City Plaza, Athens: a new approach to housing refugees

A very different approach to the migration crisis. Image: Vicki Squire/author provided.

There are now around 55,000 people stranded in Greece as a result of Europe’s failed response to the so-called migration crisis – and refugees are losing hope. Many languish in camps dotted across the Greek islands; others have decided to stay in Turkey rather than face the bleak conditions in Europe.

But there is a new accommodation project in Athens called City Plaza which is providing refugees with much-needed hope. City Plaza is a disused seven-storey hotel near Victoria Square, which has been occupied by the Economic and Political Refugee Solidarity Initiative. The hotel has been closed for business for around seven years, but the building remains fully equipped and is now being used to house nearly 400 people who arrived to Greece from Turkey in the past year.

Unlike the accommodation provided by the United Nations and its partners, people at City Plaza are not chosen on the basis of their vulnerable status or nationality. The people accommodated on site were purposefully chosen not according to whether they qualified for relocation, and questions about why people migrated were not a factor in identifying those to be accommodated. Instead, attention was paid to ensuring a mix of nationalities, a gender balance, and a combination of religious beliefs.

When I visited in May 2016 there were about 400 residents; these included around 20 single parents, six single men, ten unaccompanied minors, four people with extreme disabilities, several pregnant women and three newborn babies. All had to agree to abide by a basic set of rules, such as not drinking alcohol on the premises or acting in a violent way toward others. They also had to agree to participate in the daily activities of the collective, such as cooking and cleaning.

City Plaza is not funded by any external agencies, and relies on donations and fundraising. Decisions in City Plaza are made on a collective process which occurs through different assemblies that are held on a regular basis. Each resident agrees on entry to participate fully in the community based on respect for each person regardless of gender and religious or ethnic backgrounds.

Building a community

Though clearly the process of deciding who gets to stay at City Plaza is a difficult one, the activists involved in setting up the site deliberately select a combination of people who require additional support and those who could provide it, such as teachers and translators. This reflects a broader ethos within City Plaza: recognising that people are facing precarious situations but trying to avoid defining their existence according to their vulnerability.

A small scale experiment that is changing lives. Image: Vicki Squire/author provided.

By contrast with the charitable and sometimes victim-centric ethos of many organisations working in the area, the aim is to build a culture of mutual respect. The idea is that residents will then feel able to go out from City Plaza and find their own way forward in the city.

“We don’t want to make a ghetto within the city – even if it is a nice ghetto”, Nasim Lomani, a refugee from Afghanistan who is a long-standing resident of the city, tells me. City Plaza aims to be a place where people on the move in precarious situations can begin to rebuild their lives without being constrained by their status or vulnerabilities.

Clearly City Plaza is just one site and does not meet the needs of the up to 55,000 stranded people in Greece. Indeed, this is precisely why the activist collective seeks to do more than simply provide support to those within the re-used hotel. Members of the collective also work on refugee projects beyond the building.

“We can’t solve the problem, Lomani tells me, “but we can be ready [to act in solidarity with refugees] when we are needed”. City Plaza has already inspired projects elsewhere, including a temporary residential facility, HOOST, in the east of Amsterdam.

The now closed camp at Indomeni, on the Macedonian border Image: EPA/Kay Nietfeld.

City Plaza offers an alternative to camps – and it appears to be incredibly effective for those whose lives it touches. Many of the people I spoke to living in City Plaza explained how even though they are frustrated at being stuck in Greece, they are in the best place they can be given the circumstances. Having visited several camps in Athens during my visit in May, I can only agree.

Of course City Plaza would be difficult to scale up. Government agencies can’t replicate this model for some migrants according to the same criteria as the collective, while leaving the rest behind in camps. But when we think about the squalid camps that tend to represent Europe’s current approach, the question has to be asked as to whether there is a different way to deal with this problem.

Couldn’t the many disused buildings, not only in Athens but across various European cities, be used to foster collective living in a similar way to City Plaza? The Conversation

Vicki Squire is reader in international security at the University of Warwick.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.

Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.