Sunday, June 8, 2008


Architecture writer Jim Lewis writes a provocative essay in today's Sunday New York Times Magazine on the future of global cities. It's not about the new "green building" movement nor the billowy, chrome-and-glass confections of today's cutting-edge urban visionaries. Instead, Lewis focuses on what he calls the proliferation and expansion of exigent cities, those mostly blue polyethylene plastic "emergency" tent cities and refugee camps that are home to a growing number of children among the world's religious, political, and economic refugees. (see Bosnian refugees in 2002 photo, above)

"Increasingly, refugee camps have become
de facto cities," Lewis writes, "and cities have become extended refugee camps. Is there a place here for architects?" It's a timely question, especially as recent cyclones, earthquakes, and economic and political dislocations continue to force record migrations of Asians, Africans—and yes, even Americans—into makeshift camps from Cambodia to the outskirts of Los Angeles.

Is there a place here for social media?

"There are scores of such camps dotting the surface of the planet," Lewis writes, "... a sort of semi-sovereign archipelago spread out around the world, some managed by the United Nations and sustained by NGOs. The people who live there are refugees, noncitizens confined to ad hoc cities, perhaps the purest form of a growing and global phenomenon: makeshift architecture, last-ditch living, emergency urbanism." The U.N. says there are about 12 million refugees, mostly children, in the world: Lewis urges architects to start designing for these vast new urban clusters, understanding that even as the need for relief grows, humanitarian space is shrinking—both in the physical size of the camps and in the ability of aid workers and philanthropists to intervene. Consider Burma, where the ruling junta has been trying to horde for itself food, trucks, tents, and medicine meant for the victims of the May 2 cyclone that killed 90,000 and left some 2.4 million struggling for survival. (
See "Empty-handed," the May 14 post on this blog.)

Social media can help. Citizen journalists were able to evade the Burmese junta's imposed news blackout during last fall's democracy protests in Rangoon, even after government attempts to disconnect the Internet. Six months later, Burmese aid workers, Buddhist monks, and victims of Cyclone Nargis were able to alert the world once more to the junta's anti-democracy policies—this time its blockade of aid to victims of the storm. The junta's inability to hide its actions underscores the potential of social media to foil the efforts of those in power to silence those without.

In America, tent cities now perch on the edges of Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, St. Petersburg, Fla., and Nashville, among other cities. For a while last year, a MySpace page, now obsolete, offered St. Petersburg, Fla., tent city residents a list on which to post their needs, such as water, toilet paper, and portable showers. One resident, a 32-year-old woman named Tina May, used a $30 disposable plastic videocamera to document a mid-morning police raid meant to break up the camp. May's video of the raid—which showed police officers using box cutters to slash the tops off the tents—was posted on YouTube and got more than 13,000 hits over the span of three days. Once again, even the most destitute were able to draw attention to their lives with borrowed and inexpensive technology.

Design sturdier dwellings for exigent cities and make social media accessible to their residents, and you create opportunity. Children in refugee camps still will disappear or become the victims of sexual, political, or religious exploitation. But with social media, it becomes harder to hide. And with climate change and economic disparity predicted to accelerate in coming decades, the ranks of these refugees will, no doubt, continue to expand at home and abroad; there is power in numbers.

As the jazz artist and arts advocate Wynton Marsalis told me once in an interview: "If you create something for other people, you create it for yourself. If I'm kind to a person and his or her daughter, that's my daughter or my son. If I'm kind to you, it's not like I am separate from you. We're all part of a big circle; it's just a matter of developing the consciousness to realize it."

What do you think?

For a recent update on America's tent cities, here's a report by the BBC:

(Photos by The Associated Press, Getty Images)

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