Open up to the dreams of individual refugees

Design for refugees is a noble enterprise, but it will only work when policy makers see refugees as regular individuals in the first place, each with their own skill set, hopes, and dreams.
The migrant and refugee crisis has intensified in all layers of society, in Europe and far beyond. The situation along migration routes, the frosty treatment of refugees, the despair and frustration in the refugee camps, the growing resistance of local populations, are all cause for concern.

The world of design and architecture shares in this concern. At the current Architecture Biennale in Venice no less than four national pavilions are addressing the refugee problem. One of the first things the newly appointed official Dutch State Architect, Floris van Alkemade, did, was launching the open call “A Home away from Home”, asking for solutions for the housing of asylum seekers. The conference What Design Can Do has a much broader approach and asks in its open call: “What could Design do for refugees?”

In response to the latter initiative, five Dutch designers gave a resume of their thoughts on this topic and their decision not to submit a proposal. In their open letter, titled “Refugee Challenge Wrong”, they explain their concerns. They want to go beyond the boundaries of the Refugee Challenge, because they feel that this call is asking for the improvement of something that is unwanted in the first place: “Nobody wants to be a refugee, or to be addressed as one, let alone to be part of an interesting target group for designers. What you want is fleeing violence and lack of safety, is to find a quiet place – as quickly as possible – where you can pick yourself up again, start a social life, make a living.”


AZC Ter Apel
Ter Apel refugee center, 2015

Decisions on a political level are needed first, before design can do anything. In this respect, the German pavilion at the Venice biennale makes a strong statement. In close collaboration with Doug Saunders, Canadian journalist and writer of Arrival City, the Germans present eight arguments that show how the more than five hundred thousand refugees who entered their country could begin to feel they have found a new Heimat. The arguments make sense. They address matters such as education (the worst neighborhoods demand the very best schools), language (everyone should speak German) and work (jobs emerge where there are already jobs). But they also tackle legal issues, pleading for tolerating semi-legal practices and relaxing housing construction regulations. For instance, if you want to open a restaurant without having the necessary permits, just call the enterprise a cafeteria or if you want a hair salon, just start an official “hairdressing wholesale trade” and put customers in the chairs. In line with these arguments and proposals, policies should favor much more DIY solutions by diminishing regulations for housing construction. For instance, reducing the extent of expensive detailing, so that future occupants – even if they are unskilled – would be able to participate in the building process. Less strict rules and regulations would certainly speed up the integration process. But, again, this needs a good amount of political will.

Another thing that may speed up the process of feeling at home, is to stop framing these people as refugees, as being part of a homogenous group. They are coming from different places in the world and even if they originate from the same region, their habits and lifestyles could differ significantly. We experienced this first hand, when we recently organized two dinners at Hôtel Droog with newcomers from an Amsterdam refugee center: 60 people in total, mainly from Iraq and Syria. Among our guests were introvert women wearing a headscarf, as well as scarcely dressed girls, gay men and hip youngsters, but also traditional family people, conservatives and liberals, men with whom we had a good conversation and men who were sexually harassing (yes, it happened) Dutch women. Among our guests was a cook, a hairdresser, an IT specialist, a doctor, and there were teachers, students and many others. It was a very mixed group of people. We should listen to what they have to say. What do they expect from the future? How do they want to make their living? Do they want to live with their fellow countrymen or do they want to mingle with the population here? These are some of the questions we will ask in a Social City poll, which we are developing specifically for these newcomers. It’s time to approach them as individuals with passions, dreams and desires.

Top image: still from “De leeuw en de dappere muis” (The Lion and the Brave Mouse), video. Els van Driel, 2014

We welcome new Social Citizens!

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Diversity as a design tool

Diversity fuels modern city life, but makes it complex too. Diversity is a continuous balancing act between integration and exclusion. Total integration could lead to a loss of identity, whereas extensive autonomous diversification could lead to tribal tensions.

