Exclusive interview with the winners of the 2016 Reducing Urban Poverty Paper Competition

by Rebekah Revello, Frances Goyes, Valeria Vidal Alvarado, Sera Tolgay

From left: Valeria Vidal Alvarado, Francis Goyes and Sera Tolgay

 

The 2016 winners of the IHC Global sponsored* Reducing Urban Poverty Graduate Student Paper Competition are Valeria Vidal Alvarado, Francis Goyes and Sera Tolgay. The MIT Masters in City Planning students come from three very different backgrounds- 26-year-old Alvarado is from Lima, Peru, 26-year-old Goyes is from Quito, Ecuador, and 25-year-old Tolgay is from Istanbul, Turkey- but they have pooled together their expertise and experiences to create a project focused on something that they care deeply about. As the refugee crisis remains one of the most pressing global issues at hand, much attention is paid to the journey; where the refugees go, how they get there, and if they’ll be allowed in. Much less focus is on what happens to these families after they receive sanctuary. Their research project does just this; Refugees, Incremental Housing and Shelter in the 21st Century seeks to examine the design and implementation of the incrementing housing model of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)’s Urban Shelter Program in cities in Northern Jordan, and provide recommendations on how it can improve. The paper was selected out of hundreds of entries as the winner of the competition, and Alvarado, Goyes and Tolgay were given the opportunity to present their findings in front of a captivated audience at Habitat III in October, in Goyes’ hometown of Quito, Ecuador. IHC Global International Communications Officer Rebekah Revello interviewed the three researchers about their project, what it means to them, and what they hope it will do for refugee communities around the world.

Can you give a brief summary of your project?

FG: The NRC program intends to provide adequate shelter for vulnerable Syrian refugees by supplying grants to Jordanian homeowners to increase rooms or floors to their existing houses. Syrian families are then allowed to live in these expansions rent-free for up to two years. After the two year period is over, Jordanian homeowners can decide if they want to continue to renting to Syrian families or use the expansions for a different purpose. 

VVA: There is a lack of adequate and affordable rental housing stock to accommodate the increasing number of Syrian refugees, which has put a strain on the capacity of cities in Northern Jordan such as Jerash, Ajloun, and Irbid. Through surveys with participant homeowners, semi-structured interviews with NRC and UNHCR officers, and mapping of social and public infrastructure, we have found that NRC’s Urban Shelter Program increases the total housing stock available in Northern Jordan cities, ensures minimum building standards and quality of materials, and supports the local economy. As opposed to cash-for-rent programs that can add pressure to constricted housing markets, NRC’s approach provides adequate shelter for refugees without disrupting existing urban systems    

What initially drew you to your project? Why did you choose the subject?

FG: I was interested in this project for a number of reasons. Having lived my entire life in Ecuador, I was accostumed to the incremental housing  approach the majority of families practiced – houses are built informally, and expanded through time based on the growth in family members and the financial resources they have access to. I was very curious to understand how NRC could draw inspiration from incremental housing to then use it as a solution for housing refugees.

Furthermore, the NRC program was also interesting to me from a city planning perspective. Much attention is drawn to refugee camps like Zaatari and Azraq, yet the majority of Syrian refugees live in urban areas, as there they have greater access to economic opportunities, as well as social infrastructure and networks. However, many cities are unable to accommodate the increased demand for housing, and many refugees are forced into substandard living conditions. Urban programs for housing refugees that provide cash-for-rent assistance intend to solve this condition, yet in turn increase rental prices in cities and saturate the market. NRC’s program increases the housing stock, thus bringing more equilibrium to the housing market.

Given the enormity of the Syrian humanitarian crisis, I also wanted to use this opportunity to draw attention to this innovative program in the hope that it can be adapted in other countries that have also opened their doors to refugees.

VVA: The possibility to make a small contribution to solving the refugee crisis, understanding why projects work, whether these can be replicated or adapted in many other parts of the region that are currently facing a similar problem was the reason why I became interested in this project. Dr. Reinhard Goethert, Professor at the Department of Architecture at MIT was the one who pointed out the great potential that incremental housing, slowly expanding the houses over time, could have to help the refugee crisis which then led me to further investigate if this was a strategy already being taken advantage of. 

