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architecture

Design for Mental Health on the Mars One Space Colony

Rendering of Space Colony by Mars One









The other day I read an article in which a team at MIT conducted a thorough analysis of the Mars One plan to implement a human colony on Mars in 2025. Mars One is intent to have 4 humans on Mars who will live the rest of their lives there, building out the first major human settlement. Cool stuff. Especially when you consider that Mars is the only planet in the solar system inhabited solely by robots.

The analysis focussed on all sorts of important metrics such as Oxygen creation and depletion, and the demand for spare parts. It highlighted the need for improvements in the realm of 3D printing. It discussed the payloads necessary to ship everything to Mars. It was a purely technical assessment and other human needs were outside the scope of the project. Fair.  

Then I looked at the photo of the Mars One Colony. It made my heart ache. I love adventure, danger, and cities and 600 years ago I would have totally signed up for an early expedition with Columbus or Magellan to cross the oceans into the the unknown. But I will not likely attempt to join the Mars One entourage. Why? Have you ever been confined to a physical space for extensive period of times?  It is brutal.

Over the last 10 years, I have become deeply familiar with the stress of confined living.  In my early 20s in India I became sick with malaria and had very little money.  I found a room for 80 cents (USD) per day in Varanasi, which was concrete with no windows, a mattress, and a lightbulb. Aggressively fatigued with illness, I was bedridden in darkness except to venture once a day to a cafe across the street for a bowl of Ramen.  I lived this way for a month.  It was the first step into a life of continuous confinement.

Twice I've lived in concrete windowless rooms while working in refugee camps in East Africa. For three years it was a stressful act to wander outside of my apartments in Afghanistan.  For 11 months of those three years, I was confined to my own house in Afghanistan as the security policy would not allow me to even leave the front gate to purchase bread at the bakery on the corner. In Mogadishu I can typically occupy a public space for 15-20 minutes at a time, and only in ideal conditions, otherwise I'm confined to hotel courtyards and more concrete rooms (though usually with windows). I do not like to stay for more than 2 weeks and the longest haul in Mogadishu, 30 days, is something I will never repeat again.

The Size of the World in War Zones and Refugee Camps

Working in confinement is hard on your mind and body. Not from being inside, but because you see the world outside and you cannot access it. When you cannot open your front door and take a leisurely walk down the street, then nothing else seems as beautiful or important. When you can take that walk but require several hours of advance planning and coordination of security mechanisms, the outside world feels more distant, as if you are only scratching the surface of human experience.

When I look at Mars One, I immediately think of all the months and years I have spent living within constriction. In the end, I always broke the rules to enjoy freedom. I would sneak out of the company compound. I would hire a local taxi and freely roam the city. I always go off the grid and make a point to integrate with the local community. It is this need for mobility and social interaction that drives the work I do, and arguably, is the core characteristic that distinguishes my work from others who work in challenging conditions. But on Mars, breaking the rules is not an option.  Not to mention - where would you go? So in the meanwhile, trapped in a state of social isolation (with 3 other people you will inevitably grow to hate) what do you do?

Here we might also glean something valuable from the performance artist, Tehching Hsieh. Perhaps my favorite artist in all of history, Hsieh only created 6 works between 1978 and 2000.  The first 5 works each lasted a year. In the first he lived in one room for a year. In another he lived outside for a year, then was tied by a rope within 10 feet of another person for a year, and somewhere in there he punched time clock every hour on the hour for an entire year. It is clear that each work requires stamina and commitment.


Watching the One Year Performance 1980-81 in which Hsieh punches the clock, we see the onset of fatigue and discipline impact his body. We see the commitment. But is it the physical endeavor of each piece, or is it the denial of human interaction and communication that shapes his experience? Hsieh's work starts with the smallest unit of human experience as an individual, isolated in one room, and then expanding the circle ever outward, he probes at formation of human life. His last piece lasted 13 years, during which time no one knows what he did, but was summarized by the single statement "I survived."  Today he no longer makes art, in any form, but owns a building in New York that he rents out to other artists.  If we have anything to learn from Hsieh, it is that the Mars One plan needs to be more about creating conditions for the full range of human experience while within the constraints of creating the units of human survival.

Human living, even surviving, cannot be designed as incremental components, but is the chaotic interplay of exterior and interior variables.  Heidegger called it "being in the world." But Mars is a different world.  The act of being in the world will be handicapped and reduced to being in a subworld, one shaped by the aims of the profession rather than nature.  Life will consist of watching the world outside, be it from the window of the space pod, the vizor of the space suit, or the other side of the empty oxygen tank. If I've learned anything from the mental struggles of isolation in refugee camps and war zones, and if Hsieh's work has any value for this project, we learn that a viable space colony is not an apparatus for survival, but it is a seedbed in which the conditions of satisfaction may autonomously emerge to grow and prosper. To be in the world, the world must come into formation.

Can one design for a human compatible world that will take form as act of emergence? At what point can the world formation happen independently from our directives? We create new realities with frequency (Second Life anyone?), but these are never isolated from preexisting social norms and traditions. Having spent my fair share of time as an outsider in hostile deserts, I can assert that the landscape of Mars will come to embody the existential vacuum in a very short period of time. When contained within a landscape that subjectively embodies desolation and bleakness, it is difficult to remain steadfast and not embody the same. Mars hurts.

So I only ask, for those brave and crazy adventurers who will set out to Mars, will they have the opportunity to derive joy from the world they are presently designing? For how long? Will those involved in creating this endeavor facilitate the need for mobility and tactile engagement with the outside? Will another world come into its own for engagement and will that one become accessible so that some kind of value can be co-created that gives satisfaction?

I hope so.

