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Carradeux IDP Camp in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Less than three years after the camp was established post-earthquake, residents had transformed their T-shelters into more permanent homes with porches and gardens and started small businesses along the main street of the camp. Photo by author, 2013.

I first started writing about Instant Cities in 2013 as a way to describe how post-crisis displacement and refugee camps should be re-conceptualized as permanent, or at least long-term, settlements with all of the planning, economics, and opportunities that come from city building. Along with a series of talks and panels on the subject, the Affordable Housing Institute published the book Zaatari: The Instant City in 2014.

A Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, now built up into a city neighborhood.
Photo by author, 2017.

Over the past several years the idea seems to have taken root in both humanitarian and urban planning sectors, leading to greater integration of livelihood programs and urban planning within camps. There is still a lot to be done, and models which enable camp residents to invest in their place and turn a temporary shelter into a sustainable home still need to be developed and implemented. But very recently there has also been some high-profile attention on how this can be done as evidenced by an article that caught my eye.

How Bidibidi, Uganda Refugee Camp Became a City was published in the April 2019 issue of National Geographic Magazine. This photo essay and accompanying text provides a vivid picture of how a camp that is rapidly established following a crisis can evolve social organization, economic systems, and secure housing for displaced families. Unlike many refugees around the world, the residents of Bidibidi have the legal right to work, which inherently provides greater – if still limited – opportunity for stabilization of their families, improvement of their homes, and investment in their neighborhoods.

A portion of the Bidibidi refugee camp as shown on Open Street Map.
© OpenStreetMap contributors.

Also notable is the rural location, with less pressures on land, than some displacement camps closer to urban centers might have. Yet, the evolution of this camp (and others) into a permanent settlement with improved housing, brick-walled schools, and longer-term infrastructure is a model that should be studied and replicated by governments and humanitarian agencies to better support both refugee and internally displaced populations following natural and man-made crises.

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