(re)constructing the city

How can relevant urban design practices be incorporated into the work of humanitarian agencies working to reconstruct urban areas after disaster?  This project addresses this question from a number of angles, looking at the organisational structures and guiding philosophies of the two groups that tend towards certain outcomes.  The research to date has involved a field trip to Haiti to look at neighbourhood reconstruction projects and carry out interviews with the humanitarian agency staff working on them; creating  a series of short films based on this, looking at different themes within the humanitarian response; running an online twitter discussion together with MIT Community Lab; running a workshop bringing together urbanists and humanitarians to work together on a neighbourhood planning exercise; working together with a social anthropologist to analyse the collaborations in this workshop and look at the underlying reasons for agreement or conflict.


Watch some of the films here: Why don’t humanitarians draw maps? and What is urban design?


Funded by: Royal Institute of British Architects Research Trust, UCL Grand Challenges

In collaboration with: Kate Crawford and Camillo Boano, both of University College London.

More about this project

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. This 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.