In 2012 Droog first touched upon the complex subject of diversity in a project in Tarwewijk, a Rotterdam neighborhood mainly populated by immigrants from all over the world. The goal of this project was to stimulate more economic activity in this poor area. But our team discovered that beneath the surface, there was a much bigger issue: the residents simply could not stand each other’s lifestyles, each other’s habits. The Moroccans and Turks, who had already been living in the area for quite some time, felt threatened by the new immigrants, such as the Polish people because “they take our jobs” and the Romanians, who “don’t know how to behave in public”.

What should be the solution in such a neighborhood? Ushering complete segregation? Reaching a compromise? Forcing residents to change their habits? The most obvious choice is to completely ignore the conflict. But it would be much better to ensure that the conflict cannot start in the first place, in other words to reformulate the conflict. We should consider a possible conflict as an opportunity instead of a problem by recognizing that conflicts can stimulate radical new approaches. Conflicts and disagreements can be fuel for innovation.

Take for example the initiative of the major of São Paulo. He wants to develop 800 km of bicycle lanes in the city. The majority of the residents is in favor of the plan which means that the plan is being executed. But as soon as you take a serious look at the motivations of the opponents of the plan, new opportunities present themselves. For instance, a lot of people in residential areas fear that their living environment will become less safe because of the bicycle lanes through their neighborhood. They also fear for the safety of the cyclists. Instead of just following the majority view, we could also see things from a different perspective. We could reformulate the concept of bicycle lanes in the context of urban mobility in general.


New bike lane in downtown Sao Paulo . Photo: Valerie Myers

The aim of Design+Desires is to design a city based on the diversity of dreams and desires of city dwellers. Our main quest is to design a city, which takes conflicting desires as catalyst in stead of simply following the rule of the majority. Could we design a city in such a way that neither income nor social status decides where people live, but common desires will be pivotal? For example, an immigrant who, despite his high qualifications in his native country, might now live in a poor neighborhood because of his low income job may have far more in common with a well-earning surgeon in an upmarket neighborhood in the same city, than with his fellow immigrants next door.

In our current network society citizens are connected to each other and to other people on a multitude of levels, online as well as offline. The consequence is an ever changing multi-layered diversity. To keep pace with this, the Design+Desires program initiated Social City, a virtual city to be created around the diversity of dreams and desires of city dwellers all over the world. By taking the poll on our platform everyone can become Social Citizen and can be part of a continuous dialogue with other people (experts and non-experts alike) on the design of a dream city. This dialogue will not only address bricks-and-mortar city life, but also the invisible city, the system of social structures. We want to involve our Social Citizens in everything we do, including the design of a model for a future city, which is the ultimate goal of our program. Designing Social City is participatory design. The feedback of Social Citizens is crucial to us. Social City is a city made by humans, not hindered by rules and regulations and historical ballast. We set aside our traditional way of thinking and think anew with the help of designers, architects and other experts – and the Social Citizens.

We are dreaming of a city where you can encounter all desired lifestyles, but also can retreat in your own cocoon, a city, which is fast and slow at the same time, which is wild and sophisticated. It will neither be a perfect city nor a finished city. In Social City we not only embrace diversity, but we also use it as a design tool. Social City is nowhere, but it could appear anywhere. It is just a matter of uncovering the city of dreams and desires, which is present everywhere but still hidden within our current cities.

Photo at top: Leon Rodrigues, Avenida Paulista, Sâo Paulo, Brasil.

We welcome new Social Citizens!

Click here to read more and take the Quiz.


It’s time to redesign the private elements in public space

How public are our public spaces? Private and governmental organizations increasingly tend to decide how this space looks like and operates. This was a reason to organize an event in Hôtel Droog around public space and its private parts. It clearly showed how the public and private live at odds.

First there was the Camden bench, introduced by Tom Coggins. This bench, named after the London authority that commissioned it, is designed in such a way to make sure that it is not used for anything else but a bench, just for sitting. A special coating makes the bench resistant to graffiti and vandalism. The featureless surface gives criminals nowhere a place to hide their secret caches. The angled sides repel skateboarders, litter and rain. The cambered top throws off rough sleepers.

