A “new urban agenda” for displaced communities? Unveiling architecture and urbanism principles to strengthen the Right to the City

By |2023-12-19T15:21:42+01:00June 12th 2017|Gender and Inequalities, Integrated Planning|

By Fernando Murillo

According to UNHCR, 65.3 million people were displaced due to conflict and persecution in 2016. How can city planning respond to this massive influx of people in a way that meets minimum standards for housing? URBANET’s author Fernando Murillo outlines his ideas for inclusive cities that welcome refugees and migrants. 

With a massive number of displaced populations flocking towards cities worldwide, the new millennium challenges urban planning principles. According to UNHCR, 65.3 million people were displaced due to conflict and persecution in 2016 (UNHCR, 2016[1]http://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html) – more than twice as many as the 24 million displaced during the Second World War. This marks a historical peak. Traditional city planning is globally recognised as insufficient to respond to the massive scale of habitat needed to satisfy minimum standards for a large number of displaced people.

The New Urban Agenda, which was adopted in Quito last year, is intended to point the way forward for the next twenty years to deal with these challenges, based on the progressive fulfilment of human rights. The Right to the City is the cornerstone of the New Urban Agenda to change significantly the attitude of cities towards their populations. Some cities and countries have experienced that shifting from previous paradigms of eviction and social housing supply to a mix of informal settlement regulation, public transport and real estate in an integrated way has positively contributed to inclusive urbanisation. Examples of this trend are the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Medellín which practice citywide slum upgrading, as well as countries like Kenya, Egypt and Indonesia, which have developed national slum upgrading strategies.

Most of the UN member states agreed that adopting the New Urban Agenda is a step towards more “inclusive” cities. Yet, before the Agenda can be deemed a success, it is important to take a closer look at how and who should build the Right to the City. Which lessons can be learned from the different experiences worldwide in dealing with the challenges to host migrants and displaced communities? Moreover, are those lessons still relevant when facing the current global displacement crisis?

Seven principles for building the Right to the City
Migrants who are unable to find proper housing usually build what is globally known as informal settlements. Since these settlements are mostly perceived as illegal, their inhabitants face a constant threat of eviction. To avoid this precarious situation it is possible to identify seven architecture and urban action oriented principles to build the Right to the City based on what people spontaneously do, combined with the guidance of professional planners and architects carrying out social work as advisors, a common current trend in the Global South.

First, selecting strategic inclusive locations: When erecting such settlements, the communities are driven by survival needs. But once pioneer migrants have identified their most convenient place to settle, usually close to jobs and social service opportunities offered by cities, or choose areas where these resources are accessible through public transport, fellow migrants follow. They self-organise and mobilise their financial and human resources using the multiple formal and informal cooperation networks that migrants normally develop to help each other. Social media contribute a significant step forward in this regard, as they provide a free and easy way forward to build communities.

City planners can play a crucial role in connecting these communities with their local authorities by selecting strategic areas, with secure land tenure, away from potential environmental and social threats. Facilitating suitable land and properties for these migrant networks is key to achieve their integration based on a rationale of collective decisions, overcoming individual actions as the only survival option.

Secondly, promoting participatory progressive upgrading: The achievement of planners working together with migrant communities worldwide through participatory planning is remarkable. It is not an easy job and requires identifying the proper methodology for specific contexts. But once initiated, participatory planning has the capacity to engage communities in a very positive dialogue in order to develop a progressive upgrading plan based on their wish and possibilities. This gives back human self-respect and value for communities to manage their future, rather than just being recipients of aid.

Thirdly, guiding self-building strengthening socio-cultural diversity: Self-building gives displaced families the chance to organise their habitat in a flexible manner according to their uncertain future. In addition, diversifying housing types creates new identities. This should be supported by basic infrastructures that encourage and foster social networking such as the experience of displaced communities in El Alto (Bolivia) where a “new Andean Architecture” is emerging as a result of new income generation schemes, such as solid waste re-cycle entrepreneurs. Progressive shelters and infrastructure creates vibrant and colourful neighbourhoods serving as the perfect platform for the poor to literally become part of the city.

