RECORD invites designers to redefine the refugee experience.

Deborah Gans and DenIse Hoffman Brandt
Dadaab Urban Plan

“The refugee camps of today are the cities of tomorrow,” says New York–based architect Deborah Gans, who, with landscape architect Denise Hoffman Brandt, proposes reconfiguring Dadaab, Kenya, to better accommodate its three refugee settlements. Dadaab proves Gans’s point. The region around this arid town near the Somalia border, which ballooned to 200,000 people during Ethiopian military actions in Somalia in 2006, has housed the Dagahaley, Hagadera, and Ifo camps for more than 30 years. More recently, the trio of camps counted 135,000 inhabitants, mostly Somalis.

Although these gridded communities adhere to United Nations planning criteria, they underscore that organization’s shortsightedness and Kenya’s uncooperativeness—and, Gans and Hoffman Brandt suggest, magnify the failures of cities in general. Thanks to poor siting, the settlements were decimated by flood in 1996 and 2006; inhabitants have stripped forests within a 31-mile radius to retrieve fuel wood; feuding clans are kept within close proximity; and U.N. security forces a vast majority of people to go without employment, many of whom trade emergency food supplies to obtain other necessities. “These settlements are not temporary,” Gans says, “so why not rewrite the [U.N.’s] heterotopian version of a city so that it’s a good city?”

Doing so means giving refugees access to the means of production they once enjoyed as citizens. The different clans occupying Dadaab represent agriculture, trade, and merchant professions, Hoffman Brandt explains. “You need to provide different livelihoods for these lifestyles.” The population of flood-prone Ifo would be dispersed to 116 square miles of intensely managed rotational grazing land, to be worked by Somali pastoralists. Merchants and tradespeople would likely choose to reside in Hagadera, which sits on a major trade route between Nairobi and Mogadishu. The remaining population, which includes Ugandan and Sudanese refugees, would gravitate toward the agricultural cooperative Dagahaley.

In Dagahaley, ethnically affiliated individuals would live in buffered clusters, with neighborhoods serviced by unprogrammed open space as well as community facilities. Within each, artisan studios and gardens would be nourished by rainwater cisterns and renewable power delivered by Hoffman Brandt’s concept of a “soft infrastructure”—above-ground conduits that expand or contract according to population stresses. “By addressing environmental conditions, you can address social conditions,” she says of the Dagahaley scheme. And Gans notes, “These refugee camps can be testing grounds of new environmental practices for all cities,” adding, “The architecture of the camp is less important than the planning of the camp.”