Cities are our future

We live in an increasingly urban world which is shaping our environments and our future. Currently, over half of the global population live in cities and it is estimated that this percentage will rise to 70% by 2050. Cities are both the culprits and the source of innovative solutions to megatrends such as climate change. So, as existing cities grow bigger and new cities are formed, sustainable urbanization is key for a healthy planet. Displaced populations are also part of this trend of increasing urbanization, as 60% and 80% of all refugees and IDPs – respectively – live in urban areas. More refugees and IDPs are moving into urban areas to avoid camp settings that may lack opportunities, such as employment and access to services.

As cities change and constantly morph along with people’s needs and demands, they find it more difficult to deliver services to their citizens in scale and on time, which calls for even more innovative solutions. Urbanization comes with various forms of expansion, and lines between formal neighborhoods and self-established informal settlements, such as Kibera in Nairobi or refugee settlements, such as Nakivale in Uganda, are becoming increasingly blurry. What can we learn from this expansion and these blurred lines, and how can governments, whether local or national, ensure that cities remain a platform for continued sustainability, humanity, and imagination for all?

1. First, let’s ditch those categories

“We have to redefine established and widely used concepts such as ‘slum’, ‘suburbanization’, or even ‘gentrification’ as these concepts no longer adequately describe highly complex and specific processes which have developed along with the rapid speed of urbanization taking place in the past decades. They not only fail to describe reality in many cases but are also misleading our perception of it,” says Dr. Naomi Hanakata, an architect, urban designer, and urban sociologist based in Singapore.

One way of moving forward would be to re-think how we categorize cities and the forcibly displaced populations living in them. In the future, as cities continue to grow organically as places where people from all walks of life mix, categories will be more difficult to hold on to for long periods of time, and staying ahead of the curve will be difficult. Instead, we should listen to the voices of urban citizens, which include the forcibly displaced, and ask them how they interpret their environments and how they want to organize themselves around the spaces they live in.

Coming back from a 6-week mission in Bidi Bidi, our Emergency Lab says that in the recently established Bidi Bidi settlement in Northern Uganda, the different zones of the settlement have completely different personalities. Despite the policy and approach to keep these zones almost identical in terms of services provided, these zones have developed and are developing in different directions. The personalities differ because of the people – both refugees and host communities, the social structures, and even variables such as population flow, which have a profound effect on the nature of people’s lives.

Take another example of the Za’atari refugee camp – many times referenced as the fourth largest city in Jordan. From a legal, governance, and infrastructural point of view, there are nuances that will define one place a ‘camp’ and another place a ‘city’. But, labels can be misleading and often fail to describe the complete picture on the ground. Therefore, we should be careful in labeling urban spaces based on only top-down and master-planning perspectives, because these labels rarely help us understand the real dynamics and complexities of urban spaces, and can misguide our interventions.

2. Let us change

“Evidence shows that, when given the option, refugees and IDPs reorganize their immediate environment to suit their specific needs. We have seen how displaced people use their extremely limited resources to adapt pipelines in camps, re-shape their shelters, re-direct camp roads, open shops, create markets, and even create micro-economies” says Ruxandra Bujor, a camp management expert working with UNHCR in Geneva.

Forcibly displaced populations help shape and advance the social experiment that is the city. It is a good reminder that displaced people can not only have a positive effect on the economies of the host communities, for example, but as they re-interpret their environments, they challenge the urban status quo and push for new social, legal, and spatial norms in cities.

An article by the Brookings Institute shares some insights on how German cities are dealing with an increase in the refugee population over a short time period. According to the article, integrating refugees into larger cities is a complex challenge that more squarely rests on the shoulders of local rather than national governments. And, a focus on how to design cities with the integration of displaced populations in mind is needed.  Cities, such as Hamburg and Berlin, have been innovative and have expanded the role of civil society, the use of technology to promote community participation, and the rapid building of non-traditional housing. Cities have also helped reform restrictive federal laws to be more responsive to local needs and circumstances.

3. Refugees and IDPs are part of the solution to megatrends

“60% percent of the world’s refugees are in urban areas. In some cities, they represent more than the ‘existing or traditional’ minority group. Both socially and spatially, refugees tend to create a glue-type component in a city, filling the gaps and tying up loose ends” says James Leon-Dufour, an architect and Information Management Officer at UNHCR. The humanitarian field is at the forefront of witnessing the greatest shift from a rural to an urban world, and so we now have the opportunity to steer urbanism to something that is inclusive and sustainable by amplifying refugees’ voices that they are part of the solution in urban areas.

There is little doubt that cities will have to be more innovative in how they address the causes of climate change, social unrest, poverty, and other challenges. Truly innovative solutions come from places that are diverse and where empathy, readiness to change and openness are part of the culture – not merely a talking point or something never acted upon. To stay relevant and a source for good, urban citizens and governments need to learn to build a culture of innovation. A good place to start is to learn how the forcibly placed use innovative processes to build communities in an effective, efficient and human-centered way. Any other way of building a city will not be innovative, environmentally-friendly or socially-sustainable.



We’re always looking for great stories, ideas, and opinions on innovations that are led by or create impact for refugees. If you have one to share with us send us an email at [email protected]

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