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    Between reception and exception. Engaging with refugees dwelling practices and the politics of care in the Italian urban context

    By Camillo Boano, on 10 March 2017

    By Camillo Boano and Giovanna Astolfo

    Statistics confirm that more than 60% of refugees worldwide live in urban areas and in the future, this figure is likely to gradually increase. Such a global phenomenon is forcing us to think not only about how integration and systems of care and assistance have to be shaped, but also about the very nature of the city and their forms.

     

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    Cities are places where both migrants and non-migrants interact, be it through working, studying, living, raising their families or simply walking in the street. While cities offer great opportunities for migrants and refugees, at the same time they are also faced with challenges in creating opportunities for care, integration and inclusion. More than ever refugees and migrants become a concern of urban design. In the Italian urban context, the presence of migrants at different stages of their migration experience has triggered a complex system of reception and housing options. It is within this context of inherent contradictions and opportunities brought along by the practice of reception, assistance and integration itself that the BUDD Camp 2017 (integral part of the MSc Building & Urban design in Development Practice Module) embarked on exploring migrant’s dwelling practices.

     

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    Thanks to a long-term partnership with Associazione per l’Ambasciata della Democrazia Locale a Zavidovici Onlus (ADL), BUDD students visited Brescia (Italy) last February, to explore a variety of housing/hosting/reception typologies including centers, dormitories, and shared houses that house/host refugees, asylum seekers, and no fixed abode migrants.

     

    In line with the practice of our partner, BUDD students would experience the different tensions that arise from local inclusive and integrated practices that are inherent in the multi-level governance of the so-called refugee crisis: between reception and exception; dwelling and transition; visibility and invisibility; proximity and distance; present and future; inside and outside; faith and despair.

     

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    Refugees’ lives are exceptional, suspended in a sine tempore condition, trapped in a country where they might not want to be, or they might not be welcomed, and forced to perform a role. Refugees are individuals who are in need for protection and shelter but because of this need are denied the possibility to live a full life, and forced into a condition of temporariness which compromises the very meaning of home in itself.

     

    The meaning of home becomes political. Boundaries of homes have been experienced in the multiple forms of socialisation, appropriation, and narratives inside and outside the physical spaces of hospitality. However, that of reception is indeed a mechanism that often becomes a dispositive of control as it ensures protection only at the expense of individual freedom. Houses and homes where refugees are hosted have strict rules and limited freedom that govern the space and its routine and nevertheless refugees are asked to keep them with the same care they would have if those where their houses.

     

    Social workers and volunteers engage with passionate political sensitivity with the refugees and struggle to deal with such limitations to reconcile the legal meaning of protection with the universal right to freedom and the political imperative to host and help. But nevertheless reception and care remains an opportunity. Especially in the meaning given by ADL, where reception is not about giving a roof, but building recognition and reciprocity, through social networks, job opportunities, interactions in the urban space.

     

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    ADL currently coordinate the SPRAR project (Sistema di Protezione Richiedenti Asilo e Rifugiati) that focuses on improving the integration of forced migrants in the city of Brescia and its surrounded municipalities. The SPRAR project aims to oppose the humanitarian approach where the refugee is seen as a ‘beneficiary’ and the person that needs help, an action which often leads to segregation from the wider urban community. ADL is currently questioning how to transform the top down governance system into something that addresses the needs of individuals, that is tailored on individuals. The project rather aims to stimulate self-awareness, autonomy and inclusion of refugees through individualised and targeted programmes.

     

    ADL further recognise that integration and hospitality need to be systemic and relational; need to support each other and need to be well coordinated. Their work endeavors to emancipate the current policy that addresses refugees as alien to the society into a welfare that embrace refugees and residents as equals. Of course, there is no immediate solution but rather an incremental effort to push the boundaries of existing frameworks and transforming the systems of expulsion into an inclusive one.

     

    Within levels of complexity, in a commendable effort to grasp most of what is possible in a short engagement timeframe, BUDD students have investigated individual experiences, spatial phenomena and potential alternative interventions. Strategies and interventions developed in Brescia seek to reinforce socio-spatial relations and the creation of new ones, to foster recognition and advancement on citizenship.

     

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    Through life story interviews, ethnographic observation, key informant interviews and participatory maps, the short workshop aimed to reflect on the efficacy and limits of housing and immigration policies and further expands from hospitality to integration issues, looking beyond dwelling towards inhabiting the urban space, intended as lieu of encounter and conflict.

