When, in summer 2015, refugees started to arrive in ever increasing numbers, Berlin – as many other cities would be in a similar situation – was overwhelmed.
In total, Berlin welcomed 80,000 people in 2015. In November 2015 alone, almost 10,000 arrived. Responding to the emergency, Berlin’s government created a range of temporary accommodation in former schools and hospitals, hostels, the former city airport Tempelhof, and gyms that were remodelled as emergency shelters. It built refugee settlements out of shipping containers to start moving refugees out of the emergency shelters. Anxious that the influx of refugees would put additional pressure on the already growing city, the city also started planning long-term housing built as modular housing developments. In the quest to deal with the immediate emergency, the city, however, had little capacity to think about long-term planning and integration beyond the housing needs.
As part of Happold Foundation’s Share Our Skills program, BuroHappold’s Planning team started an investigation into Berlin’s refugee crisis, which is amplified by the rapid population growth as well as the uncertainty about the number of refugees arriving in the coming years. Questions that the team addressed included:
- How do you plan for the short-, medium-, and long-term?
- How do you allocate resources to balance specific needs of refugees with urban development goals?
- How do you not only accommodate refugees, but also integrate them?
The team launched a debate on policies of spatial planning that foster integration as well as provide benefits for the long-term sustainability of the city. It developed a set of tools that were presented and debated at a workshop within the one-day symposium “Refugees welcome? Refugees integrated!” during the Metropolitan Solutions Conference from May 31 – June 2, 2016 in Berlin.
Challenges and Opportunities: Interventions at different speeds and time
As cities accommodate a majority of refugees, city leaders face enormous challenges beyond the immediate need for shelter and housing. For successful long-term integration of refugees from different cultural backgrounds, city leaders need to quickly integrate children into the education system; establish language courses to help refugees get to a working proficiency; provide job training and work opportunities for adults; ensure access to a wide range of social services, from physical and mental health care to financial services; and maintain security in the city – not just for the existing population, but also for the arriving refugees who are vulnerable to hate crimes and racist attacks.
These interventions need to happen at a speed that city leaders are often not used to. The lack of available land and/or property, limited resources in the administration, lengthy planning procedures, and legal barriers often slow or hinder city leaders from acting quickly. Moreover, city leaders have the great responsibility to shape the public debate and demonstrate that the arrival of migrants is not a threat, but a potential economic opportunity – if integration is to be successful.
In countries like Germany, where the working-age population is shrinking, immigration can potentially fill a labour market gap and therefore contribute to the public purse through taxes. Studies have also shown that immigration can boost the economy and revitalize neighbourhoods through entrepreneurship, diversity, innovation, and new trade links to the immigrants’ home countries (see, for example, Suzanne Hall 2012 or Doug Saunders 2010). However, there are also risks that politicians and city-leaders need to be careful to balance. If integration is not successful, economic and social exclusion of refugees can lead to political unrest. Similarly, political unrest can also occur, if the existing population feels left out of opportunities and investment.
How can urban planners help?
Successful integration means creating communities that are economically strong while socially and culturally inclusive. Sebastian Seelig and Jochen Rabe from the BuroHappold team presented key outcomes of the research at the Metropolitan Solutions conference under the title “Migration as an opportunity for growing cities?”. These included a set of principles that addressed housing, childcare, education, health care, work, community, and mobility. Each of the principles emerged from the need for creating integrated communities that provide not only appropriate housing and shelter, but include a range of services and allow refugees to start work quickly.
Flexibility & Speed: The arrival of refugees bears uncertainty; from how many are coming to who is arriving and when. Uncertainty can only be dealt with through flexible and adaptable planning. Often temporary and tactical solutions to housing, community and health centres, or even infrastructure, work well. Examples range from smart nano-grids for electricity to improvised street libraries or temporary cinemas for refugees to meet in. The key is that things can be set up and function quickly with relatively little cost, but can also evolve or be taken down as needed.
Proximity: It is important that refugees have access to local services within close proximity, as they are not mobile when they first arrive. In the Netherlands, schools, nurseries, and health centres are increasingly developed as integrated multi-use neighbourhood centres that provide a one-stop-shop for all essential social services, including education. This increases access to these services for those population groups that are less mobile.
Diversity & Density: In his book Arrival City, Doug Saunders (2010) describes how migrants largely depend on their peers for information about living and working in their new city. This is also why migrants tend to move to neighbourhoods where friends, family members, or even just acquaintances from back home are already established. Refugees, after initially being allocated to a community, often also move again. In this second move, they tend to concentrate in urban agglomerations where there’s an existing social network. In order to prevent social and cultural segregation, neighbourhoods should be dense enough to allow for this type of conglomeration while remaining diverse enough for different groups to feel socially and culturally included.
Mixed-use: Proximity, density, and diversity are most often found in mixed-use neighbourhoods. Planning for accommodation of refugees is therefore best done in existing mixed-use neighbourhoods or as new mixed-use neighbourhoods. This increases the mobility of refugees, the access to essential services, and the job opportunities within the neighbourhood.