ST: As part of our research group, Special Interest Group on Urban Settlements at MIT, we had been studying incremental housing models around the world, trying to understand the factors that make housing projects successful. We really took a “shelter plus” approach, where housing is not just a roof over your head but also the accessibility to a bundle of services like transportation, education or markets that make day to day life possible. The NRC project is very interesting because it acknowledges the reality that the majority of refugees in fact live in urban areas (this number is close to 85 % in Jordan). In Turkey, for example, the government has responded to the crisis by setting up state-of-the-art camps, but this has not been a sustainable solution as people have left the camps to go to cities, where they have more access to services and jobs. We thought that the NRC problem recognized this dynamic from the start and could provide a model for providing shelter for urban refugees.

Alvarado and Goyes look on as Tolgay presents.
What sort of feedback have you received about your project, from colleagues to the international community?

FG: We’ve received very positive feedback from our university and other colleagues. I’m particularly happy that other NGO’s and government organizations that didn’t know about the program before have become aware of it through our presentations at Habitat III.

VVA: The team has received overwhelmingly positive feedback about our project. Many fellows students, Professors and international organizations have reached out to read our paper, further discuss our analysis as well as request us to make presentations. It has been quite touching to know that we are able to have this experience inspire others to learn and work on the issue.

ST: It was also interesting to hear reactions from audiences about how the refugee crisis is typically associated with camps, so our research in urban areas gathered a lot of interest.

What do you think presenting at Habitat III has done for your research?

FG: It’s definitely increased awareness of NRC’s program, especially for people from private and public sectors that work in the humanitarian sector.

VVA: Presenting at Habitat III has opened a lot of doors for me. From giving me more exposure in the school on the potential and quality of my work as a researcher, to networking with organizations I would love to work at as well as meeting many other people who are as passionate as I am about the issue to further collaborate on research.

ST:  Through our presentations at Habitat III, we got to exchange ideas with a number of organizations, such as the Project for Public Spaces, Affordable Housing Institute and Habitat for Humanity, who are all working on the issue of housing for refugee populations from a shelter plus approach as well. Given the enormity of the current crisis and the shortcoming of traditional humanitarian approaches, we saw how critical it is to develop flexible models that can bring the host communities and refugee populations together rather than creating silos.

What do you plan to do with your research going forward?

FG: I’m excited to see it published in the Wilson Center’s annual Urban Paper Competition book. I also hope others continue researching this and other innovative intiatives in Jordan and other countries.

VVA: I hope that the research can continue to be disseminated in different ways. The analysis of the research has also prompted Dr. Reinhard Goethert to continue with this line of work looking at another case study in Lebanon that could potentially be used for comparison and the  exchange of best practices. 

ST: One key takeaway from our research in Jordan is the fact that employment opportunities will directly affect the sustainability of any kind of housing model in the coming years. While the Jordanian government has announced that they will be giving work permits to a portion of the refugee population, many are still forced to take low-wage, low-skill jobs to provide for their families. To re-think employment in this context, I will be taking part in a long-term initiative through the Art, Culture and Technology group in our department, called Future Heritage Studio. It is currently at a very nascent stage, so I cannot provide a lot of information yet, but through a collaborative design workshop with the refugee population and local partners in Jordan, we are hoping to identify ways in which art, technology and design can be combined with existing know-how, crafts and skills to provide alternative livelihoods.

How do you want your research to be used to help the communities you studied and others like them?

FG: I intend this research to serve NRC and other governmental and non-governmental organizations that are interested in creating humanitarian programs that are urban, creative, and site-specific.

VVA: In the most practical way, the research can be used to duplicate NRC’s Urban Shelter Program in other areas of Jordan or neighboring countries that have a similar housing ecosystem. At the same time, the analysis of the research has highlighted that it is quite expensive to keep up such a comprehensive program. In this regard, the research can provide insight and pin point certain areas that have the potentially to become more cost saving.

ST: Additionally, we hope to draw lessons for other contexts regionally, like in Lebanon, which has an even larger urban refugee population than that of Jordan. At a larger scale, globally, the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people around the world has surpassed 60 million for the first time in history, so as people are forced to flee their homes due to conflicts or natural disasters, these innovative models will be especially critical in the years to come.