     

    Witnessing, learning and discussing LDA practices, ethics and operations have given a fantastic opportunity to learn about the complexity, the tensions and the opportunity of the urban design of refugee crisis, however in a small, short and incomplete manner. ADL works at the edge of the politics of care, between the ethical and the licit dealing with vulnerability, normative frameworks, and political struggles.

     

    Their work made is made more challenging by the Italian context of austerity and cuts to welfare and social services, increasing unemployment and homelessness and proportional surge of nationalism and xenophobic sentiments. The unwillingness to receive strangers, migrants, ‘the other’ in general is on the surge, and unfortunately not only in Italy.

     

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    Reception has always been and remains a hot debate in the peninsula, and it reflects a wider trend in the EU context as well. The refugee identity and experience is questioning our own identity and our assumptions about space, places and design agency and it open an active interrogation of practices of recognition, emancipation and activations in any act of city making.


    Camillo Boano is a senior lecturer at the DPU, and is co-director of the MSc Building & Urban design in Development programme.

    Giovanna Astolfo is a teaching fellow at the DPU, and works closely and contributes to the teaching of the MSc Building & Urban design in Development 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.

    BUDDcamp2015: Urban Space 4 – Via Saffi

    By Giulia Carabelli, on 27 February 2015

    URBAN SPACE 4: LDA Via Saffi

    This space, the historic building of the Municipality of Brescia, is the City of Brescia’s refugee front desk, and now home to one of the welcome and shelter projects managed by the Local Democracy Agency (LDA) Zavidovici.

    It is located near Brescia train station, under an overpass, but apart from this physical centrality it is quite marginal and difficult to access. Being traditionally seen as the first “port of entry” in the city for refugees and migrants, it has been under fierce attack by anti-immigration individuals and small groups – who in protest have thrown eggs and food against the premises, for example.

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    Social Visibility

    The structure is large but only partially used. It is poorly connected with the surroundings, although it remains very visible in terms of its “social role” (perhaps a territorial stigma?) due to the fact that migrants and refugees often gather outside.

    Students were asked to propose strategies that could improve the visibility and usability of the space and, due to its social significance, how to better connect it with the vicinity and stimulate integration within a diverse community.

    The Identity of the ‘Unknown’

    Christian: “despite the barriers of the language and the possible misgivings of our first meeting, we had the opportunity to talk to some of the refugees attending the programmes in this building. Their stories made us wonder about the deep motivations that exist in encouraging people leave their homes towards the unknown.”

    “Despite the differences in detail of their histories, they all talked about arriving in the city as people invisible, vulnerable and unknown. Paradoxically, and even without wishing it, these invisible individualities that silently scattered throughout the city have started to be recognizable as a specific group composed of ‘unknowns’ and, therefore, as an ideal group to mystify.”

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    Art for Urban Transformation

    Vishakha explains: “we proposed to place a white flag outside the building as a symbol of neutrality and peace. It was a simple, light yet powerful step towards making the space more visible and at the same time redefining the nature of that space. We propose using art as a tool to transform progressively the neglected unsafe spaces around the site in an attempt to make it both more visible and more inviting.”

    “These changing perceptions in the design methodology, and our thoughts, became a part of not just foreseeing change but also as a means of grounding the proposal in reality.”

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    Repositioning the Area

    The group’s strategy addressed the visibility and perception of the area by means of artistic interventions; the first, most simple, and extremely poetic intervention is to mount a large, white flag outside of the office to provide a clear visual signal of where the office is. The white flag will stand for the Embassy of All People, echoing the name and vision of LDA.

    The second intervention sees the participation of local artists and art students in painting the wall of the uninviting space around the office. This could transform it into a more welcoming place that can attract people to the area, offering them the opportunity to learn about the activities promoted by LDA for refugees and migrants.


    Giulia Carabelli is the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc BUDD programme. She joined the current MSc students on the BUDDcamp in February. You can read here provious posts from the BUDDcamp on this blog: Urban Spcae 1 – Flero; Urban Space 2 – Caffaro; Urban Space 3 – UISP Headquarters.

    The BUDDCamp is a 3-day design workshop, part of the MSc Building and Urban Design for Development’s Urban Intervention Studio where students bring together theory and practice by working on the proposal of innovative design strategies for specific urban issues. For the fifth time, the BUDDCamp took place in Brescia (Italy) in collaboration with the Local Democracy Agency (LDA) Zavidovici, an organization working with refugees and asylum seekers in the city.

