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    Universal design in a divided world: The young architects building urban resilience through social inclusivity

    By Cindy Huang, on 4 October 2016

    It’s hardly arguable that one of the most prevalent human activities is picking sides.  From ethnic conflicts down to people’s taste in music, the world finds itself divided – by nationalism, classism, other-isms or simply a difference of opinion.  And amid the Brexit aftershocks and cries over racial violence in the States, amid the broken trust and broken spirits flooding our news channels, where does the term “universal” stand?  How can we, in these circumstances, imagine a unified vision to take care of each other?

    Although the built environment has a way of reinforcing social divisions, whether through gender-specific bathrooms or communities ghettoised by gentrification, it can also host spaces that inspire solidary over status, and spaces that actively embrace the most excluded people of our societies.  Today, pockets of planners and architects work to promote a less socially divided world, and some of them are doing it through universal design.

    Universal design, defined

    Often presumed as design for people with disabilities, universal design actually embraces a much broader definition.  It is “the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.”[1]  In other words, it tries to befriend as many as possible – selfish in a selfless way.  It assumes all people have disabilities to some extent;[2] just as we gain abilities with age, we also lose abilities – whatever “normal” is on this spectrum will always be trend-related and misguided.

    The term was coined by Ronald L. Mace, an American architect who at age nine contracted polio, became a wheelchair user, and in his twenties had to be carried up and down the stairs at university.[3]  It was perhaps forecasted, then, that he would help institute the first accessibility building codes in the United States in 1973, which went on to influence national policies including the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.[4]  During this period he also founded what is now the Centre for Universal Design at New Carolina University.

    His legacy not only etched a space of dialogue for disability discrimination but also raised the question of what constitutes social norms to a new height.  “Unfortunately,” Mace said in a speech, “designers in our society also mistakenly assume that everyone fits this definition of ‘normal.’ This just is not the case.”[5]

     

    Young Ronald L. Mace (source); Mace later in life as an architect (source)

    Young Ronald L. Mace (source); Mace later in life as an architect (source)

     

    Mace’s work evolved from recognising people’s differences to harmonising them – from disability design (focused on the inclusion of one group) to universal design (embracing all individuals’ differences).  The strength in universal design is that it simply acknowledges human diversity.  With no technical guidelines, it serves as a new reference point for practitioners, informed by anthropological understanding – sort of like a social justice challenge.

     

    No rules attached

    Tar-Saeng Studio, an offshoot of the collective Openspace with whom I’m working in Bangkok as part of the DPU/ACHR/CAN Young Professionals Programme, is helping to grow universal design into Thai society.  Using participatory approaches channelled through the comforts of informality, they create spaces attentive to the often overlooked needs of elderly people and people with disabilities, who live on low-incomes or in poverty.  The studio is run by a small group of community architects who are in their mid-twenties to early thirties.  They represent a new generation of practitioners building urban resilience through inclusive design—both in product and process.

    When I chatted with Tar-Saeng Studio founder Ploy Kasama Yamtree about universal design, I found it interesting that their work is largely dependent on the country’s institutional gaps.  “In Thailand, universal design is still linked to regulations, like the correct ratio for a ramp or handrail,” Ploy said, “But when you go into people’s bamboo houses, you see it’s not possible to have the 1:12 ratio because people just don’t have that type of space.”

    Conveniently, building codes go unenforced in most remote or slum areas of Thailand, giving Ploy’s team creative freedom to shape genuinely usable spaces for those who need them.  “We go and figure out what we can do without following the rules,” she explained, “We are more interested in adaptive design.”

    There’s a very human approach to all this.  Building codes unquestionably play a role in keeping our societies safe, but like with anything institutionalised they can be restrictive to the ever-changing contexts.  Tar-Saeng Studio chooses to carry out their work—safely and strategically—whether it adheres to the legal systems or not, for they do it to solve problems, not to abide by the confines that sustain problems.

    And in the process they are making a point – “When we design and don’t follow building codes because it’s impossible to, it’s a statement we’re putting out there that these building codes need to change,” Ploy said.