Mars or Afghanistan, either way, when you go off the grid, you quickly find there is nowhere to go   Photo: Afghanistan, Sipus 2014


The Problem With Refugee Camps (Architecture, Design, Planning)



For decades our television screens have been dominated by images of ragged people, hopelessly isolated within political limbo as destitute refugees.  Movies describe refugee camps as exotic edge-of-the-earth locales full of victimized dark-skinned people.  Magazines and websites occasionally release an article on a brand new shelter technology, solar stove, or water pump that is expected to change the future of these settlements.

Although often inaccurate, there is some real world legitimacy to these images.  A decent example of the typical chaos can be found at this moment in Nigeria.  But this is not always, even often, the case. While camp conditions are often poor, there have been strides toward the improvement of camp planning, most notably in Turkey.  Many seek funding to further improve existing camps, such as found in this request for assistance to displaced South Sudanese living in Ethiopia.  But overall, regardless of funding or geography, the progress of change has been slow and grinding.  Refugee camps are an embarrassment to our 21st century civilization. While most refugee camps are not like the movies, they continue to be miserable solutions to a complex political crisis.

Why is it, with all the expertise bubbling in the world, do these places continue to function poorly?

Before I go into this, I want to highlight that dramatic improvements took place from the 1970s through the 1990s.  Up until the 1970s, the United Nations had zero interest in the African continent, but this changed as part of a general meandering toward global sensibilities over the previous decades.  Initial steps in aid and development lacked professionalism, but was the work of untrained adventurers in the global south. This is where we get the classic image of a white guy unloading sacks of grain from a truck - as if refugees need help carrying sacks.

Much of this change toward a professional model is the consequence of Barbara Harrell-Bond whose intense anthropological criticism toward UNHCR, and UN operations in general, did much to orient it toward an improved system of accountable projects by competent people. Yet while her impact has been monumental, and continues to be extended by the efforts of countless researchers and activists within refugee studies, the state of encampment remains poor.

So again, why?

There is no simple answer, but in terms of designing and upgrading a camp, below is a list of critical factors.  This list is by no means exhaustive. Add to this list the local conditions and political realities of a random country and conflict, then stir.



1. We must recognize that Refugee is a legal term.  Technically, before 1951, there was no such thing as a refugee but simply displaced people with no legal status.  The term acquires its legal meaning from the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Notably, while a country may agree to accept people seeking asylum to provide "protection," each signatory may withhold elements of the convention. For example, if you are a refugee in Egypt, you have the right to "protection" but you do not have the right to health care, the right to education, or the right to employment because the state of Egypt has withheld those rights in its signature.  By withholding rights, a government strategically removes incentive for a refugee to remain in country.

2. Protection is define in the 1951 Convention but the operationalization is not. This is a big issue. Countries who are providing "protection" in accordance to the expectations of the legal agreement are not bound to provide a particular quality or form of protection. The language is intentionally vague so that each country may decide what protection will look like.  Ultimately, they can do as they please (more or less) aside from a few specific restrictions, such as it is unlawful to send a refugee back to the country of origin if the threat remains.  But within state borders, a state can treat the refugee however it pleases within the boundaries of it's own law.

3. The refugee laws are a response to WWII, and while displacement camps existed prior to WWII, it was only in the immediate aftermath of the war that a legal "refugee" was born into existence.  At that moment, the legal space of the refugee camp was also founded.  With populations scattered everywhere in Europe, refugees were seen as a security threat and the responsibility was thus entrusted to militaries. Militaries therefore used POW camps, prisons, and military barracks to contain, order, and redistribute displaced populations.  Military camp planning and design goes back to the Roman era, as spatial structures to maximize the needs of efficiency, not humanity.  Consequently, todays camps are designed using the same spatial structure.  A refugee camp is made to process, contain, and secure an individual. It is not a space to facilitate the expression of rights.

4. Camps are to be temporary so as to encourage the return toward home (repatriation).  This is a tricky one.  We think of camps as a way to safely help a population in need.  For example, MSF may create a camp so as to rapidly deliver much needed medical attention to many people at one time.  But protracted encampment is a different issue.  Ultimately governments encourage camps so as to isolate a population (due to xenophobia), facilitate the responsibility of "protection" (whatever that means), and to encourage repatriation.  Therefore a refugee camp cannot be nice getaway from a conflict because that incites refugees to remain indefinitely.

5. Professionals are not trained properly.  When I first went to a refugee camp, I was the only urban planner on site.  The UN engineer was trained in the UK to create UK infrastructure and the architect from Spain was trained to build stadiums and suburbs.  Now they were in the middle of nowhere Africa and told to design a new camp.  Naturally they approach it like a London suburb, unfamiliar with the deeper political and legal substructure (which inspired me to research this issue for years).  If you want to know more about why this is a problem, check out this older Humanitarian Space article on water infrastructure and conflict.

6. The idea and images of refugees and camps as sprawling 3rd-world slums presupposes the actions taken by stakeholders.  Consequently, we reproduce the same systems over and over again, creating more 3rd world slum refugee camps because we have an idea of what they look like and how they function separately from normal society.  I'd argue that the current camps in Turkey for Syrian refugees are the closest thing to a normative planning structure to emerge. Note that those camps are entirely state operated, having borrowed technical guidelines from UNHCR, but with no managerial involvement by UNHCR.  I question how long Turkey can sustain the cost.

7. Architects and designers focus too much on building technology rather than social systems.  A good example is a recent IKEA solution to refugee shelter.  I'm sure its fine.  Except it costs more to manufacture, import, and construct than any local solution.  Consequently the folks who really do the work in the field have zero interest in a slick pre-packaged technology for import.  It is just too expensive and will require complex logistics to procure and implement.  In the meanwhile clever designers churn out sexy new refugee shelter technologies every year.  This is a waste of time and money when you consider that an imported solution is impractical and the dominant socio-cultural/political/legal systems demand low-standard and cheap but scaleable solutions.

