‘Open the city to newcomers’

from the magazine

As complex as the issue of migration is, we can handle it differently, for example by adapting our cities to it, says urban planner Lena Knappers.

Every stream of migrants seems to attack our country, whether they are seasonal workers from Eastern Europe or war refugees from Syria or Ukraine. As a result, we offer the new arrivals only sparse, temporary housing. For example, tens of thousands of Syrians who fled the civil war in their country in 2014 and 2015 sought refuge in the Netherlands. Some of them ended up in a remarkable place of reception: the former prison in Amsterdam-Zuidoost, Bijlmerbajes.

Container house

Back then, Lena Knappers regularly came close. ‘I studied at TU Delft design as politics and I was looking for a subject to graduate in. It fascinated me enormously how Bijlmerbajes housed a group of hundreds of asylum seekers, while an equally large group of international students also lived in container housing right next to the former prison. The two communities lived completely side by side, they were even separated from each other. That was the reason for my research.’

Fieldwork in Athens

The thesis research in Amsterdam was followed by further research and fieldwork in Athens. The result has recently been published in book form: the impressive Open cities. Migrants in the urban space.

What kind of education was design as politics?
‘It was a chair that existed at TU Delft for about ten years and was held by Professor Wouter Vanstiphout. The research revolved around the idea: politics is design and design is politics. The perspectives were broad and there was a lot of room for social engagement. The chair was intended for students of architecture and urban planning. It was special, because normally the student groups remained strictly separate. As a student, you chose architecture or urban planning, but this is where we came together.’

What else appealed to you about this chair?
‘I wanted to follow a technical education, but also work with my commitment. I found it in Delft. I also studied in Istanbul for a while on an Erasmus scholarship. There I became acquainted with a much softer approach than I was used to as a Delft student. I suddenly had to start interviewing people in the city and making maps and collages all the time. It was so different from Delft, but I liked it and I used it for my book too.’

Faced with a flood of refugees, we invariably look for ad hoc solutions

What was the starting point for your research?
‘The central question was: how can we better organize our cities for migration? How can we design places where newcomers are included in the city in a sustainable way? When I started it was already clear – and now it is no different – ​​that such sustainable places are largely lacking. Faced with a flood of refugees, we invariably look for ad hoc solutions. Whether it was for the Syrian refugees in 2015 or for people from Ukraine: we house them in temporary container units or sometimes even tents, almost always far outside the city and out of our sight. I wanted to carry out the research emphatically from the wider perspective of the engineer and urban planner. Therefore, I looked not only at refugees, but also at other migrant groups, such as foreign seasonal workers and international students. And how different these groups are, the striking thing is that they are mostly arranged in the same way: in those containers. We obviously only have one housing solution available for all the different migrant groups.’


This is not the entire article. Read the full story in the August issue The engineer. Buy the digital version for €7.50, or take – with a significant discount of 25% – a digital annual subscription of 12 issues for €69.

Opening image: Lena Knappers

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