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Competition: Cities and Refugees Global

An international student ideas contest has been launched for bold interventions to help refugees living in cities around the world (Deadline: 10 August)

The free-to-enter contest – organised by UNSW Sydney in collaboration with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Australian Red Cross – seeks novel solutions to improve living short, medium and/or long term living conditions for displaced people within major urban areas.

The call for concepts aims to identify a series of research-based solutions to bring measurable benefits to both refugee communities and other urban inhabitants. UNHCR estimates there are around 70.8 million displaced people around the world with around 60 per cent living in existing cities rather than refugee camps.

Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh

Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

Source: Image by DFID

Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

According to the brief: ‘The Cities and Refugees Global Student Design Ideas Competition seeks ideas for meaningful physical interventions that engage refugees in cities through new or repurposed buildings, infrastructure, and the use or reuse of public space.

‘The design interventions must result from the consideration of ‘non-physical’ issues such as social engagement, integration, livelihoods and governance. Interventions should capitalise on what the city has to offer, for example the sharing economy, employment opportunities and diversity.’

Conflicts, climate change, human rights abuses, economic hardship and other factors have caused a boom in the number of displaced people around the world. The majority of such refugees are currently based in existing urban settlements where infrastructure is already under pressure.

As a result the issues faced by many displaced communities in cities are often compounded by their isolation and inability to access basic services. For example, many Rohinga refugees are now living in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar tourist area in makeshift shelters vulnerable to landslides in the monsoon season.

Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh

Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

Source: Image by DFID

Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

The Cities and Refugees Global Student Design Ideas Competition aims to identify a range of interventions which go beyond design and help integrate displaced people into their surrounding urban areas and improve living conditions.

Submissions should include four A3-sized pages, a 45-second video and up to 500 words of written explanation. Judges include Leeanne Marshall, shelter advisor at the Australian Red Cross; Brett Moore, global shelter cluster co-lead, UNHCR; and Kirsten McDonald, associate principal at Arup International Development.

The overall winner, to be announced on 29 August at the APRU Sustainable Cities and Landscapes conference in Sydney, will receive a $5,000 USD prize, while a second prize of $2,500, third prize of $1,000, and three honourable mentions will also be awarded.

How to apply


The registration deadline is 3 August and submissions must be competed by 23:59 (AEST) on 10 August

Contact details


View the competition website for more information

Q&A with David Sanderson

The professor and inaugural Judith Neilson chair in architecture at the University of New South Wales discusses his ambitions for the competition

David Sanderson

David Sanderson

David Sanderson

Why are your holding an international contest for architectural ideas to improve the lives of refugees?

This design competition results from the pressing need to address a new reality: that the number of refugees – people fleeing to another country to escape war and disasters – has never been higher, and that most refugees no longer live in camps, but in cities. Hence while design approaches in the past may have considered camp planning and shelter design, the new urban challenge is different. The aim of this competition is to provoke designers to think and consider how to meaningfully engage with complexity and uncertainty. This will mean the design of processes (such as how to engage people) as much as the provision of physical design interventions. A key challenge is that any design intervention that seeks to identify and target refugees alone is unlikely to succeed – such approaches risk further isolating and alienating people who have already experienced trauma, hardship and loss.

A refugee settlement in Amman, Jordan

A refugee settlement in Amman, Jordan

A refugee settlement in Amman, Jordan

What is your vision for the potential short, medium and/or long-term solutions?

The intent is for designers to consider, and engage in, the complexities of urban refugee needs, according to different timeframes (applicants can pick a timeframe or think across timeframes). Short term immediate needs might concern affordable and safe housing, education and healthcare, whereas medium-and longer-term needs may concern formal employment, societal integration, etc. Above all, good design submissions will consider the integration of refugees into urban life. To these ends it is up to entrants to identify the scale of their schemes, and where to locate them – they can be anywhere in the world, or can be fictitious.

What sort of architects and designers are you hoping will apply?

This is a global student ideas competition – students can be from any discipline, can be in teams or enter alone. Urban refugee issues are global – from Norway to New Zealand. So far applicants have registered from North and South America, the Middle East, West Africa and a number of countries in South East Asia. What’s extremely exciting therefore is that designers – including architects – from across the world are at this minute thinking through how to better address one of the biggest political issues of our time.

Which other design opportunities are on the horizon and how will the architects/designers be procured?

This competition is being hosted by the School of Architecture at the University of New South Wales (Sydney) with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), engineering firm ARUP and the Australian Red Cross. Hopefully competition entries will inform future practice, and expand the thinking of what is possible for interventions that embrace urban living.

Are there any other recent projects for refugees you have been impressed by?

The best design interventions are those that do not get noticed, as the evidence points to refugees not wanting to be identified as refugees. Organisations such as the Norwegian Refugee Council quietly work around the world on projects that seek to do this. One example is the provision of affordable housing in Amman, Jordan, through subsidising the completion of unfinished existing housing, in return for affordable living for refugees. This is a ‘win-win’ situation, undertaken in complex and uncertain circumstances.