1. refugees | flexible temporary housing

An Article by Milja Lindberg (edited by Jorma Mukala)
Published in the Finnish Architecture Review 04/2016

The influx of asylum-seekers arriving in Europe has made the need to find solutions for temporary housing very topical. Architect Milja Lindberg’s entry to the “From Border to Home” competition seeking housing solutions for asylum seekers received shared 1st prize.

Two years ago when preparing my Master’s thesis in Architecture I travelled in areas that had encountered natural disasters and observed several examples of temporary housing. Displaced people were living in containers or tents. In the emergency phase after a disaster there is limited time and limited options for housing solutions. Often when temporary housing is needed, solutions have to be quick and cheap. There is no time for good architecture. Although the need for temporary housing may come as a surprise, it does not mean that it wouldn’t be possible to prepare for it.

The influx of asylum-seekers arriving in Finland and Europe we witnessed last year is not likely to be the last of its kind. Flexible and inventive ideas for housing asylum-seekers are not only needed this one time but also in the future. New ideas are also needed in everyday Finnish housing production. Although housing can be temporary or permanent, buildings should not be designed to be permanently temporary.

The basic concept of my competition entry “We House Refugees” is not about new difficult architectural solutions; it is about utilizing simple and existing building elements. The main idea is to embed the possibility of temporary housing into regular housing, not to build separate temporary structures. This could be done by planning one room of an apartment in a way that it would have its own bathroom, a small kitchenette and a front door. This way the room could be easily detached from the main apartment and used for temporary housing. The government could support this kind of building by offering rental support, alleviating parking regulations or offering added building rights to projects that would incorporate embedded flexibility into the design. In return, the government could borrow these units to house people in need of a temporary place to stay. The transition from a room to a temporary housing unit would take a few hours and the main tenant would not have to move away, only compress their living temporarily. The transition back to a regular room would be just as easy. For an asylum-seeker, this kind of temporary housing solution would offer all the necessities of living as well as privacy, safety and social connections. The main tenant could become a kind of mentor-neighbour and offer help with everyday challenges such as learning the language and finding work. The temporary housing units would be embedded amongst regular housing; therefore, the asylum seekers would not be isolated from the rest of society.

A flexible apartment would also adjust to other changes and needs of living. The room could be used as a bedroom, a home office or a nursery. Grandparents could stay for an extended time period or the family’s teenager could practice living alone. The room could also be rented out temporarily for students or other people in need of a small temporary place to stay and offer the main tenant a little extra income during a sticky financial situation.

By increasing the flexibility of our built environment we could enhance the resiliency of our cities and society. By making buildings more flexible we would not need to waste resources and burden the environment by building temporary structures for changing needs. To solve the need for temporary housing in a long term and sustainable way takes time, social and political will and renewal of building norms. 


Resiliency & Refugees: Preparing Cities for Climate Induced Migration

2016 Biennale Event Series : Team Lindberg & Erdman
Venice Biennale, Finnish Pavilion
July 9th 2016

We were pleased to be the first team to start of a series of team events at the Finnish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale on Saturday July 9th by hosting a discussion with Finnish parliament member Pekka Haavisto. The event titled Resiliency & Refugees: Preparing Cities for Climate Induced Migration gathered an engaged and involved audience of nearly thirty people outside the Finnish Pavilion on a hot Italian summer day.

We were thrilled to host Mr. Pekka Haavisto who was able to give a wide range of interesting opinions and observations built from his extensive career in international mediation and as an politician with a specialty in international crisis. The discussion built on the strategy of thinking we outlined during our competition proposal which is featured in the Finnish Pavilion’s exhibition at the Venice Biennale. Our strategy is focused on shifting from responding to migration to preparing for migration. The premise starts with recognizing that forced migration will continue to increase due to pressures of a changing climate which will further intensify the ongoing migrations of rural populations to urban centres. This increasing rural to urban migration pattern coupled with global economics increasing the demand for freedom of labour movement will create a pressure towards international migration.

This in mind, we need to learn from what is happening now, and focus on the long term to best prepare for this ongoing and likely increasing situation of forced migration. Pekka Haavisto shared very relevant stories from his past experiences working in international politics as a moderator for many international conflicts and made incredibly important correlations between what is happening now, what has happened in the past in areas of conflict causing forced migrations, and how to best prepare for the future influx of refugees.

It was very encouraging to hear Mr. Haavisto’s ideals always came back to some form of ‘people to people’ understanding of the situation of immigration. Mr. Haavisto spoke a lot on the importance of understanding groups of people as individuals and the dangers of labeling people in mass. Mr. Haavisto was very positive on the turning the rhetoric of the current refugee crisis from a terminology of a ‘problem’ to an ‘opportunity’. He criticized the current system of only offering one path to integration rather than being more sensitive to individuals and leveling the assistant to accommodate individual skill levels and offering more suitable opportunities.