    Tar-Saeng Studio works with vulnerable populations to provide living environments suited to their needs. (Photo: Openspace)

    Tar-Saeng Studio works with vulnerable populations to provide living environments suited to their needs. (Photo: Openspace)

     

    Designing for Thai society

    Before Tar-Saeng Studio was established, Openspace worked in some of Thailand’s poorest communities and noticed this widespread but untrodden issue.  In 2013, about 7.3 million people in Thailand lived below the poverty line, and another 6.7 million were at risk of falling below it.[6]  For these people, access to safe shelter is already a struggle.  Thailand is also the world’s third most rapidly aging country with more than 10 percent of people over 64 years old,[7] and it’s projected that by 2040 this number will jump to 25 percent—that’s one in every four people.[8]  And of the near 2 million people with disabilities,[9] almost 40 percent are above the age of 64.[10]   Adapting for an aging society in Thailand with increasing cases of disabilities is just smart planning, yet no one was doing it.

    The first time Openspace actively applied universal design was in 2011, or as people here call it “flood year” – referring to the floods that caused 884 deaths and an estimated loss of 45.7 billion USD.[11]  In a riverside community in Pathum Thani province, elderly people felt uncatered for in the local amenities.  The goal was to create a space in which they can socialise, exercise, and spend time in.  More importantly, a space where they can connect with each other and lead healthier lives, and where the inherent vulnerabilities from unwanted isolation can dissipate over time.

    Openspace worked side by side with the local people, like a true partnership.  Using low-cost materials like discarded bamboo and motorcycle tyres from nearby shops, they made an area consisting of benches at varying heights, a hanging garden, and an exercise station—it was modest, useful, beautiful.  The benches aimed to connect the elderly with the children; the hanging garden had attached platforms for stretching legs; the exercise station held removable weights made of stones stored in bamboo.  Everything served a purpose in bettering older people’s lives.  Equally as valuable were the skills gained and relationships reinforced within the community, and perhaps a proud sense of ownership to something they collectively brought to life.

    A few months later came the floods during which the structures were destroyed.  Ploy heard that after the water subsided, the community rebuilt the space.  “It was really nice to hear,” she said.

    Community members weaving a bench seat with recycled tyres for a socialising/exercising space for elderly people; the space being exhibited; the hanging garden on site of the community (Photos: Tar-Saeng Studio)

    Community members weaving a bench seat with recycled tyres for a socialising/exercising space for elderly people; the space being exhibited; the hanging garden on site of the community (Photos: Tar-Saeng Studio)

     

    Eager to pursue universal design with greater commitment, Openspace partnered with the Institute of Health Promotion for People with Disability, a government entity, on a four-month project involving seventeen people with disabilities living in underprivileged conditions.  Most of them were in rural housing unfit for accessibility building codes, and couldn’t afford the “standard” equipment for their needs.  This is the reality; affordability should be integral to accessibility but disability-focused design can be expensive, leaving out those who are poor.

    Openspace visited the seventeen people across two provinces.  Case by case, they studied the clients’ health and living conditions then came up with low-cost design solutions, published in an illustrative book titled Differently-Abled Architecture.  It includes people with cerebral palsy, paraplegia, hemiplegia, deafness, blindness, and mobility difficulties from diabetes.

    In one case, they created an “at-home playground” for an eight-year-old boy with cerebral palsy that allowed him to stretch different parts of his body and aid the development of his muscles and joints.  It was constructed from bamboo, rubber tyres and concrete.  Another project was a “DIY horizontal toilet” built into wooden floors, and beneath it sat a plastic bucket connected to pipes, a hose, and a water tap.  It was for a client who couldn’t sit up but was perfectly capable of moving around in his own ways; he just needed an environment suited to his methods of self-reliance.

    These projects underscored the basis of universal design – understanding the concept of “normal” as shifting with the users, all of whom differ.

