Landscape And Displacement: A Practical Intervention On A Syrian Informal Settlement In Lebanon

The Syrian Civil War is the deadliest conflict of this century. Since the conflict began in 2011, 12.5 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes, nearly 60% of the total population, the largest exodus of a population from their home country ever witnessed [1]. Additionally, nearly 5 million refugees have fled Syria, seeking safety in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and beyond [2]. This mass migration has affected regional and global politics, economics and culture. Migration also fuels spatial transformation. In the absence of coordinated response and intervention, the flow of refugees into neighboring countries such as Lebanon has swiftly restructured the landscape through millions of individual acts of intervention and settlement. As migrants seek to make a home in a landscape of displacement, they often occupy leftover territories, land that has itself been passed over or discarded.

This paper reports on the research of the Landscape in Emergency Research Group and its explorations of the role of landscape design on the landscapes of displacement caused by the Syrian crisis in Lebanon. It explores the importance of the interaction and communication between design experts and community members in envisioning scenarios of intervention to address the adversity created by displacement and temporary settlement.

Informal Settlement’s condition in Lebanon. Photo by Maria Gabriella Trovato.


Syrian Crisis in Lebanon

Lebanon is host to nearly 1.2 million Syrian refugees, representing around a quarter of the country’s total population. Since the Syrian Civil War began, refugees fleeing the conflict have settled in every corner of Lebanon, putting a significant strain on already stretched services and infrastructure [3].

Presently, roughly 42,000 illegal tents are scattered across the country in approximately 1,500 locations throughout Lebanon mainly concentrated in the North and in the Bekaa Valley. Lebanon represents a unique condition, as it is the only country in the region neighboring Syria that has refused to allow for the establishment of formal camps despite offers of assistance from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees’ (UNHCR). Thus, the UNHCR shelter group was and is still not able to neither suggest nor change the location of the dispersed Informal Tents Settlements throughout Lebanon. Their distribution in the Lebanese regions depends on family and religious affiliations, and it is also under the control of individuals known as ‘Shawish’, who initiate connections between Syrians refugees, in search of location, and Lebanese owners, ready to reorganize their land to accommodate informal shelters and rent them to the new comers. The majority of the Syrian Informal Settlements (ISs) are located in agricultural fields which, under the pressure of the mass migration, were illegally changed in use and converted by their owners in ISs without respecting the minimum standard requisites stated in the ‘Handbook for Emergencies’ (UNHCR, 2007). Their dimension vary from one place to another and could range from a really small settlement, with less than ten families, to the largest that settles up to 100 families.

In the wake of the Syrian crisis, about 42,000 illegal tents are scattered at nearly 1,500 locations throughout Lebanon, mainly concentrated in the north and Bekka Valley. Image by Maria Gabriella Trovato.


This approach to building Informal Tent Settlements (ITS) all too often disregards the knowledge, culture and identity of both local and refugee populations. While this approach has allowed for the efficient construction of hundreds of ITS, it has also led to the segregation and alienation of Syrian communities, and the creation of slums and shantytowns.

These conditions are particularly damaging to populations displaced by disaster and civil war where communities and families have been torn apart and lost a great deal of their autonomy. In the ITS, individuals are forced to live together, day by day, and share restricted areas without knowing each other. They typically have no freedom to choose neighborhood, quality or typology of space.

Furthermore, while not planned and not inserted in a strategic vision, all of these ITS, enclosed entity without connection to the urban structure, are threatening the already compromised ecological, social, and cultural stability of the country. At environmental level the dispersion of the cluster of tents throughout the productive land, and their location near by water infrastructures, are boosting the degradation of the fertile soil and doubling the elevated percentage of water, soil and air pollution.


Al Tyliani

Al Tyliani ITS in Bar Elias, Bekaa Governorate took its name from Mr. Mosaab Al Tyliani the owner of what used to be a small agricultural field growing lettuce and potatoes. In 2011 the owner covered its land with concrete slabs converting the productive field to an informal settlement to accommodate the tents. In doing so, he compacted the soil, shaped three main roads and built five strips of concrete ready to house the 60 shelters. The newly produced landscape is the result of a new type of investment on the land that the landlord undertook. In order to control the expansion, the landowner overlaid a grid of vehicular roads to the ground, separating rows of a maximum of 10 tents sized 4 meters by 8 meters.

This planned grid was not strictly followed during construction; some tents are bigger or smaller than the mandated size, some protrude into pathways and occupy communal space. The resulting configuration generated a diversity of conditions between the tents which were used in some cases as alleys, in other ones as private or semi private spaces, as ornamental or kitchen gardens or as neglected left-over spaces. However, for the last six years, this 9000 square meter parcel has hosted 63 tents, providing a home to 66 families and around 440 people.

Extension of the private space of tent versus the open areas of the ITS. Photo by Maria Gabriella Trovato.


Once the ITS was laid out, the refugees used basic material to built their shelters. The view from above reveals a monochromatic and monotonous sequence of informal structures, with tents situated in neat rows, like a military campsite. However, the view from the ground reveals a complex blurring of material and immaterial boundaries, with ambiguous identities, ownership and hierarchy of spaces (public, collective, semi-private, private). Over time, the initial configuration of the tents has transformed as occupants added new rooms, internal courts and small gardens. The profile and figure of tents have further transformed as inhabitants scavenged plastic boxes, tires, satellite dishes and other useful materials.

While the ITS inhabitants have modified their tents, the landscape has proved less adaptable and provides little discernable benefit to residents. A row of trees, which remain from the previous agricultural use continues to fence in the settlement on one side without creating any shade to the benefit of the residents. The two swales that border the settlement have become dump zones and created serious health problems for the residents. No basic sanitation infrastructure to manage liquid or solid waste has been added to the camp despite high pollution levels and consequently mounting environmental and health risks to camp inhabitants. In 2014, Kayany Foundation, in collaboration with Center for Civic Engagement and Community Service (CCECS/AUB) and private donors built ‘Ghata’, a portable school on a site facing the settlement. ‘Ghata’ provides access to education to the children residing in Informal Tented Settlements and plays a major role in the lives of the kids who spend most of their day attending classes and playing in the playground. The communal open spaces are normally not paved and not equipped. They are no man land without the slightest form of communitarian sense that defines them as public space.

Water and soil pollution on Al Tyliani ITS is threatening the environmental condition of the neighborhood agricultural areas. Photo by Maria Gabriella Trovato.


Landscapes in Emergency

The International Operative Landscape Workshop e-scape was conceived of during a research symposium on Landscape in Emergency held in Beirut in January 2015 [4]. Al Tyliani was chosen as the site of the first workshop and intervention. In May of 2015, ten international professors and fifteen students spent eight days living and working in Al Tyliani.

The project had two primary goals. First, to formulate a definition of community attuned to the reality of refugee settlements in Lebanon. Second, while conducting fieldwork and learning from the Informal Settlement, we also sought to make a more direct contribution through the design and implementation of public space projects aimed at enriching collective imaginary and memory.

In light of an understanding of the weakened and fractured sense of belonging and cohesiveness in the ITS, we sought not to impose an artificial sense of community, but instead focused on physical projects whose planning and construction might themselves help foster connections and relationships among the individuals and groups in the settlement. We adopted Jean Luc Nancy’s definition of community as a network of singularities, a structure of shared life experience that is not “produced” but which evolves – emerges – in much the same way as the relationships of species in an ecosystem – built over time and layered through aggregation and by drift [5]. We tried to develop a landscape architectural strategy that enables communitas to evolve as an open system reinforced through the making of shared landscapes that are themselves open and evolutionary [6].

The inhabitants of the ITS were involved in the decision-making process from the beginning in the attempt to encourage them to take ownership of the public milieu. Workshops, meetings, and day-by-day discussions, helped visiting designers and camp residents to better understand each other and to work together.

