Designing For inclusion: Integrating Refugees & Migrants In Cities

In this era of massive migration it is inevitable not to ask how cities should respond to the current situation, not only focusing on short term challenges, such as providing immediate shelter to refugees, but also reflecting on effective long-term strategies of integration. 

Participating at the Architecture sans Frontiers half-day workshop and discussion with academics and experts of refugee organisations made me reflect profoundly on the role of architecture in designing solutions for integration. In other words, what architecture and city planning can do to address these challenges? 

It is quite common today to talk about migrants as numbers: we talk about the 1.3 million asylum-seekers that came to Europe in 2015 or the nearly 3,000 drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in this first half of 2016. However, to me migrants and refugees are something else: human beings; people that left their countries, their homes, their families and friends in the hope of a better future, often escaping war, poverty and violence. They endure long extenuating journeys and when they arrive in western countries they are kept in reception centres or refugee camps, such as the ones in Calais, Idomeni or in the island of Lesbos, in extremely deprived and alienating conditions.

A shift in the current approach of thinking cities is the first thing we need to address if we are to make a difference. Citing Hanna Arendt, Nishat Awan from the University of Sheffield explained the problem: “we want to fit people into a system already in place”, but if we really want integration we need to challenge the current system and open it up to changes. 

So, in practical terms, what can be done? For short-term solutions of immediate shelter Tom Scott-Smith, University of Oxford, talked about the use of abandoned buildings as places easily adaptable to accommodate refugees, such as the case of an abandoned airport in Berlin. Yet, this solution is far from ideal, as often these buildings are isolated and far away from the city centres. More effective, although quite difficult in practice, is providing long-term accommodations that would give a sense of security and inclusion. An example would be housing schemes that integrate in the urban fabric, with good transport links and well connected to the centre. Emma Goldie, drawing from her own experience of working in refugee associations, told us how the creation of a courtyard, a children’s playground and, generally speaking, a place to ‘hang out’ makes a real impact in improving the quality of life of migrants and refugees, encouraging social relations and a community feeling.

In addition, Oscar Walking from Citizens UK highlighted the challenge of giving voice and political representations to migrants and refugees. On a local level, he explained, integration is very challenging and speaking to one another is the only real way forward. 

In conclusion, there is no one simple way to approach the migration crisis, and I believe political will is certainly the most powerful means to address it. However, what I’ve learned is that city design can really have an impact in giving more dignity to the lives of refugees and migrants. This can be achieved through dialogue and community engagement, and hopefully, through these practices, a cultural and political shift may follow.   

Barbara ChesiComment