Vacant Buildings for Refugees: A Case study in the Power of Adaptive Reuse of Older and Historic Buildings for Resilience

By Carla Bruni, Associate for Engagement with Heritage Strategies International
Throughout the development of the New Urban Agenda — the expected outcome document of the UN Habitat 3 Conference being held in October — a key argument of the cultural heritage community has been that historic cities and settlements are a proven reference model for sustainable development. Historic cities demonstrate mixed uses, human scale, density and vibrancy. Historic cities embody layers of meaning, reflecting generations of use and re-use including, often, adaptive re-use. In the evolution of historic cities, we see play out over and over the lessons of adaptive reuse, at once economic (as through the capitalization of existing assets) and environmental (for example, the conservation of embodied energy and building materials). Equally importantly, we see the social and human elements of urban resilience at work, though the powerful sense of place and complex human relationships that older areas engender.
The New Urban Agenda identifies cultural heritage as an enabler for social cohesion, inclusion and equity. In many cities, vacant and underutilized heritage buildings offer specific opportunities to address challenges like low-income housing and housing for the homeless while catalyzing community networks and re-utilizing existing built assets. And, for countries and cities across Europe dealing with the current immigration crisis, vacant properties are opportunities to provide housing for refugees fleeing their homelands. Rehabilitating older building stock is more cost efficient than new construction and utilizes existing infrastructure while providing safe shelter.  That these actions unfold in the rich landscapes of the historic quarters of cities offer unique advantages for emplacement and community building for refugees.
This May—with the help of Greek academics, citizens, and activists—over 300 refugees took over the long-abandoned City Plaza Hotel in downtown Athens. More than 54,000 migrants and refugees are trapped in Greece due to border closure along the Balkans, and many are living in under-resourced detention centers on government handouts, unable to work. Many did not plan to stay in Greece—they were on their way to other countries like Germany—but there is a good chance they will be stuck there for a while. As a result, Athenians who had formerly organized to help the homeless take up residency in some of the estimated 300,000 empty houses and flats in the city, have shifted their mission to also help this massive influx of refugees. With some help from volunteers, the new inhabitants of the City Plaza Hotel have regular assemblies to determine weekly responsibilities, including cooking and serving meals, cleaning the building, security, keeping children busy with classes and activities…responsibilities for making a cooperative home. So far, it is working beautifully.
But, it is also illegal. For now, the refugees have been allowed to occupy the long-abandoned hotel, which was originally constructed for the 2004 Olympics, but they could be thrown out at any time. While many Greeks fully support the move into the empty building, there is also some pushback by locals as they watch Syrians, Kurds, Iranians and other migrants make a home of Athens. Young Greeks face a 25% unemployment rate and low paying jobs that barely cover their rent, leaving many in a state of constant stress. Watching the newcomers occupy a building for free and also threaten to take what little work exists can’t be easy for some.
This is not a phenomenon unique to Greece. In early 2015, hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan, Syrian, the Balkans and elsewhere moved into an empty communist-era complex on the outskirts of Magdeburg, Germany. In this case, it was not activists but the German government sending the refugees to this industrial city in former East Germany. One article cited that around 1,000 of these apartments were left empty as residents steadily left this sprawling complex, called Neu Olvenstedt, in recent years. The buildings were previously slated for demolition. Many other modernist apartment blocks built during the Cold War are also ready to be filled at any time.
There is concern that areas now housing a large concentration of refugees, like at Neu Olvenstedt, could become targets for violence by those unhappy with the mass migration into their country. While it is hard to imagine that living in tents or other makeshift spaces is a better option for refugees, ghettoization is certainly a legitimate concern.  Only time will tell if this kind of arrangement, focused on large clustering versus integration, was a good option given the sense of urgency and the overwhelming number of refugees.
There will be plenty of these scenarios to examine in the years ahead. All across Europe, cities are facing vacant property crises due to massive population decline. In 2014, there were an estimated 11 million vacant homes across Europe—more than 3.4 million in Spain, over 2 million in both France and Italy, 1.8 million in Germany, and more than 700,000 in the UK. The Sicilian town of Gangi has dealt with its vanishing population by extending an open call to anyone willing to take over and repair its empty homes. Things are not much better in the U.S.—there have been op-eds and open calls to let refugees settle in American cities like Detroit, which has an estimated 70,000 vacant buildings.
In a time of mass migration and economic unrest, now is the time to thoughtfully examine new models that are springing up to address issues of homelessness created by local and international crises. Cooperative living arrangements, done in conjunction with local activists (and ideally governments), may at least be a partial solution to the humanitarian crisis facing cities that are already burdened by a mass exodus of former residents and civil unrest. While each city has a unique set of circumstances, steps—like taking inventory of all of these buildings and their readiness for occupancy—should be taken now to take stock of housing resources and anticipate a potential influx of individuals requiring housing in the future. It’s no great secret that the need will be massive.

Photo Credit (above): Nicola Zolin / IRIN.  Photo caption from IRIN: Refugees and volunteers serve a dinner which they have also helped to cook

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UN Habitat Released Revised Version of New Urban Agenda Zero Draft

June 18 saw the release of new version of the New Urban Agenda Zero Draft. The revisions was preceding by several weeks of commenting by State Parties and stakeholders, including informal hearings held at the UN headquarters in New York the week of June 6.  As part of that process, ICOMOS issued comments in early June on the original draft. In those comments, ICOMOS applauded the issuance of the Zero Draft of the New Urban Agenda and welcomed the inclusion of many of ICOMOS’s key recommendations on cultural heritage from e 2015 Habitat 3 Thematic Consultations. It also applauded the clear effort to reflect the spirit of the existing elements of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. ICOMOS also stated, however, that enhancements were needed to the Zero Draft in order to harmonize it with the treatment of urban heritage elsewhere in the 2030 Agenda. Enhancements were also found to be required to properly reflect the role of safeguarding heritage for urban resilience, sustainability, inclusiveness and safety.  Decide for yourself if you think the new draft improves on these matters!

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Read More about the Use of Vacant Housing for Refugees

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Photograph: Martin Godwin

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