8. A massive communication gap exists between dominating entities and camp populations.  Most aid workers are afraid of the populations they are intent to serve.  Most aid agencies and UN operations maintain highly restrictive rules that negate interaction between staff and refugees.  UNHABITAT, for example, regularly plans camps using satellite images and locally contracted social research, but never actually make a site visit to talk to locals or see the terrain first hand.  This can have extreme repercussions.  The most dramatic example is from an Ethiopian friend who lived as a refugee in Sudan for 12 years.  He told me that a UNHCR director arrived at the site and was angry because the camp was built on a piece of land different from the location originally intended.  Why?  Because maps and satellite images will never be as accurate as boots on the ground.  Again, I feel the need to direct you to this previous article on infrastructure and conflict.

9.  Camps are isolated (for focus on service distribution) and cannot participate as viable economies. This is to further encourage repatriation.  It is also a xenophobic exercise to separate refugee populations from national populations.  But consequently, any camp-based economic development initiative will have a low ceiling of growth or will fail because there is no viable supply chain for production or transit conduit to export of commodities.

10. Residents (refugees) are forced to live in conditions that make them reliant on services, negating the opportunity to advance their own situation and simultaneously undermining the ability for return. The vast majority of encamped refugees do not want to be in this position, but do to legal and political rules, are restricted from any other path.  Typically to break out of this cycle requires extraordinary measures. For example, a Somali friend of mine was born in a refugee camp in East Africa, but at 20 smuggled himself all the way to Hong Kong where he lived as an illegal immigrant but eventually achieved employment and a better quality life. Of course another guy I know attempted to do something similar ended up imprisoned in Israel.

**Bonus** 
UNHCR has zero accountability. If you ask a UNHCR professional about this they will disagree and say that UNHCR is accountable to the broader expectations of the UN or are accountable to the media and to the public.  But this isn't really true because a discontent public has no legal recourse to counteract UNHCR.  It is simply a brach of the UN, and does not go on trial under the UN system because there is no UN Court.  The biggest problem UNHCR can experience is a drop in donor funding, yet as UNHCR is primarily a political tool to exert outcomes derived by internal politics, there is little advantage in reducing funding.  Ultimately UNHCR can get bad press, but a donor still pays them for a desired outcome intent that the bad press will never come back to the donor itself.

What ever happened to the Russian Culture Center in Kabul?

Russian Culture Center in Kabul 1982 - 2012 (Source)
For the first year I lived in Afghanistan, I would often drive past a massive bombed-out concrete structure of juxtaposing angles and bullet-riddled walls.  Everyday I thought about how I would like to explore this monstrous building, but put it off for another time.  Then last summer I passed by the building on Darulaman Road and saw it being raised to the ground.  I ran up to the entrance and asked the construction workers if I could take some photos and they looked at me with suspicion and told me to leave.  I expected to see an article in the New York Times or elsewhere about the loss of this iconic building, but no one wrote anything.  Nine months later, it is about time someone wrote an obituary for the Russian Culture Center of Kabul.

Destruction of Russian Culture Center, Kabul Afghanistan.  Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012.

Russian Culture Center, Source Unknown
Sadly I did not know the center very well. The old one was torn down with the intention to build a new Russian Culture Center. The original was greatly scarred by bullets and bombings from the 1990s.  It was also famous as a place for opium addicts to convene.

Often when driving past, I had the same taxi driver who grew up in Kabul then spent much of his adult life abroad in Russia.  I asked him if it was safe to explore the premises, and he told me that there are many drug addicts in the building but they are probably harmless.  I then asked him if there were any risks from landmines or other unexploded ordinance and he paused, smiled, then laughed.  After catching his breath he said "you have no need to worry about landmines, all the drug addicts would have cleared them!"  It took me a moment to realize that he meant all the landmines were gone because of the addicts who walked on them.

I also heard that one could find pieces of old film in the rubbles from the film library previously housed in the building.  Blown to bits, none of the film survives, but fragments are scattered about. 

At present there is nothing to replace the Russian Culture Center.  There are plans to construct a new version of the building on the same site, and the plans were to be completed by 2013, but at present there is only some modest construction on site.  If anything does get finished there, I expect it will be about two more years.  Of course who knows what will happen in Afghanistan, in two years, anything could happen.

Proposed Design for Future Russian Culture Center, Kabul 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.

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.

Buzzword of the Day: "Design-Thinking"

Design Tip #1 for all the Design-Thinking Innovation folks: When pasting an image onto a monitor,
include an offset darkened reflection for that professional touch  [Pic by Mitch].
Why is the catchphrase design thinking the big buzzword these days?  Somehow alongside a massive cultural focus on innovation, companies are lusting toward design-thinking as a strategy to reframe old problems and create new, radical solutions.  Yet how many organizations maintain an internal structure to accommodate such endeavors?  How many organizations can afford to do so, when the premise of design is to take risks over and over again until something works?  Not to mention, design is merely a tool equitable to all other tools for solving problems.  Design solutions are by no means better, they are simply nicer to look at, easier to sell, and sometimes not as predictable.

Now after paging through Forbes or entrepreneur magazines, it seems that all the people who are lusting for design solutions are non-designers. I wonder what they are hoping to find?  Anyway,  I'm fine with the trend because when I came out of art school, I didn't plan on ever making much money or being in high demand - but all that has changed.  Thanks!