The first day, after a site survey and initial analysis, students mapped the settlement and diagramed the spatial organization and uses of open space. From our observation of the ordinary and everyday practices in place across the settlement, we began to better understand how the inhabitants reproduce the residential fabric of their original villages, creating nuanced layering of between public and private spaces despite the flat and homogenous nature of the Settlement’s design.

The very limited open areas between the tents are often fenced in order to be used to carry out the daily activities. Photos by Maria Gabriella Trovato.


Inhabitants regularly borrow public spaces for private uses along strict codes of acceptable behavior and temporality. The tacit appropriation of space adjacent to the tent regulates an acceptable extension of the domestic activity beyond home. In response to fluidity of behavior, the landscape itself becomes flexible and is constantly changing. Ephemeral territories are put in place over the course of the day only to disappear soon after without leaving any material trace. More permanent appropriation is present where the ratio between the tent and the open space disrespects the need to for privacy. Protection or buffering elements such as fabric or tarps are erected to block thresholds, preventing the passer-by from getting too close to intimate space.

In this way, structural and landscape elements are used to mark space and assert the possibility of ownership. The threshold, a thin and ultimately symbolic line (in the case of flimsy temporary tents), delineates at once an alienation of oneself from a collective whole, a distinction between identity and otherness. The flexibility and adaptability of this line is governed by well-defined spatial and social codes that determine the nature of the allowed domestic floods.

Based on the analysis and observation of the site, the group decided to focus on a network of three open spaces: a children’s playground, a pedestrian connection, and a water garden.

Maps and pictures of the three chosen open spaces in the ITS. Image by Maria Gabriella Trovato.


Three groups were formed and set to work sketching projects directly on-site. Our primary design criteria were usefulness to community, contribution to health and well-being, feasibility of construction, available materials, flexibility, and absence of maintenance.

The second day we organized a meeting with the community, inviting representatives from multiple constituencies including men, women, teachers, and children. We introduced ourselves and we explained our role and the scope of the workshop. We presented our understanding of the life in the settlement waiting for their feedback and asking for their contribution during the implantation phase. The community expressed their needs and desires and we agreed on the general projects and activities. The third day, we were joined by representatives from UNHCR Lebanon, during which we were able to share our observations on the conditions of the Settlement and our goals for the project while learning more about the context of the ITS and the UNHCR’s work to address the Syrian crisis in Lebanon.

The children’s playground project implementation. Photos by Maria Gabriella Trovato.


The projects that we chose to pursue were intentionally modest. But, they were achievable in eight days using cheap and recycled materials found on site. They required no specialty equipment or construction knowledge. This allowed for greater participation of community members in a participatory construction process. In 8 days we were able to transform the three discarded sites in community spaces.

The upgraded pedestrian connection. Photos by Maria Gabriella Trovato


In the children’s playground, we provided shady areas to gather during the day, equipped with simple and colored structures for children to play and enjoy their time. In the redesigned pedestrian connection, we re-graded the walkway between tents, creating a drainage channel and planted a rain garden. In the final space, we created a vegetable garden, creating beds for growing produce and flowers, a vertical structure for vines, and a shower game area for children to play while washing themselves.

The community participated in the implementation of all three projects: giving advice, helping with construction, carrying materials from one site to another, sewing, coloring and planting.

The rain garden project. Photos by Maria Gabriella Trovato


The design process was not linear and a lot of adjustments were made during the construction. Often, the community shared their feelings with our group indirectly. During the construction process, our team paid close attention to the reaction of the community to the new structures we were building. Sometimes, reactions were more direct – changes were sometimes made during the night and before our arrival to the settlement in the morning, helping us to simplify and clarify our ideas, providing opportunities for better understanding of the community’s rich culture through our daily interaction.

The final product was the result of collaboration between our expertise and their deep knowledge. The realized landscape projects were not a maquillage, a posteriori, but the operative test of a design methodology based on the immanent character of the landscape using it directly on the creative design process. With these small projects, we demonstrate that we can intervene on the existing, trying to mitigate the effect of the transformations made on the land designing a new landscape interpreting and using the elements on site in a continuous opera of writing and re-writing that could considers the mode of new insertion without compromising the existing.



If the ‘Landscape’ is eminently a cultural concept, the purpose of the research is to collect its many spontaneous expressions, which collectively form the Lebanese territory. These elements structure cultural identities and ultimately transform the landscape by creating new identities and experiences through the addition and overlap of a narrative. An understanding of existing cultural elements and their nascent meaning should influence and inform strategies of intervention at multiple levels, from municipalities to Ministries. The paper presents a case study of a design intervention that aims to contribute to the process of knowledge production and cultural understanding. The research is not exhaustive and is still in progress, but some trajectories were delineated and studied and hypotheses of guideline were written with the aim of helping the planning and territorial management of Lebanon.



I would like to express my gratitude to all those who are contributing to the Landscape in Emergency research. I would especially like to thank LDEM at American University of Beirut (AUB), IFLA, CCECS at AUB, Kayany Foundation, and UNHCR Lebanon for their valuable assistance, encouragement, and support to the research and their help on ground implementation. All the donors that practically allowed us to hold the two events. A special thank to my students for the efforts they put in and the capacity they shown in addressing a so difficult project. A particular gratitude to the professors who believed in the research, and, in spite of the difficulties encountered, are still interested in continuing the study. I want to thank my research assistant Hana Itani for her help and contribution to the project. I would also like to thank the many people who gave their time to inform this project. While I have purposely kept their input confidential, their voices are heard throughout this paper.

Maria Gabriella Trovato is Assistant Professor in the LDEM Department at the American University of Beirut. She has a PhD from the University of Reggio Calabria and the University of Naples in Landscape Architecture: Parks, Gardens and Spatial Planning.

Maria Gabriella most recent researches focuses on MEDSCAPES project ENPI/CBCMED, on Landscape Atlas for Lebanon, and on Urban and Peri-urban landscape in the Middle East and North Africa. Actually she is working on Landscape in emergency research with special focus on Syrian crisis in Lebanon. She has worked in a number of countries including Italy, Morocco, Tunisia and Canada, and was lead partner in EU-research programs.


[1] “About six-in-ten Syrians are now displaced from their homes,” PewResearch Center,
[2] “Syrian Emergency Statistics,” UNHCR, accessed May 3, 2017,
[3] Charlie Dunmore, UNHCR chief meets struggling Syrian refugees in Lebanon, April 15, 2015,
[4] Different donors collaborated and helped us during this intense experience: Kayany foundation; UNHCR donated two NAK; Ziad Abichaker from Cedar Environmental; Landscape Design and Ecosystem Management at the American University of Beirut; Katib & Alami.
[5] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, Theory and History of Literature Vol. 76 (University of Minnesota Press 1991).
[6] Rod Barnett, Emergence in Landscape Architecture (New York: Routledge, 2013).


Maria Gabriella Trovato, “Landscape and Displacement: a practical intervention on a Syrian Informal Settlement in Lebanon,” Scenario Journal 06: Migration, Summer 2017,

The Spatialization Of Migration Policy In Europe

In the last decade, an unprecedented number of refugees entered Europe, leading to what media and politics are framing as a security crisis. Statements by Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s minister president, from March 15, 2016: “The refugee crisis will lead to the destruction of Europe” are no longer the exception [1]. In light of Britain’s recent withdrawal from the EU, one must wonder if it is the refugee influx or the failure of the European leaders to establish a concise European-wide solution for the problem that leads to the weakening of the Union.

Solving the immigration problem in Europe will require more than passing new laws. The issue of migration in Europe must be examined across multiple scales and with a human, not purely bureaucratic or legal, lens. This project aims to move beyond the dry statistics migration to show that that the flow of refugees is made of many personal stories and experiences that are transformed and deeply affected by law, regulation, and political climate.

Since 2015, a grisly combination of a surge in refugees from Syria and the increasing number of deaths by drowning in the Mediterranean Sea have made migration over the West Balkan route the primary entry route to Europe for asylum-seekers and migrants [2]. The route begins in Turkey, after which refugees travel through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and finally continue on to the countries within the European Union in which they intend to seek asylum.