    Ploy measuring the hand of an eight-year-old client with cerebral palsy; drawings of the “at-home playground” shown in Differently-Abled Architecture. (Photos: Openspace)

    Ploy measuring the hand of an eight-year-old client with cerebral palsy; drawings of the “at-home playground” shown in Differently-Abled Architecture. (Photos: Openspace)

     

    What Ploy grasped at the end of the four months was the dismally isolated nature of these cases.  These were just seventeen of 2 million people with disabilities in Thailand, who happened to be among the poorest populations, divorced from public assistance.  There was no space in which they can support each other, no platform on which they can be heard, and no signs of progress towards their inclusivity.

    “I decided that in our next projects we wouldn’t do it the same way,” Ploy said, “Instead we will combine many cases.  A process of building together, and taking care of each other, would be better.”

     

    “Lit Eyes”

    At this point, in 2013, Ploy set up Tar-Saeng Studio, a private entity detached from government organisations—detached from politics, a precarious area of discussion in Thailand—aimed to mainstream universal design into Thai society.  The word tar saeng means “lit eyes” in Thai and “community” or “villages” in Laos, chosen to give familiarity to local people (whereas Openspace, a mishmash of English design jargon, means little to many).  Through Tar-Saeng Studio, Ploy would advocate for the inclusion of vulnerable populations to built environment practices.

    But she also acknowledges it won’t be easy.  The concept of universal design is still alien to most, and when it does ring a bell to some it’s often perceived as an extra luxury, covered by extra costs, sacrificed from the “real” necessities.  Trying to convince poorer communities to embrace universal design principles has been tough.  Many say they simply don’t see the point; meanwhile Ploy would watch them struggle to move around their homes.

    She realised it will take a lot more awareness raising before implementation can go full force, and decided to keep the message simple, which was, “Look, there are no rules.  It’s about knowing your own resources and adapting to your environment.”

    Since then, Tar-Saeng Studio has undertaken a series of projects ranging from low-cost furniture making to hospital design.  Their outputs are always based on inclusive design principles, and their processes on participatory empowerment. They’ve also published and distributed books to institutions and the wider public, and held training workshops in small communities.  It is Ploy’s hope for Tar-Saeng to become a social enterprise one day, with income from private sector clients subsidising projects for poor communities.  “It’s very important to connect with people doing similar things from different sectors,” she mentioned, “You can’t really do this alone.”

    Tar-Saeng Studio holding a community workshop in Ching Rai on universal design for public space. (Photo: Tar-Saeng Studio)

    Tar-Saeng Studio holding a community workshop in Ching Rai on universal design for public space. (Photo: Tar-Saeng Studio)

     

    What this means for urban resilience

    The floods of 2011 brought great devastation across Thailand.  People lost their homes, they felt desperate, they wanted answers.  This triggered a well-needed public dialogue on urban resilience and climate change adaptation; like a newcomer experiencing culture shock, Thailand had struggled to cope with these new waves of events and adapt to a new language through which to understand them.  So this was a good step.

    A city’s urban resilience is characterised by its social and physical capacity to take on different types of pressures, endure through them, and recover from them.[12]  Whether hit by an earthquake or economic recession, things like governance, ecosystem balance, physical infrastructure, social services, and community support networks, all determine how a city bounces back.  Conversations around urban resilience in Thailand, however, remain primarily on physical infrastructure, while social capacity—people’s knowledge, mental and physical health, and resourcefulness during a time of crisis—have remained more or less a faded backdrop.

    Ploy’s decision to focus on universal design, she told me, has everything to do with building urban resilience in Thailand.  People are aging, losing abilities, living in poverty, and some need particular types of assistance.  The fluctuating climate is also adding to these stresses.  She said, “What we’re doing is planning for the future, for the environment that’s always changing.”  Tar-Saeng Studio is proving that building adaptive environments through participatory approaches can increase social capacity by minimising vulnerabilities and strengthening communities.  Their next goal is to demonstrate that these grassroots activities can be scaled-up to the regional and national levels.