Tip #2: Always include filigrees
to come across as hip but refined.
I find it fascinating, and somewhat comical, that so many organizations suddenly want to be design companies.  Having started my career as a designer, I admit that directing my career into urban planning, economics, and conflict studies was extremely difficult.  There were countless hurdles to acceptance among other development professionals who would immediately question the value of my education.  Once I had a job interview with an ngo that kept asking about my BFA throughout the interview... even though I had masters degrees and work experience in their sector for 6 years,  having graduated from art school nearly 10 years past.   During that 8 years, I also had to work 10 times as hard as my peers to acquire a fundamental knowledge-base in statistics, research methods, and contextual knowledge.  It is only natural that the challenges go the other way as well... even though it is a popular ideology that anyone can do art and design, this is far from the truth.  Like anything else, one has to work their way up and there are many sleepless nights.  Not to mention, design isn't like some disciplines where one merely needs to be smarter than the competition, as a design project easily entails hundreds of hours with no guarantee of success.  For all the companies that suddenly want to become design firms, they are about to face a barrage unexpected hurdles.

Take for example the firm Caerus Associates.  Headed up by military strategist David Kilcullen, Caerus is a defense strategy consultancy that has initiated a transition toward working as a design firm.  Yet when you look at their amateur website, it is evident that the one thing they really lack is an understanding of design.  To make matters worse, the source code on their site shows that they didn't even do it in-house, but passed it to a group of young WashingtonDC hipsters who probably did it below market value in hope of building a better business relationship down the road.  The fact that Caerus didn't reject the outsourced site design shows just how much more they need to learn before they can actually do decent work for someone else.  If something as fundamental as a basic CSS site is such a design obstacle, do you really want such a firm proposing urban design solutions for an entire city or nation?  

Tip #3:  Always include helvetica in your photoshop images,
ideally contrasted with a font no one can read [Pic by Mitch]
If a client is searching for design based solutions why bother hiring social scientists wanting to be designers when there are plenty of design firms out there that work in complicated areas.  Just off the top of my head I can think of SAYA/Design for Change,  Urban-Think-TankSolidere.  Will their solutions work?  Maybe, but not necessarily because they are design firms and architects are trained to approach social space as a design space rather than as social enterprise.  But at least you are getting designers if that is what you are looking for.   


Reconciling complex social problems with product-oriented solutions is a monumental task and very few people have the training within both domains to accomplish this feat.  If it was easy, urban design and planning wouldn't be so reliant on professional trends. The majority of architectural and planning solutions would extend far beyond the standard application of mixed-use urban development (maybe retail on the bottom with housing on top, whoa!), green-belt buffer zones, bicycle paths, pedestrian streets, community mapping exercises, economic incubators, zoning codes, voucher programs, community design centers, PAR, and public-private partnerships. 

Tip #4: Use QR Codes all the time
since no one uses them outside of Asia
So why keep recycling solutions and pretending it is something new and innovative? The present focus on design-based social innovation is simply another trend.  It is equitable to the industrialist trends of 1890s, the garden city concepts of the 1900s, the Le Corbusier inspired highway elevations of the 1950s.  Then of course there is the creative cities and new urbanism movements of the 1990s, the sustainability movement of the last 10 years and the overwhelmingly popular interest in urban resilience that is happening these days.  All of these trends are permutations of the same thing more or less, varying only by degree.  

Today's overwhelming focus on social entrepreneurship, design-thinking, technology-based solutions and resilience is not a means toward something worthwhile.  It is merely another observable reflection of economic circumstance and a cultural gravitation toward technology as a solution gateway.

So why draw more dots when there are plenty to connect in the meanwhile?  
C'mon fellas, we can all do far better.

--
[Hmmmm... this was fun. Maybe I should do a whole series of tips for all those new Innovation Consultants and Strategic Design Firms out there].

Humanitarian Aid and Development as a Profitable Enterprise

Ikea as Humanitarian and Urban Planner?
Years ago, I was asked to write an essay for a class on Architectural Conservation.  We had a guest lecture by renown American architectural historian Patrick Snadon who discussed the issues of preserving ugly modernist buildings in contemporary cities, and we were asked to write a reaction to the topic.  My own paper focused on the economic issues in preserving American architecture, as so often city, state and federal governments are asked to inject funds to preserve historic sites when such funds simply never exist.  I suggested that preservationists could utilize more accessible tools, to perhaps utilize strategies that engage the private sector rather than the public.  Sports stadiums, football games, and city plazas typically have corporate sponsors, such as FedEx Field in Maryland and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.   Large, wealthy companies vie for the opportunity to sponsor popular sports facilities and in the end, everybody wins.

So why not do this with historic buildings or entire neighborhoods?  Why couldn't Procter & Gamble initiate a large-scale urban development effort?   Private companies have explored this in the past, such as when Walt Disney led the design and planning of Celebration, Florida.  Such actions would facilitate brand loyalty, the companies could plan to include programs to increase their recruiting pool - such as special academic programs in schools that focus on product design or computer programming - and governments are less strained.   Again, everybody wins.

Ikea's Town Plan, London UK
A few weeks ago I read about the massive retailer IKEA pursuing an urban development scheme in London, exploring town planning and development with real-estate company LandProp.  Although some may find it outrageous, I greatly applaud IKEA's interest in expanding their penchant for refined design and cost-cutting production into the domain of urban development. Notably, this new town will not include an IKEA retailer.  Around the same time, I also learned about a large grant from IKEA of 62 Million USD provided to UNHCR for development purpose in the Dadaab refugee camps.  So what does this mean?

