Refugees Are Straining Urban Infrastructure and Services — Now What?


More people live in cities now than at any point in history. As identified in Sustainable Development Goal 11 and highlighted in the New Urban Agenda formulated out of the Habitat III Conference last year, our challenge is to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. Goal 11 and the New Urban Agenda identify a number of key issues, including transportation, disaster response, environmental change and green growth, resilient infrastructure, and access to safe and affordable housing.

The refugee crisis means urban development is more important than ever

In some parts of the world, refugee crises due to political violence and climate change compound the challenge of making cities safe and equitable. With more refugees settling in urban areas, humanitarian organizations like the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have come to recognize the role cities can play in fostering greater freedom of movement and independence for refugees than traditional camp settings. At the same time, urban infrastructure, service delivery, and natural resources can become severely strained. Urban refugees may experience difficulties accessing basic services and housing and also confront social marginalization, acts of discrimination, and exploitation. Host communities also become more vulnerable, particularly as housing and labor markets become distorted.

Smart technologies and systems can help ensure that urban infrastructure development and service delivery improvements produce sustainable and resilient results. Smart technologies and systems can also improve the quality of urban life by acknowledging the shared urban experiences of refugee and host communities and fostering opportunities for strengthened community relationships. The following four points outline important considerations for harnessing the impact of smart systems in creating safe, equitable, and resilient cities for all people.

Smart cities require inclusive planning processes

Urban refugees live among their host community neighbors. Their children attend the same schools, they shop in the same markets, and they experience the same daily frustrations with poor service delivery and infrastructure. Urban refugees also have immediate humanitarian needs that need to be met. For a variety of reasons, including the uncertain future of refugee families, humanitarian crises may change urban planning priorities and perhaps delay or sideline plans to invest in smart systems. However, the goals of development programs and humanitarian responses do not need to be mutually exclusive. Smart city development and investment plans can account for the needs of refugee communities specifically as well as urban residents more broadly. In many cases, however, accounting for refugee needs in urban planning processes is politically sensitive. Stakeholder engagement, transparency, and coordination between donors and national and municipal governments can help facilitate inclusivity and consensus. By aligning municipal development priorities with humanitarian response needs, cities can harness the benefits of smart systems and improve the urban experience for all residents.

Smart cities require smart systems

Urban refugees may increase demand for services and stress on infrastructure, resulting in peak crises sooner than anticipated. In many cities around the world, service providers have large budget deficits, resource scarcity concerns, and growing infrastructure investment needs. These challenges are interrelated. Infrastructure may be underground and out of sight, expensive and susceptible to rapid depreciation, and vulnerable to damage from climate change or vandalism. Smart technologies, such as smart grids and geographic information systems, can generate better data for planning and decision-making for infrastructure development and service delivery improvements. With mapping programs, cities can improve public health by identifying safer locations for solid waste processing centers and more efficient transportation routes for solid waste vehicles. Similarly, smart meters and billing systems can help utility engineers to quickly identify and respond to resource losses in the municipal water network and improve customer service response processes. Smart technologies can help cities ensure the sustainable impact of investments to improve infrastructure and service delivery and, in turn, improve quality of life for urban residents including refugees.

Smart cities require smart service delivery providers

Investments in smart technologies for infrastructure and service delivery require trained engineers and managers. Training programs are crucial to the successful investment, installation, and use of smart technologies. Municipal staff may require training in the use of software programs, the operation of new technologies, and maintenance or troubleshooting skills. Experts developing training curricula should seek buy-in and participation from government counterparts, local and international experts familiar with best practices, and universities and training institutions. If possible, training programs should be accredited to encourage participation and improve employment prospects for beneficiaries. Additionally, programs should seek to train engineers and managers to adapt the use of new technologies to changes in the built environment and social dynamics. This will ensure that the technologies do not become obsolete as conditions change, that future planning initiatives yield sustainable results, and that crisis response systems remain effective. By understanding how to operate, provide maintenance, and troubleshoot in times of emergency, service delivery providers will be more effectively equipped to respond to their customers and provide more equitable and transparent services.

Smart cities require community involvement

Households can play an important role in creating safe, inclusive, and resilient cities. Municipal authorities and the development community should work with households and neighborhood organizations to understand their needs, hear their suggestions, and collaboratively assess opportunities for innovative and targeted neighborhood and household investment programs. Urban residents are strongly positioned to identify strategic infrastructure enhancements at the household and neighborhood level. For example, households may have suggestions for innovative recycling programs which can be scaled, or may already practice informal waste management which can be transformed into formalized livelihood opportunities. Similarly, households may also have suggestions for strategic investments which can help reduce monthly expenditures, such as water-saving devices, and tax credits or grants can help encourage the installation of energy saving devices, which will help reduce the financial burden on vulnerable households. Indeed, it is at the neighborhood level where we see refugee and host communities interacting the most. Collaborative engagement and strategic investments can help strengthen community bonds.

Urban refugee crises present a complex and dynamic challenge that requires innovative solutions to create safe, inclusive, and resilient cities. By investing in smart technologies and systems, and fostering inclusivity in the planning process, cities facing urban refugee crises can meet the goals set forth in Sustainable Development Goal 11 and the New Urban Agenda.

Basil Mahayni is a manager in the Water, Energy, and Sustainable Cities Practice, and has a Ph.D. in geography, environment, and society from the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities.

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