Design and use of space in refugee camps: a case study of a contested terrain

Husam AlWaer (Lead / Corresponding author), Magda Sibley, Ian Cooper

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The urgency in providing basic shelter for a large, displaced and distressed population frequently means that the design of refugee camps follows a ‘generic top-down framework’ with basic humanitarian and techno-managerial planning strategies rising to the fore. These are usually based on a universal standardisation for the allocation of ‘shelter’ and its repetition in a grid-based settlement layout. Camps are planned with an anticipation of removal and disassembly in the short or medium term. This results in a military-style modular spatial hierarchy with formally defined boundaries. This paper is based on a systematic review of literature in the public domain about the Al-Zaatari Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. Despite the originally imposed uniformity, the story on the ground at this camp is one of a rapid transformation initially through collective determination. The UN's strictly orthogonal grid was rapidly overlayed and reconfigured to support a preferred way of living anchored in continuity of the previous social and cultural norms of the refugee population. This paper illustrates these processes of adaptation and transformation and examines the evolving distribution of space between occupants, the expansion of opportunities for income generation, and the introduction of new housing typologies and services. Early interventions were collectively initiated. Over time, the influence of informal market forces led to those with resources gained ascendancy over those with less.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)123-141
Number of pages19
JournalProceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers: Urban Design and Planning
Issue number3
Early online date20 Apr 2023
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2023


  • Refugee camp
  • self-identity
  • collective solidarity
  • competition for resources
  • cultural dislocation/continuity
  • social impact
  • design
  • town & city planning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Urban Studies
  • Civil and Structural Engineering
  • Architecture


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