Alvarado listens to questions from the audience at Habitat III.
What do you think the New Urban Agenda will do for urban refugee communities?

FG: I hope the NUA increases awareness of urban refugees and internally displaced populations. I particularly wish that the NUA emphasizes the need for a human rights approach to projects intended to help urban refugee communities, and more data about urban refugees is gathered and shared with the humanitarian community.

VVA: I believe that the New Urban Agenda helps urban refugee communities by setting the issue at the forefront of the international community. This then is able to spark discussion and more allocation of funding to help with the different issues such as housing that refugees have to deal with. Creating awareness of the urgency to address this use, as well as setting the guidelines and priorities to do so, is definitely the first towards more concrete solutions, such as funding research, to fund programs like NRC’s Urban Shelter Program as well as do evaluations of such, which is as extremely important as just designing and implementing the project. The evaluation phase helps to keep the program aligned with the changing needs of the refugees. 

ST: Similarly the people-centric approach called for in the NUA can also be applied to the humanitarian field, where the complex and multifaceted problems faced by urban refugees require going beyond providing baseline needs.

Given your research and the current trajectories, what do you think will happen with urban refugee communities over the next few years?

FG: I think urban refugee communities will continue to grow around the world, especially as more vulnerable populations have to migrate from the negative effects of climate change. I hope that lessons learned from the Syrian refugee crisis and others before it provide the humanitarian community with expertise for these changing times.

VVA: This is quite a tough question to answer. As the current situation is going, the number of urban refugee communities will only keep increasing. However, we are seen positive programs like the NRC helping to alleviate the problem, at least one of the problems, safe and reliable shelter. The refugee crisis problem is quite complex and sensitive subject to address, both from a refugee and host country perspective. However, I think that as long as we know that we are doing the best to help families who have been forced to flee from their homes until it is safe to come back, I’m sure we will be able to learn how to best adapt our built environment and our attitude towards the issue.

What have you personally learned from this project?

FG: This project has given me an incredible opportunity that I am immensely grateful for. Academically, I have grown tremendously through this experience, learning much more than I did before about humanitarian work and the ongoing refugee crisis. The project has also expanded my professional network, particularly through our presentations at Habitat III. Personally, I have developed new friendships with people that I would have never had the opportunity to meet if I had not participated in this project.

VVA: I have learned many things from this project. I have been fascinated by the passion and dedication that people have towards solving this issue. This project has also brought hope that there are good stories to share about programs that are helping refugees and positive experiences between refugees and homeowners who rent their spaces to them. As it was my first time in the Middle East, this research trip served also as a very rich cultural immersion. This project has absolutely helped me grow as a person and a professional; it exceeded my expectations in various ways. I think what made our project special was that we had the unique opportunity to be in the field for about three weeks not only analyzing the project technicalities but also learning about people’s lives, their stories, their struggles and their favorite meals. The personal connections we made throughout our research were the most rewarding and memorable parts of this project.

ST: Seconding Francis, this project has shown us the importance of taking the leap to do fieldwork in a new and challenging environment and the power of teamwork to make this happen. It was a great privilege to meet in person the Syrian families and also to hear from the Jordanian homeowners, some of whom came to Jordan from Palestine as refugees themselves. Despite the gravity of the situation in Syria, I hope that sharing these positive stories can inspire us to go beyond the immediately possible.

Judges and the winners: Allison Garland of the Wilson Center, Tony Piaskowy of USAID, MIT Professor and project adviser Reinhard Goethert, Alvarado, Laura Lima of Cities Alliance, Goyes, Tolgay, IHC Global President and CEO Judith Hermanson, and Victor Vargas of the World Bank stand together for a picture

 

*Sponsors for the competition include Cities Alliance, IHC Global, The Wilson Center, The World Bank and USAID

Report: IHC Global at Habitat III

by Karly Kiefer, Rebekah Revello, Judith Hermanson

Habitat III, the global conference on housing and urban development held once every 20 years, just concluded in Quito.  The major outcome was the approval of the New Urban Agenda (NUA) which provides a vision and points a direction for urban development over the coming years.  IHC Global was an active participant and we want to share with you some of our impressions, let you know about our activities while there, and engage you in our thinking as we move beyond Habitat III to implement the NUA and support Global Goal 11 to create cities that are sustainable, inclusive, resilient and safe. 