Figure 1: The West Balkan Route.


By analyzing the personal journey that a refugee –Feras, 23, from Aleppo– took to get from Turkey to his final destination in Europe (Germany), and juxtaposing it within the larger European political landscape, we hope to shed light on the different experiences refugees face along the way. Furthermore, through investigating the effects and impacts that the political agendas have on the individual journey–either generating fear of being caught, or feeling welcome and safe at the different stops in different nations–the research highlights the richly textured experience and extreme differences in hospitality an asylum seeker faces as he/she crosses national borders.

In the maps that follow, international regulation and national policy are expressed through modes of transportation–rubber boat, ferry, car, bus, and on foot along train tracks–and through descriptions of interaction with border police, locals, smugglers, mafias, and fellow refugees. Through Feras’s 12-day journey, we seek to reveal the spatialization of policy and regulation on the ground and emphasize the refugees’ reaction to shifts in political climates.

Figure 2: International Refugee Laws. Over the last century, numerous agreements and laws have been established with the goal of creating a common and fair European refugee policy.


Europe has a long history of dealing with mass migration. Over the last century, numerous agreements and laws have been established with the goal of creating a common and fair European refugee policy. The 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol represent key moments and pieces of legislation that defined refugee status, refugee rights, and country of asylum’s responsibilities. But it was not until the Dublin Regulation in 1990 that an asylum seeker’s effective access to asylum procedure was ensured and protected by international law. The Dublin Regulation identifies the member states responsible for the examination of an asylum claim in Europe [3]. These efforts have their limitations, as not all European countries have signed such agreements: Hungary is not a member of the 1951 Convention [4], Macedonia and Serbia among others are not enforcing Dublin Regulation.

Figure 3: Feras’ journey, days 1-4: The map traces a part of the journey that Feras, a 23-year-old economic student from Syria, takes to migrate to Germany. The 12-day-trek begins with a frightening rubber-boat ride from Bodrum, Turkey to Kos, Greece where Feras and his fellow refugees find rest in tents set up along the coast. This is where the reporter Paul Ronzheimer meets the group of men. From Kos, they continue their journey together by ferry to Athens on Day 4. Source: Bild Reporter’s Paul Ronzheimer’s Periscope video [5].


During the last year, the mood and resulting changes in refugee policies and regulations have transformed from the German ‘open arms politic’ to a more xenophobic tendency. Right wing parties have become increasingly influential throughout Europe. On March 1, 2016, the Europe of Nations of Freedom (ENF) a party with a far-right politics ideology, reached as much as 5.1% in the European Parliament for the first time [6]. The 2015 general election for the Austrian prime minister position resulted in the first round with 36.4% of all votes for Norbert Hofer, the candidate of Austria’s right-populist Freedom Party Austria (FPÖ), who based much of his platform on anti-refugee policies [7]. In August 2015, Macedonia declared a state of emergency and deployed riot police to cut off migration flow at its border; in February 2016, Austria introduced a 37,500 limitation of refugee entries per annum [8]. Hard-right populism recently got its biggest victory with UK prime minister Theresa May’s successful campaign for Brexit in which the ongoing refugee crisis played a crucial role. This year, the French National Front’s candidate Mary Le Pen got her victory for being the first far-right candidate getting into the second round of the election albeit losing to the centrist Emmanuel Macron in the end [9]. These differences in the complex and quickly changing political system make it extremely difficult for an asylum-seeker to navigate along a West Balkan route that grows increasingly hostile to asylum-seekers and refugees.

In addition, the settlement and support of refugees is treated as a national problem instead of a European one. Each country in the European Union has its own policy and attitude towards refugees; creating a patchwork of politics that is difficult for asylum-seekers to navigate and creates a rift between the countries. Heated debates arose over the reception and distribution of refugees. While Germany called for a European-wide solution, Hungary and Macedonia unilaterally decided to construct fences at their borders, many border controls are reinstated within the EU’s visa-free Schengen zone. Due to all these conflicting standpoints, many caution against the disintegration of the European Union as a result of inadequate responses to the current migration issue [10].

Figure 4: Feras’ journey, days 5-9: After Feras and his friends arrive in Athens on Day 5, they travel by bus to the border of Macedonia. Here have their first experience of highly ambiguous national policies. While the Greek police tell them this would be the best way to cross the border, the Macedonian police tries to hold them up. On Day 7, while traveling by taxi to the Serbian border, the group has to hide and run from both the Serbian police and Mafia. In Belgrade, they wait on Days 8 and 9 for a prearranged contact to get their money for the rest of the journey. Source: Bild Reporter’s Paul Ronzheimer’s Periscope video [11].


Europe will continue to face an ongoing flow of migration, as long as there is no definite peaceful future in Syria and other countries in the Middle East and Africa. The European Union is called upon by many member states to decide and implement a common European solution. So far the EU made a deal with Turkey agreeing to stop the irregular migration from Turkey: “all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey over to Greek islands will be returned to Turkey; and for every Syrian returned to Turkey from Greece, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the EU” [12]. Although it is a step toward a European-wide effort to improve the migration issue, the deal seems like a last minute drastic measure to displace the problem rather than actually solving it. The need for a concise European intervention that embraces migration is acute and urgent.

Figure 5: Feras’ journey, days 10-12: Feras and his friends continue their journey on Day 10 by bus to Hungary. Here, they wait through the night to cross over the first EU country’s border. They are most afraid of being caught by the Hungarian police, due to the Dublin Regulation. Following train tracks, they reach a gas station in Hungary without being caught. Here a Hungarian offers to take them in his car to the German boarder. On Day 12, the group finally arrives in Freilassing, just across the German border, where Feras and his friends apply for asylum. Source: Bild Reporter’s Paul Ronzheimer’s Periscope video [13].


This research seeks to reframe the current conversations around the issue of migration through a detailed investigation of the process by which asylum seekers navigate modern legal barriers and cultural challenges. Our study focuses on how international laws and national customs evolve into spatialized forums where physical manifestations of regulatory institutions impact the arc of refugees looking to settle into a new country.

Figure 6: Paul Ronzheimer, the Bild reporter who traveled with Feras and his friends, reporting on their journey using live videos.


The full project mapping can be viewed at full resolution here.

Tami Banh Tami is an architecture student from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. She had a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Southern California and is concurrently pursuing Master in Architecture II and Master in Landscape Architecture I Degree at Harvard Graduate School of Design. Tami’s design and research explore the interconnection between architecture, urbanism, ecology, and politic. Her works have been exhibited at Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles (Sink or Swim Exhibition), and Harvard Graduate School of Design (Platform 9: Still Life and Designing Justice Exhibition). Before coming to Harvard GSD, Tami was working at ZGF Los Angeles and was part of the design team for the Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center – the new home for NASA retired Endeavour Space Shuttle. Recently awarded with the Penny White research fund, Tami is currently pursuing a personal research about the history of ecological intensification in the Lower Mekong Delta and the role of maps in constructing new spatial and political realities in the region.   

Antonia Rudnay started her training as a landscape architect at the University of Horticulture in Vienna, Austria, followed by a year at the Corvinus University in Budapest, Hungary. It was during this time that her interest in the interconnection of culture and physical space awoke. Indeed it was the different cultural perceptions leading to altered interactions of people in these very spaces that were at the core of her studies. To further explore these questions pertaining to space, Antonia obtained a bachelor degree of Landscape Architecture at the Technical University of Munich, Germany, in 2014. Thereafter she embarked upon a masters degree in Landscape Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, graduating in May 2016. At Harvard, Antonia refined her approach in a variety of projects dealing with contemporary architectural sites in the US, as well as in Mexico, Colombia and Israel, and their respective social issues. In this vain, Antonia continues to explore the impact of spatial patterns on socio-political conditions, focusing especially on issues of inclusion and exclusion. One of her projects in this field was shown at the Designing Justice Exhibition at the Harvard Graduate School of Design held in spring 2016. Upon graduating, Antonia started working for the Munich-based office of mahl gebhard konzepte. Here she is targeting urban projects, concerning integrated development concepts for small towns in the region of Swabia. At the moment Antonia is involved with the design of a recreational park leading through the town center of Simbach, which will cater to the demands of an urban public space, as well as protect the town from floods, which caused casualties the previous year.


