STUDENT PROJECT | A Landscape Framework for Refugee Camps | Helen Yu

At the start of 2013, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported concern for 10.4 million refugees, while the total figure of refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons surpassed 50 million in June of 2014. This is the largest number of refugees in the world since the UNHCR was founded in response to people displaced from WWII and will likely increase as competition over resources in a changing climate, ideological conflicts, and population growth force people out of their homes.

After 5 years of conflict (7 years is the average lifespan of refugee camps), the number of refugees fleeing Syria alone has surpassed 4 million. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, reports: “This is the biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation. It is a population that needs the support of the world but is instead living in dire conditions and sinking deeper into poverty.”



Overall Strategy
“An Alternative Handbook for Refugee Camp Design” responds to increases in both the number of refugees worldwide and the number of years refugees spend in camps. While not all refugees live in camps, the focus of my research and design proposal is on camp models designed for 20,000 people (as per the UNHCR’s guidelines). Whereas the current guidelines presuppose the landscape as a tabula rasa, this alternative “Landscape Framework” uses the landscape to generate ecological services and allow flexibility and self-organization. With as many as 3,000 refugees moving into a camp per day with as little as one week’s notice, the design responds to enormous pressure in its ability to be built efficiently, practically, and affordably, whilst adapting to refugees’ individual needs and skills over time.




Household Gardens
After a site (usually at least 50km from the border and, by default on flat arid land) is chosen for the refugee camp, the soil is graded and compacted. “An Alternative Strategy” proposes grading the land so that water collects behind shelters in lower garden pockets intended for cultivation. These household gardens would supplement daily food rations, decreasing the dependence on foreign donations and the strain on the host community’s resources. A family’s garden lot could be secured as private through the construction of barriers, or the lot could be combined with adjacent lots tended to by neighboring families. In between household gardens behind the tents, more level ground provides families with the option of expanding their tent and, or using the space as a semi-private backyard patio for socializing with friends and family.


Nutrient Recycling
In resource-poor communities, particularly in arid climates, recycling water and nutrients is critical for garden growth. The addition of cheap, pre-fabricated plastic gutters (or split PVC pipes) would direct stormwater from tent roofs into rain barrels that could double as receptacles for non-potable water distributed to families in camps where there are no boreholes or local distribution points. At least 17 of the 20 Liters of water allocated to each refugee per day could drain into the soak pit around the rain barrel spout, where food and clothes washing would ideally take place. The soak pit and surrounding pervious surface adjacent to roads and foot paths drains into the garden space, while composting toilets supply the gardens with compost. Kitchen scraps and garden waste could also be collected in piles on a household or block scale.


Space around the camp would be at a lower grade and planted from seed (or local seedlings) to provide buffers for the camp. The seedlings would offer a spatial sense of security, protect from wind and dust, and ultimately provide a source of saplings to be planted along the bike loop, at bike loop stops, along playing fields, and in household gardens.

Social Infrastructure
A distribution of community services and residential areas is designed to maximize social integration and allow for self-determination. Local amenities form hubs of activity that service 5,000 people in each quarter of the camp. A distribution center, school, daycare center, workshop for learning skills and producing goods, communication center providing access to the world outside the camp, library, women’s center, and place(s) of worship are built along central corridors to form small commercial districts in each quarter. An outdoor market would also be held in these commercial corridors for produce from household gardens to be sold or traded, and vendors would quickly set up shop to begin forging a life in the camp (since it is typically illegal for refugees to work outside the camp).


Through simple grading, hydrology and vegetation in concert with the lay-out of social infrastructure, “A Landscape Framework” harvests stormwater, recycles grey water and composts nutrients so as to render the site and refugee community productive.


Sources |
Kennedy, James. “Towards a Rationalisation of the Construction of Refugee Camps.” Katholieke Universitiet Leuven, 2004.

UNHCR, Statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: General Assembly Resolution 428(V) (UNHCR: Geneva, 1950); UNHCR Global Trends Report 2010

“UNHCR: Syrian refugees cross four million mark.” Al Jazeera News. 09 Jul 2015.

Project Credits |
Text and images | Helen Elizabeth Yu, MLA ’15 University of Pennsylvania
Research Advisor | Richard Weller, Martin and Margy Meyerson Chair of Urbanism and Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture, University of Pennsylvania

Concept and Design Development | David Gouverneur, Associate Professor of Practice, University of Pennsylvania
Richard Weller, Martin and Margy Meyerson Chair of Urbanism and Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture, University of Pennsylvania

Travel and Workshop Supervisor | Maria Gabriella Trovato, Landscape Design Faculty Member, American University of Beirut

Detailing Advisors | Lindsay Falck, Lecturer, University of Pennsylvania; Andy Schlatter, Lecturer, University of Pennsylvania

School | University of Pennsylvania, School of Design
MLA Design Thesis Advisers | Richard Weller and David Gouverneur


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About Damian Holmes 3344 Articles
Damian Holmes is the Founder and Editor of World Landscape Architecture (WLA). He is a registered landscape architect (AILA) working in international design practice in Australia. Damian founded WLA in 2007 to provide a website for landscape architects written by landscape architects. Connect on Linkedin at