IHC Global will be pursuing an agenda to advance greater urban equity and equality

 

Solar panels at the Habitat III Village
Solar panels at the Habitat III Village

Impressions:  In shadow of the Andes in northern Ecuador, thousands of people queue up in various lines in El Ejito Park, waiting to enter the Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana, the city of Quito’s premier conference venue dedicated to the preservation of culture and dissemination of knowledge. As they wait in line they are surrounded by eccentricities ranging from bamboo houses, to lampposts made with solar lights and recycled plastic bottles—all part of the Habitat III Village, a showcase of the latest urban innovations and solutions staged throughout the city. Inside the venue grounds, old friends and new meet up for coffee or sushi on the lawn to discuss and debate the soon to be passed New Urban Agenda. Ecuadorians mingle with participants from 167 countries in the vast Exhibition tent, where organizations and governments stage their latest urban projects and initiatives, and host outreach events and musical performances. A glance at the schedule on the Habitat III app shows hundreds of events occurring each day—dozens at any given time.

Thirty thousand people gathered in Quito from October 17-20 for the Habitat III conference. After a near two-year process of drafting and revising, the New Urban Agenda (NUA) was adopted by nearly 170 countries.  Notable in the lead up to the NUA was the inclusion of civil society in the negotiations—a platform known as the General Assembly of Partners (GAP) was created in order to enable the participation of non-governmental partners, broken into fifteen “Constituent Groups” including grassroots organizations, children and youth, and research and academia. In addition, multiple online and offline platforms, official and unofficial events, and mechanisms for public comment were enabled in order to sustain a truly participatory process in the drafting of the NUA and the lead up to Habitat III.

Conference-goers lounge on the Habitat III grounds
Conference-goers lounge on the Habitat III grounds

 

IHC Global Engagement with Habitat III:  IHC Global was a key supporter of Global Goal 11 and has been engaged in the dialogue and drafting process for the New Urban Agenda, including participating in PrepComm 2 as a member of the GAP’s Civil Society Constituent Group. We have been active in many lead up events, including an Open Forum held in May, as well as keeping our members informed.  IHC Global is also a Lead Partner with the World Urban Campaign. Our delegation, which included IHC Global staff, Board members and senior advisors, was accorded special accreditation, and maintained a very active and robust presence throughout the conference.

The exhibition tent at Habitat III
The exhibition tent at Habitat III

Key Activities in Quito:  IHC Global kicked off its Habitat III line-up on Saturday, October 15th, when Communications Officer Rebekah Revello spoke at the Civil Society Panel for the Children and Youth Assembly, a parallel event that focused on the role of children and youth in implementing the New Urban Agenda. Revello spoke about how young people in the United States are advocating for inclusive cities, and the various movements that have arisen regarding urban issues such as racial equality.

IHC Global Communications Officer Rebekah Revello speaks at the UN Working Group for Children and Youth panel on Civil Society
IHC Global Communications Officer Rebekah Revello speaks at the UN Working Group for Children and Youth panel on Civil Society

 

On Monday, October 17th, IHC Global President and CEO Dr. Judith Hermanson moderated a panel called Beyond Bricks and Mortar: Leveraging Partnerships, hosted by the government of Canada’s Employment and Social Development division, with Minister Yves Duclos serving as one of the panelists, together with Suranjana Gupta, Senior Specialist and Advisor with the Huairou Commission and GROOTS International, Greg Moor, Mayor of the City of Port Coquitlam in Canada, and J. Nealin Parker, Chief of Staff at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.  Judith framed the discussion in this session, which focused around innovative approaches to housing partnerships that go beyond physical buildings and structures and focus on linkages to community and the city – in other words a theme of inclusion and inclusiveness which was carried through by the presentations of each of the panelists as they presented programs, policies and evidence supporting the underlying premise. Also on Monday, IHC Global board member David Wluka spoke at a side event called Evidence from Practice to Action: Ensuring Informed Implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

IHC Global President and CEO Judith Hermanson speaks at the Canadian Government event Beyond Brick and Mortar

On Monday afternoon, IHC Global hosted a networking event called Triple Win:  People, Public, and Private Partnerships for More Livable Cities and Communities, where a diverse group of panelists discussed how their organizations have been involved in successful people-public-private-partnerships (PPPPs), and how the inclusion of “people” in these partnerships can help cities become more equitable and inclusive. The perspectives of civil society, private sector and local governments were brought forward and the underlying principles that have applicability beyond the specific examples cited.

