As urban development expert Theodore Liebman and others sat down at a panel on migration at Habitat III, I couldn’t help but feel relieved. I was about to witness a discussion about the practical and policy-related solutions to migration crises.
The Making of the Migration Crisis
Not a Trump-fuelled debate, nor a Sun headline, but a discussion on how cities become more flexible, more accommodating, and more homely. Not for migrants specifically, but for everyone. The resounding theme in this discussion was, problems are not “migrant problems” they are city problems. As Theodore, the man with a mustache that probably inspired Movember put it, “Cities are unthinkable without migration; cities are by definition migration.”
The difficulty of tackling this innate part of human nature is that providing solutions to situations where you have large movements of people anywhere is going to be an entirely different process every time. Jill Helke from the International Organization for Migration presented a set of guidelines for anyone involved at a local level which recommend empowering migrants by giving them access to public services and labor markets, setting up mechanisms for cooperation amongst all relevant people (migrants, employers, local government, services), supporting host communities and communicating relevant information to their specific needs through channels they trust. These guidelines do not only apply to situations such as the refugee crisis, which is what typically comes to mind, but also situations where conflict or natural disaster may push people to the nearest cities unexpectedly.
The most extreme cases of displacement present issues such as the case of Bosaso in Somalia, where one-fourth of the city’s population was made up of displaced people. With little preparation, chaos ensued and the temporary settlements became places of constant fire breakouts with no security for residents, most of whom were fleeing a civil war. As soon as some basic measures were implemented such as firebreaks or streets between residences, the areas began to stabilize, with shops popping up on the streets. The next steps were integrating these residents, who were soon able to register, buy land and even start paying taxes. This integration shows what the speakers of this panel all put forward “these situations are and should be win-win situations for our cities and the entire world.”
In some cities, what encapsulates the issues that become most obvious when movements of people arrive is a desperate need for affordable, flexible housing. This again is not a "migrant issue" but an issue that all residents in these cities face.
As Floris Alkemande, chief architect of the Netherlands put it, “The refugee crisis is a housing crisis.” Across many cities, the market for affordable housing is very tight, and many spend years on waiting lists or fall into homelessness. The solution he proposes with a project called "A Home Away from Home" tackles exactly that. By getting designers and architects involved in the process, this project has come up with projects such as "evolutionary wooden houses," modular timber houses which can be fitted together to create buildings up to five stories high. Not only are these sustainable, they can be adapted to new locations, and sizes. With these new challenges to cities must come innovative solutions, which take these opportunities for what they are, an opening for positive change.
The next steps are obviously the hardest, the implementation of these policies and solutions. Overcoming the idea that migration is burdensome must happen, and considering the amount of statistics and research that shows the positivity of migration this seems inevitable. The tools available to governments on all levels, lead one to hope that changes in policies to empower residents, foster cooperation between host communities and arriving ones, and crack the ever-more-impossible housing market will eventually be taken on board.