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Crisis: Reforming refugee landscapes

A rendering showing the greening potential of the Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan. IMAGE/ Robert Kruijt

Living in formal and informal settlements, and poised between the territory they have fled and a stable residency, refugees encounter a range of environmental and social challenges that deeply and negatively affect their quality of life: from unsafe to unsanitary conditions, and more. Two recent projects related to this humanitarian crisis offer insights into the significant impacts that landscape architects can have on reforming refugee settlement conditions through collaborative landscape strategies.

Robert Kruijt, a landscape architect from the Netherlands, focused his 2014 master’s thesis, Rightful Landscape, on conducting research and participant-driven design workshops and interventions to improve conditions in the Zaatari Refugee Camp located in Jordan, roughly 15 kilometres south of the Syrian border, which has hosted tens of thousands of Syrians who have escaped their wartorn country since 2012. Kruijt adapted the “Green Town Workshop” method, designed by Dr. I. Duchhart, a professor in landscape architecture at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, in order to, as Kruijt describes it in an email interview, “identify the problems, needs, and wishes of the people who are dependent on external aid.” However, Kruijt did not only identify issues and requirements. Instead, as he notes, “I aimed to empower the participants to find local, adaptable solutions that can be implemented by the refugees themselves. It is a transformative approach.”

One of the greywater gardens, Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan. IMAGE/ Robert Kruijt

In March 2014, during Kruijt’s first visit to Zaatari, he gathered preliminary data, with the help of humanitarian organizations, in an effort to understand the current conditions, constraints, and opportunities for change in the camp. During his second visit, from April to June 2014, Kruijt gradually gained refugees’ trust by volunteering in aid operation and developmental and recreational programming while carrying out mindful discussions about his research with them. He was then in a position to facilitate participatory design workshops and interventions. The workshops allowed for a group of refugees to openly share their living experiences in the camp, issues they faced, and their connections to and interactions with the landscape — all of which led to the detailing of potential solutions to implement in the camp.

A major problem in Zaatari was the lack of infrastructure to deal with sewage. Wastewater regularly overflowed into surface stormwater channels and pooled in the streets. To address this, Kruijt and residents of the camp constructed a system of simple greywater gardens, placed in as close proximity to the refugee tents as possible, channeling wastewater into the gardens. This intervention helped to filter the polluted water close to its source. Kruijt also presented additional schemes in his thesis, including artificial swales for rainwater catchment, and private gardens, orchards, and trees. In summarizing his work, Kruijt says, “I proposed design options for a more resilient environment. By making it visual, people started to believe in the project and supported the ideas. The ultimate victory was that the refugees started to physically change their environment on their own.”

Inadequate infrastructure at Zaatari led to problems such as greywater holes. IMAGE/ Robert Kruijt

Landscape architect Maria Gabriella Trovato, an assistant professor in the Department of Landscape Design and Ecosystem Management at the American University of Beirut, headed the project E-scape Transitional Settlement, working with refugees in Al Tyliani, Bar Elias, in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, roughly 17 kilometres from the Syrian border. This informal settlement was created in 2011 by a local landowner who converted his agricultural fields into a concrete surface where the refugees’ tents were later constructed. In 2012, when the settlement “opened,” there were approximately 440 people hosted there, paying rent but not allowed to work in Lebanon.

Trovato visited the informal settlement in May 2015, with 25 international academics and students, to conduct an eight-day workshop. In an email interview, Trovato states, “The first attempt of our research and practical experience on the ground was to define and formulate a definition of community that could fit to the particular situation we encountered to be able to design and implement public space projects to enrich the collective [experience]. We worked to establish connections and relationships among the individuals and the groups in the settlement.” From the outset, communication with refugees was imperative for planning and decision-making to recognize and address local matters. Site examination and refugee consultations eventually led to the design-build of three public spaces: a water garden, children’s playground, and an improved pedestrian connection on the site, which also improved drainage.

A rendering of swales constructed to hold rainwater, and a buffer to stimulate plant growth. IMAGE/ Robert Kruijt

As Larry Harder, a participant in the project and associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Guelph, explains in an email interview, “Although residents were not initially involved in the design or construction, as work progressed, many residents volunteered to assist, and contributed in major ways to the final resolution.” Unfortunately, a couple of weeks after the researchers left, nearly all of the public spaces the group had built were looted and destroyed. Harder asks, “What was the impact [of the project] on the Syrian refugee community? Just more hardship, exploitation, and despair.” Nevertheless, the project went on to receive global recognition. Harder sums up the whole effect as: “Good for landscape architecture. Not much legacy for the residents of Al Tyliani.”

A shared challenge in both projects was the common frustration among refugees who first and foremost wanted to return to their home country of Syria. Trust and understanding had to be built between the researchers and refugees in order to then begin efforts to reshape their current situation. It was only after trust had been established that progress could occur. Trovato notes: “As a landscape architect interested in humanitarian design, I’m concerned with the need to enable equal access to landscape services whenever and wherever they are non-existent or scarce. Thus, I’m committed to working with vulnerable and disadvantaged communities, especially those affected by war, conflict, and natural disaster, helping them to re-create safe, sustainable, and dignified living conditions.”

A playground is constructed at Al Tyliani, mostly using recycled materials. IMAGE/ Larry Harder

Though these two projects differ in some ways, they both demonstrate how collaboration through knowledge sharing, design, and on-site action can make positive changes to the community and the landscape. As Harder reflects on the project, he sums up a very personal impact the work had made: “The most special memory I have is the effusive thank you’s heaped on me by an old grandmother who, because of some pea gravel we had laid outside her tent, could now, for the first time ever since entering the camp, sit outside on a level space, on a plastic chair, and watch her children and grand- children and neighbours—with dry feet.”


One of the last installations at Al Tyliani was the erection of a signpost-tree, which started as a directional signpost on the path network but turned into a symbol of place. IMAGE/ Djurdja Stojicic