Part 1: Community architecture and resilient human settlements in the making:

Updated: Oct 7, 2021

a theoretical investigation

Over the last few decades, there has been a global, dramatic rise in nature-induced disasters and humanitarian crises—with a profound impact on affected communities. This societal impact has taken various forms: human settlement destruction, internal and external displacement, a worsening housing crisis and livelihood interruption (EM-DAT International Disaster Database; Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre). Examining these phenomena, disaster scholars put the (post-disaster) resilience concept at the heart of their analysis by asking key questions. How can the housing needs of all the disaster-displaced populations be provided for? Who should offer housing assistance? What development paradigms and moral values should frame and steer rebuilding and humanitarian processes towards the formation of resilient human settlements? What exactly does resilience mean and how is it operationalised in post-crisis contexts?

The concept of resilience has been interpreted in different ways. Ecologists and engineers understand it as a quality or fixed asset of a system to absorb change and bounce back to its original functions in a timely manner (Holling, 1973). Social scientists interpret resilience as a dynamic and socially innovative process whereby communities build on their capacities to bounce forward and emerge stronger and better than before (Editorial of Local Environment, 2011). Political analysts shed light on power relations/asymmetries among heterogeneous social groups that imagine, interpret and act upon resilience in radically different ways (Davoudi et al., 2012; Kuhlicke, 2013). Given the fact that human systems are highly heterogeneous, post-disaster resilience-building emerges not as a linear process of bouncing back or forward in a one-directional way. Instead, it is a multidirectional trajectory steered by a multiplicity of actors with multiple bouncing forward possibilities (Paidakaki & Moulaert, 2017; 2018). Resilience is, thus, defined as a quality that is hetero-produced and hetero-acquired, meaning that the transformative potential of resilience, as an ambition, agency and a process, is radically heterogeneous (Paidakaki, 2017, p.205).

To unpack this heterogeneity, the main protagonists in the context of housing reconstruction systems are for-profit and non-profit housing providers. Together with other organisations such as financial institutions, universities, charities, foundations, state agencies, architects, they aim to socio-politically influence the recovery profile of post-disaster human settlements through their housing initiatives (Paidakaki & Moulaert, 2018). For-profit housing providers such as real estate development firms promote a pro-growth resilience narrative that supports private capital accumulation and shapes market-led politico-institutional responses to the reconstruction challenge (Paidakaki, 2017). For-profit housing providers tend to build large-scale, mixed-income and strategically located settlements. In contrast, non-profit housing providers such as neighborhood-based non-profit homebuilders, community development corporations and community land trusts develop a pro-equity recovery narrative and adopt a comprehensive approach to community recovery by combining affordable housing development with initiatives that advance the local quality of life. Non-profit housing providers build or rehabilitate housing for low-and moderate-income populations, many times located in isolated, poor and underinvested areas (Paidakaki et al., 2020).

In the context of humanitarian spaces such as refugee camps, there are many actors including multi-level public authorities and non-governmental organizations and grassroots groups who offer humanitarian aid largely based on two different interpretations of refugees’ needs (Hilhorst & Jansen, 2010). The first interpretation derives from a classical humanitarianism paradigm, which is the dominant paradigm that gives emphasis to the spatial aspects of refugee camps. This entails provision of shelter, food and health services to refugees (Sabates-Wheeler, 2019; Ilcan & Rygiel, 2015). The second interpretation is inspired by the resilience humanitarianism paradigm, which is more compatible with the social realities of camps and predominantly treats the refugees as active agents rather than passive beneficiaries (Hilhorst, 2018; Ilcan & Rygiel, 2015).

In both contexts – post-disaster reconstruction and humanitarian – resilient human settlements can then be defined as livable human settlements with decent living conditions and structural and social qualities for all residents. These settlements are also governed by a ‘resilience equity’ rationale; a facilitating political framework where all stakeholders, hegemonic or alternative, have an equivalent voice and equal space to experiment with their own perceptions of humanitarian aid (Paidakaki et al., 2021).

Within these complex governance arrangements, community architects emerge as one key actor in the formation of post-crisis human settlements and they steer resilience-building trajectories individually or in partnership with other similar-minded organizations. But who are they exactly? What do they do? And in which direction do they steer resilience trajectories?

The notion of a ‘community architect’ emerged in the 1970s as a reaction to the lack of a social focus in conventional architecture practice and education (Till, 1997; Charlesworth, 2006). This idea introduced a new paradigm into architectural practice and housing production, promoting the architect as being more “socially conscious” and including end users and their cultural, social and economic specificities in the design and development of their built environment (Habraken Teicher, 1972; Turner, 1972; Turner 1980; Wates Knevitt, 1987 in Andriessen et al. 2020). Through participatory design, community mapping and collective building, community architects aim to nurture the existing strengths of communities, like traditional building techniques, technical knowledge, social networks. They also seek to contribute to creating safer, more democratic and culturally relevant human settlements and living environments (Luansang et al. 2012 in Andriessen et al. 2020).

This familiarity with the community is one of the most important features of community architecture (Boano & Kelling, 2013), making the architectural profession more multifaceted and multidisciplinary. In crisis contexts, the contribution of community architects in building up the resilience of disaster-affected populations is twofold. Firstly, architects intervene physically in the built environment and design constructions that are strong and capable of withstanding future risks. They also support an open recovery process (Boano & Garcia, 2011), socially engaging with the affected communities and other multi-level institutions and organizations in order to incorporate cultural and economic aspects of the disaster-affected communities in their designs (Andriessen et al., 2020, p.132). They do so by taking on different roles, including building teacher, attentive student, involved facilitator, distant translator, social mediator, radical reformer and compassionate friend. Each of these “hats”, so to speak, has its unique resilience-building potential.

Source: Paidakaki et al., 2021; De Becker, De Reu & Viaene 2020 (based on Andriessen et al., 2020; Boano, C., & García, 2011; Boano & Talocci, 2017; Charlesworth, 2007; Luansang et al., 2012).

Our next blog will empirically explore how community architects, in their different roles, specifically contribute to the formation of resilient refugee camps. It will analyse the practices of the Office of Displaced Designers (ODD), a design-focused creative integration organization that was active between 2016 and 2020 in the delivery of social spaces in the Olive Groves adjacent to Moria Hotspot on the Greek island of Lesvos.


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