    It’s as if Mace predicted the volatile state of the world today and decided to send a note to the future.  In a 1998 speech he said, “I’m not sure it’s possible to create anything that’s universally usable…We use that term because it’s the most descriptive of what the goal is, [which is] something people can live with and afford.”[13]  What seemed like a vague statement then has become significant in today’s social practice.  I’ve noticed that Ploy rarely speaks about disability, elderly, or po-poor focused designs as independent from each other, but instead she talks about making environments inclusive to everyone.  Now I understand how she’s running with Mace’s words.  But it’s not that these things—disability, elderly, pro-poor focused designs—always go together either.  I guess universal design is like a head-to-toe winter outfit that you modify according to the weather that day.  You just need to check the forecast to make the best decision.

    As Mace wrapped up his last speech, at a New York conference in 1998, he said, “We are all learning from each other in a wonderful way and need to continue what we have started here—communication and the exchange of ideas and experience.”  And eighteen years later, reading his words were a small group of young architects in a traditional Thai house, lying on the floor, scribbling away, planning for the future.

     

    References:

    [1] Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, 2012. What is Universal Design. [online] Available at: <http://universaldesign.ie/What-is-Universal-Design>
    [2] Mace, R. 1998, ‘A Perspective on Universal Design’, speech, New York, 19 June. Available at: <https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_us/usronmacespeech.htm>
    [3] Saxon, W., 1998. Ronald L. Mace, 58, Designer Of Buildings Accessible to All. [online] 12 July. Available at: <http://www.nytimes.com/1998/07/13/us/ronald-l-mace-58-designer-of-buildings-accessible-to-all.html?_r=0>
    [4] Center for Universal Design (2008) About the Center: Ronald L. Mace. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_us/usronmace.htm>
    [5] Mace, R. 1998, ‘A Perspective on Universal Design’, speech, New York, 19 June. Available at: <https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_us/usronmacespeech.htm>
    [6]
    The World Bank, 2016. Thailand: Overview. [online] Washington: The World Bank Group. Available at: <http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/thailand/overview>
    [7]
    HelpAge International, 2014. Aging population in Thailand. [online] Available at: <http://ageingasia.org/ageing-population-thailand1/>
    [8] The World Bank, 2016. Aging in Thailand – Addressing unmet health needs of the elderly. [online] 8 April. Available at: <http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2016/04/08/aging-in-thailand—addressing-unmet-health-needs-of-the-elderly-poor>
    [9] International Labour Organization, 2009. Inclusion of People with Disabilities in Thailand [pdf fact sheet] International Labour Organization.
    [10] Thongkuay, S., 2016. People with Disabilities – Thailand Country Profile [draft report 2016].
    [11]
    Impact Forecasting LLC, 2012. 2011 Thailand Floods Event Recap Report Impact Forecasting. Chicago: Aon Corporation, p.3.
    [12] 100 Resilient Cities, 2016. What is Urban Resilience? [online] Available at: <http://100resilientcities.org/resilience>
    [13] Mace, R. 1998, ‘A Perspective on Universal Design’, speech, New York, 19 June. Available at: <https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_us/usronmacespeech.htm>


     Cindy Huang is an alumna of MSc UDP and a participant of the DPU/ACHR/CAN Young Professionals Programme, currently working on community-driven development projects with Openspace and the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights network in Thailand.

    CAN Co-Creation: Reflection

    By Luisa Miranda Morel, on 5 September 2016

    In July 2016, the 4th Community Architects Network (CAN) Regional Workshop brought together community action practitioners from countries all over South East Asia. The first day was spent in Bangkok, Thailand, introducing the participants to the work done and challenges faced by CAN members in Thailand, China and India. The following five days were spent in groups – each focusing on a different sector of city development, for example the transport group, which I was part of – doing fieldwork alongside local communities in Chumsang City of Nakornsawan Province, Thailand.