We interviewed Mr. Haavisto also on his ideas on preparing cities for forced migration – both outbound and inbound – and why it is important to address these matters beforehand. He pointed out that one important aspect of preparedness is to address issues within the counties where people might emigrate from. This means building opportunities of employment, education, and social equality that will help people strengthen their communities rather than desert them.

Since the event took place so soon after the United Kingdom voted to leave EU and stiffen their borders to migration, we asked Mr. Haavisto his opinion on the issue of borders – will international borders stiffen or loosen – in his opinion and what might be the consequences of either one. Haavisto referred to a conference he had attended prior to the event where a speaker pointed out an interesting hypothesis that if borders were to start closing that might result in even more chaotic migration of people in large numbers as a “now or never” opportunity to cross, whereas open borders would keep the migration flows more controlled.

The speaking event lasted for an hour and was followed by a Q & A period. An audience member pointed out that many of the technical solutions for preparedness, mitigation, and response are already existing and questioned what more is there to do in this situation for architects? We believe there are several ways for architecture to mitigate the pressure of climate-induced migration; including, mitigating climate change by smart and sustainable building practices, mitigating the need for emigration by strengthening communities and mapping local and sustainable ways to respond migration crises if and when needed.


Towards a New Definition of Shelter

An Article Submission for Forced Migration Review, 
Call for Articles : Shelter in Displacement, February 2017
Article not published.

Our definition of shelter ultimately defines our ability to create it.

Shelter,  shel·ter, \’shel-tər\ (noun) is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as something that covers or affords protection or shelter is a position or the state of being covered and protected. In architecture, shelter is often defined merely as a series of components that together form a physical structure. This article will argue that more importantly, we need to understand and define shelter more holistically; it is imperative that we define shelter as not only a physical space protecting from the elements, rather shelter as a network of people that enhance safety and empowerment. This is important because how we define the word ‘shelter’ as a society essentially determines what we will provide as a solution.
The aim of this article is to question whether temporary structures in shelter provision and encampment are a viable solution in the future of managing displaced populations. Architects and planners need to join the discussion of the broader possibilities and also responsibilities of offering shelter to displaced people. I argue that there needs to be a strategic shift in how architects and planners define shelter for displaced people, and a necessity for actively planning for inclusion, integration and resiliency for refugees and asylum-seekers in urban environments.

Although this article will challenge the current order of shelter provision, the attempt is not to undermine the current efforts taken to provide shelter and protection for displaced populations. Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge that the current state of shelter provision in displacement is driven by political, economic, and security factors and these phenomena do not exist in a vacuum but are typically impaired with a hindering complexity. Moreover, when exploring the potential and limitations of refugees settling in the global North, it is crucial to be mindful that the comparison and correlation to situations in the global South is not necessary applicable. Further investigation and interdisciplinary collaboration is needed in all sectors involved in the provision of shelter in displacement in order to find solutions that support human dignity and security for all.

People who are displaced have often had to choose between three options for shelter: a refugee camp in adjacent country, relocating to a nearby city often without formal rights or seeking asylum or resettling in the global North. At this moment, neither one of these three options are adequate solutions for those who are displaced. However, I argue that in terms of future development, there are far more options in making cities both in adjacent countries and countries in the global North more suitable and prepared to host refugee populations than there are ways to improve conditions at camp settings.

Typically, refugee camps are run by the UNHCR or other humanitarian organizations. In camp conditions, basic needs of those who are displaced are met. Camps are often located on the outskirts of cities and they require vast initial investments in infrastructure alone. Camps limit mobility, due to either security reasons, or political will in the host country, offer limited or no opportunities for making an income, and create and sustain dependency on aid while deteriorating personal dignities. 

Temporary relief structures are necessary in the emergency phase of responding to forced displacement. However, situations which involve refugees last far beyond the immediate emergency and require solutions that are not merely reactive or temporary. Structures that are planned to be temporary often fail to reach the lifespan of displacement. Understanding that the average time a refugee will spend at a refugee camp is 17 years, how can we accept temporary shelter solutions as a viable approach? If we accept the definition of shelter as the bare minimum for survival, we limit our imaginations to the minimum. I also believe we need to question whether encampment is morally wrong and is provision of shelter in the form of encampment contradictory. Furthermore, we need to question as architects and planners, whether by contributing to making conditions in refugee camps slightly more tolerable using design, are we giving our silent consent to the overall concept that encampment is an acceptable solution to providing shelter for those who are displaced?

