Planned informality: the need for flexibility and foresight in urban refugee settlements

Take a flat land in the desert of Jordan near the Syrian border and place thousands of white tents and containers within the boundary. Then accommodate families to live in it — and within the timeframe of a month, if not overnight, what you have is a small city.

Leaving behind the tragic reasons behind the forced exile of Syrian people to Jordan, the process above described is, in synthesis, the incredible process that UNHCR — with the help of Jordanian Government and other agencies — undertake to build the refugee camp of Za'atari.

Today approximately 90,000 people reside in the camp, which was officially opened on 28th July 2012. Given the geopolitical situation, its residents are not allowed to leave it, at least not if they plan to come back, and they are confined within their limit. This leaves the services of Mafraq and Amman, the closest urban centers, off limits for the camp's inhabitants. In response, Za'atari community is informally building their services and economy, importing goods from outside — both legally and illegally — and using whatever resources exist within its boundaries.

One of the older streets in the camp is now called Champs Elisee and features a continuous line of commercial activities, from vegetable shops to beauty salons, from computer shops to cafés and restaurants (my favourite being a wedding gown shop).

At the planning level, this informal process is evident in the shelter distribution. While each family received one tent and eventually one caravan across the camp at equal distance one from the other, today this configuration is only visible in the newer areas, where new refugees have just settled in. The oldest parts of the camp see various housing configurations with multiple tents or caravans attached to create inner courtyards or semi-private spaces. This is a result of a continuous commerce of tents and caravans amongst inhabitants, which also solves the problem of how to move the heavy containers (UNHCR uses a crane to build them) building camp-made special wheel-carrier. The result is that tents and caravans are constantly moved, giving the UNHCR technical team a hard time figuring out how to manage and to expand the camp.

Thinking about the genesis of Zaatari, it is interesting to relate this with the processes followed to set up some cities in the United States. Oklahoma City, for instance, has a precise date of birth. On 22nd April 1889, the Federal Government literally lined up settlers who would eventually run to secure their piece of property within the land designated for the city. According to Wikipedia, on the first day the population went from zero to 10,000.

One other parallel is that of slum resettlement colonies in India where the Government selects a parcel of land, plots it with row housing, and eventually asks future settlers to occupy the land and build, again transforming an empty lot into small urban settlements within a short timeframe.

While these processes are catalogued as a combination of formal and informal processes, with self-construction playing a key part, maybe a better definition should be found and adopted, leaving behind this rather strong separation that sounds contradictory at first.

It seems inevitable that certain developments will happen in Indian resettlement colonies as well as in refugee camps. It also seems inevitable that these settlements — while often built based on the axiom of temporality — will eventually be transformed into permanent urban centers.

Based on this, if these informal processes could be weighted and considered a priori as part of the development of camps, planning and dedicated infrastructure could possibly be better designed.

For shelter, for instance, if people eventually build shelters combining tents and caravans, maybe offering these options in the first instance could be one proposition. At the planning level, rather than assigning tents, maybe plots could be assigned (and on this, interestingly, the UNHCR technical team is piloting a project in one of the camp districts).

At a larger scale, open spaces and other non-residential spaces could be at least allocated and secured in order to create, in future, the desirable mixed-use pattern that seems to be one of the key aspects of livable and open cities.

Regarding services, the electricity expenses for the Zaatari camp are estimated at USD 750,000 per month. There are opportunities to leverage the solar capacity of the region and reduce energy dependency and burdens for Jordan — and again, planning this intervention ahead of time could simplify things.

I visited the camp as part of the Innovative Planning Agency (IPA) team that has been created with the objective of facilitating the different stakeholders and their interventions such that they are futuristic, self-sufficient, and proposed in consultation with the different community groups. The interdisciplinary group is working with UNHCR and the City of Amsterdam to tackle a various range of issues, from wastewater treatment to prosthetics for the war victims, renewable energy, and online education.

Some flexibility in designing of similar settlements and some foresight in understanding how such settlements will develop, with a vision for more self-sufficient and manageable cases, would not only reduce the burden they impose on the host country and on the budgets of the UN and other NGOs operating in these areas but, more significantly, will positively affect the life of their residents.

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