Refugee camps: planning approaches

Balancing between individual and collective needs

11 MARCH 2016,
Kilis, a refugee camp in Turkey near the Syrian border. Credit Tobias Hutzler
Kilis, a refugee camp in Turkey near the Syrian border. Credit Tobias Hutzler

Over the years, the combination of protracted armed conflicts and the effects of natural hazards on vulnerable communities have displaced millions of people both within their own countries as well as across borders.

Refugee camps were originally conceived as a temporary response to an emergency situation, but statistics show that the average stay in a refugee camp is seventeen years. This has raised the question of how to manage transitional settlements that turn out to be permanent ones, especially if we consider that many refugee camps have extended in a way that they are now comparable to some major cities. Also, like an urban area, the relationships between public and private spaces, individuals and communities define the way a camp is built and organized with important repercussions on its inhabitants.

Many handbooks, toolkits, papers, etc. have been written on the management of refugee camps. Some focusing on emergency strategies, some questioning viable solutions towards long-term plans. In this context, it’s worth mentioning that while displaced people usually seek to re-create a sense of permanence in their scattered lives, local governments are much more concerned about maintaining order and security. They consider refugee camps as temporary solutions and have no interest in letting them expand, while trying to protect their national resources from being consumed by foreign occupants. As a consequence, the way these settlements are conceived and develop over the years is a mirror of these two opposite forces: temporary versus permanent.

Despite similarities with urban contexts, as mentioned above, the formation of refugee camps shows sporadic design approaches as if it were not relevant. And some people working on the field have complained about the lack of professionals trained properly for this task.

An approach commonly applied is the grid plan consisting on the construction of military-like camps. A grid of roads defines the plots where shelters for affected communities, or administrative facilities and communal areas are located. This design method is efficient in terms of maximising space, order and security, not that much to meet individual’s needs. In fact, each family plot is accessible from the grid and can be organized following the hollow square plan. This solution is characterized by a series of shelters located along the perimeter of the plot with an internal square hosting common amenities like showers. When applied on a grid plan it guarantees control and accountability for the organizations managing the camp, but it limits privacy since all shelters face the streets. It also reduces the sense of community because every dwelling is separated by its neighbouring one from the road system. However, this approach can be easily and quickly marked out and this works very well in case of emergencies which is one of the reasons why it is often applied.

On the contrary, the cluster planning approach sets out a hierarchy of roads identified by different sizes and shaped like branches of a tree that easily fit with irregular topography. Communal areas are located at the centre of radial road systems. The main aim is to respect individual’s need by creating private areas, while also encouraging shared activities and enhance relationships among inhabitants. Family plots can be organized following the staggered square plan or the community road plan. In both cases, the rear side of each plot face each other creating privacy and security, while the front faces either a cul-de-sac road or a secondary road that widens creating communal areas.

Moving from theory to practice, practitioners should first assess the condition of the site and the environmental effects on its use, investigate habits and culture of the scattered community in order to balance individual and urban needs and consider flexible proposal to be scaled up according to the ever changing conditions of the camp. The correct planning solution will be probably something in between the different theoretical methodologies already mentioned.

Regardless the way it is built and managed, at some point every refugee camp will be less supported by aid agencies’ staff and displaced communities will play a central role in maintaining their settlement. Enhancing and integrating their personal skills is therefore of paramount importance.