[1] “N-TV Politik,” N-TV, accessed April 18, 2016,
[2] “Khaleej Times Europe,” Khaleej Times, accessed March 27, 2016,; “The Economist Graphic Detail,” The Economist, accessed April 23, 2016,
[3] “European Council of Refugees and Exiles Dublin Regulation,” ECRE, accessed April 24, 2016,
[4] “UNHCR The UN Refugee Agency,” UNHCR, accessed April 24, 2016,
[5] “Flüchtling Feras auf Kos: In Syrien bist du schnell tot / Teil 1 ( Refugees / Grieece / Syria ),” YouTube video, 1:57, posted by BILDREPORTER, August 13, 2015,
[6]  “Far-right parties form group in EU parliment,” EUobserver, accessed March 25, 2016,; “European Parliament: Facts and Figures,” European Parliament Research Service Blog, accessed April 18, 2016,
[7] “European Parliamentary Research Service Blog.” European Parliamentary Research Service Blog.
[8] “2015 in review: timeline of major incidences and policy responses,” International Centre for Migration Policy Development, accessed March 12, 2016,; “Migrant Crisis: Austria sets asylum claims cap and transit limit,” BBC News, February 17, 2016, accessed March 12, 2016,
[9] Zack Beauchamp, “The French elections showed the strength of the European far right — and its limits,” Vox, April 24, 2017,
[10] SPIEGEL Staff, “New Fences on the Old Continent: Refugee Crisis Pushes Europe to the Brink,” SPIEGEL ONLINE, March 4, 2016, accessed April 18, 2016,
[11] “Flüchtlinge: Feras Reise Teil 2 – Ein junger Syrer auf der Flucht vor dem Krieg ( Refugee / Europa ),” YouTube video, 5:16, posted by BILDREPORTER, August 18, 2015,
[12] European Commission, “European Commission News,” accessed April 18, 2016,
[13] “Flucht nach Deutschland – Feras schwerer Weg nach Serbien / Teil 3 ( Mazedonien / Grenze ),” YouTube video, 7:42, posted by BILDREPORTER, August 24, 2015,


Tami Banh and Antonia Rudnay, “The Spatialization of Migration Policy in Europe,” Scenario Journal 06: Migration, Summer 2017,

Segunda Vida: An Architecture Of Resilience

In this era of intense public scrutiny of U.S. immigration policy, with the country divided on this and other pressing moral issues, a transnational movement of architecture across the border into northern Baja California continues to evolve quietly, steadily, and organically. While the much-debated northward human migration seeking economic opportunity in Mexican border cities and the United States persists, a less conspicuous southerly flow steadily feeds the evolving vernacular landscape of Tijuana. In modest precincts that strangely mirror those of neighboring, yet far more affluent, San Diego, new homes can spring up practically overnight: phantom structures appearing on unlikely dirt patches, clinging to tenuous slopes, filling in improbable gaps between existing buildings.

Sprawled across dusty hills and perched along the edges of scrub-clad ravines, these unassuming burgs echo their northern counterparts in the surrounding topography, in the temperate weather that graces this corner of the world, in occasional glimpses of the vast blue Pacific glinting to the west. That, however, is largely where the comparison ends. Nor are these homes actually new — consisting of discarded or surplus building supplies, recycled materials of all kinds, even entire structures, they represent the repurposing of America’s waste in an improvisational, eclectic, and inventive fashion.


House awaiting transport [left]; Transported duplex [right]. Photos by Anthony Marchetti.


The patchwork architecture of Tijuana’s informal settlements possesses an ephemeral, dreamlike quality that seems at times to evoke some postmodern Impressionistic vision of urban life. The city has many faces: it is relatively young (founded in 1889), a financial and manufacturing center, home to a diverse multicultural population, and one of the fastest-growing metropolises in Mexico. Currently the fifth-largest in the country with a population of roughly 1.7 million, estimates suggest that in less than 15 years it will be second in size only to Mexico City [1]Tijuana is also the most visited border city on earth, as well as the location of the world’s busiest land border crossing — the San Ysidro Port of Entry alone logged a staggering 59 million crossings in 2014 [2]. Despite all of this, and despite sharing a miles-long border with “America’s Finest City,” it is a place all but unknown to most Americans.

The practice of moving entire buildings across the border began in earnest at least 70 years ago, when San Diego authorities sanctioned the razing of hastily-built wartime tracts to accommodate shifting housing needs for families after World War II [3]. Rather than demolish them all, however, some of the homes associated with these “defense housing projects” were loaded onto trailers, trucked the 25-odd miles south to Tijuana, and sold to local residents.


Relocated house on top of existing structure. Photo by Anthony Marchetti.


In their multi-year examination of this phenomenon, Minnesota-based professors and photographers Laura Migliorino and Anthony Marchetti have suggested that there may be as many as tens of thousands of these structures scattered throughout Tijuana [4]. One long-time San Diego building mover had, as of 2002, been involved with the relocation of thousands of houses to Mexico over a period of two decades [5]. Some houses were literally cut in half to facilitate transport, their exteriors still bearing the scars of this process. Others have been placed on top of existing structures, with cantilevered second stories or exposed floor joists belying their origin elsewhere. In another space-saving measure, some straddle the driveway between existing buildings.

In the mid-1990s, the removal of 618 Navy housing units (primarily apartments) in San Diego following the passing of the Military Housing Privatization Initiative by Congress would have resulted in one of the largest single instances of the cross-border movement of buildings: a plan was proposed to transport approximately 20 duplex officers’ quarters by barge to Rosarito, on the coast between Tijuana and Ensenada, but this couldn’t be accomplished prior to their scheduled demolition. In the end, just three of the homes were sold and relocated to Tijuana [6].


Raised transported house. Photo by Laura Migliorino [left]; House made of recycled materials in the Ejido Chilpancingo area. Photo by Maria Teresa Fernández [right].


The practice of buying and transporting entire houses has, over the years and in concert with NAFTA-fueled manufacturing along the border, morphed from what began as a simple, affordable housing choice for Tijuana residents, into an architecture of necessity for the city’s dispossessed. It is now common to find homes made from cast-off relics of the maquiladora industry — shipping pallets, prefabricated components, packing crates, fiberglass, plastic — intermingled with more conventional building materials such as lumber, plywood, concrete block, fencing panels, and sheets of corrugated metal brought across the border by wholesalers, local contractors, or various philanthropic organizations. Older garage doors, salvaged from remodeled homes in Southern California subdivisions, are frequently reused as structural walls. In some cases, the border wall itself has been used to enclose one side of a structure. In an area noted for its steep slopes and unstable soil, used car tires have become a popular choice for retaining walls. Two Tijuana-based photographers, Maria Teresa Fernandez and Ingrid Hernandez, have been documenting this phenomenon for years in their own unique ways, with respective projects titled Architects by Force and Tijuana Comprimida (“Tijuana Compressed”).


House made of recycled materials including garage doors, packing crates and shipping pallets, Las Torres neighborhood. Photo by Maria Teresa Fernández [left]; House clad with salvaged maquiladora scraps, Colonia Nueva Esperanza/La Cuesta. Photo by Ingrid Hernandez [right].