    BUDDcamp 2015: Urban Space 3 – UISP Headquarters

    By Giulia Carabelli, on 26 February 2015

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    URBAN SPACE 3: UISP (Unione Italiana Sport per Tutti) Headquarters

    UISP (Unione Italiana Sport per Tutti) is an association that promotes the right for all citizens to practice sport as a means to a healthier and better life.

    The headquarters of the association is not far from the city centre, yet it struggles to become visible in the existing urban dynamics. The MSc BUDD students who were working in this area were asked to formulate a strategy that could make this place more open and attractive to the population at large.

    They were also asked to think about how refugees could become more active in the centre thus exploring the possibility for this place to promote integration among all the citizens of Brescia.

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    David: “The prospect was very exciting as sport and games are a natural catalyst for interaction for all; many of the activities UISP are running have proven this (through successful work in women’s prisons and with drug addicts). Our task was to tap in to this ‘common ground’ that sports and games frequently served as, which after discussion and research we concluded could be food.”

    The group continues: “We proposed a sagra; (a food festival) a community event in which refugees and local citizens could both participate and express themselves through the medium of food. The refugees could share recipes from their original countries creating a special menu with the assistance of UISP and our partners, the Local Democracy Agency (LDA) Zavidovici, for the event. This event could be organised monthly to attract a different range of citizens and refugees who will have the opportunity to discover the great and diverse programmes offered by UISP.”

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    This catalytic event, the sagra, can connect people, trigger curiosity and participation while sharing different identities and cultures by means of ‘sensory routes’ (smells and sounds). The proposal is particularly attentive to design a strategy that could involve the refugees in the planning and delivery of the activities.


    Giulia Carabelli is the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc BUDD programme. She joined the current MSc students on the BUDDcamp in February. The final post reflecting on the BUDDcamp 2015 is now also online.

    The BUDDCamp is a 3-day design workshop, part of the MSc Building and Urban Design for Development’s Urban Intervention Studio where students bring together theory and practice by working on the proposal of innovative design strategies for specific urban issues. For the fifth time, the BUDDCamp took place in Brescia (Italy) in collaboration with the Local Democracy Agency (LDA) Zavidovici, an organization working with refugees and asylum seekers in the city.

    BUDDcamp 2015: Urban Space 2 – Caffaro

    By Giulia Carabelli, on 25 February 2015

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    URBAN SPACE 2: Via Villa Glori and ex Caffaro Adjacent Area

    Caffaro in Brescia is synonymous with pollution. The Caffaro plant has been active since the beginning of the 20th century, producing chemical elements including PCB, which has contaminated vast tracts of land causing serious health problems such as a dramatic increase in cancer rates among the residents.

    At the end of 2015, the plant will be definitively closed and with its closure the current occupants will stop performing certain procedures that prevent the pollution to reach the groundwater. Certainly, the closure of the plant and the future of the contaminated area will become yet again a highly debated topic in the local media. The group was asked to explore the possibility of redeveloping the site from a social point of view.

    The students felt the need to explore how visible the issue of Caffaro is by investigating how much is known about the plant in its neighbourhood, where almost only migrants have settled.

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    Spatial Fragmentation

    The group writes: “We engaged with the spatial experience of the site, noticing closed green parks, high-walled factory boundaries, unclear pollution warning signs as well as several community activity centres. We got a strong impression of fragmentation and a lack of a singular or coherent identity, spatially or socially. The large presence of migrants from multiple backgrounds, led us to wonder about their perception of Caffaro.

    We believe engagement with local communities is essential to create common ground between actors involved. The key point of the interventions is to co-create knowledge of the factory to increase the sense of community by engaging local people in the development agenda.

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    Mapping Cultures and Languages

    Sri addswe mapped the languages spoken by those who live or work around the factory and we proposed to engage the migrants in co-producting knowledge about Caffaro.”

    Rui: “we proposed a map that shows where native speakers willing to share information about the pollution are located.”

    Group: “The map is made for visitors, existing residents and also new migrants. In cooperation with LDA, newly arrived refugees can find ambassadors of their language/culture to visit and hear stories about Caffaro. Not only does this allow them to be informed about the pollution from the beginning of their stay, but it also has the benefit of increasing their social network as it connects them with long-term residents that share their language.”

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    Having recognised that the existing multiple narratives – amongst which alarmism and denial, indifference and resilience – should be equally represented, a second proposal envisions the creation of ‘community wall paintings’; an activity in which existing residents are asked to decorate the brick walls that enclose Caffaro’s premises.