     

    Today is just about listening

     

    “Today is just about listening,” we were told. That was how we started our fieldwork on the 16th of July. Focusing our attention on understanding the local communities of Chumsang, listening to their ideas, concerns and how they wished their city to be in the future. This was a challenge, particularly as most of us had spent the first two days of the workshop meeting and exchanging with many different people from Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia. So by the time we arrived in Chumsang, my mind was already full of questions and ideas. I was excited and a little rushed to quickly understand the context of Chumsang, considering we had very few days to do so and then to, somehow, ‘co-create’ something.

     

    Co-Creation was the theme of the workshop. It was described in the introductory programme as the “co-creation and design between man and nature through a process of understanding and respect”. Understood in this way, co-creation was very representative of the dynamics and needs of Chumsang. Like other similarly sized cities in Thailand, Chumsang faces many concerns related to its natural resources and landscapes, the loss of its cultural traditions, the changing dynamics of migration in its young and old populations and as a result the increasing day to day challenges in making the city livable, sustainable and lively.

    Mapping people’s routes to the community hall

    Mapping people’s routes to the community hall

    Following this theme, the workshop in general had a loose structure that allowed space for conversations to evolve, take different directions and reveal those elements that were not immediately obvious about the city and its people. At first this way of working felt uncertain, unfamiliar and risky but as we were immersed in to the fieldwork, the friendly people and the excitement of it all, it became easier to go with the flow and allow our ideas and projects to develop in a very organic way.

     

    Our behinds were burning but our faces were bright

     

    As the transport and cycling group, we happily spent a lot of time on our bicycles, visiting the city and using any excuse to get on the saddle. By the end of the first day, it was harder to walk straight and our faces were quite pink from the sun, but it was through these rides around the city that we found inspiration to work. We even wrote a song!

    One of the cycling groups meet at 6 a.m. every morning to ride around the city

    One of the cycling groups meet at 6 a.m. every morning to ride around the city

    Within the transport group, I felt very connected to my colleagues, not only by being part of CAN, which encouraged us to work together but also through our other interests, in my case cycling. In other cases, photography, culture, music, heritage and ecology brought people together to share ideas on making the city. These elements, represented through our different interests and hobbies, are also an important part of what makes cities vibrant and CAN Co-Create seemed to build on this synergy very well. It took a wholesome perspective toward community architecture and in this case, for the first time, at the scale of the city. I think this was one of its greatest strengths.

    Gathering the cycling groups at the community hall

    Gathering the cycling groups at the community hall

    In this way, the opportunity that CAN workshops bring about by generating attention, bringing in professionals and practitioners from many contexts to work with local communities and catalyze change not only focused on one arm of city development but many. We established groups that addressed housing, mobility, politics, environment, culture, health and one that emphasized the connectivity and cohesion between these different elements at the level of the city. The workshop also became an opportunity for the mayor to come face to face with the energy of the city’s people, their desires and motivations and to engage in direct conversation with them about their different ideas for the future of Chumsang.

     

    At the same time, this transversal approach also brought many communities to work together. We worked with two cycling groups, a group of elderly, the old market community, young school children, communities that were to be relocated and communities that had already been housed. Initially, it seemed that these different groups had their own motivations for participating in the workshop. However, at the end of each day, as we reviewed our progress and our findings, the work gradually demonstrated how intricately connected these different motivations and processes really were.

    Policies group presenting outcomes: Chumsang’s journey

    Policies group presenting outcomes: Chumsang’s journey

     

    Although some groups progressed quicker than others during the five days of fieldwork, reviewing, changing and even starting over a couple of times; the level of involvement from community groups in the presentation of the outcomes, on the last day, was moving. It showed that these processes of participation intrigued people and invited them to feel part of something greater.

     

    So although lengthy and sometimes frustrating, the time it took to build, validate and present ideas with communities, seemed to generate a collective sense of a ‘Community of Chumsang’. In a way, the notion of ‘co-creation’ really materialized through this challenging and timely process. Toward the end of the workshop, I increasingly noticed that people built on these connections and worked with them, moving around the room, between different groups, sharing information and presenting ideas in sync with each other.