Like the idea I had in grad school about corporations spearheading architectural preservation and urban development, I ask why can't this happen within humanitarian aid and international development?  Why is it the sole responsibility of cash-strapped governments and NGOs to aid those in need, to overcome poverty, and to develop sustainable economies of scale?  In many ways, the idea of doing this without financial stakeholders is absolutely ludicrous.  If a company such as Ikea were willing to invest in the reconstruction of a city such as Kabul,  the environmental development of Hargeissa Somaliland, or to invest in a neighborhood in Detroit, they could access a massive labor-pool, expand their customer base with deeply-rooted brand loyalty, and lock themselves into a more profitable future. 

What I think is critical, is that this process does not need to be philanthropic.  Not everyone needs to be the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  It could be a profitable enterprise.  The risk is that we would live in a world where every city, town, and street would be named after Gilette razor-blades, Ivory Soap, and CocaCola but then again, we already live in a world where professional sports and entertainment are dominated by the same vestiges of capitalism.  Buses and subways are covered in advertising, and movies feature endless product placements.  Would it actually be all that different?

So in the end, I ask if it is time to radically upgrade how humanitarian aid and development is undertaken.  If laissez-faire ideologies are going to dominate the global economy, then why not utilize their embedded leverage, to push for the expansion of corporations to integrate all facets of daily life.  

Admittedly the concept goes against my own personal sensibilities. Maybe its a bad idea, maybe it would create an international catastrophe of unparalleled proportion, but then again, maybe it could work.

Urban Planning in Kabul - Convention vs Demand; #Kabul, #Afghanistan, #engineering, #transportation

Urban Planning is more than an attempt to solve existing problems.  Urban Planning is about directly shaping the future and I would argue that a sense of vision is the greatest skill needed by Planners.   Yet somehow there is a common disconnect within the discipline, where graduate programs encourage rich brainstorming and imaginative concepts, or individual architectural studios pursue elaborate renderings of the future - but in the end, the final projects are unimpressively droll.  

Frequently this disconnect is due to the over-reliance upon trends, conventions and buzzwords.  In the last 10 years, thousands of Planners have pursued their work within the confines of new urbanism, transit-oriented development, and sustainability.  The danger of course is that Planners can and do make decisions that dehabilitate future development in the name of social advancement, or they fail to account for pre-existing variables because those variables do not fall within the confines of the trend.  An obvious example is the manner in which NYC planner Robert Moses frequently advocated the needs of automobiles over local communities - yet Moses was merely working within the conventions of the era.  In his mind, automobiles and transportation were the most critical asset to urban health and it was impossible for him to assess the negative repercussions.  How many planners today make the same poor decisions as Moses, but in the name of sustainability or economic growth?  

In Kabul, urban planning and development is subject to the same conceptual limitations although the city contains an seemingly more complex array of variables.  I would argue however that the variables are no different than any other metropolis, but rather the organizational methods and logistics  for implementation contain more obstacles.  Regardless, various discipline-centric examples can be found for planning the future of Kabul.  For example, within the proposed project, City of Light, great emphasis is placed upon developing a skyline to accentuate the mountainous horizon lines following the city.  Other proposals focus on typical urban planning strategies such as sector-based zoning, green corridors, centralized business and historic districts and residential living.


Yet why?  Why should Kabul develop according to these guidelines?  In fact, the city has remained in place for thousands of years, and while never emulating the mountains in its skyline, has managed to capture many hearts with its beauty.   Likewise, while I appreciate the sense of vision, I also wonder why the planners simply ignored the most common and visible feature of Kabul - the hillside residential sprawl.

As mentioned in an earlier post, the most obvious characteristic of Kabul is the verticality of its organization.  The hillsides are covered with formally and informally constructed housing, stretching far up the mountains and on all sides.  There are no paved roads up the mountains, rather residents must walk along narrow pathways and hand carved staircases.  Running water is inconsistently distributed but many of the houses have electricity.   To my understanding, the houses along the mountainsides are fairly new, all constructed sometime in the last 10 years.  I was told that majority of these houses are the result of mass displacement in outlying provinces, as millions of people have sought safety and economic opportunities within Kabul.  Unable to secure housing in the central valley, housing has been informally constructed from the bottom upward.  This also implies that the communities are composed of mixed ethnic groups, potentially with a collection of diverse languages and cultural practices.  In addition to localized sociocultural identities, they may also contain localized economic traits, and each community is the foundation for new identity constructions, in particular among the youth who must balance imported identity constructs with local Kabuli characteristics.  

The upward residential sprawl also reflects a spatial settlement structure consistent with an earlier time in western countries.  The wealthy classes live in the middle of the town and the poor live in the difficult to access outskirts.  As Kabul continues to stabilize and develop, this settlement pattern will change.  In many ways, it already has begun to change.  Just as large-scale housing and condominium developments have been constructed along the outskirts of Kabul, near the airport, attracting large segments of the population, the settlement structure between the mountains and the downtown neighborhoods will likely invert.  When improved transportation and utility infrastructures are installed, the mountains will become a site for high-end housing.  Some of the high quality housing will be a consequence of incremental consolidation among existing structures, where  families will continue to expand and upgrade their own housing.  Yet much new housing will also be constructed and as many of the existing legal structures lack a legal claim to the property, inevitable conflicts will emerge when wealthy developers acquire legal titles to property then raise existing settlements in the name  of progress.

Although seemingly separate, one must also recognize that one day a tunnel will be constructed through the mountains, most likely within the next 40 years.  At this time, all transportation is bottlenecked as the city remains bisected by the mountains (illustrated in blue).  Once a tunnel is constructed, the future urban morphology of Kabul will make a dramatic shift, reformulating itself according to new traffic patterns.  New centers of business growth will take root while existing locations will deteriorate.  