In 1993, an unprecedented influx of donated building materials crossed the border following devastating floods that accompanied heavy winter rains in northern Mexico. In response to this humanitarian crisis that killed at least 30 and left thousands homeless, a combination of American citizens, public agencies, private companies, and contractors donated over 400 tons of building materials that filled twenty-seven tractor trailer loads [7]. Be it through Southern California or Tijuana-based contractors, third-party freight companies and distributors, philanthropic organizations, or individual efforts, an impressive amount of building material originating in the U.S. has made its way south of the border over the course of the past several decades. This material, in turn, has found its way into newer neighborhoods ringing Tijuana’s older core.


A colonia resident moving salvaged materials. Photo by Guillermo Arias.


Drawn to this far corner of Latin America by the promise of factory wages, education, and the lure of El Norte, immigrants from Mexico’s hardscrabble rural districts, from Central and South America, and from other indigent areas of the world frequently find themselves in largely unregulated precincts on Tijuana’s outskirts. Incidentally, the Spanish word for neighborhood or community is colonia, which translates directly as “colony” but is used colloquially to denote settlements that often lack basic infrastructure such as potable water, sanitary sewer systems, electricity, paved roads, or safe housing. Mexican law also tends to look more favorably upon squatters — as vacant land is taken over and built upon, residents may eventually be able to appeal collectively to authorities for municipal services such as water and electricity [8].

In this tenuous setting, often only minutes or even a literal stone’s throw from the increasingly fortified border wall, buildings blossom in newly-colonized spaces which only a week before (or in some cases a mere day) may have played host to a pile of refuse, a stray dog nosing for food, a children’s pickup soccer game. Perhaps heralded by nothing more than the rumbling arrival of a well-worn flatbed truck, and of helping hands recruited from family and neighbors, these makeshift dwellings fly in the face of conventional urban planning: no city permits or building inspectors, no teams of subcontractors, no final punch list, no transfer of keys or formal acknowledgement of ownership. These homes are works in progress as means or necessity dictate. A room may be added to accommodate a recently-married son or daughter and their spouse; a kitchen enlarged to feed more grandchildren; a new wing constructed when salvaged materials become available.

Besides embodying a spirit of economy, this informal architecture often displays an ingenuity that extends into entrepreneurship: many relocated houses have been placed on top of other structures, concrete block piers or open steel frames, allowing flexibility for later additions or street-level commercial space such as garages or shops below [9]. This practice has found its way into the forward thinking of Teddy Cruz, architect and professor at the University of California, San Diego, who has advocated for the use of factory-made prefabricated frames — essentially a “plug-in scaffolding” — to provide the basic substructure for endless variations of buildings made out of re-assembled materials [10].

As people continue to migrate north in search of a better life, the spoils of America’s abundance head south, mingling in a prolific cycle of consumption and reuse.  Beginning with the carcasses of the postwar California Dream, this architecture of impermanence has resulted in a living urban fabric that is constantly changing in response to a porous border: as some immigrants choose to seek their fortunes across the line in the U.S., still others arrive in northern Mexico to take their place.


House made of reclaimed lumber, shipping pallets and packing crates, Colonia Nueva Esperanza/La Cuesta. Photo by Ingrid Hernandez.


Meanwhile, the need for basic housing in Tijuana continues to increase: back in 1993 the shortage was predicted to be a staggering 200,000 dwellings by the year 2000, and the city is growing at a rate of over 5% per year, nearly four times faster than San Diego [11]. Providing for of one of humanity’s greatest needs — shelter — with discarded components exemplifies a potent form of recycling, on a household scale but with grand implications.


Construction and demolition waste at a typical U.S. landfill. Photo courtesy Joe Songer/The Birmingham News.

The economics of salvage encourages this kind of reuse: the cost of demolishing even a modest single-family house, including permits, hauling and landfill fees, can routinely run upwards of $15,000. Companies specializing in “deconstruction” rather than demolition are redefining the traditional waste cycle, a task made easier in the border region where the demand for affordable building materials is high. TRP, or The Reuse People, got its start in Southern California as Building Materials Distributors in 1993 in the wake of the Tijuana floods. It has since grown into a nationwide company that has by its own estimation kept over 350,000 tons of reusable materials out of landfills by salvaging up to 80% of obsolete buildings.

With construction and demolition waste comprising roughly 25% of U.S. landfill content nationwide, there are regional, national, and even global implications of this type of redistribution of salvaged materials. Extended to the reclamation of further waste from industrial manufacturing, packaging, and shipping, this ethos of thrift could very well represent a new vision for urban development in a world of diminishing resources. As urban populations swell as a result of human migration, it may be time to reevaluate the logic of traditional waste streams — as well as that particularly American predilection for newness. And, while many will argue that there is no dignity in poverty, there is a certain resilience and undeniable humanity in the ability to make use of what is available to put a roof over one’s head, to protect and shelter one’s family, to create uniquely personal spaces for work, for play, for love, for ritual.


Three sisters, residents of the Ejido Chilpancingo area of eastern Tijuana, pose outside their home built from recycled materials. Photo by Maria Teresa Fernández.


This is not about romanticizing the modern-day shantytown; it is about shedding light on one of the most dynamic border regions in the world, the boundary between present and future, and choices about how our cities develop and grow. Most importantly, it is about how the very real issues of shifting and expanding populations, poverty, and urban sprawl are being tackled head-on by individual households and families with both tenacity and creativity. In the words of the late Samuel Mockbee, iconoclastic architect and creator of the acclaimed Rural Studio in Auburn, Alabama: “Everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul” [12].

Mike Yengling, an architectural historian by training, is an independent writer and photographer who has worked as an environmental planner for the California State Parks system since 2013. His vocation has taken him to locales as far-flung as Norway, Italy, Jamaica, the backwoods of West Virginia, and 43 different counties in Iowa. He is currently involved with several nominations to the National Register of Historic Places and would love to see Friendship Park, a binational meeting place on the U.S.-Mexico border, added to this list. At the 2015 California Preservation Conference he spoke about the demise of historic fire lookout towers on public lands, a topic he continues to explore in depth. A native of faraway Virginia, he’s managed to steep himself in the local flavors of the San Diego and northern Baja California region and now struggles to imagine life without ceviche tostadas or fresh limes.


[1] Lee, Erik and Paul Ganster (ed.). The U.S.-Mexican Border Environment: Progress and Challenges for Sustainability. Southwest Consortium for Environmental Research and Policy (SCERP) Monograph Series, no. 16 (San Diego, CA: San Diego State University Press, 2012): 7.
[2] 2015 San Diego-Baja California Border Crossings and Trade Statistics. PDF. San Diego Association of Governments [SANDAG] Committee on Binational Regional Opportunities, September 1, 2015.
[3] Christine Killory, “Temporary Suburbs: The Lost Opportunity of San Diego’s National Defense Housing Projects,” Journal of San Diego History 39, no. 2 (1994): 33-49; Jill Holslin, “Occidente Nuevo: Recycled Tijuana,” At The Edges: Observing San Diego-Tijuana Urban Life, April 4, 2013.
[4] Julie Grahame, “Recycled Tijuana: Houses Trucked From San Diego, Huffington Post, October 2, 2014.
[5] Joel Millman, “Used-Home Lot in Tijuana Turns Into a Commodity”, Chicago Tribune, September 29, 2002.
[6] Ted Reiff, “The Whys and Hows of House-Moving: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” The ReUse People of America [TRP], March 11, 2014,
[7] Iliff Lawrence, “Two More Die in Tijuana Floods; Toll at 30,” United Press International, January 1, 1993; Thomas Larson, “Housing Is a Verb: In Twelve Cobbled-Together Parts,” San Diego Reader, November 18, 1999.
[8] Josh Kun and Fiamma Montezemolo (ed.), Tijuana Dreaming: Life and Art at the Global Border (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012): 186; Justin McGuirk, “Here’s What It’s Like To Live In Tijuana – The Busiest Land Crossing In The World,” Business Insider, May 2, 2014.
[9] Ananya Roy and Emma Shaw Crane (ed.), Territories of Poverty: Rethinking North and South (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2015): 327.
[10] Teddy Cruz, “The Informal As Inspiration for Rethinking Urban Spaces: Architect Teddy Cruz Shares 5 Projects,” TEDBlog, February 5, 2014.
[11] Kun and Montezemolo: 251; Norris C. Clement and Eduardo Zepeda Miramontes (ed.), San Diego-Tijuana in Transition: A Regional Analysis (San Diego, CA: Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias, 1993): 80.
[12] Andrea Oppenheimer Dean and Timothy Hursley. Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency. Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.