    “Not only will this make the factory (and its story) visible to everyone who visits the area, but it will also bring different local groups and people together in collective activities”.


    Giulia Carabelli is the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc BUDD programme. She joined the current MSc students on the BUDDcamp in February. Look out for reflections from the other 2 case studies on the blog tomorrow and Friday.

    The BUDDCamp is a 3-day design workshop, part of the MSc Building and Urban Design for Development’s Urban Intervention Studio where students bring together theory and practice by working on the proposal of innovative design strategies for specific urban issues. For the fifth time, the BUDDCamp took place in Brescia (Italy) in collaboration with the Local Democracy Agency (LDA) Zavidovici, an organization working with refugees and asylum seekers in the city.

    BUDDCamp 2015: Urban Space 1 – Flero

    By Giulia Carabelli, on 24 February 2015

    MSc Building and Urban Design for Development students have just returned from the annual BUDDCamp. Over the next four days we will be presenting a series of blogs that discuss what the students have been doing while away, alongside individual and collective reflections about their experiences and observations.

    The BUDDCamp is a 3-day design workshop, part of the Urban Intervention Studio where students bring together theory and practice by working on the proposal of innovative design strategies for specific urban issues. For the fifth time, the BUDDCamp took place in Brescia (Italy) in collaboration with the Local Democracy Agency (LDA) Zavidovici, an organization working with refugees and asylum seekers in the city.

    LDA proposed four different urban spaces to explore. Students worked in groups and had to develop small, low cost, ‘doable’ design strategies, paying special attention to the narrative, the understanding, the needs, and the aspirations of the refugees working with LDA and of the citizens living in the area where they intervened.

    Flero 1

    BRESCIA

    Brescia is an extremely interesting urban laboratory. It is a small town with a population of less than 200,000 inhabitants where the effects of sudden economic transformations due to global and national crises have been accompanied by shifts in the makeup of the population.

    In fact, an increasing number of immigrants have settled in the city, often creating various clashes and tensions. BUDD students were presented with a representative selection of these challenges in order to provide strategies and projects aimed to foster equality and social justice.

    Surveys, interviews, focus groups, mapping and transect walks are few of the participatory activities that were undertaken to collectively understand and engage with the spatial and social experience of the sites.

    The main outputs of this intensive action-research workshop were a range of design strategies aiming to maximise the potential of these places as catalysts of new social dynamics and development towards urban justice. Students had the opportunity to present their urban strategies to our hosts and to local practitioners and civil society groups thus creating a vibrant platform for sharing their visions and ideas.

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    URBAN SPACE 1: Abandoned Carabinieri Station in Flero Municipality

    The group working on this case was confronted with the specificity of the periferia diffusa (sprawled periphery) and asked to work in the small municipality of Flero, just outside Brescia. Participants had to provide a vision for the decaying and unused “Carabinieri” station; an impressive concrete skeleton of a military station that remains unfinished and derelict.

    There were two main challenges: the large scale of the abandoned structure and the fact that the building is partially immersed in a swamp, which has a negative effect on the wellbeing of the inhabitants (such as the invasion of rats and mosquitos).

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    Is it possible to look at these problems as opportunities?

    Ana: “The shared impression among our group was that the municipality workers were very open and flexible for an input to create a vision for the structure that could provide for the well-being of the residents. However, the municipality didn’t seem to be very engaged in a dialogue with the residents themselves in discussing that vision.”

    “So” – adds Jiaqi – “we started this program by initiating a dialogue with the local community to actively engage people in the process and to produce a portfolio of ideas”.

    “As a result” – add Miro – “we came up with the concept of mixed-use. We developed the idea of creating a strategy that was demand-driven rather than supply-driven, which means that we encourage all kinds of private sectors, small businesses, and flexible activities to happen here in small units of the building”.

    Principles for Regeneration

    The group developed a set of principles for the regeneration of the area, the use of the building and its social activation. These include: a programmatic diversification of functions and investments; an incremental occupation/appropriation of the available space and the self-sustainment of the reclamation/remediation.

    Although simple, the combination of these three principles constitutes a viable and realistic proposal to mediate between the scale of the building and the lack of resources.


    Giulia Carabelli is the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc BUDD programme. She joined the current MSc students on the BUDDcamp in February. Look out for reflections from the other 3 case studies on the blog later this week.