We are delighted that David Sanderson from the University of New South Wales has joined our university as a Collaborating Professor. A few weeks ago, our students attended David’s course about “Good Practice in Urban Humanitarian Response” taught as part of our Humanitarian Shelter and Settlements Workshop.
With close to 30 years’ experience working in crises across the world, David Sanderson engages with aid agencies and others about how we can improve humanitarian response and build resilience. He is co-editor of both the 2016 IFRC World Disasters Report and The State of Humanitarian Shelter and Settlements 2018, and is author of the 2019 ODI/ALNAP Urban Humanitarian Response Good Practice Review. In 2016, he took up a newly created position as Inaugural Judith Neilson Chair in Architecture at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
We spoke with David about the increase in urban crises, the changes in the humanitarian sector and why architects need to be in the centre of urban humanitarian response.

In Gambella, Ethiopia

You worked for over 25 years in urban disaster resilience and humanitarian aid in practice and academia. Your expertise includes emergency housing support for the disadvantaged communities displaced by natural disasters, geo-political conflicts, socio-economic exclusion and environmental factors. As an architect, where did the interest in how designers can work with others to better understand and respond to communities at risk originate and how did it shape your career?

I trained and worked as an architect in the UK. I then did a master’s degree with Nabeel Hamdi, who is of course also teaching your students, and worked as a researcher for him. And that changed my world completely. I discovered that architects are trained to work in predictable environments, with pre-planned budgets, clients and hierarchies. And of course, humanitarian response and development are often the opposite of that. It took me around ten years to unlearn what I had learned and to relearn to engage meaningfully and listen, to be led by people’s priorities – not mine – and to realise that my role lay in designing processes, such as how people come together to do what they prioritise, rather than products such as buildings.

And when we look at the humanitarian and development sector, we are not talking about a small number of people – people who usually never come across engaging with architects or other so-called ‘professionals’. There are close to a billion people living in slums, climate change is accelerating, and urbanisation adds around 1.5 million people per week to our cities. And it is going to become more challenging. Architects have been on the sideline of this, when they could be in the centre.

After working with Nabeel on projects in Peru, India and Eastern Europe, I went on to work for Ian Davis in the field of disaster risk reduction, who also used to teach at your programme. Nabeel and Ian were my mentors, imagine! We had projects in several regions of Africa and in India, while I also continued the work in Peru. After four years the small consultancy Ian ran folded, and I worked as a gardener for a wonderful six months!

After that, I joined Care International UK and worked as urban technical advisor and Head of Policy for four years, followed by four years as Regional Manager of South and West Africa, based in Johannesburg and covering 11 countries. After 14 years of travelling, I hit a wall and, while on leave, Nabeel asked me to teach at CENDEP at Oxford Brookes University. Nabeel was about to retire and asked me if I would take over as the director of the centre. I directed CENDEP from 2006-2014 and led the master’s degree programme, among other things, which was a huge privilege. I also completed a PhD by published works and was conferred professor in 2009. Between 2013-14 I was a full time Visiting Professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, teaching a new course on design and urban disasters. Afterwards, I took a job as Professor in Norway for 15 months at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, before moving in 2016 to Sydney, Australia following an offer to take up a newly created post of Inaugural Judith Neilson Chair of Architecture at the University of New South Wales. Here in Sydney, I lead, as part of the architecture degree, a stream called ‘social agency’, which to date has included studios on mental health, refugees, wellbeing and social exclusion. I am also involved in research on bushfire recovery, corruption and disasters, and a variety of different topics. Pleasingly students from the social agency stream won ‘best graduate architecture student’ for New South Wales two years running.

Your course “Good Practice in Urban Humanitarian Response” that is part of our Humanitarian Shelter and Settlements Workshop partly draws on your publication “Urban Humanitarian Response – Good Practice Review”. In the report, you write about the increase in urban crisis due to rapid population growth and the difficulty of the humanitarian sector to grapple with the challenges and opportunities of working urban spaces. When you talk about a need for humanitarian aid to urbanise, how can the humanitarian field – and specifically the architecture and planning sector – rethink their approach to adapt to the complex and dynamic urban context?

 The development and humanitarian work has its roots mostly in the rural context. There is an assumption that there is little there and that agencies provide goods and services, and you can operate pretty much free of governmental interference. In urban areas, this is different. For many humanitarian agencies, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti in particular was quite a wake-up call, because cities are complex places, where providing money to people so they can decide what to prioritise, buying locally and using local markets are a better approach than traditional rural approaches.

