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Places of Refuge

1st October 2015

Places of Refuge: Planning for the New Normal

There are no easy – or obvious – answers to the current refugee crisis in the Middle East, Africa and Europe. In the face of so much immediate suffering, conflict and confusion, perhaps it seems a bit peripheral to be thinking about contributions that spatial planners, urbanists and placemakers might make – yet migration on the scale we are currently seeing is undoubtedly a spatial matter, it is in large part an urban matter, and it is all about place.

This short series of blogs (this is the first) is being written with the intention of stimulating and sharing ideas for understanding the spatial and community consequences of mass migration more thoroughly and planning more effectively for the needs of everyone affected.

Crisis is a word we all understand in a general sense, but it’s worth considering its meaning in a bit more detail. “Crisis” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionaries as “a time of intense difficulties or danger”; “a time when a difficult or important decision must be made”. Looking at the origin of the word is informative too. English “crisis” comes from Greek “krisis”, meaning ‘decision’. The crisis is not just the event but, importantly, what we decide to do about it. So, what can – should – we, as spatial planners, placemakers and urbanists, contribute to the decision-making process?

The concept of our space – who it’s used by and how – lies at the heart of the current crisis: which space is ours? Who counts as ‘us’, when we talk about ‘ours’? Who should be let in, and who kept out? Those are basic questions but, as we are witnessing, they are politically contentious and difficult, and they can simultaneously bring out very different, even polar-opposite, human responses: welcome or reject; help or impede; open or close; accept or resist; understand or fear… and those responses come as a complex package.

As planners, placemakers and urbanists, we need to listen to all views and seek to understand them – even those we don’t happen to agree with: that’s pretty much a mainstream position in our fields of activity anyway. People tend to guard what they regard as their spacetheir place – and, even with horrific lessons of quite recent history to draw from, it seems highly unlikely that we are suddenly going to all find ourselves of one open mind about migration and “migrants”. Put simply, the options for wealthier, safer, less risk-challenged countries are either to erect ever bigger, stronger barriers, trying to keep people out, or to accept new global realities and plan positively for migration, seeking to balance the challenges it presents with the opportunities it offers.

In these blogs we aim to explore what a positive spatial planning and placemaking response might look like.  We will first need to understand the refugee / migration crisis and its causes as fully as we can. Is this is a severe but relatively short crisis that will pass, with “normality” then being resumed; or is it part of an even more profound change – the new “normal”? The answer to that question will be fundamental in deciding the extent that we should plan ahead for high levels of migration and the type of planning that will be required, so here are some initial observations and thoughts.

Horrific conflicts in Syria and other Middle East countries are causing millions of people to seek refuge outside their countries of citizenship. Violence, fear of persecution, poverty, hunger, desire for a better life are all driving people to migrate from other countries and regions too. Those are the “push” factors. The “pull” – as far as Europe is concerned – is the hope of being able to lead a safer, less impoverished life in a more stable, less conflict-torn, more prosperous country. It is estimated that over 4 million people have now left Syria to seek refuge, and a further 7.6 million people have been displaced but are still in the country. There are various estimates – again in millions – of the total global number of people currently in the process of migrating from danger to safety, fear to hope, or poverty to relative comfort. With few signs that the world is likely to become significantly more peaceable any time soon, or that wealth and life chances are likely to be evenly distributed, it seems reasonable to assume that current patterns and scales of migration are probably going to continue for years ahead. Now add to this the predictions relating to migration prompted by mounting impacts of climate change: the UN estimates that there will be at least 200 million climate refugees seeking safety by 2050 as their current homes become unliveable and unsustainable. Even taking an optimistic view, it seems probable that although the drivers and geography of migration may change, the numbers of people moving to find safer or better places to live are not going to diminish significantly for decades. So, it really does look as if what we are experiencing now may well be the new “normal” and that this is what we, somehow, need to plan for.

Earlier this year “Migration and Refugees in Urban Areas” was published as the second of a series of Habitat III Issue Papers. It is well worth reading as a starting point for considering what planners, placemakers and urbanists could and should be doing.  Explaining that most refugees and other migrants live in urban areas, the Issues Paper suggests that: “Integrating migration concerns into development planning solutions at local, national and global levels offers sustainable responses to situations of large scale and protracted displacement, 
promoting benefits for the displaced as well as their host societies. Urban environments offer the possibility of greater opportunities for economic integration and self-reliance for migrants and refugees, and potentially offer a local integration alternative to return”.

Last week marked the launch of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and with Habitat III only a year away, causes and impacts of mass migration are undoubtedly going to be the subjects of high level international discussions. The aim of this short series of blogs is to stimulate thoughts and discussion about contributions that planners, urbanists and placemakers may be able to make. In the next blog, we will put forward – for discussion – a framework for practical spatial planning and placemaking responses at all levels, from international to neighbourhood. In the meantime, we would welcome any comments and suggestions if you would like to get involved.