Transitional shelters built formally by an NGO are inserted into a neighborhood with mixed formality of land title and construction standards. Campeche, Haiti, 2011. Photo by author.

For the past ten years I have been working in and studying a variety of post crisis contexts, exploring how physical, social, and economic systems shift and interact over time. What I’ve found is that communities that are rebuilding or reforming following a crisis exist in a constant flux of formality and informality. For those who have been displaced within the boundaries of their country this flux is primarily a physical and economic one, in general the social fabric of a community is the first to stabilize. However, for those who have fled to other countries, social structures are also often put into question as communities disperse, households remain in motion, and some look for ways to exist within or integrate with new and different communities. In some ways it might even be argued that the title of refugee creates a formal definition for an existence which would otherwise be almost entirely informal.

This liminal existence, at once formal and informal manifests itself physically in many of the places that displaced families seek shelter. Formally built shelters may be placed on informally titled land. Tarps that were distributed as part of a formal aid program may be informally combined with other available materials to rebuild on formally titled land.

A classic aid-organization transitional shelter sits on untitled land following Typhoon Haiyan. Tacloban, Philippines, 2015. Photo by author.

The infrastructure for a camp may be formally laid out by an aid organization, while the shelters or homes may be informally constructed by the residents – and either action may encourage the other.

Informal settlement immediately following the earthquake led to eventual formalization through an agreement with the landowner and the establishment of a managed camp with constructed (temporary) infrastructure. Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 2010. Photo by Dave Hampton.
Formally constructed collective shelters and latrines co-exist with informally constructed individual shelters. Gedeb, Ethiopia, 2018. Photo by Dave Hampton.

And in many cases formally established camps, while intended to be temporary, eventually evolve informally to reflect increasingly stability, strengthening of community, and deepening of ties to a new place.

Transitional shelters – originally, and formally, constructed by and NGO to last 3-5 years – are personalized over time. Carradeux Camp, Port au Prince, Haiti, 2013. Photo by author.
A transitional shelter is informally expanded with a side room, concrete courtyard, and porch to create an inviting space for commercial activity. Carradeux Camp, Port au Prince, Haiti, 2013. Photo by author.

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