The Camden bench is not an exception. Over time numerous examples of defensive street furniture, architecture and infrastructure have appeared, trying to direct the way humans behave and to shape their daily public routines. One would really suspect this is to become the new standard in the design of public infrastructure. It’s so called public design but the design itself does not give access to everyone, which isn’t essentially public. Of course there are underlying reasons. One of these is the voice of citizens: people want to see their neighbourhood nice, clean, quiet and safe. Here, access for all means access for our own kind of people.

Then there was Joris Duindam of JCDecaux, a company specialized in street furniture, being surprised that the public took away all the beach chairs which his company had placed all over the Museumplein in Amsterdam. He even seemed a bit annoyed: how was it possible that people did not appreciate the gesture of the company and leave the chairs for public use, just like the citizens of London and Paris respect the freestanding and movable chairs in the parks? One of the reasons could be that the chairs in London and Paris are conceived as public items, while the branded chairs in Amsterdam were seen as mere advertising, free to take away like the branded beer coasters in the pub.

It reminded me of the event Pioneers of Change which I curated on Governor’s Island, New York City in 2009. I invited artist Franck Bragigand to design the space for public debates. He collected 100 old chairs and asked students to paint them in all kinds of colours. When the festival was over, Franck rented a truck and placed the chairs all over New York City, in the poorest areas as well as the wealthy parts. Especially in the poor neighbourhoods people immediately started to use the chairs. His gesture had a double meaning. It was not only chairs that he gave away to the people. It was also his art! However, the police only considered it as an illegal act, which therefore was not appreciated at all.

Could we design public space in such a way that the public and private are not at odds? Could we design a public space that could constantly change between public and private? A space in which individual people can take things, swap, produce and create, and at the same time is negotiable for certain private uses and needs.

We need to design public space in such a way that conflicting desires can co-exist without ending up with defensive objects like the Camden bench. But first we need to gain insight in how people perceive and want to use public space and how this can result in a well-functioning infrastructure.

Public talk @Hôtel Droog

18 Feb.2016


Immigrants can revive shrinking cities and abandoned areas

Newcomers could revitalise declining places and economies, have a chance to make their own living and be part of a new and diverse society.

What do refugees tell us? Our team met a very diverse group of refugees stuck together in an empty government building in Amsterdam. Their situation is not very pleasant, to say the least. Yes, they have free food, clothes and living space. But those are not the things they really desire. They would rather pay for their basic needs and have access to everything Dutch citizens have access to, to have the possibility to get a job, earn a living, to set up a company: “The system forces us to stay as ‘sub-humans’ here”. The only thing they can do now is dream, dream about becoming a fashion designer, a musician, a cook or a politician.

The reality is that they have to live together in an unwanted environment - some have been living here already for years – not knowing whether they will get a residence permit or have to leave. Those who are lucky and can stay will have a hard time to find a job. This is not only because of the unemployment rate in Europe or because of a mismatch between the qualifications earned their home country and the ones required in their new homeland: a recent survey also showed that employers are very reluctant to employ applicants with an exotic family name. So it can happen that a former dentist has to earn his living as a cleaner or - when he is lucky - driving a taxi and a former journalist might end up as a dishwasher in a restaurant. And consequently their housing will be in the poorest parts of the city.

Kilian Kleinschmidt, one of the world’s leading authorities on humanitarian aid, says to Dezeen: “Everybody who is coming here right now is an economic migrant. They are not refugees. They were refugees in Jordan, but they are coming to Europe to study, to work, to have a perspective for their families. In the pure definition, it’s a migration issue” He believes that migrants coming into Europe could help repopulate parts of Spain and Italy that have been abandoned as people move increasingly towards major cities. “You could redevelop some of these empty cities into free trade zones where you would put up a new population and actually set up opportunities to develop a trade and work. You could see them as special development zones, which are actually used as a trigger for an otherwise impoverished neglected area”. He attempted to set up a workshop in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, providing access to digital fabrication tools but faced a lot of opposition. “The whole concept that you can connect a poor person with something that belongs to the 21st century is very alien to most aid agencies [..] We have to get away from the concept that because you have a status – migrant, refugee, martian, alien, whatever – you’re not allowed to be like everybody else.”

