How Migration Will Define the Future of Urbanism and Architecture

When we started talking about migration [as a conference theme], everybody said ‘don’t do it, it’s too controversial.’ We said that’s exactly why we’re going to do it.

This defiant attitude was how Martin Barry, Chairman of reSITE, opened their 2016 Conference in Prague three weeks ago. Entitled “Cities in Migration,” the conference took place against a background of an almost uncountable number of challenging political issues related to migration. In Europe, the unfolding Syrian refugee crisis has strained both political and race relations across the continent; in America, Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump has led a populist knee-jerk reaction against both Mexicans and Muslims; and in the United Kingdom—a country only on the periphery of most attendees’ consciousness at the time—the decision in favor of “Brexit” that took place a week after the conference was largely predicated upon limiting the immigration of not only Syrians, but also of European citizens from other, less wealthy EU countries.

In architecture, such issues have been highlighted this year by Alejandro Aravena’s Venice Biennale, with architects “Reporting from the Front” in battles against, among other things, these migration-related challenges. From refugee camps to slums to housing crises in rich global cities, the message is clear: migration is a topic that architects must understand and respond to. As a result, the lessons shared during reSITE’s intensive two-day event will undoubtedly be invaluable to the architectural profession.

A Global Challenge

Martin Barry opens reSITE 2016. Image © Tomas Princ

In her opening keynote, sociologist Saskia Sassen outlined what was perhaps the defining theme of the conference: that migration is not a random event, but something which is caused by the actions of governments and citizens. “Migrations are made, they don’t just happen,” says Sassen. “There are conditions which cause them,” many of which arise as a result of the capitalism which enables our current lifestyles. As a result, it might be argued that we each have a responsibility to engage with the challenges involved in migration.

Saskia Sassen presenting at reSITE 2016. Image © Dorota Velek

Building on this statement, Sassen identified different types of migrant: the first was the political refugee, those fleeing political turmoil in their homes; the second the economic migrant, who seeks a better life in a new country. But while these two types of migrant are widely discussed, Sassen argued that the third type of migrant has barely been acknowledged—this is what she called the “economic refugee,” a class of people who are fleeing the “massive loss of habitat” catalysed by economic activities such as corporate land-grabs and mining, or by encroaching environmental disasters.

In addition to Sassen’s three types of migrant the morning’s other keynote speaker, New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, adds a fourth type: “an often unrecognized but large class of middle-class, educated, mobile people who choose to see different parts of the world and live in different places because they can.”

Michael Kimmelman presenting at reSITE 2016. Image © Dorota Velek

While Kimmelman expects that we will continue to see high numbers of political refugees and economic migrants, he also believes that the 21st century will also see a dramatic rise in these middle-class migrants, and in those fleeing environmental disasters. Indeed he made the threat of climate-driven migration a key part of his message to the conference. Speaking to ArchDaily he summed up the issue rather pithily: “We may be building new towers in Miami, but if the seas rise they’re not going to be occupied in several decades, so we’ll be talking about the migration of people from Miami. We need to think about that much more seriously.”

"Play the City," a giant interactive board game, that asked conference attendees to roleplay as the stakeholders in an imaginary city dealing with an influx of migrants. Image © Dorota Velek

For Sassen, taking these migrants seriously means recognizing their existence and instituting legal mechanisms, similar to those available to political refugees, to enable their protection. But it also means taking seriously the role that cities have historically taken in empowering migrants. “The city is a space where those without power get to make a history,” she says, but the current trajectory of our cities threatens to put this at risk. As many global cities continue to prioritize the concentration of capital, those with less capital to offer are threatened with marginalization. Highlighting the world’s top 100 cities, Sassen points out these places host 10% of the world’s population, but a full 30% of its GDP, saying simply: “that’s too much.”

With such a range of different causes of migration, one thing that was clear from the conference’s opening was that at the level of cities, the key question of migration is how diversity is acknowledged, respected and accommodated by the built environment.

Architectural Responses to the Challenge

Martin Barry (left) speaks to Carl Weisbrod (right). Image © Dorota Velek

One of the most striking examples of a city accepting migrants and embracing diversity is perhaps New York City, as evidenced by the closing presentation from Carl Weisbrod, director of NYC’s City Planning Commission, in which he discussed the city’s commitment to low-income housing under Mayor Bill de Blasio. One component of this policy, and perhaps the most interesting interaction between architecture and city policy presented at the conference, is New York’s experiment with micro-apartments in the form of nArchitects’ Carmel Place. Conceived as a way of providing cheap, single-occupancy apartments in the very center of a city that has an overabundance of homes designed for families or the super-rich, Carmel Place is largely about preserving and encouraging the diversity of Manhattan.

Mimi Hoang presents at reSITE 2016. Image © Dorota Velek

“It’s incredibly important to keep [the cores of the cities] as diverse as possible,” explains Mimi Hoang, principle of nArchitects. “I think the warning signs are here in Europe—the warning signs are in Paris, where they tend to put immigrants in this kind of immigrant belt, the peripherique, in the banlieues. This obviously create feelings of ostracization and marginalization for some in society. We have our own problems in the States of course, but the reality is that if the working class is in the peripheral of the city, that is creating a hotbed of resentment.”

