Re)constructing the city: integrating urban design into humanitarian response
25/Jan/2010. Port-au-Prince, Haiti. UN Photo/Marco Dormino
How can relevant urban design practices be incorporated into the work of aid agencies working towards the reconstruction of urban areas in the recovery phase of a humanitarian response, as part of the process of achieving durable shelter solutions for the population affected by the disaster?
The rapid growth of cities has lead to an urbanisation of vulnerability and a corresponding increase in urban disasters. Humanitarian agencies' experience over the past decades has been overwhelmingly rural, so that approaches to shelter and reconstruction and the tools and guidance which help to shape a response are rooted in a rural context. These rural approaches have too often proved to be inadequate to the challenges of cities, where humanitarians have been confronted by high population densities, a shortage of land and a complex and delicate economic and social ecosystem, a context for which their rural 'toolkits', assumptions and experiences have left them poorly equipped.
An initial study suggests that urban design practices do have an important part to play in the work of aid agencies in urban areas. These practices have not (yet) been adopted for two main reasons. Firstly, humanitarian agencies find it difficult to take a holistic approach to recovery, which it has been argued is necessary in the reconstruction of urban areas. The second issue is the mandates of humanitarian agencies and their focus on the individual, which creates difficulties in working at a larger, community scale, something which is regularly necessary in reconstructing urban areas.
Decisions about land use which sit at the heart of planning are inherently political, while humanitarian agencies are sworn to principles of neutrality and impartiality, which preclude involvement in political processes. Urban planning also necessarily deals with people as a collective, while humanitarian agencies mandates insist on dealing only with individuals as a way to promote equity. Both sides can see the need for the other's skills in reconstruction after a disaster and yet, deep (professional) cultural differences prevent their working together. The proposed research will look at how urban design tools can be integrated into humanitarian practice in a way that does not compromise principles, or require a total overhaul of working methods.
Kate Crawford and Alison Killing have been working on urban issues and humanitarianism for the past ten years.
Kate Crawford has worked in a variety of private and not-for-profit organisations, most recently as the Shelter Field Advisor for an international non-governmental organisation supporting the emergency shelter programme in Haiti. Kate's PhD research at UCL looked at sustainable urban infrastructure in Peru and her research interests are now centred on how we share risk through infrastructure. Kate is a Chartered Building Services Engineer.
Alison Killing is an architect and urbanist based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where she runs her own design practice, Killing Architects. Before starting her own studio Alison worked for a number of international offices in the fields of architecture and urban design. Her Master's thesis, at the Centre for Development and Emergency Practice, Oxford Brookes, focused on responses to humanitarian emergencies in cities and the ways in which urban design and urban planning tools could strengthen an emergency response.