs to be visually present within the lives of the people. Yet government employees are expensive, it is a lot cheaper to simply put up a picture.

Opium Deterrence Campaign in Kabul Afghanistan
In recent months there has been an explosion of images within Kabul, as a variety of graphic campaigns have been launched to deter opium production, promote environmental responsibility, and increase continued enrollment in Afghan police and security forces.  Of course not all imagery is equal and many of the efforts will vary in success for obvious reasons.  For example, a campaign to discourage people from allowing their children to carry arms will likely suffer to succeed as the posters are written in Dari, the language spoken primarily by northern populations, while the bulk of the issue is located in the Pashto speaking south.  

However evocative imagery, such as found within the opium campaign may be sufficient enough to overcome language barriers.  The only problem however is that opium production is primarily a socio-economic issue while its consumption in urban areas is a socio-cultural concern.  Anti-drug campaigns have a history of mixed successes throughout the world, but it is unclear how large the current Kabul effort extends beyond catchy billboards.

Regardless of the Kabul examples, it is clear that order and governance require more than the simple provision of services, management, and security.  Successful governance entails the ability to communicate successes and ideology to the broader public, no matter how small the success or massive the audience.   Among challenged states it can establish the illusion of governance, and among those states and cities who truly are making strides, it can transform illusion into reality.

Kabul's Rigorous Allegiance to Master Plans

Kabul Playground
Kabul Playground at Camp Julian (Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)
While preparing to return to Mogadishu in June to further reconstruction efforts, I also have a few planning related obligations in Kabul Afghanistan.  One of which it a weekly training session with members of the city administration in a USAID funded project for capacity building.  Although my colleagues work daily, I visit the program each week to provide teaching on urban planning and to develop a curriculum for guided problem solving activities.  The class participants are city engineers, district managers, and other mid-level administration.

Sutika Sipus Kabul
Kabul,  Afghanistan 2001 Formal and Informal Housing [green]
vs.  2006 Informal Housing [purple] (Map: Sutika Sipus 2012)
I had read previously in a dissertation on Kabul City Planning by Pietro Calgero that the Kabul municipality has historically maintained a strict adherence to a top-down rational planning model.  Yet only last night did I realize the rigidity of this truth.

In an attempt to overview various models of participatory planning, simply as a means to expose the trainees to planning methods in other countries and cultures for comparison, I found myself confronted resolute objections.  

In the words of one engineer in attendance "we know where to build the roads because they are in the master plan, then we go to the community and say we are building a road here, you will need to move. Then the problem is finished."  When I asked about policies regarding informal housing, the response was equally severe. The attitude was that people who live outside the terms of the master plan have to right to the land and therefore must leave if told to do so.  

In Kabul, informal housing is a pressing issue, and while strides have been made to recognize the claims of informal occupants, the top-town approach dominates.  I was surprised to discover the severe attitudes among many of the trainees, whose allegiance to the city Master Plan could not be shaken.  As a planner who has little faith in the utility of master plans among developing economies, I sought some degree of common ground between the trainees.  Not to mention, the city is again working on a NEW master plan! Like most master plans, it has taken years to assemble, and by the time it is ready for implementation, it will likely be out of date and irrelevant.  Perhaps not, but I'm skeptical.

By the end of the session, I found an opportunity when an architect in attendance noted that she frequently needs to negotiate with community members.  Negotiation isn't nearly equivalent to any community-based or decentralized planning models I'm familiar with, but it is a step in the right direction.  Over the next week the participants are to think of strategies in which these negotiation processes may take place.  I look forward to their ideas. Will they surprise me again? Probably.  

The Kabul Neighborhood of Karte Seh (Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)

An Optimistic Future for Urban Planning in Mogadishu

Mogadishu, Somalia (Sutika Sipus)
Tomorrow I head back to Kabul.  This morning I had the opportunity to discuss with the Mayor, the Deputy Mayor, and other upper administration how to streamline existing operations and opportunities for new projects.  As the Urban Planner for the Benadiir Administration, Mohamed Ahmed has already accomplished a great deal in the short time he has been here.  Consequently, I made a point that my urban planning solutions all accentuate  his own work, but also introduce new assets and opportunties.   I've already started some of these projects, but I look forward to returning to Mogadishu in about 6 weeks to continue focusing the ground implementation.  I am grateful to the opportunity to work together with the municipality and hope this partnership is long lasting. 

The Youth Volunteers of the Mogadishu Benadiir Adminstration (Sutika Sipus)
What really stood out today was meeting with the Mogadishu Youth Volunteers.  At a total of 200 volunteers, these youth are high school and college students who grew up in Mogadishu while faced with civil war and the threat of al shabaaab.  After shabaab withdrew from the city, some of the young people from different districts started working together and were surprised by how much they could accomplish.  The group quickly grew and became more sophisticated in organization, capable of taking on large projects.  It blew my mind how hard these kids worked in the hot sun, with no water or shade, picking up trash, cleaning out overgrown brush, and burning rubbish.  If the people of this city can continue to dedicate themselves to the common good like these kids, then the future looks bright.