Carmel Place in New York, designed by nArchitects. Image © Field Condition

And though micro-apartments are of course envisaged as just one part in enabling this diversity, that does not mean they have been without controversy. In a recent piece appearing on ArchDaily, Jesse Connuck argues that such apartments may risk legitimizing a “new normal” of tiny, substandard apartments. In responding to this argument, Hoang’s usually soft-spoken demeanor breaks into something considerably more animated. “We’re worried,” she says, “and we’ve certainly had our fair share of calls from interested developers, and if we think that they’re only calling us because they think that we can squeeze more apartment units onto their plots, we’re not interested. We’re interested if they’re interested in creating community, if they’re interested in creating a new kind of living experience.”

Interior of Carmel Place in New York, designed by nArchitects. Image © Pablo Enriquez

For Hoang, an important part of nArchitects’ decision to engage in micro-apartments was the underlying complexity of the issue. “What bothers me is that the issue is always discussed in isolation of a lot of other issues,” she adds. “But you have to think about all the other tangential, ripple effects of not doing it. Not doing it means people having to commute an hour in; not doing it means there’s increased cost to the taxpayer for road infrastructure and public transportation; not doing it means loss of talent in the city, because plenty of people, especially creatives, are leaving New York for cities like Philadelphia.”

Joana Dabaj and Riccardo Conti of Catalytic Action present at reSITE 2016. Image © Dorota Velek

Representing a very different side of migration to that explored by Mimi Hoang was Catalytic Action, a non-profit whose work in places such as Lebanon has focused on lean solutions to providing schools, playgrounds and other crucial spaces for refugee camps. Among their current projects is the Jarahieh School, a plan to create a school building in Lebanon by adapting Save the Children’s pavilion from the 2015 Milan Expo. Joana Dabaj, Catalytic Action’s principle coordinator, believes that this model could provide an example for future exhibitions, biennales and the like in Europe. “There’s huge opportunities when it comes to exhibition structures because usually they have been done in a temporary way,” she says. “When dealing with the crisis and urgent situations there’s also this requisite that you need temporary structures—because for example in Lebanon you cannot build permanent structures for refugees. So it also fits the same design guidelines of the building: temporary, it can be disassembled and assembled.”

The concept is, at its base, a simple act of recycling. “Recycling is not a new concept,” Catalytic Action’s Executive Director Riccardo Conti tells me. But he adds that “what we maybe should try to push a bit more is to recycle almost at a global scale.” The project also implies that Western countries could examine where they are producing waste and think more carefully about how they could design their products to have a useful afterlife.

A playground designed and constructed by Catalytic action in Bar Elias, Lebanon. Image Courtesy of Catalytic Action

Of course, one school, adapted from a single expo pavilion, will not change this situation alone. But Catalytic action is hoping their example will lead to greater change. “The reason we’re called Catalytic Action is because we believe in an intervention that would catalyse a bigger impact,” says Dabaj, and Conti adds an example of when this has happened in the past: “the first project on the playground, it raised awareness of the need for these spaces in Lebanon for refugee children. After that, of course we were able to do more projects, but there was also a very nice thing that happened in the same village: another organization built a school, and they included a playground in the school—without us pushing the idea, they knew about our work and they said that they understood the importance.”

At first, the provision of schools, playgrounds and social spaces to refugee camps might seem a world away, both literally and metaphorically, from the work being done by architects in the world’s global cities to accommodate the ever-increasing influx of people to the planet’s social and economic centers. But on closer inspection, refugee camps may have more in common with places like New York than we think. “There’s a deep urbanizing impulse which I think is a basic human desire,” Michael Kimmelman explains to me. “If we begin to think of those camps—where people on average spend sixteen years—not as temporary, stop lying to ourselves and instead think of them as new cities, pop-up cities, which should benefit the people who live there now and in the long-term benefit the host countries as well, that’s a whole class of cities which we can develop from scratch.”

A playground designed and constructed by Catalytic action in Bar Elias, Lebanon. Image Courtesy of Catalytic Action

Viewed in this way, the work of Catalytic Action and other organizations in the refugee camps of Lebanon might be seen as the first urbanizing actions in the birth of new cities—cities which are much more aware of how migration fits into both their past and future than many of today’s mature cities.

The collection of perspectives presented at reSITE's 2016 conference was full of lessons for planners, politicians, and policy-makers. But perhaps the greatest lesson for architects was summed up by Michael Kimmelman: “I think the whole question of migration allows us to rethink what cities should look like. There’s never been a moment when there’s such a demand to think on such a large scale about how we build our cities and build the world. For architects and urban planners I would think this is one of the great moments to be in the profession.”

About this author
Cite: Rory Stott. "How Migration Will Define the Future of Urbanism and Architecture" 05 Jul 2016. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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