Entrepreneurship: Refugees are often prevented from working during the first months of their arrival – due to the uncertainty of their status or other local regulatory constraints. Work is however one of the key elements for a successful integration as a job will not only quickly allow refugees to become independent from any government subsidies, but will also foster social contacts. Doug Saunders (2010) shows how immigrant families who were able to establish their own business, be it a corner shop or a restaurant, were quick to integrate.
Mobility: Increasing the mobility of refugees is important in preventing segregation and the establishment of ghettos. This means mobility not only at the neighbourhood scale, but also at the urban scale. Refugee accommodation should be located close to public transport to provide access to job centres and the city core. At the same time, mobility should be increased at the neighbourhood scale through mixed-use communities, as well as through the provision of different modes of transport – from a bike share system to shuttle buses. Again, these measures can be improvised and temporary at the beginning, and evolve as needed.
Quality of Life: Any investment in the accommodation of refugees should consider ways to improve the quality of life for the entire population, the existing community as well as the arrivals. These include improvements and upgrades to infrastructure systems, transportation, social services, or the community life in general. Existing communities that see benefits for themselves will be much more welcoming of refugees.
Case Studies: At the urban fringe and in the city centre
These principles have been developed and tested by investigating two case studies: Berlin-Buch is a neighbourhood at the city fringe and Berlin-Friedrichshain is a neighbourhood within the central urban core. In both cases, the team explored ways of accommodating refugees through adaptable strategies that take into account the long-term goals of Berlin’s sustainable urban development.
The case study of Berlin-Buch is one of several strategic future growth centres in Berlin’s development plan. It is host to a growing research campus located in a pre-dominantly residential neighbourhood with pre-fabricated high-rise developments. While its close proximity to public transport, infrastructure, available land and underused properties make it well suited to accommodating a growing population, there is a lack of social infrastructure and mixed-use developments. To allow the existing population, the growing workforce of the research campus, and the refugees to socially and culturally integrate in an economically diverse and strong neighbourhood where people want to live and work, investment into the building of a dense and mixed-use neighbourhood needs to happen.
In contrast to Berlin-Buch, Berlin-Friedrichshain is a vibrant, mixed-use, and diverse neighbourhood with good access to public transport in the middle of the urban core. It therefore does not however have the privilege of available land and empty properties that Berlin-Buch has. The neighbourhood has increasingly suffered from gentrification and higher rents in recent years, and different uses compete with each other. Nurseries and kindergartens are at capacity and accommodating refugees is more difficult. This case study provides a chance for creative rethinking of dense urban living, reducing car parking and increasing shared spaces on the ground floor of apartment buildings or solar and community gardens on the roofs of those buildings – interventions that also increase a neighbourhood’s quality of life.
Towards a more flexible and participative approach
Following the presentation of the research and case studies, experts including Friederike Meyer (Bauwelt – Leading German magazine for architecture and urbanism), Manfred Kühne (Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung und Umwelt Berlin – Department of Urban Planning and Environment Berlin), and Ricarda Pätzold (Deutsches Institute für Urbanistik – a research institute) discussed Berlin’s current approach to the arrival of refugees, from emergency response to long-term integration.
The experts agreed that Berlin as a growing and economically more stable city will be able to accommodate and absorb the new wave of migrants as it can build on the many lessons learned from its long history of integrating migrants – especially from Turkey. Moreover, the economic boom that Berlin saw in recent years as Europe’s start-up city with the immigration of highly skilled workers, allows the city government to increase its resources. The workshop participants were thus positive about the future of the city.
At the same time, the debate raised many more questions, especially about the role of top-down planning versus bottom-up initiatives. Both Friederike Meyer and Ricarda Pätzold pleaded for a more spontaneous approach to planning where migrants themselves play a more important role. As architects and planners, we tend to draw buildings and streets on maps and drawings, seemingly knowing what we are doing and what the best way forward might be. And while we are increasingly advocating for flexible and adaptable, temporary and tactical strategies and solutions, we still rarely allow things to happen unplanned. Is there a role for a more spontaneous, self-built, informal, and bottom-up approach in accommodating and integrating refugees? We might even learn from these processes.
A future of arrival cities
Since the agreement between the European Union and Turkey, and the blockage of the Balkan route, the stream of refugees has slowed. In 2016, many fewer refugees are expected. Berlin is – at least for the moment – under less pressure.
The task, however, is not finished, and in a lot of ways, is only beginning. The refugees that arrived last fall may have settled into a more stable accommodation. Integration is not over with accommodation. Berlin and cities like it need to invest not only in the hard infrastructure, but also in the emotional, cultural, and social infrastructure needed for successful integration. The Happold Foundation has provided some food for thought in how that might work.
Migration will not disappear. Climate change, conflicts, and the lack of economic opportunities will continue driving people to look for better opportunities. The question of how we deal with this as a society will therefore remain relevant and we need to continue to learn from our past successes and failures.
Hall, S. (2012). City, Street and Citizen. The measure of the ordinary. London/New York: Routledge.
Saunders, D. (2010). Arrival City. How the largest migration in history is reshaping our world. New York: Pantheon Books.