Humanitarian Urbanism and the New Geographies of Refuge

Marianne Potvin

Today, war, climate change, and environmental disasters are uprooting populations on a scale that has exceeded the movement of people in the wake of World War II. While the rise in displacement is sharp and the causes for flight intricate, one of the most striking aspects of this phenomenon is the profound shift in the destinations and spaces of refuge. Distressed people now seek safe haven outside, rather than inside, conventional refugee camps. This contemporary reality underscores the urgency with which urban planning and design must engage with humanitarian institutions. It also forces us to rethink urban theory for 21st century conditions, by asking the following questions: Are the scales and temporalities of crisis response compatible with those of design and planning? Which practices, technologies, and types of expertise can best mediate between humanitarian intervention and the built environment? Ultimately, how can aid agencies cope with refugee influxes all the while maintaining a view towards the creation of just cities?

My project aims to offer a systematic account of the multifaceted interaction between refugee movements, humanitarian response, and the built environment in the 21st century, and to posit our current moment as a rupture in the history of what might best be described as the geographies of refuge. I draw from, and hope to bridge, three fields that are not yet in conversation: urbanism and urban theory; science, technology, and society studies (STS); and branches of international studies addressing migration, conflict, and humanitarian action. I also rely on what I call “humanitarian urbanism,” a concept that helps explain the impacts that emergency assistance programs have on long-term regional and urban planning, as well as the type of space(s) that aid interventions produce.

Planned outcome:  doctoral dissertation, Harvard GSD

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