As we are now in an urban century, we as architects should be claiming that space. Area- based approaches, which are gaining traction for use in urban disaster recovery, for example are based on urban understandings drawn from urban planning. In this regard, architects have a lot to offer. What other profession talks about verticality, space and design, connects things and solves complex problems? This was traditionally at the heart of the architectural profession, but somehow we have forgotten. One of the cruxes of the humanitarian response is that it is siloed through the cluster system. There is a logic to this but cutting across these sectors and bringing people together is important. Architects do have this skill set that is applicable to addressing other problems, but sometimes forget how relevant it is. 

In Tacloban, Philippines

You just mentioned the Area Based Approaches (ABAs). One of the design challenges in your course centres around these approaches. The application of this concept as an urban-derived approach to post-crisis recovery has increased in recent years. Can you give a brief overview of these approaches and explain what its benefits and challenges are?

The traditional approach in the humanitarian and development sector could be caricatured as a series of top-down, siloed, single sector and isolated projects. It is a caricature, but true nevertheless. Area-based approaches have been around for at least 50-60 years in urban planning and under different names. Great urban thinkers like Otto Koenigsberger  developed urban planning approaches that are people-centred, multisectoral, bottom-up and community-based. And the shelter sector in particular has championed area-based approaches. USAID for example has established a settlements-based approach called Shelter and Settlements where you not only focus on the shelter, but the settlements that surround it. And this is very important. An area-based approach starts with people, it can scale up and is multisectoral. Easy to say, but hard to do. They are complex and difficult, because it is ultimately about community development. You meet with gangs, actors from the private sector, other stakeholders and homeowners, and try to negotiate joint activities. This can be really hard and take a long time. The humanitarian sector is currently struggling with this, because it has – often for good reasons – fixed timeframes for its deliveries and output. But the humanitarian sector is moving towards long-term development and a connectivity between the sectors, which for many is currently called the humanitarian-development nexus.

One of the key aspects of our Master’s programme is the socio-spatial integration of refugees outlining a new paradigm in urban governance and planning and more adaptable strategies to react to changes like unexpected migration waves. How could Area Based Approaches be applied in this context to improve the living conditions of refugees and host communities?

Many area-based approaches have been used in the context of rapid onset disaster recovery and they could be implemented in these circumstances as well, as the same principles of long-term development and multisectoral thinking apply. We need to remember displaced people do not necessarily want to be seen as refugees. For people who are struggling it is important to be recognised as part of the neighbourhood.

Last year, I ran a design studio on refugee in cities and we had a global design competition with UNHCR. The best entries were those that acknowledge that you should not label people as refugees. We have to realise that the issues are much broader and affect the whole community. An area-based approach based on collaborative action could help lessen the differences between people. But is certainly a very complex and complicated area as we are dealing with unknown timeframes, uncertainty and, often, trauma. Sometimes the best work NGOS can do is to pay rent, assist with the completion of buildings and give legal advice. At the end we are talking about good practice around respect and dignity, actually.

In recent years, we have been experiencing an increase in young architects and planning professionals that – like our students – want to work in the humanitarian field. Some other recommendations you gave our students were to listen to the people and the communities affected by the disaster and to plan for the future and consider the long-term benefits for the communities. What would you recommend any young architect or planner considering a career in humanitarian architecture?

First of all, it is an utter privilege to be involved in that world. Secondly, to all architects, and I say this respectfully, sometimes you have to unlearn and relearn. Learn to listen and engage, and that what people want might not be what you want. Approaches used in the architecture profession can be about as opposite as it gets to development and can cause fundamental problems. On a personal level, I would recommend a certain level of self-awareness and consideration regarding your motives and also what is realistic and realizable. But mostly, I would tell them forget you are an architect with an architect’s mindset and see where that takes you. I often find myself asking my students: “If you weren’t an architect, if you were a regular human being, what would you do, what would you like? It doesn’t have to be shiny and beautiful.” And I think that is a good test for everything. Forget that you are a professional. As a human being on Planet Earth, what would you do at this moment? And that is amazingly liberating.

Top Image: Kutch, India
All Images: Courtesy of David Sanderson

Watch David Sanderson’s presentation “Ten takeaways for better urban humanitarian response”, part of UN-Habitat’s Global Urban Lecture series,


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