    Combining activities, processes and project ideas on the same ‘master plan’ for Chumsang

    Combining activities, processes and project ideas on the same ‘master plan’ for Chumsang

    Sharing is where everything starts

     

    There were many things about the CAN workshop that motivated me but it is what happens after the workshops, which I find the most significant. How the transformative process that CAN workshops initiate, by bringing so many minds together in one place, can ripple out into a series of waves of transformation in other places; How those of us who attend the CAN workshop can carry our experiences and through them, diffuse the energy of CAN into existing and new networks. After the workshop I was left with this intrigue, excited to see what happens next.

     

    The workshop produced Facebook groups [CAN Co-Create Chumsaeng City & Unsung Stories of Chumsaeng); brought cycling movements together to carry out a collective ride throughout the city with the support of the police; created brochures to promote tourism, made a song and proposed many other small achievable projects that the local communities could carry on after the workshop. I see these outcomes as small actions and tools that are practical and achievable in the short term but which have the potential to keep co-creation running by “people’s process”, as we like to say, in the long-run. If people follow up and use them.

     

    Leader of ‘The Old Tigers’ cycles with other groups, as we invite people to join and advocate for cycle lane markings, cycle routes for tourists and greater safety for children and elderly who use bycicles

    Leader of ‘The Old Tigers’ cycles with other groups, as we invite people to join and advocate for cycle lane markings, cycle routes for tourists and greater safety for children and elderly who use bycicles

    A month later, I am visiting some of the CAN members in Vietnam. They have been great hosts, showing me around and teaching me about the beautiful city of Hanoi.

     

    “Sharing is where everything starts” says Houng, one of my hosts and also a CAN member. Being back in conversations about community practices reminds me of my intrigue, what happens after the workshop? How does the transformative process of CAN Co-Create continue?

     

    Still excited from the experience, I’ve noticed some signs that suggest the transformative process is still running. The actions that we took and the ‘web’ of tools that we began to create seem to have given the ‘network’ a potential to catalyze this process. Believing it all the more as I listen, discuss and exchange with people who, despite having returned to their busy lives, are still talking about visiting Chumsang again, strengthening the CAN network in Vietnam and even about extending the scope of the existing one.

     

     

    [Video]

    CAN Co-Create Workshop Teaser Video – Final Video will be published in October

     


    Luisa is an alumni of the MSc in Building and Urban Design in Development at the DPU. Currently she is working in Manila, Philippines as a beneficiary of the DPU/ACHR/CAN Young Professionals Programme.

    Life at the edge: reflecting on Calais, borders and camps

    By Ricardo Marten Caceres, on 26 April 2016

    Two weeks ago, as part of a preliminary research supported by the Urban Transformation and Social Diversity clusters, a DPU group visited Calais and Dunkirk to better understand the dynamics around refugee camps in Europe, particularly ‘The Jungle’ camp close to the border checkpoint. We visited a few sites and met with activists and NGOs currently engaged in humanitarian or logistical responses; this brief piece is an initial reflection on our visit.

     

    In the past months, it has become frequent to find accounts of life in the Jungle from different perspectives: its spatial implications, the plight of individual life stories, the political dynamics around it, the impact it has on Calais’ citizens. The Jungle has become the most mediatised camp in northern Europe for many reasons, to the point where its semantic value has been stretched and fitted into multiple narratives. On the one hand, it serves anti-immigration supporters as the perfect example of a problem exploding beyond control, the arrival of lawlessness right at the gates of jurisdiction, with the implicit suggestion that European values (whatever those may be) stand before a cultural clash that may break them apart for good. On the other, it has raised awareness on the transformative wave of migration that currently crosses the continent; thousands upon thousands of people fleeing their countries searching for a better life and the illusion of opportunity, in need for help and support along the way. Of course, reality lies somewhere in between these views because migration, camps and border control are not homogenous blocks with absolute variables of exchange.