If the city can become more integrated with regional developments, such as improved logistical pathways to China and Pakistan, perhaps there will be limited negative repercussions, otherwise one must assume that this aggressive and inevitable demand by the transportation infrastructure will harbor large-scale economic impact.  It also suggests that most urban development plans will be rendered arbitrary, perhaps even harmful.

So what does this all mean?  It means that the most visionary planning will become impotent if the microstructures, points of existing demand, and regional connections are ignored.  It means that the entire functionality of a city can change with a single project when that project is in aggressive demand.  I would argue that within areas of conflict, that these singular interventions can provide the greatest degree of impact, and therefore large-scale planning is fairly limited in its applicability.

Kabul's historic legacy is rooted in its location.  It has always served as the point of intersection between India, China, Central Asia, and Western Europe.  Ultimately, the success of the city has always been founded in its ability to connect disparate points of activity, serving as a critical intersection.  While vision is essential to lead Kabul into the future, this vision cannot exist in a vacuum, and any feasible planning must build upon Kabul's geographic centrality.    Today, urban growth patterns generated by conflict have resulted in a bifurcated city.  In many ways, this division undermines its prospects for stability as the dehabilitated infrastructure supports systems of chaos and undermines the logistics of social order.  Notably, solutions exist - the construction of a single mountain tunnel (high cost, but difficult to sabotage unlike rail transit, and short-term construction time unaffected by seasons) can redirect the entire urban assemblage.  The upfront high-cost becomes proportionately low-cost given the generated value of financial revenue and increased stability.

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.  

#Stuxnet lessons for Urban Planning in Conflict. 1 of 2


In July 2010, the Stuxnet computer worm surfaced as a powerful destructive force that targeted specific industrial systems.  While most computer attacks are constructed to exploit the weaknesses of Microsoft systems, Stuxnet is unique because it functioned on 3 different layers.  It used Windows OS in the intial stage and then  transfered to another operating system, Siemens WinCC or PCS7. After installing itself on WinCC, it then installed itself on a PLC device (Programmable Logic Controller).  PLC's are basically small computers designed to operate industrial equipment and generally do not receive commands through a network.  Although all the details of Stuxnet are not determined, it is clear that it sought PLC's with the intent to control frequency converters and thus modify the speed of mechanical motors. Stuxnet also relayed false information to monitoring devices so that everything appeared to function as normal.  Upon discovery many feared that Stuxnet had the potential to bring global industry to a halt

Impending doom is never appreciated, yet in the case of Stuxnet, it was also quite unlikely. Remarkably, Stuxnet only affects machines with particular characteristics and that do specific tasks and there are few industries in the world that contain such characteristics.  It is believed that Stuxnet was created by a western government to undermine Iranian attempts to create nuclear materials for combat purposes.  Some suspect Israel, others the United States, yet the designer of of the virus is completely indeterminable.  

What is apparent however, is that the creator had expansive resources, a specific objective, and was faced with significant limitations.  If destruction or at least the tampering with Iran's nuclear facilities was the intended objective, the designer had to create an streamlined yet sophisticated tool to modify the mechanics of uranium enrichment.  Most importantly, this enrichment system is not accessible online, and attack had to be introduced at the periphery and then distributed through continued USB use and internal networks.  The virus likely reached its final objective, considering Iran began having difficulty in May 2009 with operational centrifuges (IFPM Report, 17).  Stuxnet was only noticed a full year later.  Roughly 1/5 of their centrifuges were destroyed.

Stuxnet, Urban Planning and Conflict Stabilization
Urban interventions confront a variety of constraints and limitations, such as limited budgets, poor communication and disruption among social groups, and lack of capacity for implementation.  At all times, urban planning also has to straddle the void between top-down 'expert' interests and the will of the 'bottom-up' community.  No matter the situation, Urban Planners nearly always use the same problem solving strategies.  Planners consistently rely upon a Logical Framework Approach or combine this with Participatory Action strategies.  These strategies are typically sufficient, yet there are many times in which the obstacles are too large or the network of contributing factors is too complex.


I recall an architect who constructed IDP shelters in Somalia. She said that she "didn't bother asking people what they need or want because it is a waste of time, she just gave them the best solution" and when I asked about that solution, the area was first bulldozed of all surviving vegetation, drawn into a grid and an Australian engineer introduced a concept for mud brick houses.  Local acts of violence escalated shortly after as no one had shade from the hot desert sun and small fights between frustrated youth grew into tribal combat. When the houses went up everyone was relieved until families began to die from collapsing structures. Of course the architect wasn't around to witness the consequences of her decisions as she had already moved on to other projects.  Clearly, the most direct and expert-oriented solution is not necessarily the best solution.

Looking at Stuxnet, I see a product that imitates a perfectly constructed urban planning intervention. Severely constrained by technology, geography, and security, destruction at the Nantez nuclear production plant required a clever, unorthodox design and  streamlined  precision.  The designers had to work as a team to mobilize dispersed resources, to consolidate those resources in a fashion that could penetrate a complex network and accomplish a specific objective with re-percussive impact.  Although Stuxnet was introduced at a single point, the fluidity of its design allowed simultaneous access to multiple communication networks, applying to those that fit the targeted criteria and skipping others. At its end point, it made only minor tweaks to an already existing process, barely noticeable to the population yet large scale in consequence.  How can Urban Planning function in a similar manner? Planning interventions within conflict could greatly benefit from the lessons of Stuxnet.  

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.

Does the Traditional Land Use System, Xeer, Have a Future in Somalia?