Local Cafe in Mogadishu Somalia (Sutika Sipus)
I also had the chance to visit a cafe with some friends.  The owner lived in the UK for many years and has opened a couple businesses since returning.  The kitchen standards, the food quality, and the service are all top notch. There are lots of great things happening in the city of  Mogadishu, yet where are the news agencies covering it?  Of course upon returning back to the administrative offices, I did happen to see a foreign television crew.  And what were they filming?  The armed guards.  No surprise.

Post Conflict Urban Planning and Reconstruction in Mogadishu Somalia

The former Parliament Building, devastated by war.  Photo by Mitchell Sutika Sipus

Today was a massively busy day for meetings.

I had a meeting with the Mayor and Govener of the Benadiir Administration, Mohamuud Ahmed Noor. We discussed his primary vision for the city and regional development, his trials and efforts in the past and the obstacles he faces today.   Around this time I also met some traditional leaders and members of the Benadiir council working on a variety of USAID projects.  I've been greatly impressed by his efforts and those of the Deputy Mayor, Iman Noor Icar with whom I've been meeting regularly.  Aware of the issues of corruption in their country, they continually work with international donors so that no cash transactions take place, rather the donor has full responsibility for handling the funding while the administration simply provides the needed manpower to implement the projects.  With this model, various initiatives in partnership with Turkey and USAID have been seeing great success.

Last night the urban planner working with Benadiir, Mohamed "Shaan", and I discussed at length the obstacles concerning data collection and mapping of the city.  Although UN-Habitat has a large collection of data, unfortunately they are not willing to share direct shape files and thus their information is of no real use to the municipality.  It is truly unfortunate that a UN body would pose such a hinderance to the efforts of the municipality.  Yet thanks to open-source mapping technology and the efforts of my friends at Somalia Report, I believe I can thoroughly solve this problem so that we simply side-step the UN and do the work that needs to be done.

Mitchell Sutika Sipus, Mohamed, and Abdul on the Somali Coast

I also had a chance to explore some of the historic district of Mogadishu.  We were escorted by a Captain in the African Union's peace keeping force and I was able to talk to him about his experience of fighting in Somalia.  The wreckage in this area from 20 years of war is truly profound to see, but it left me thinking a great deal about all the other images of Mogadishu that never come out.



Business is booming in the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo by Mitchell Sutika Sipus

While the world constantly sees the destruction in Mogadishu, they don't get a chance to learn about the dynamic change abreast, the massive return of Somalis, the economic explosion taking place from new investments and the visionary work of the municipal government.  Just today I had a cappuccino at a cafe founded by a Somali who lived for a long time in the UK.  It was delicious.  Things are happening and they are happening fast. This is story that is worth telling, it must be told.

Travel Businesses on Mecca Marena Road. Photo by Mitchell Sutika Sipus

Arrival in Mogadishu

The Former Parliament Building of Somalia.  Photo by Mitchell Sutika Sipus.

This morning I arrived in Mogadishu.

I wasn't exactly certain what to expect, although I thought I had a general idea. Somehow some major details slipped my mind.  I knew after departing the plane that there might be some suspicion about who I am, but I didn't expect so many military and police to try to stop and question me.  Tough looking soldiers from the African Union were all around and it was difficult to avoid generating interests.  Fortunately I was immediately accompanied by my security escort within 2 seconds of stepping off the plane, and a moment after by my host, a member of the Benadiir Administration.  They had with them a letter from the mayor explaining my purpose and were kind enough to manage all the border issues, including passport control and visa acquisition.  

The other thing that really jarred my mind is the heat.  It is seriously hot here.  Like Cairo in August hot. But there is a constant steady wind from the ocean which is soothing and it also reduces the dust.  The heat is also offset by the generous hospitality of my hosts.  Over the years I've had the fortunate to learn firsthand about the wonderful way that Somali people treat their guests, and today definitely the people I met all certainly lived up to the reputation.  As the hotel doesn't often have western guests, the kitchen made a kind gift of presenting me with a delicious grilled lobster with dinner.  Cups of strong sugary tea are ever-present as are piles of fish, freshly caught and served with a spicy lime sauce.  I could totally get used to this.  

Today was mostly a day for long meetings and brief introductions.  Soon more serious work can begin as there are a great deal of issues to resolve but in the first 24 hours I hope to simply learn as much as possible before I propose any ideas or tools.  The city is faced with a vast array of obstacles including conflicts over land title claims among returnees, issues of economic development, public health, education, historic preservation and so on.  The city is faced with the challenge of reinventing itself, yet only now that I am on the ground can I begin to see the miasmatic web of complex social and political dynamics that also restrain it from moving forward.  But hopefully in time we can loosen the knot by focusing on simple solutions to widely agreed upon problems. There is a great deal to be done, and somewhere admits the chaos are a few areas of mutually agreeable issues.  And as we uncover these small points of objectivity, we also can uncover the small points of light to widen the window of opportunity that will change the story Mogadishu.

