Refugee Camp Design

Refugee Camp Design

I had a thought in the middle of the night, perhaps an epiphany, about where we’re going wrong with refugee camp design, and how we might improve our approach.

It starts with going back to the concept of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) – a poorly named philosophy, but with some good ideas in it. One of the good ideas was that in designing an environment you never want to lose sight of the primary purpose. For example, the primary purpose of a school is to teach and to learn. If you want to make a school safer or more secure that’s fine, but that’s not the primary purpose. If it was all about security you’d build a prison and call that a success.

The CPTED field took some time to evolve into understanding this. It started out obsessed with natural surveillance, natural access control and territoriality as primary design guides, and only eventually realized that connectivity was equally important. We called this “2nd generation CPTED”.

The more I’ve worked in the field, the more I’ve realized the importance of 2nd generation CPTED—that perhaps functional environmental design for human beings has to have a primary purpose that’s humanizing. By that I mean it helps us—it’s nurturing, nourishing, empowering, sustaining, enlightening or appreciative. It recognizes us as individuals. It helps us thrive. It helps us connect with each other. It lifts our spirits. A dehumanizing environment does the opposite—it’s dehumanizing, disempowering, punishing, containing or controlling. It crushes the human spirit.

Establishing a humanizing primary purpose can help us stay the course—as we design we should be constantly double-checking our work to see if we’ve strayed from our primary purpose, such as by building a prison when we started out intending to build a school.

I first touched on this distinction years ago when I suggested a more apt name for the CPTED field would be Safe, Healthy and Positive Environmental Design (SHAPED).
All of this becomes particularly relevant when trying to decipher what’s gone wrong with camps. Not all camps, though. Summer camps, music camps, or personal growth camps, for example, are SHAPED environments—they help us thrive as human beings. A positive primary purpose should stay at the top of our list. Conversely, with un-SHAPED camps, people are reduced to widgets, things we aim to control, to disempower and contain. When we put similar dehumanizing aims at the top of our lists we’re in trouble from the start—we’ve set ourselves up to build dehumanizing environments, and for some reason are surprised when they turn out to be miserable spaces. Concentration camps, most prisons, many factories and in too many cases refugee camps fall into this category. They look more and more like factory chicken farms, and less and less like human environments. To some degree, this is understandable—if thousands of refugees are pouring into the country, responders may be preoccupied with fears—what if they’re diseased, or criminals or terrorists? What if they take our jobs? Where do we put them, and how do we contain them? If we remain overwhelmed by such fears, the design results are usually pretty dismal. And of course, it may not be the result of ill intentions at all, but severely limited resources, funding or political willpower that serve as insurmountable obstacles. As journalist Ian Dirrell, writes in the Independent, “I’ve visited camps on three continents, and at best they tend to be soul-destroying.”
As hard as it may be to step back from crisis-management mode, it may be helpful, when designing refugee camps, to clarify and prioritize overarching, humanizing primary purposes, if not right out of the gate, at least as soon as possible. Most camps stall out at the lowest level of Maslow’s Hierarchy, barely meeting life sustaining physiological needs, and rarely ever moving upwards. But there are a few model camps that show it can be done right, such as the Kara Tepe camp, just a few miles from the infamous Moria camp in Greece. We should be constantly using self-actualization as a guiding light—how can we introduce camp components that help people thrive? Perhaps if we were less fear-driven, and more motivated by our hopes and aspirations, we could make that shift. I suspect our designs would look a lot different if we aimed high, rather than limiting planning to containment and control—just as we should with good schools.




Tod Schneider
Written by Tod Schneider

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