Cities and Conflict: Exploring Urban Adaptive Reuse

Cities and Conflict: Exploring Urban Adaptive Reuse

COP26, The United Nations Climate Change Conference, is scheduled to be held in Scotland soon, in the last week of October 2021. Against the backdrop of this conference is a heightened global awareness of climate change, as discussions take place on how a sustainable, more equal future can be achieved. The present and future state of architecture is a key component of this conversation, as criticism is levelled at architecture firms that “greenwash” and questions are raised on if the term “sustainability” is increasingly merely being used as today’s buzzword.

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French architecture firm Lacaton & Vassal recent Pritzker Prize win is a sign that – perhaps – the iconic quote “The greenest building is the one that has already been built” is slowly gathering more mainstream acceptance. With an extensive portfolio spanning projects which value existing buildings over demolition, their philosophy which champions the adaptive reuse of buildings is one that the building industry must embrace if the goal is to create a greener future for the planet and its inhabitants.

When we talk about adaptive reuse, however, it's important to stretch its definition not to only include building structures, but also the regeneration and reuse of urban spaces. Around the world, there are multitudes of cities that have been affected by war and conflict, the Syrian city of Aleppo for example, fragmented by violence on its urban landscape. Conflicts such as these force people to flee their cities, creating refugees, who in turn face another form of conflict as they immigrate to places with anti-immigrant attitudes, or face infrastructural hostility through impersonal refugee camps that suffer from a lack of public meeting spaces. Urban adaptive reuse, then, is an integral element of sustainably harbouring the present and future populations of the planet’s cities.


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Refugee Camps: From Temporary Settlements to Permanent Dwellings

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Saadallah al-Jabiri square, Aleppo, after the explosion of October 2012.. Image © Wikimedia User Zyzzzzzy under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

When examining the adaptive reuse of public spaces, it’s helpful not to only look at large-scale urban regeneration projects, but also look at small-scale initiatives which nevertheless can have as much of an impact. Looking at Lebanon, we see a country that houses a large number of refugees, fleeing the ongoing conflict in Syria. The work of non-profit design studio, CatalyticAction, in Lebanon is a useful framework for approaching urban adaptive reuse. Partnering with a local NGO, CatalyticAction refurbished a school building in the Lebanese municipality of Ghazze, which had seen a significant influx of Syrian refugees.

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Basma Playground - CatalyticAction. Image Courtesy of CatalyticAction

Part of this refurbishment also necessitated a public space for school children, which was achieved through the regeneration of a nearby abandoned public space to a playground. While serving as a playing space for children, the formerly-neglected land would now also serve as a public garden for Ghazze’s residents, easily accessible to the town via the main road; an intervention that highlights the wide-ranging spatial impact of even relatively minimal urban adaptive reuse interventions.

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Basma Playground - CatalyticAction. Image Courtesy of CatalyticAction

In a similar fashion to the playground intervention in Ghazze are the UN-Habitat’s Model Street Initiatives, particularly with the case of the Dandora neighbourhood in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. Here, there was a different type of conflict, as its residents were left largely ignored by the city management and forced to live within the vicinity of Nairobi’s largest deposit of solid waste. Through participatory sessions with local community members, various activities were undertaken in order to improve Dandora’s urban quality, with the planting of trees, opening up drainages, and the painting of facades all playing an important part in making a safer neighbourhood, and fostering stronger social cohesion.

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Model street in Dandora before upgrading. Image © Marco Carolei
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Dandora Project. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat

What initially jump-started the later success of the project, however, was urban adaptive reuse at the street scale. The residential compounds of housing in Dandora were littered with garbage, meaning that that the 50 or so households that used these compounds as public meeting spaces were left exposed to litter and greywater that spilled on to the compounds due to poor drainage.

The fact that this model has influenced similar initiatives in other neighbourhoods in Nairobi such as Kayole and Mathare among others, is a testament to how communities can embrace adaptive reuse at the urban scale and emphasises how safe and sustainable urban spaces do not always need to be built from the ground up.

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Dandora Project. Image Courtesy of UN-Habitat

Lastly, a vital fact of urban adaptive reuse is that, quite simply, people evolve, innovate and make do. The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, despite only opening in 2012, is home to a bustling street nicknamed Champs-Élysées housing a vibrant mixture of shops and businesses. This entrepreneurial environment is, sadly, quite precarious, as the shops are illegal and so are the electricity connections that feed off Zaatari’s power supply. It’s an emblematic example of the improvisational nature of many settlements around the world today and stresses how in many places, urban adaptive reuse projects simply have to regenerate already existing urban processes to be successful.

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Champs-Élysées - Zaatari Refugee Camp. Image © Jordi Matas/UNHCR

A more comprehensive sustainable line of thinking means looking at how we can apply the principles of adaptive reuse at an urban scale, reviving overlooked urban spaces, and understanding the many conflicts that underpin how our cities function.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Adaptive Reuse. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.

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Cite: Matthew Maganga. "Cities and Conflict: Exploring Urban Adaptive Reuse" 23 Oct 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/970583/cities-and-conflict-exploring-urban-adaptive-reuse> ISSN 0719-8884

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