A lot of areas in Europe are abandoned or shrinking because of a lack of economic perspectives and because successful cities attract the young people. By creating Special Economic Zones, these areas could be revived: we have seen this happening in the city of Shenzhen, once a quiet fisherman’s village, now a vibrant city.

Of course there is the risk of rebellious locals who might fear an “invasion” of hundreds of immigrants. But many of these areas have seen their population grow older and older, schools, shops and sports clubs close down and social life deteriorates: the fear for strangers might be well compensated by an economic and social revival of the area. Then the path towards a co-existence based on shared needs opens up.

It would be an opportunity par excellence to create a new town that combines the desires of the remaining inhabitants and those (mainly young) immigrants, a city that is open for change, a city with an open infrastructure where people build their own life, where inhabitants could stay and leave, where regulations are tweaked to create economic opportunities for all. This could be a pilot for the city of the 21st century, maybe even a city-state, with new jobs, new economies and new technologies: a city based on diversity.

Top image: Zaatari refugee camp in the north of Jordan (credit: U.S. Department of State).


How can we make terror-proof public spaces without cameras and armed forces all over?

In De Groene Amsterdammer of 19 November 2015, I came across an interesting observation by Dutch columnist Ewald Engelen. He makes a connection between the horror attacks in Paris and a deeply grounded hate for the city, or better urban life: “Pleasure, play, love, luck, art – those are human bothers that distract from what really matters: total surrender to a higher purpose. In the case of IS this has a transcendental origin. And therefore the city with all its temptations, its smells, its sounds and shimmers has to be severely transformed into a quiet, boring, strongly religious farming village”. The city as the focus of bourgeois infection contra the country as focus of purification and resurrection: Engelen also finds it at Mao’s cultural revolution and Pol Pot’s actions in Cambodia. Le Corbusier is also on his list, advocating a model for a view on city and world that considers transparency, predictability and control as the highest values.

He points out that the Paris acts of terror show us - “as if reflected in a demonic distorting mirror” - the tremendous importance of the open, free city and the non-conformist lifestyles that it allows to flourish. “Yes, it is chaotic, messy, anomic, dirty, promiscuous. But the same conditions that are responsible for this – diversity, proximity, anonymity, freedom – are the very enablers of pleasure, play, luck and love; the things that film, literature, theatre, art and city dwellers speak about in a lyrical way.”

He refers to his colleague Simon Kuper who, in a column for The Financial Times, speaks about the vulnerability of urban life. “The whole point of Paris is to use the city. Everyone here lives in a cramped apartment. There are almost no back gardens where you can barbecue or play catch with the kids and shut yourself off from the world. You live in Paris to go out, to meet friends in cafés like the Bataclan, to have conversations with intelligent people from everywhere, to go to football matches or to the Louvre, near which there was a shooting tonight too. Paris is all about its public spaces — the cafés, the cultural venues and the squares. No city has better ones. And when those public spaces become dangerous — and the Parisian authorities have told people not to leave home unless “absolutely necessary” — the city crumbles”. But as Engelen rightly asks, do we want to live in a thoroughly militarised public space, which by definition promises us illusionary safety?

The Social City poll results show that social security is favoured over safety measures like CCTV, police and gated communities. One in five even say that they don’t need any control. Our poll also shows that most people prefer the square and the street as public space and do not want to stay at home to meet their friends. The question is: could we design public spaces that protect us against bombs and machine guns without armed forces and cameras all over? It is not a question. It is a task. Not only a task for urban planners, architects and designers but also for our technological forces.

Top image: Flickr/Jessie Romaneix Gosselin

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