Everyday the world is confronted with abrasive images of the violence in Somalia, yet attempts to analyze and explain the aggression are generally slimmed down to explanations of tribalism.  It is true that the geo-political history of the 6 primary clans does play a large part in the constant fighting, however there are additional social factors that can undermine or facilitate a potential end to the violence.  With IDP camps scattered across the country, planning efforts to stabilize and rebuild this exhausted landscape will need to build upon a history of tribal, religious, colonial, and government efforts to control the land.  Xeer is perhaps the oldest land use tradition in Somalia and deserves special attention.

According to a UN-Habitat study in 2005, Xeer has 11 primary commandments:
  • Land and any resources found on it are common assets of the clan or the primary lineage that permanently lives on it.
  • Pasture is free for all pastoralists irrespective of clan affiliation in time of need.
  • Pastoralists should preserve, and not burn, deserted thorn pens for animals.
  • Generally nomads can not settle in the grazing valleys, however, in some regions pastoral hamlets may not be allowed to settle in the middle of grazing valleys.
  • Individual pastoralists should not destroy shared pasture and fruit bearing trees
  • Neither visiting grazers, nor local pastoralists, may establish commercial camps on grazing land.
  • Private enclosures or farms on grazing lands are prohibited.  No one is allowed to cut grass and transport it into another area.
  • Visiting grazers must respect Xeer and maintain peaceful co-existence with the host communities.
  • A committee of elders from the visiting group and the local community is empowered to resolve conflicts.
  • Kinsmen should assist each other in hard times, particularly during long migrations.
  • To reserve an old pen for private use, the head of the pastoralists group should clearly leave leave a mark in the front of the pen.
A quick review of these 11 tenants reveals the fluid nature of land use and its exchange between clans, sub-groups, and individuals.   As Somalia hosts extreme environments and the economy is historically rooted in animal husbandry, this fluid exchange is essential for the survival.  Nonetheless, these rules could quickly get messy in an urban environment where public space and private property blur the lines between social and personal use.  

In an urban environment, how do the the concepts of Xeer take on new meaning?  Can one interpret a vacant plot of land or an apartment available for use?  Does an individual acquire the private right to a piece of property by means of long term occupation?   It is likely that the role of Sharia Islamic law becomes an important element in negating these difficulties, yet as Sharia often has a focus on family and tribal rights, it is difficult to determine if Sharia can provide the appropriate tools to transgress private property disputes.  


Although many of these issues have been explored and expanded upon in depth in cities of Somaliland and Puntland, it is less certain how these problems will be resolved in places such as Mogadishu and Kismayo in the future.   I suppose if the nation were to be united under a Sharia based system, there would be a basic framework to construct new land use laws that are consistent with past systems.  However if a new, secular constitution is in place, that may create a new problem as the importation of techniques abroad might appear too much like an act of colonialism.  

Ultimately it seems that viable land use laws need to build upon the intrinsic, informal systems that have dominated the geography of Somalia for centuries.  Yet as long as border disputes and a weak government prevail, there are limited means to update the antiquated systems to engage a global economy.  In future blog posts I will continue to investigate the the role of Xeer, in particular in relation to Sharia and secular law, as tools for future stabilization and reconstruction efforts.

The Role of Land Use Laws in Architectural Planning and Design for Reconstruction, Refugee, and IDP Camps


When the earthquake immediately happened in Haiti, I recall having several conversations about the creation of IDP camps and popular criticisms regarding a slow reaction by aid agencies.  Time and again, as natural disasters strike, displaced populations are forced to seek temporary shelter  while various actors struggle to put the pieces beck together.  A key, yet heavily under discussed element of this process, is the role of land use laws and ownership.

Land ownership is a messy situation in impoverished countries, as formal systems of documentation and ownership found in the wealthiest countries simply do not exist, or are incredibly corrupt and complicated.  Economist Hernando de Soto even advocates that much of the world is trapped in poverty primarily because populations lack access to the articles of ownership and leasing of property.  Without deeds, leases, or contacts to facilitate transactions of property, the greatest commodities are the least utilized.   Without these mechanisms, land use and ownership laws vary by culture and economy, such as in Somalia where the traditional Xeer system is founded upon the interests of nomadic pastoralism. In much of Somalia, Xeer works alongside  secular state law and Islamic Sharia law to form a loosely understood system of Somali Common Law.  While it is a challenge for outsiders to penetrate these complex, informal systems, it is often just as difficult for residents to pursue the formal channels of land ownership in their on countries.

Given the range of land use laws that exist in a single site, it is no surprise that humanitarian action can be slow and difficult.  In an emergency, the rights and regulations of land use and ownership are not suspended, but must be integrated in the recovery process.  This of course does great disservice to the most vulnerable populations, who are left seeking safety along public transportation roots and government land.  To complicate matters further in Haiti, many citizens to not hold land ownership but rent or sharecrop land from an often absent landlord via informal agreements that have been in place for several decades or longer.

If informal arrangements dominate the settlement of displaced persons in Haiti, how can designers, architects and planners advance the reconstruction of Port Au Prince and surrounding regions?  Whereas the city organically developed by means of these loose arrangements, can a western system of design and planning facilitate the reconstruction?   Clearly it is possible to introduce new housing and urbanism solutions, but then a new complication will arise, as it demands the finding and rightful compensation to existing land owners.   Of course this process takes time, and under the constraints of a pending crisis time always appears to be the one resource that is never available.