Unlike camps, cities offer a promise of anonymity, employment and a chance of an independent life. Currently, however, the conditions of refugees arriving to cities are little better than those of the urban poor.  There has not been enough research conducted in the long-term refugee support systems in urban environments, nor is there a clear common consensus of what the proper shelter provision ought to be in these cases. In the case of global North, aspects from both camp and city living are often mixed with poor results. Solutions that try to create camp-like conditions in a city-like environment have led to complications in all sectors of refugee management. 

The paradox in architecture in shelter lies in trying to respond to a diverse, fluctuating, long-term event with narrow-sighted, short-term solutions. Often, we see architects and designers providing solutions such as inventive housing pods, wearable shelters, and mobile sheds which are implicitly great experiments, and arouse the imaginations of policy makers. However, at worst, they stigmatize refugees or other displaced groups and emphasize the separation from the host society. This ‘us vs. them’ environment can then contaminate a healthy integration process and create friction in the host society. Therefore, we need to address issues that create tensions between host and refugee population, whether it is lack of resources, affordable housing, or employment.

The recent trends in housing solutions for refugees and asylum-seekers in Europe and North America are appalling – detention camps, over-crowded gyms and community halls, even prisons are used to respond to the housing needs of refugees and asylum-seekers with the common excuse being “we were not prepared”. Furthermore, instead of offering privacy, these kinds of facilities stigmatize refugees. In the most severe cases, some refugee facilities have become targets of attacks due to frustrations amongst members of the host population. When new housing solutions for refugees are proposed, a question of who deserves housing is raised.

When discussing shelter in the context of the global North, we need to understand that affordable housing to an increasing extent is a scarce resource and will create tensions among those who need to compete for it. Adding to the challenge, architects, planners and policy makers in the global North often fail to address the underlining issues of housing shortages and affordability within their own societies, making it even more challenging to find long-term shelter for displaced populations. Therefore, the long-term challenges in providing shelter for those who are displaced are not solved with temporary, stackable design units nor are they solved with various plans regarding shipping container retrofits. However, there is a magnitude of potential in design as a problem solving tool for communities working towards a more inclusive, sustainable, and equal society as well as supporting efforts in integrating refugees.

There is a general lack of understanding and research into what happens in the long-term integration process and are refugee needs adequately met in the urban context after the initial phase of resettlement or granting asylum. How far does the governmental responsibility of offering shelter reach? Commonly, the focus is still on the emergency phase and shelter provision and we fail to address the long-term needs of housing and creating opportunities for refugees in cities. This needs to be done with long-term vision rather than reactive temporary fixes. With planning and preparedness measures, we can address some of the complications cities and municipalities face in refugee housing sector.

Architecture should address the concept of shelter from a different angle because on the contrary to many other humanitarian-industrial actors who attempt merely to define shelter, architecture itself is often defined by shelter. The understanding of shelter should reach beyond the physical parameters of the structure itself. Certainly, in part, shelter is a tangible, physical structure with a shape, size, and design. However, shelter also has a more intangible, more abstract essence, which in most cases can be the determining factor for the actual state or feeling of safety and empowerment. Take penguins for instance; in the harsh Antarctic, they create shelter for one another through social interdependency.

A crucial first step to improving the synergy between urban planning and refugee management is to look beyond the immediate stress and sees this opportunity to start planning and preparing for the future. In a world where protracted refugee situations are more of a norm than an exception and over sixty percent of refugees (UNHCR, 2016) now navigate to cities instead of camps, architects, humanitarian aid agencies and policy makers need to look beyond planning camps into preparing cities. We cannot be short-sighted and create temporary solutions to a challenge that is inherently long-term.

It is vital, that refugees are not stigmatized nor is refugee housing made into a building typology. Where necessary, temporary housing solutions need to be an embedded function in our cities but not a structure in itself. When planning housing in urban environments, temporary structures can slow or prevent sustainable and natural urban development and therefore should not guide our cities’ growth. By slowly adding reservoir and future capacity of affordable housing we can ensure a more stable, healthy and inclusive urban growth. Well planned, inclusive neighbourhoods create a shared sense of belonging and ownership which inherently increases resiliency.

We need to stop seeing the arrival of refugees as something that excessively burdens our cities and communities and take this as an opportunity to seek solutions for all. The aim needs to be at assisting refugees to become equal and active members of the society. When defining shelter, it really comes down to how we as a society want to treat people. If our existing social support networks are designed to aid and empower people, there will be less friction in integrating refugees and asylum seekers. Our definition of shelter ultimately defines our ability to create it. I propose we need to understand shelter as an empowering unit within our society. Shelter without social stability has limited impact. We need to avoid creating spaces of limbo over spaces of interaction and empowerment. Shelter is a state of mind – how do we design it?