Mike Yengling, “Segunda Vida: an Architecture of Resilience,” Scenario Journal 06: Migration, Summer 2017,

Travel By Night

We don’t own our passports. They belong to the country that claims us. We use passports to move between borders we have created. These documents are as relevant as the internet and tell stories as timeless as a Greek tragedy. Our sense of belonging is deeply tied to passports and the immigration process, which is increasingly complicated and scrutinized.

Caressing the bound, wallet-size travel document Marco waits while I pull up a collection of forms, documents, and website tabs. All are to prepare us for our journey tonight. I am assisting Marco, a permanent resident of the United States who arrived as a refugee, in applying for United States citizenship. This is a final step in a long and complex journey for Marco, a process that speaks to the very collision of humanity and bureaucracy. Marco is seeking a profound signifier of belonging, a United States passport.

If we’re lucky, we’ll complete this tonight. If not, Marco will gladly take home his stack of paperwork along with my carefully prepared instructions on how to locate a necessary document at the DMV or the specific type of passport-style photo he needs. He will assure me that he will get this done. He will nod and take his papers, but he will probably disappear into this rust belt city, the stack of papers put aside in the shoddily partitioned apartment carved out of a gilded-age mansion, bed sheets covering the windows in the room where he lives.

Form N-400, Application for Naturalization. Photo by Alexandra Lillehei.


Once a month I walk over to a tired, run-down building next to the bus depot downtown to assist permanent residents with their citizenship applications through a volunteer program. After showing my ID, I have access to a windowless cubicle and a ten-year-old computer where I sit with my clients preparing stacks of forms. Here, my clients tentatively hand over green cards that bear one small difference to those held by the researchers and business executives with whom I normally work – a small two-digit code printed on the card. If you speak the language of immigration, the code distinguishes these clients as asylees or refugees.

Marco’s card number tells me he is a refugee from Burma. That number is the reason that Marco is here tonight, with a crumpled social security card and a stack of documents that mean everything to him and his place in this country. Often used interchangeably, asylee and refugee can be two very important distinctions in the immigration world. Because Marco is classified as a ‘refugee,’ it means that he applied for entrance to the United States from abroad and fit within one of the refugee populations defined by the United States government. An ‘asylee’ must apply for protection when they are already in the United States and must show that they would be in danger if they left the United States because of their membership in a particular group or due to their race, religion or other defined category. While this may seem like splitting hairs, the immigration process takes terms like these very seriously. For example, the term “immigrant” is often widely used. In the immigration context, however, an “immigrant” is someone who comes to the U.S. on a long-term, permanent basis. A “non-immigrant” on the other hand, is someone who seeks temporary entrance, like on a work or student visa.

The complexity in these terms speaks to the larger intricacies in our immigration system, particularly in this charged political climate. Many individuals in the United States here without authorization are cases of overstay. They arrived with authorization and a purpose, but when the time came to leave (for example, when their studies ended or when their visitor status expired), they did not book a flight and return home as promised. And although it seems like this would trigger ICE agents with guns lurking around every corner for these overstays, many of these individuals create lives and years go by. They marry United States citizens, have children and find employers who will hire them. They pay taxes and are our neighbors. Perhaps ICE “raids” are increasing now, but many of these individuals live their lives, albeit fearful that one day their number will be up. Deportation is not typically a quick, one-way trip out of the country, however. Like any good government process, deportation is nuanced and bureaucratic with a progression of court dates and perhaps a scheduled “leave” date, that is sometimes officially declared “voluntary departure.”

Marco hands over his travel document, a simple document that can often open Pandora’s box. The document itself, like most passports and travel documents, contains significant security features. Many of these documents reportedly contain more than 60, including chips, holograms and foil seals. A criticism of this “enhanced technology” is that even border officers can’t possibly remember all of the features that are supposed to distinguish “fake” and “real” documents.

Because Marco’s country of origin is Burma, I examine his travel document carefully. This travel document is not a Burmese passport but is instead issued by the United States. Sometimes when refugees are granted permission to come to the United States, they are required to hand over their passports and promise never to return to their home country again. This is because many times they are claiming to be in fear for their lives in their home country – how could they be able to return if this were the case? This also means, however, that any family or loved ones they leave behind they may never see again. Since Marco gave up his Burmese passport, the travel document allows him to travel to “approved” countries and return to the United States.

“Have you been back to Burma?” I ask tentatively, flipping through the travel document as if I have a right to know where he’s been, what he’s seen.

“Myanmar?” He corrects me, lifting his chin slightly. “No.” I pick up on his use of “Myanmar” as opposed to Burma. The United States still officially refers to the country as “Burma” even though the nation’s leadership renamed the country “Myanmar” two decades ago. The United States’ refusal to use the new name is an oppositional stand against the leadership and its doings.

I see Thai entry stamps in his passport. I’ve heard that to see their families, Burmese refugees often fly to Thailand and travel through the porous border into Burma/Myanmar. It is very similar, in fact, to the way that ISIS/ISIL followers cross into Syria from Turkey and other neighboring countries. These borders lack uniformed officials waiting to accost passports with proof of entry here, a scarlet mark there.

Cambodia, Thailand, and US visa. Photo by Houston Marsh.


But Marco has told me no, so we must take his word for it. His story is personal, but it is not new, and he is not asking for your sympathy. Marco is in my office asking for empowerment on an otherwise unremarkable Thursday night. Marco and the other clients whose paperwork passes over my desk are here, slogging through this system with patience. They have waited for the privilege of applying for citizenship with perseverance I cannot imagine. Before arriving here at my desk, Marco and the many others who share his story have waited years. They have waited first to be proven worthy of the stamp Refugee, then to be issued permanent residence and then another five years before applying for citizenship and a final belonging.

I take the papers he hands me, fading photocopies that have been sloshed around at the bottom of bags and worked on at the kitchen table, tea and food marking worn the corners.

“Okay, we can start with the addresses.” I read him the first question, “Where have you lived the past five years? We have to begin with the most recent address and work backward.” I look at what he has written down on the paper, one address.

“Is this where you live now?” I ask, pointing at an address in the inner city where at least a couple of deadly shootings have taken place this year. He nods his assent.

“When did you start living there? The month and the year?” He scrunches his face up in concentration. We really should be as specific as ‘month/day/year’ if we are following the instructions completely. However, this man estimates, counting back the calendar months using his phone. He mutters “sister’s wedding” and “big storm” under his breath. We eventually agree upon mid-July of this past year as the move-in date.

“Now before that, you were living…?” Four more years to go. Google is our genie, our saving grace in this work. I don’t know how this ever got done before. Help with the zip codes for one is a small miracle. When we get to “Employment History,” Google is a downright prophet. For example, a few weeks ago I sat with a Cuban man as he talked me through his extensive employment history.

“I was driving a truck for this one company… it was products for Aldi’s, but the company was based in Kentucky. It had ‘Green’ in the name,” He told me. A few minutes of typing and clicking I was able to gleefully enter ‘Green Moving Associates LLC’ on the form along with a complete address. With the Cuban man, the travel record alone also took us about an hour to complete. Unlike Marco, this man was an asylee and allowed to return home to Cuba for visits (talk about a contradiction in government rules). But it is very important that the visits did not add up to more than six months in any given year, or his ties to the United States would be questioned in the citizenship application.

Tonight, Marco and I are nearing the end of his application. He has already fielded two calls from his wife at home (asking the Burmese equivalent of how long can this possibly take?). We are now at the section I like to call “Die for your Country.” I read a series of questions that confuse Marco deeply.