IHC Global CEO Judith Hermanson, participate on the IHC Global-hosted panel Triple Win
Panelists participate in a lively discussion at the IHC Global-hosted event Triple Win
Eduardo Rojas and Judith Hermanson stand with the panelists for the IHC Global-led panel No Time to Waste
Eduardo Rojas and Judith Hermanson stand with the panelists for the IHC Global-led panel No Time to Waste

 

On Tuesday, October 18th, IHC Global marked the official release of a new publication entitled No Time to Waste: Applying the Lessons from Latin America’s 50 Years of Housing Policies to Rapidly Urbanizing Countries authored by Eduardo Rojas, former lead urban specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank. At the Next City World Stage, IHC Global assembled a panel of experts to discuss key findings in the paper and their potential applicability to countries that are rapidly urbanizing.  IHC Global Senior Technical Advisor Roger Williams moderated.  The paper had previously been peer reviewed at a session hosted by Ford Foundation in New York and is intended to inform policy discussions under the NUA which has “housing at the center.”

IHC Global President and CEO Judith Hermanson and IHC Global Boardmember David Wluka speak at the Habitat for Humanity International and Government of Dubai-led event Housing at the Center
IHC Global President and CEO Judith Hermanson and IHC Global Boardmember David Wluka speak at the Habitat for Humanity International and Government of Dubai-led event Housing at the Center

Later on Tuesday afternoon, IHC Global President Judith Hermanson spoke at two events. At the Government of Dubai-hosted Housing at the Center: Establishing a Community of Practice that will engage in M&E, Hermanson emphasized that inclusiveness has spatial dimensions, as well as economic and social dimensions, and stressed that housing can be a driver of greater equality and inclusive growth. Hermanson then spoke at FIABCI’s The City We Need is Affordable Campaign meeting about IHC Global’s work to bring together private sector and non-profit organizations around the mission of promoting inclusive housing and sustainable cities and the importance of including housing as part of a comprehensive urban planning process.

This year's urban essay competition winners present their research on urban resettlement of refugees
This year’s urban essay competition winners present their research on urban resettlement of refugees

On Wednesday, IHC Global hosted an outreach event in the Habitat III Exhibition Area to provide information to prospective members and to promote a new student membership campaign that offers networking and mentoring benefits to students and recent graduates as a way of facilitating the entry of new scholars and practitioners into the field. Also on Wednesday, IHC Global President Judith Hermanson served as a discussant during a presentation by the winners of the 7th Annual Reducing Urban Poverty Graduate Student Paper Competition Presentation, which IHC Global initially conceptualized with USAID as a way to encourage innovation and engage new scholars and which it now co-sponsors with USAID, the World Bank, the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars and Cities Alliance. The three student winners shared their research on incremental housing solutions for refugees in Jordan.

Panelists answer questions from the audience at the
Panelists answer questions from the audience at the IHC Global and Habitat for Humanity International-led event Intersections

 

Finally, on Wednesday afternoon, IHC Global hosted its final event called Intersections: Bringing together necessary elements for Inclusive, Sustainable Sanitation Strategies in Cities. Judith Hermanson moderated as panelists shared best practices and lessons learned on implementing comprehensive sanitation projects that recognize the intersections of technology, infrastructure, market development, community engagement, and gender equity.

Post-Quito Next Steps:  While the Habitat III conference has ended, the important work of carrying forward the vision and delivering on commitments made has just begun. IHC Global will remain engaged and active in the post-Quito discussions and in supporting the translation of conversation into action through advocacy, education, research and dialogue.  This blog is only the beginning of our synthesis and analysis of the conference. Keep an eye out for our “Humans of Habitat III” commentary, and other material from this extraordinary gathering of people and organizations from around the globe. 

The major outcome, the NUA, is important and significant in part for the light that it shines on the critical issues of urban development; the other important outcome is the inspiration and knowledge gained by those who will help to bring about change in communities, cities and countries around the world.