Port-au-Prince, following the Haiti earthquake

Port-au-Prince, following the Haiti earthquake

Professor David Sanderson, Director of the Centre for Development and Emergency Practice (CENDEP) at Oxford Brookes and visiting professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, has spoken out about the latest urban disaster debate on Ikea housing for Syrian refugees. The debate rises in the wake of the international Design for Urban Disaster conference taking place at Harvard University in May this year, for which Sanderson is chair.

After a long delay, Lebanon government authorities gave the green light to temporary Ikea housing to the estimated two million Syrian refugees who fled to neighbouring countries since the conflict started in 2011. It has taken over six months for the Lebanese government to allow even a trial run of the flat-pack Ikea Refugee Housing Unit, which is designed in partnership with the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, to provide refugees a temporary home which has a roomy interior, solar lights and insulated wall panels. Until now, the Lebanese government has refused to set up any kind of refugee camp because when Palestinians fled Israel in 1948, Lebanon welcomed them for what was supposed to be a temporary stay.

More than 60 years later, the Palestinian population has reached half a million and the Lebanese authorities don’t want to risk a repeat of this.

Although the new Ikea housing can make refugees more comfortable, Professor David Sanderson believes that it is part of the problem. Speaking in a recent interview with TIME Magazine, he said:

“The idea that you can solve the refugee problem with a new house design offers false comfort. The risk now is that we will see photographs of 50 Ikea shelters set up for the Syrians, and we think, ‘O.K., they are all fine, we can think about something else.’ The houses are better than tents, of course, but the families are far from fine.”

“It’s a grim trade-off. Give refugees better conditions, and there will be less international pressure to get them back home. And that is exactly what the Lebanese government was worried about. Once the flat-pack houses are in place, that theory too will be put to the test.”

Sanderson has organised the Design for Urban Disaster conference, which is sponsored by Oxford Brookes University School of Architecture; Harvard University Graduate School of Design (Department of Urban Planning and Design); Harvard University South Asia Institute; Habitat for Humanity; International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies; and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, in recognition of this subject. Urban disasters are on the increase and this is causing more people to live in places vulnerable to hazards such as flood, earthquake and tsunami.

Sanderson believes that both Architects and Planners have a role to play in the wake of recent large-scale urban disasters such as the tsunamis that struck the Philippines and Japan, the Haiti earthquake, and floods in Pakistan and Hurricane Sandy; and in response has organised the conference to ask – ‘what can a design-based approach contribute to improving urban disaster preparedness and response?’.

The conference, taking place from 5-7 May 2014 at Harvard University, USA, invites humanitarian aid practitioners, those in government, academics and designers from spatial/physical disciplines to explore ways to improve urban humanitarian action before and after disaster.

More information on the conference and the registration process can be found on the Design for Urban Disaster conference website.

Visit the CENDEP website for more information on their pioneering work on urban disaster recovery.