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Communities Have More to Offer Migrants Than They Realize

Headlines obscure the reality that many cities welcome immigrants for the economic and social benefits they bring. The tools of architecture offer ways to assess the resources needed to accommodate and integrate these populations.

Immigrants at Eagle Pass, Texas
Migrants seeking U.S. asylum walk down a road beside the Rio Grande River at Eagle Pass, Texas, to turn themselves in to the Border Patrol. (Vic Hinterlang/Shutterstock)
Cities across the United States are grappling with a surge of people seeking refuge from political, social, economic and climate emergencies. As the crisis over migration intensifies, the public is bombarded with heated narratives about the incapacity of our cities to absorb the influx of displaced people. The impression is that resources are on the verge of depletion and host cities are under threat.

Too many of the solutions proposed to address the situation are framed around how many asylum seekers we can keep out. From a civic, economic and humanitarian stance, this is the wrong approach and is doomed to cause more misery. Instead, we need to scale and adapt the spaces within our cities, towns and communities to welcome people in and help them thrive — for everyone’s benefit. There’s an opportunity for the architecture and design industry to help local leaders grapple with this issue.

There are pockets of optimism. In Denver, for example, the local government is offering funding to community-based nonprofits to provide crucial services. Pittsburgh and other cities in the Rust Belt and Midwest are doing what they can to attract more migrants. On a smaller scale, in Brunswick, Maine, state funding is covering rent for homeless immigrants.

These cities’ welcoming approaches reflect an understanding that a new influx of people can offer material benefit to their communities, whether they are dealing with waning populations or labor gaps. Absent a national framework, they each are taking their own approach to establishing resources and mobilizing community networks. If what is already being tested and learned locally was shared nationally, communities everywhere would be able to respond quickly, holistically and equitably.

One approach: an adaptable toolkit that can help municipalities of all shapes and sizes to assess their resources, better plan the spatial needs of migrants and promote long-term community integration. Such a resource already exists. “Rethinking Refugee Communities” builds on an earlier version put into action by the United Nations. Developed by Ennead Lab, working with Stanford University and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), that 2012 toolkit aimed to help UNHCR rethink the design and implementation of refugee settlements and implement practices for better outcomes. UNHCR continues to evolve its principles for the benefit of refugees, host communities and humanitarian organizations.

These principles can be readily adapted to the American context. The new toolkit, like its internationally focused counterpart, is rooted in transdisciplinary collaboration and local knowledge, providing a framework for public- and private-sector action across law, public health, education, architecture, engineering, community organizations and migrant populations to assess the surplus capacity of the different systems in place and how each can contribute to a broader resolution in a collaborative way.

It also offers guidance for creating site-specific spatial solutions to support displaced peoples by promoting urban integration and mutually beneficial access to resources. This allows for a holistic, contextual and rational assessment of an individual community’s ability to absorb migrants on a scale that won’t shatter its systems and directs coordinated efforts toward lasting solutions that benefit both new and existing populations.

One way to put the toolkit into action is to leverage and enrich existing infrastructure. Many cities have a growing resource of empty or underutilized buildings dating back to before the pandemic and certainly exacerbated by it. If we assess the capacity of building stock to accommodate the immediate needs of migrants, and at the same time examine the resource deficits within surrounding neighborhoods, we can engage in adaptive reuse — the repurposing of buildings — and urban planning to identify and create new spaces that migrants and host cities can utilize as long-term solutions.

At a building level, what might initially serve as temporary housing for migrants can add to the larger affordable housing stock in cities as emergency conditions subside and the migrant population becomes integrated. At a neighborhood level, adjacent buildings — whether they are currently purposed for child care, food, cooling centers, learning or recreation — can be programmed to meet recognized, specific needs within the local community.

The scale of the crisis, and the available time for response under emergency constraints, means that communities cannot come up with solutions in isolation. We need to support these places — big and small — and their leaders with a national approach, complete with tools, shared resources and a catalog of best practices that will help streamline their responses to the complex challenges they face.

Here is where the design community can offer help. As architects, we are imploring our colleagues and those in adjacent industries to step up and lend their collective expertise to this urgent moment. Together, we can apply our skill sets and the benefits of design thinking in service of creating adaptable, locally appropriate solutions that promote dignity and humanity and that add to the cultural and economic betterment of our communities.

Don Weinreich is a partner at Ennead Architects, an international architecture firm based in New York. He has been a leader within the firm’s research arm, Ennead Lab, since its inception. Eliza Montgomery is a founder of MontgomeryChoi, an urbanistic architecture practice in Raleigh, N.C. She has co-led Ennead Lab's Rethinking Refugee Communities project with Don Weinreich since 2013.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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