Fourthly, facilitating socio-territorial inclusion and environmental sustainability: Introducing basic social services like health and education, water and sanitation and community centres to build up the confidence of disadvantaged groups and to support them in claiming their rights is crucial for their actual integration. It is equally important to connect the roads of informal settlements with the surrounding city network to ensure integration into the urban structures. The use of environmental friendly building materials and recycling, avoid deforestation and contamination of ground water affecting the rest of the city.

Fifthly, encouraging mixed land uses and adequate densities: Community self-regulation can develop areas in which mixed land uses and increasing densities sustain diverse affordable housing schemes, matching the inhabitants’ incomes and preferences. Even, facilitating building extra-rooms for renting is a practical way to address housing shortage for newcomers and generate additional income opportunities for migrants and host communities equally.

Sixthly, shaping economies of agglomeration: With adequate densities and enough available space, displaced communities are able to open small shops and warehouses to generate a basic income. Training and provision of tools and materials for entrepreneurs by the state and managed by neighbourhood associations, also help to support good income generation schemes, benefiting local markets. In the Global South, informal settlements often provide qualified construction contractors and entrepreneurs generating new products and services. These win-win situations, where guest and host communities benefit equally, require creativity, generally absent in public responses to the needs of displaced groups. The case of re-housing refugees in the Gaza Strip has demonstrated that a “family approach”[2]For further detail please see http://src.lafargeholcim-foundation.org/dnl/5ddb0f81-7c56-44ad-bcf2-6dedb1e9f2ad/F07-WK-Temp-murillo02.pdf supplying multi-story buildings in shared plots in mixed land use schemes creates more income opportunities and economic cohesion than traditional minimum apartments in massive housing complexes.

Seventhly, investing infrastructure for safe environments: When informal settlements are supported technically and get the right kind of attention from their local governments, including smart technical and financial support, environmental risks and potential social conflicts can be prevented. Providing key infrastructure like roads, bridges and sanitation can minimise such risks, and thus enable safer living conditions benefitting everyone. The role of local government checking and ensuring that vulnerable groups like handicaps, abandoned child, single woman and the elder lives in safe environments is crucial.

Visions of the “ideal” city disregard the human qualities of existing conditions
Whether these seven principles are not only relevant for migrants but also for massive displaced people depends of the specificities of both groups and contexts. Migrants usually arrive at their destination smoothly as workers and only bring their families with them once they have settled. This is very different from refugees who arrive in great numbers, a sudden influx of people that in turn creates housing shortages. Precarious transitory “emergency camps” are often turned to as a remedy, intended as short-term solutions that often remain in place for decades. But these camps are really opportunities for cities to innovate introducing new materials and urban patterns to overcome already existing problems.

Economic migrants commonly have a self-help strategy linked to their territorial social networks with other compatriots. This is different to displaced groups who arrive without any links to people and their new territories. Furthermore, expectations are different; migrants leave their homes looking for a better future, while displaced people were forced to leave with devastating psychological, social and economic consequences. So, a New Urban Agenda tailored to displaced communities is certainly needed.

Unfortunately, the benefits of these unregulated and often spontaneous solutions tend to be overshadowed by the fear of informality. Informality is perceived globally as a threat to order and the rule of law, and is thus seen as something to be prevented as much as possible. However, if urban informality is understood as a logical response to basic unsatisfied needs and to an insufficient provision of adequate regulations and support structures, then the described principles can lead to enhance the planning systems for realising human rights for migrants and massive displaced people as well. Plans should be adapted to reality and not the other way around. Imagining “ideal” cities based on purely technical solutions and ruling out basic human dimensions of “real” cities is a naïve exercise that should be avoided.

The current talk about “ideal” urban solutions, such as “smart”, “resilient” or “sustainable” cities presented to us as desirable, and the way forward to deal with the poor and massive migration crisis may lead to plans based on social control, more surveillance, walls, militarization, segregation, gentrification and growing social and environmental stress. Such tendencies are in conflict with people-centred, “real” solutions, especially considering that displaced people to actually become communities needs to be part of planning solutions based on their actual needs and agreement with the host communities.

The legacy of our cities will depend essentially of the availability of our plans to provide a framework for ordinary people to live in peace and to collectively achieve progressive and universal human rights in the context of a particular city geography, history and culture. Such rights start with the freedom to imagine a different city that welcomes and help to self-organized newcomers to take action with enough resources and infrastructure to ensure that no one is left behind.

Fernando Murillo