“I didn’t know there was forced military!” He exclaims, and I have to explain what a draft is and how there hasn’t been one for a very long time, but, on the off chance there is, he needs to be willing to serve.

Green Card Questionnaire. Photo by Cory Doctorow.


We must mail in the application. It seems funny to me that while so much of my work entails searching for convoluted records in government databases, it also rests on my ability to carefully compile photocopied forms, affix them with paperclips and check mailer envelopes to make sure I have the correct address. The boundaries we construct around ourselves are simple in theory. The categories that we use to define nationality and citizenship appear strictly legal and transactional: refugee, asylee, foreigner, citizen. But when we construct the rules and processes of these categories, the boundaries flex and bend to politics. What rules govern who is allowed to come here? Under what circumstances? Like the Burma/Myanmar distinction and the inability to travel home for some but not others, the boundaries may seem arbitrary at best.

Like the passport security features, the rules and loopholes have become so complicated they can seem indistinguishable and meaningless. Marco is one of the lucky ones. His application is completed, signed and sealed, waiting in the mail bin. After several more months of waiting, fingerprinting, security checks, language, and civics tests, he may be presented with his own United States passport that confers with it the privilege of belonging.

Feature image by Camilo Rueda López.

Header Image by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).


Audrey Burns Leites is a global mobility professional and writer living in Rochester, New York. She is a graduate of Syracuse University’s Writing Program, has studied at the University of Rochester and conducted research in Germany and the Czech Republic. Leites’ writing experience spans a variety of genres. Her research interests include the intersection of globalism and humanism. Leites co-founded the lifestyle blog Hearth & Sprout. She co-edited the publication Pro(se)letariets: The Writing of the Trans-Atlantic Worker Writer Federation (2011).  Her recent work has appeared in the Journal of Languages and Culture, Journal of Educational Planning, Policy and Administration, PopMatters, and Literary Traveler, among others.


Audrey Burns, “Travel by Night,” Scenario Journal 06: Migration, Summer 2017,

Urban Sanctuary Network

On January 25, 2017, after having demonized undocumented immigrants during his election campaign, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, signs an executive order “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States” [1]. It dramatically expands the mandate of federal immigration authorities and threatens sanctuary cities’ ability to protect immigrants of illegal status. Among other anti-immigration policies, the order restores and strengthens two programs from previous administrations extending to local police the enforcement powers of federal immigration law and directing the Department of Homeland Security to weekly publish crimes committed by aliens in sanctuary cities. Since the signing of the executive order, arrests and deportations have increased by 40%.

Resistance to deportation has been led in large part by faith organizations that draw from a long tradition of granting sanctuary. Following the ancient religious concept of sanctuary, churches have a duty to shelter people fleeing persecution. In the 1980s, US congregations of different faiths inaugurated a social movement that resisted federal law by offering direct sanctuary, hiding, providing shelter, food, transportation and legal assistance to refugees fleeing violence from the civil wars and collapsing economies in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, only to be met with discriminatory federal laws and regulations in the United States.

In 2007, activists and religious leaders in various cities, including New York, Chicago, and California, working with immigrant organizations, envisioned a New Sanctuary Movement (NSM) to engage faith-based groups specifically in support of the 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Founding members of the NSM included clergy and congregations from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions. Also in 2007, the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia was launched in opposition to the Obama administration’s aggressive deportation policies, and with a commitment to “end injustices against immigrants regardless of immigration status, express radical welcome for all, and ensure that values of dignity, justice, and hospitality are lived out in practice and upheld in policy” [2]. Growing remarkably since the election of Donald Trump, the NSM “organizes member congregations from diverse faith backgrounds who come together around shared faith values” [3].


Strategies of detention vs. tactics of resistance. Research Part 1


In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security passed a policy geared towards limiting ICE interventions at sensitive locations that include spaces of worship:

The policies provide that enforcement actions at or focused on sensitive locations such as schools, places of worship, and hospitals should generally be avoided, and that such actions may only take place when (a) prior approval is obtained from an appropriate supervisory official, or (b) there are exigent circumstances necessitating immediate action without supervisor approval.  The policies are meant to ensure that ICE and CBP officers and agents exercise sound judgment when enforcing federal law at or focused on sensitive locations, to enhance the public understanding and trust, and to ensure that people seeking to participate in activities or utilize services provided at any sensitive location are free to do so, without fear or hesitation.” [4]

Although this seems to benefit, under vague terms, the work of the NSM, under federal law, places like churches, mosques and synagogues are still considered public spaces where authorities could enter and conduct law enforcement. ICE, however, has continued to follow the sensitive locations policy rather than enter into confrontations.

Strategies of detention vs. tactics of resistance. Research Part 2


Temporary Autonomous Networks: The Architecture of Real Utopia

The same month as President Trump’s executive order, an architecture studio called Temporary Autonomous Networks: The Architecture of Real Utopia was launched by me, Eduardo Rega Calvo, at the Department of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design [5].

The studio, in one of its streams of investigation, presents spatial tactics that oppose the current extremist anti-immigrant agenda of Trump’s administration and imagines an alliance with the NSM of Philadelphia. This fictitious alliance learns from current and past struggles, proposing architectural interventions of resistance and cooperation in the protection of universal human rights of undocumented migrants.

The studio explores how grassroots activists, like the NSM, create Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZs) sheltered from and resistant to ICE enforcement. In the words of anarchist author Hakim Bey, TAZs are created through “an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerrilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere and elsewhen, before the State can crush it” [6]. The studio expanded the interpretation of the TAZ as a tactic that erodes capitalism through local community enhancement and cooperativism, justice, and defense of human rights.

Another important concept that frames the studio is that of the Real Utopia. According to Erik Olin Wright, Real Utopias “can be found wherever emancipatory ideals are embodied in existing institutions and proposals for new institutional designs. They are both constitutive elements of a destination and a strategy” [7]. Examples of Real Utopias include post-capitalist economic models such as workers cooperatives, peer-to-peer collaborative modes of production and open libraries. While speculating on alternative institutional/economic/political designs that challenge the status quo, a Real Utopian narrative for the studio would define architecture’s role in the network of a progressive grassroots organization actively pursuing justice.

Learning from, and attempting to imagine a contribution to the NSM, the studio aims to provide alternative imaginaries at a time when state boundaries are fortified, where people fleeing catastrophe are criminalized, and where so-called democracies have the power to decide if they comply or not with universal human rights of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. In opposition to these practices of exclusion by nation states, the project aligns itself to the proliferation of postnational universalistic solidarity movements, specifically the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, working to protect the human rights of immigrants that are excluded from democracy and increasingly targeted and raided by the ICE.

Strategies of detention vs. tactics of resistance. Research Part 3


The studio applies this conceptual framework to a site in the Parkside neighborhood of West Philadelphia, characterized by vacant lots and a lack of public services, and isolated from surrounding neighborhoods by rail lines, Fairmount Park and the Philadelphia Zoo.

In our studio, maps, diagrams, and atlases are used as tools capable of connecting urban and architectural expertise to forums outside of our field. After selecting grassroots organizations operating in Philadelphia, like the NSM, students collected information through research and interviews to communicate the organizations’ history, mission, and struggle, as well as their effects on the built environment. Students working on the NSM mapped the unstable history of immigration policies in the United States — its constant shifts between criminalizing, detaining and deporting undocumented migrants on the one hand, and granting them amnesty on the other. By interviewing NSM members and other community activists, they identified and represented protocols, architectures, and technologies of undercover surveillance, policing, raiding, detention and deportation by the ICE. They also represented the spaces, tactics, and processes of self-defense and human rights protection performed by the NSM — including actions like the Sanctuary in the Streets raid responses, the provision of safe spaces, and legal support.

As part of the studio methodology, and in response to the research, every group of three students developed three phases of a common and negotiated project as a Real Utopia. Throughout the rest of the semester, each student refined one temporal-architectural phase and reported back to the group’s common architectural narrative.