Now Online: An Assessment of Sphere Humanitarian Standards for Shelter and Settlement Planning in Kenya’s Dadaab Refugee Camps

Photo: Evelyn Hockstein for The New York Times

I am pleased to announce that my graduate Community Planning thesis in International Development is now online.  Although it has been published to various academic research databases, I am also making it available online through this blog.  For those interested in the Sphere Humanitarian Charter's Minimum Standards, this thesis examines the applicability of the Sphere emergency shelter standards to a protracted crisis, specifically the Dadaab refugee camp.  The research process includes an assessment of local shelter construction, refugee camp design by the Norwegian Refugee Council within Ifo II, and an older pres-sphere agency shelter design.  Research was conducted in the Dadaab camps  in 2007 with follow up research in 2009.  To download the pdf, just click the link below.   I am also pasting a copy of the abstract below.





Abstract

This thesis examines the viability of Sphere Humanitarian Shelter Standards within the construction of Ifo II, a new refugee camp in the Dadaab refugee camps of northeastern Kenya in 2007.  One of the largest refugee settlements in the world, the Dadaab camps contain over 300,000 refugees and have been in place since 1991.  As the Sphere Standards have been designed for use within an emergency crisis, this thesis investigates their applicability in the protracted settlement of Dadaab by utilizing a recent shelter initiative as a case study.

In 2007, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) initiated a new housing and camp expansion project in Dadaab to accommodate future population growth and to overcome many of the problems of the earlier camps.  Committed to sustainable solutions for displaced populations, the agency relied upon the Sphere Standards as a means to provide culturally, environmentally, and economically appropriate housing and infrastructure planning.   To determine if Sphere Standards meet the needs of the refugee populations, three months of qualitative research were undertaken within the Dadaab camps in 2007, with additional follow-up research in 2009.   Field research focused on the socioeconomic roles of informal housing consolidation strategies in the camps, pre-Sphere agency-provided housing, and the new NRC camp expansion.

Field research revealed that Sphere does not provide the tools necessary to contend with the matured socioeconomic dynamics of a protracted settlement. By expanding the standards to include a stronger recognition of the conditions which frame the lives of those in protracted displacement such as national policies, regional conflict, and local market activity, Sphere will provide humanitarian agencies with the means to provide displaced populations with better shelter and settlement solutions.

Architecture, Refugee Camp Design, and Psycho-Social Refugee Health

 How can the design of refugee camps positively  impact the psychological health of refugees?

Some time ago I asked this question in a blog post and meant to get back to it, yet it never quite happened, so I might as well explore the topic today.  Refugee camp design is a common interest among architects and urban planners, although after several years of working within this subject, I admit that it isn't not nearly as illustrious as a Hollywood movie.  Every year books and exhibitions like Design Like You Give a Damn or Design for The Other 90 Perceent spotlight initiatives by designers to solve problems in the third world often by means of new technologies, new research, and usually really expensive and sleek looking products.  But in truth, the solutions to many of these problems has more to do with just legal systems, public interests, access to capital, and then eventually to skillful implementation.  Nonetheless, everyday people read my blog looking for information on Refugee Camp Design, Refugee Camp Technology, and Refugee Shelter, so I figured I might as well expand on some of these issues.

As for innovations within refugee camp design, these are slow moving because new technologies often fail to be well implemented or are too expensive  or are  totally unnecessary.  The most common reason why architects and planners design solutions that will never see the light however is because these designers do not understand the legal framework in which humanitarian interventions exist.  For example, the plan for Dadaab below by New York based architect Deborah Gans is completely impossible due to the restrictions of Kenyan Policy as outlined in the 2006 Refugee Act, their reservations on the 1967 Convention on Refugees, and the social limits of these camps.  While the architect wants to use these camps as a means to experiment with creating a new idea on cities, the truth is that such a presumption is impossible.  Not to mention, a protracted crisis is not a laboratory for social experiments.


There are other aspects of this plan that are inconsistent with the reality of the camps.  The camps are high-density to maximize all resources and security, and  any form of agricultural production within the camps is illegal.  Consequently to expand the settlement and build on agricultural production will simply not be possible.   Although Dadaab has been in place for 20 years, long term settlement planning is against the interest of government policy and consequently initiatives such as this can never be constructed.  Therefore any planning initiatives must somehow comply with policy while advancing the interests of the population.  I'm not saying this is a good thing, but if one can't build illegal structures in America, why would that be okay anywhere else?  On last thing, the architect has clearly done only limited research as the water pathways and vegetation within the diagram are only present during the aggressive floods in October and November.  The rest of the year the place is a dry, bleak, and empty gravel parking lot as far as you can see.


When contemplating refugee camp design from an architectural perspective, a more useful approach is to analyze the architecture of the institutions.   Displaced people are only designated refugees when they obtain the legal status from the host country, which often requires the assistance of UNHCR.  Depending upon the laws of the host country, refugees may or may not have access to employment, healthcare, social services or education.  Yet this institutions appear hostile and are dehumanizing.

Life as  refugee means hours upon hours standing in line.  Waiting to for your name to be called, waiting to be addressed, waiting to be heard, being told to come back tomorrow, or the day after, and waiting for weeks or months, or even years, for phone calls that never come.  Time and again I've seen institutions abuse people through this process, failing to consider what it must be like to always wait and never have an answer.  Some agencies are even located far from the urban center, such as UNHCR's office in Cairo, and therefore people in need of assistance have to travel nearly 2 hours to stand in line with little hope of receiving attention.

If architects and planners want to really improve the lives of displaced populations, the biggest contribution they can make with new design is not within the immediate crisis.  It is by reorganizing the interface by which refugees interact with agencies.  To remove the hostile fencing and aggressive facades and to replace these structures with something equally inexpensive, equally utilitarian, and significantly more humane.  Architecture has always been the tool of the power, and to aid the powerful organizations to better assist refugees is a natural progression for the discipline.  Sustainable refugee camp design and technology is an important area of concern, yet as these only occupy a small part of the problem facing displaced peoples, it is time rather to make architecture more humane.