    Container camp in The Jungle

    Container camp in The Jungle

    At the heart of the current Jungle camp, there is a new government-sponsored container camp hosting nearly 700 refugees. Its sanitized white aesthetic stands in sharp contrast to the slum-like informality of the surrounding group of densely packed shelters. Those who live in the new camp have to comply with fingerprint scanners in order to enter one of the three checkpoints, all set up with security rooms, metallic gates and narrow, rotating barred doors that only function if the registered hand palm has been identified by the device. The container camp has no real social life, as it lacks social spaces and, fundamentally, has no area for cooking in the shelters. The administrator of the camp, La Vie Active, is an NGO that has little experience with either camp management or with supporting vulnerable refugee populations, having focused on elderly care initiatives. Yet this is the NGO contracted by the local government to make of this typology an example of a successful intervention, one that appeases the local citizen’s concern while implying the authorities remain in control of the situation.

    While South and Eastern Europe are filled with all sorts of camp typologies (from humanitarian shelter compounds to detention centres) dealing with millions of refugees, this tiny region in Northern France is struggling to find an adequate response with the few thousands that make it here. At Grand-Synthe, Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) has recently built and opened a camp in partnership with the local authorities. Driven by the local mayor’s desperation at the lack of governmental support, this camp currently hosts around 1500 refugees in rows of identical wooden shelters. MSF were given the right to buy the land, taking over the whole construction process and delivering the camp in three months. Regardless of this camp’s constraints and limitations, it shows light on the paradoxical state of humanitarian response: Grand-Synthe is a more inclusive, strategic solution than the Jungle’s new container camp and yet it is an anomaly because it came from political will and institutional support. Despite its constraints, this camp’s original vision is anchored on basic solidarity principles, and its construction signalled to its dwellers an acknowledgement, however limited, that their agency was recognised.

    Emergency tents at the Jungle & MSF Camp Grande-Synthe

    Emergency tents at the Jungle & MSF Camp Grande-Synthe

    Visiting these camps in order to build grand overarching conclusions is an exercise in futility, not because it is impossible, but because it is a disservice to the complexity in place. The jaded, introspective learning process of young volunteers who, in a matter of months, have dealt with troublesome issues around human right violations and basic needs, reflect a problematic that transcends specific camp design or typological debates. This is a humanitarian crisis at the core, about people in movement following chaotic patterns and transforming the spatial axes out of elemental urgencies. The urban, spatial responses appear to be always one step behind, reactionary instead of thoughtful, punitive instead of engaging. Planning has been eroded from political dialogue and established camps have fallen, at least in character, into monocultural instruments of control, becoming the designated spaces of illusory social corrections.

     

    The local bookstore in The Jungle has maps where refugees have pinned and drawn their personal trajectories from their place of departure all the way to Calais. Next to the pins are post-it notes describing the time spent at different countries; months of displacement that brought them closer to the UK. In that context, where distances travelled and experiences acquire an additional power by being diagrammed, the Jungle feels like a brevity, an impasse that will be sorted one way or another. At least that seems to be part of the collective ideal. Proximity can play with illusions easily, because despite the layers of security and the implacable transparency of the border’s militarization, the destination is almost at reach. To the north of the camp are a set of barely usable emergency tents, marking the edge of the Jungle proper. A stretch of thick marshland follows, a few meters later the beach, then the sea, and beyond them the infinite imaginaries constructed for weeks and months; a conclusion of innumerable journeys drifting away.

     

    This process is now part of the European reality, reminding us that migration, cultural assimilation, and the legacies of war are permanently shaping our perceptions about society and space. And in that spirit, we are eager to continue this research, in an effort to further understand the intricacies surrounding this unparalleled period of continental transformation.


    Ricardo Marten Caceres is an architect and urban designer, graduated from the Technological Institute of Costa Rica (ITCR) and with an MSc degree from BUDD. He has worked as an architect in between studies, leading a studio practice in Costa Rica focused on residential projects, as well as being partner in a design practice based in Germany working with several NGOs in Haiti, the Philippines and Tanzania. His academic interests lie in the urban dynamics between informal settlements and territorial variables. Ricardo’s current PhD candidacy looks to examine these elements, particularly focusing on the urban legacy of official spaces of exception and the resulting informal counter-narratives.