Displacement by Design

The role of architecture in climate-induced migration

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By 2050, hundreds of millions of people will be displaced from their homes either temporarily or permanently due to climate related hazards and climate induced conflicts. What is the role of architecture in climate-related forced migration?

Forced migration in search of resources is inherent to life on Earth. Animals and humans alike migrate to adapt to the changing climatic patterns. However, extreme climatic changes in addition to resource mismanagement and depletion has, in the past, triggered unnatural mass exodus and the destruction of major human civilisations. Ancient cities like Babylon and civilisations like the Incas are believed to have disappeared due to a sustained drought combined with a depletion of surrounding resources and conflict.

According to some scholars, we have now entered the Anthropocene, a new geologic age where human activity is the dominant influence on the Earth’s environment; sadly a largely negative one. In addition, we now know that meteorological alteration aside, human induced climate change has social and political consequences worldwide. In fact, the scale of climate related displacement and conflict are now unparalleled.

Climate-related forced migration only makes the news when it happens suddenly and in great quantities as a result of an extreme climatic event or a conflict.
Interactive map and diagrams showing the evolution of registered forced migration worldwide from 1952 until 2016. Image credit: Nerea Amorós Elorduy. Source: mappingrefugeespaces.com

The number of displaced human populations saw an unprecedented surge in 2017. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees registered 68.5 million refugees, internally displaced, and asylum-seekers, roughly the population of France. That number did not include so-called economic migrants and unregistered refugees. Climate-related forced migration only makes the news when it happens suddenly and in great quantities as a result of an extreme climatic event or a conflict. However, large numbers of people ‘quietly’ and constantly move away from their rural homes into urban hubs as climatic changes prevent them from making profit from their lands.

Making matters worse

Architecture and urban planning are one of the many factors that contribute to climate change. They are an indirect cause of droughts, floods, cyclones, rising sea levels and soil salinization. Architects and planners directly or indirectly produce huge quantities of CO2, deplete natural resources, and pollute waters. One example is the production of cement, which on its own accounts for around 5% of global carbon dioxide emissions.

When it comes to human settlements, architecture and urban planning can transform extreme weather events into human disasters and migrations into emergencies. Only 42 per cent of registered refugees globally settle in UNHCR-planned camps since these deprive refugees from basic freedoms and access to resources. Instead, many migrants choose to settle in urban environments which are usually unprepared and unwilling to take on the added populations. As a result, they end up settling in the most vulnerable and least planned areas of big urban-hubs that also lack proper infrastructure, housing, and other civic facilities. This, in turn, leads to increased pressure on the few available facilities, causing social and political friction. As pollution in these areas increases, waste and water management becomes difficult, access to jobs and basic needs becomes scarce, and the demand for housing rises. Are we creating a myriad of Babylon replicas?

According to research, roughly two billion people could become refugees because of climate-related forced migration
According to research, roughly two billion people could become refugees by 2100 as rising sea-levels threaten coastal communities and cities. Photo via Environmental Justice Foundation.

According to research, roughly two billion people could become refugees by 2100 as rising sea-levels threaten coastal communities and cities. Photo via Environmental Justice Foundation.

Solutions beyond buildings

There is a silver lining. We now have unique tools and knowledge such as satellite imagery, big data and access to technologies that enable us to predict and analyse the consequences of our actions on the planet. Some cities are taking steps to become more sustainable and create a better environment for refugees. As I wrote this article, I thought of last month’s global children demonstration demanding action against environmental degradation. Can built environment professionals use these tools, knowledge and calls to action to help prevent a further degradation of the environment to reduce and better assist forced massive migrations?

“Sustainability is not enough. We must reverse the damage already done.”

As designers and planners we need to think of our work as a holistic process that is multiscalar and multidisciplinary. Paraphrasing French philosopher Bruno Latour, architecture can be conceived as an actor-network; a part of a larger network and a network of components in itself. Or as Catalan urbanist Manuel de Solà-Morales’ envisioned, a practice of urban acupuncture, which considers architecture as an intervention onto an ailing larger organism. In either case, architecture is a piece that contributes balance within a larger socio-political, natural and environmental ecosystem and as an ecosystem that needs balance in itself. Architecture and urban planning can be conceived as rounded processes that take into account knowledge, awareness and empathy, ideally causing no harm to the environment.

A participatory design session of neighbourhood improvements with people affected by climate-related forced migration.
A participatory design session of neighbourhood improvements at Kiziba refugee camp, Rwanda, in September 2017, using a 3D printed model developed with satellite imagery and the software Maya. Photo © Joan Amorós Elorduy

A participatory design session of neighbourhood improvements at Kiziba refugee camp, Rwanda, in September 2017, using a 3D printed model developed with satellite imagery and the software Maya. Photo © Joan Amorós Elorduy

But causing no harm is not enough. Sustainability is not enough. We must reverse the damage already done. We can rethink human settlements to host newcomers with initiatives like Solidarity Cities, and do so as means to regenerate the surrounding ecosystems. We can use participatory processes, as does the Barcelona-based architecture cooperative Lacol, in the development of housing, infrastructure, and other public facilities, ensuring their social sustainability while educating the populations involved. We can assess construction materials according to their life cycle – Are they renewable and recyclable? Does their production pollute or clean the environment? What are the environmental benefits during their lifespan? Architecture and urban planning cannot stop at being sustainable, they must contribute in restoring the Earth’s environment and in doing so improve the lives of millions of potential climate related refugees.

Main image: A family crosses the flooded streets of Pakistan. Photo © Asian Development Bank/Flickr

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