En Route to Mogadishu


I will step off the plane in Mogadishu in one week.  Under most circumstances that would be a strange experience, but coming from Kabul it is all the more unusual.  I hope to make the most of my layover in Dubai to freely wander around the streets, enjoy the feeling of entering a restaurant without being checked for weapons, or having to analyze surrounding buildings for sight lines and escape routes every time I sit in traffic.  Kabul isn't all that dangerous, but one has to be constantly vigilant of their surroundings and Mogadishu isn't really all that different.

The other strange thing has been the experience of thinking about Kabul within my pre-departure ritual.  Over the years I've developed a process to prepare mentally and physically before entering complicated places.  I like to take up an exercise regimen, consume copious amounts of powdered weight-gainer from the health food store, and spend weeks slowly packing my back before departure.  I start by accumulating everything that I think would be worthwhile, from flashlights and pocketknives to socks and candy bars, then over the last few days chip away at that pile to determine what is essential, what is not, and how it all fits in my bag.  I like my back to be no more than 50% full, leaving room to pick stuff up on the way, do my best to keep it light. But Kabul has me questioning the necessity of this whole process.  After all, I can find all of those things here, so why did I bring any of them in advance?  It has me questioning what to bring to Mogadishu, and what to leave at home.  Especially strange since this time home is Kabul.

For years I've dreamt of working in postwar reconstruction and urban planning in Mogadishu, but I always imagined it would be far into the future.  I am grateful to my project partners for the opportunity, and while wide-eyed at timing, I feel good about it.  I look forward to working with local officials to solve various infrastructure and population problems.  Right now the issue of land ownership claims among returnees is a major issue for the city and I look forward to tackling this problem among others.  Will definitely update the blog a couple times before leaving but the story doesn't end there.  If this first visit goes well, I'll be back quite a bit over the course of the year.

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.  

3d Maps for Humanitarian Aid and Urban Planning: #googleearth, #kinect, #gis, #urbanplanning


NGO's often ask me to help them interface new technologies with current operations.  Sometimes accomplishing this goal is a simple matter of providing staff with some technical training.  On other occasions it requires a modification of data collection methods, database construction, and the organizational structure.  These tasks are not necessarily complicated, but they do require some imagination on behalf of the organization to ask probing questions about what is and is not possible in their organization.  This is particularly true when it comes to processes of data collection.

Within a humanitarian crisis, advance understanding of the geography makes all the difference among first responders.  But too often the situation is different upon arrival than had been expected.  Especially when faced with a natural disaster such as an earthquake when buildings collapse and road are uprooted.  Even when decent 2d maps are available, they only portray a fraction of the information necessary to situate logistical lines of operation.  First responders relay information back to headquarters, but I suspect that with ongoing technological developments, this can take place faster and better.
Google is well-known for their data-collection cars, equipped with fancy cameras by companies such as Elphel and Sick AG, roaming city streets to compile imagery for Google Street View.  Most of the streets recorded are major cities throughout western countries, but there have also been experiments utilizing snowmobiles and tricycles to collect the same information in difficult terrains.  Understandably, these systems are cost-prohibative for an aid agency, not only in terms of actual equipment, but also for data transmission, image compositing, database construction and the staff necessary to put everything together. It would seem an organization would need to function at the scale of Google or at least in partnership, but there are already many private companies out there - such as Cyclomedia and ImmersiveMedia- who conduct such work.  If aid agencies were able to have a navigable 3d rendering of a crisis immediately upon arrival, it could change everything.

So how can we scale this to something smaller and cheaper?

In terms of digital 3d scanning, there might be options in the near future as experiments continue with the Microsoft Kinect.  Originally intended for video games, Microsoft has been surprisingly "hands-off" about letting others hack and explore the device.   Archeologists are already beginning to explore utilizing the device to scan archaeological digs for analysis.  At the moment, the utility of such a device is limited to small spaces, but hopefully in the near future, the simple mounting of such a device on top of a vehicle could permit immediate digital scans of disaster sites upon arrival.  At present the tool is clearly best suited for reconstruction efforts, but as the resolution increases in the next couple years, the tool will be better formatted for humanitarian emergencies.

Likewise, at the very minimum, increased use of passive video collection by first-responders could provide headquarters offices a tool for marketing and communications.  Cheap and easy, the simple mounting of cameras to vehicles or clothing could rapidly collect information for digital late-night upload with no difficulty. Ranging in shape and size, bodycams/handhelds/and helmet cams have come along way since popularly used by extreme sports enthusiasts in the 1990s, opening the door for widespread application.  When I once worked on a project of a the Ohio Department of Transportation, I was surprised to discover the ODT had a collection of video footage of every roadway in the state.  Why can't an aid agency collect the similar information for all areas of operation upon arrival?

At the smallest personal scale, advancements in mobile phones and phone cameras provides the means to crowd source visual data collection.  On an individual level, mobile applications such as Fulcrum permit a means to collect geocoded photographs with customizable forms for databases.  With upcoming versions of the application to include audio and video, agencies have a rapid means to collect the information necessary to increase the efficiency of their response.  As the mobile device automatically synchs with the database in the cloud, any agency or individual can quickly and seamlessly integrate realtime video footage, photographs, and survey-style data collection with their preexisting information, providing a richer information system for management and planners.

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.