The Urban Sanctuary Network project that follows explores the subversive architectural potential of the New Sanctuary Movement. What would be the role of architecture if this network materialized so as to disrupt the actors fighting against it? What rules would have to be followed, misread and/or subverted, and how would the process unfold in the decades to come?

Phase 01: 2012, Establishing and Defending the Network by Kurt Nelson

Nodes within proposed underground network: church/library and row homes


On June 15th, 2012 the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy was passed, allowing those who arrived in the US before their 16th birthday to not fear deportation. It is this context that provides the framework for the first phase of the Urban Sanctuary Network project.

Because of the prominence of ICE surveillance in the undocumented immigrant community, privacy is a valuable resource. Remaining in a single dwelling while under surveillance is risky, so an ideal situation would allow one to discretely relocate as necessary. Vacant houses in Parkside provide an opportunity to do this, using basements as entrances to tunnels that connect to one other and to nearby member churches. The aboveground portion of the house is retrofitted to incorporate instantly transformable architectural devices that keep the space habitable in its original program, but also adaptable to provide an escape below ground. By doubling walls, floors and ceilings, and using the interstices to build the network’s infrastructures, houses in the underground system remain entirely indistinguishable from those outside of it.

Underground network’s tactics of disappearance: double walls, basements and tunnels


Taking advantage of ICE’s existing policies on sensitive locations, member churches of the NSM are key sites of intervention. In its capacity to act as a filter, protection and node of access to the network, the church receives the program of the library as an add-on, where public neighborhood spaces for reading, archiving, and learning are combined with hidden areas for training, organizing, and governing this new sanctuary real utopia. The network connecting to the church serves as a way to allow free circulation around the city without fear of ICE agents arresting undocumented workers. By connecting to the basements of vacant houses, the project provides discreet housing to those that are being tracked by the ICE. As the network expands, certain trusted businesses begin to serve as access points, using their high levels of activity to help undocumented immigrants get lost in the crowd and escape potential raids by the ICE, performing the same function as that of the crowds at a sanctuary church’s Sunday mass.

As a Temporary Autonomous Zone, the network aims to be independent. All of its resources and their management are separated from the rest of the city, and operate in parallel to those established by official systems of state governance.

Phase 02: 2022, Pop-up Pod Decoys by Grace Soejanto

Occupations and reactivation of vacancies through movable and recombinable architectures built on demand


Predicting a progressive turn in American politics after Trump’s four-year term and the awakening it triggers on in society, Pop-up Pod Decoys imagines a scenario where new policies are passed that protect the human rights of undocumented immigrants by opening up initiatives for integration. In this context, the Urban Sanctuary Network project externalizes some of its connections to selectively merge with the public sphere, while creating mechanisms to protect itself from future potential threats posed by other conservative administrations and their political agendas on immigration.

In this welcoming environment towards undocumented immigrants, Parkside’s Community Development Corporation establishes an alliance with The Urban Sanctuary Network project, collaborating on initiatives like the Parkside community land trust, building co-op, food co-op and urban farm. Members of the underground Urban Sanctuary Network project are now openly considered neighbors of Parkside, participating in cooperative economic models, and strategically joining their efforts, goals and resources to Parkside’s. The architectures of this incipient process of integration have the ability to grow, move, and adapt in response to the evolution of a post-capitalist neighborhood-based economic experiment. The northeast tower of the library built in Phase 1, is now converted into a vertical building yard where small-scale architectural components (pods) are fabricated on demand. These pods are propagated to serve various cooperative economic purposes (from food coops to urban farming facilities), and to activate the neighborhood’s vacant lots and buildings (play and culture).


Moments of exposure of the network above-ground, designed to strengthen its ability to disappear and reorganize


The architectures of Phase 2, however, are far from innocent. Aware of the history of violent political shifts in regard to immigration policies, The Urban Sanctuary Network project embeds a disguised intelligence in its deployable architectures that can revert to its underground mode when hostilities arise: populous pop-up programming offers decoys; architectural components such as structural frames and pods are designed with hidden inhabitable spaces that can connect to the underground network, multipling possible escape routes; blindspot-spaces in architectural devices can be interconnected to each other and to Phase 1 underground spaces to make the network more agile, unpredictable and ungraspable, capable of reconfiguring itself before the State can crush it.

Phase 03: 2100 Spaces of Voluntary Exile by Prince Langley

The interior of the previously hidden network of the undocumented, expanded and transformed to host society A, while doubling as a memorial of the immigration struggle


In the year 2100 inequality has reached its peak and two societies have come to exist: Society A lives in an inescapable interior architecture governed by digital networks, protected from the hostilities of an increasingly unstable climate, and unaware of another society B of undocumented communities on the exterior that organize outside the systems of capitalist control. Through extreme structural denial, society A has been made to believe that they’ve come to terms with their history of human rights violations. A manifestation of this can be identified in how the former underground networks of the undocumented have now been turned into a rhizomatic museum/memorial of the oppressed, which intersects a continuous interior of both public and private artificially controlled environments. The former church and sanctuary sites allow visitors to digitally recreate scenarios of the past and witness how the undocumented lived. However, the hyper-connected society A is itself the victim of a system of control governed by digital networks.

Society A’s interior memorial of the formerly hidden architectures (above); Society B’s voluntary exile into a toxic exterior Zone (below)


Society B lives invisible to Society A due to its members’ deliberate disconnection from the digital realm. Society B is composed of the undocumented of the 22nd century. Having developed evasive tactics to live outside has led them to develop primitive modes of existence that constitute a radical subversion of the artificially controlled interior status quo. They inhabit fields of geographic scars, violent and overgrown landscapes, toxic and forbidden regions, a continuous catastrophic Zone [8] that is the product of advanced climate change and capitalist exploitation. Permanently wearing breathing apparatuses to survive, members of Society B utilize discarded architectural elements from prior phases to divert resources from Society A. This new future renders the undocumented as those emancipated from, but facing the consequences of, a hyper-capitalist society.

Bird’s-eye view of the continuous interior city


Eduardo Rega Calvo is an architect, urban designer and researcher based in New York. Having taught at GSAPP, RISD, Parsons and Pratt, he is a graduate architecture faculty at PennDesign, at the University of Pennsylvania where he teaches seminars, design studios and a summer program. He completed the Master of Science in Advanced Architectural Design with Honors for Excellence in Design from Columbia University. The Agency of Autonomy: Tools for an Architecture of Translation is the title of his PhD dissertation in Architectural Design at ETSA Madrid, currently in progress. He holds a professional degree in architecture and urbanism from the University of Las Palmas. His research and design work focuses on architecture’s capacity to translate, operate in and contribute to insurgent social and political movements.



[1] Fox News Politics, “Text of Trump’s executive order on interior immigration enforcement,” January 25, 2017. Accessed June 28, 2017,
[2] New Santuary Movement of Philadelphia, “Who We Are – New Sanctuary Movement of Philadlephia.” Accessed June 28, 2017,
[3] New Santuary Movement of Philadelphia, “Home – New Santuary Movement of Philadelphia.” Accessed June 28, 2017,
[4]: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, “Sensitive Locations FAQs,” Accessed Dec 10, 2016,
[5]: The studio shared both an open-ended program of a library and a neighborhood for intervention with other four studio sections coordinated by Annette Fierro. Temporary Autonomous Networks developed four lines of investigation by partnering with four activist groups in Philadelphia: food security and urban farming, urbanism and public health, cooperative economic models, and the New Sanctuary Movement.
[6]: Hakim Bey, T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism. (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2003).
[7]: Erik Olin Wright, “How to Be an Anticapitalist Today,” Jacobin Magazine, December 2, 2015.
[8]: The Zone here follows the conceptual framework set out in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film, Stalker.


Eduardo Rega Calvo,  “Urban Sanctuary Network,” Scenario Journal 06: Migration, Summer 2017,