Ten urban planning principles every humanitarian should know

As cities are increasingly where humanitarian action responds to crises, can urban planning principles help humanitarians intervene more effectively?


Samer Saliba's picture
Insight by 
Samer Saliba
Samer Saliba is the urban learning manager at the International Rescue Committee
10 November 2015
The Tanah Abang district of the Indonesian capital Jakarta has chronic traffic problems. Attempts to clear informal settlements and street vendors are frequently met with protests (Photo: Ikhlasul Amal, Creative Commons via Flickr)

The Tanah Abang district of the Indonesian capital Jakarta has chronic traffic problems. Attempts to clear informal settlements and street vendors are frequently met with protests (Photo: Ikhlasul Amal, Creative Commons via Flickr) 

As the world urbanises, so too must the humanitarian sector. Be it because of economic migration or increases in global population, or other reasons, people are moving to and living in urban areas.

This trend is changing the nature of humanitarian crises and our responses to them, and the international community needs to be better prepared. This means "investing in partnerships with a wide range of actors, including urban planners, private sector and local municipalities" (PDF).

The first step to improving a humanitarian's understanding of the urban context is to raise their awareness of the core principles of urban planning. Some of these are similar to humanitarian principles, which should favour collaboration.

To that end, the following are ten urban planning principles every humanitarian should know:

1. Engage the community, they know best what they need

Community outreach means asking a community what they need. Community engagement empowers them to know how to best answer. From both a humanitarian and urban planning standpoint, meaningful community engagement can lead to smarter, more efficient strategies and can close key knowledge gaps.

This means working with communities to identify the factors affecting their vulnerability and risk, and empowering them to inform potential solutions. In cities, their answers are almost always surprising. 

2. Data helps, too

Community input, which can be anecdotal, is best supported by quantitative, empirical data. Data can provide a better sense of the scale of certain needs. This evidence goes a long way in empowering the community with knowledge and can help point to a clear way forward. 

3. Opportunities come from overlap

Cities are homes to complex webs of systems, sectors, actors, and neighbourhoods, each with their own primary agenda that ties into how the city operates. The success of a city doesn't come from any one of these factors, but from the strength and dynamism of the overlaps.

With this in mind, collaboration is critical to identify innovative solutions. Be it between the private and public sectors, businesses and NGOs, collaboration drives urban solutions. 

4. Place matters 

Humanitarians are conditioned to think about people, urban planners are conditioned to think about the how the place affects people. This is because, in cities, physical locations are often tied to risk, vulnerability, social tension/cohesion, or economic opportunity, among others.

Putting an emphasis on where people are helps inform us of their challenges, opportunities, needs, and general quality of life. The International Rescue Committee's (IRC) Livelihoods Center in Beirut, a multi-story building located near a central roundabout and at the intersection of multiple neighbourhoods, is a good example of using place as a means of making IRC's livelihood programming more accessible. 

5. Because place matters, design matters 

Smart urban design can both solve challenges and take advantage of the opportunities the location offers. While humanitarians are not designers, considering design (i.e location, size and scale, and so on.) may lead to creative ways of addressing people's needs.

The now famous urban escalators of Medellin's Comuna 13 – which drastically reduced the commute time of the city's poorest – show the value of design in achieving an outcome. 

6. Politics persist 

While it is a core humanitarian principle to not take sides or engage in politics, cities are often havens of political activity and are shaped by politics, for better or worse. To properly respond to urban crises, humanitarians must acknowledge political influences and appropriately work with political partners in order to achieve feasible solutions with greater reach.

This does not mean abandoning humanitarian principles. It just means recognising others as well. 

7. Civil society has a heightened role

Given the complexity of cities, even decisions or actions supported by political power are subject to pressure from civil society, be that through church group meetings, community board fundraisers, or civil demonstrations in the centre of Beirut.

Because cities are more densely populated and diverse, civil society's influence can achieve more than in a rural setting. Humanitarian partnerships with appropriate civil actors may be just as important as engaging with the formal public sector. 

8. Be inclusive 

Urban planners strive to promote solutions that benefit all city users, while humanitarians rightly focus on the most vulnerable. Identifying the most vulnerable is not a simple task and may even create tears within a city's social fabric. Ensuring the most vulnerable access the services they need in a way that improves those systems for all brings together urban planner and humanitarian objectives.  

9. Be visionary 

For every problem, there is a solution that can bring added benefits. As humanitarians seek to enact durable solutions, cities offer more opportunities to realise them. Their complexity and interconnectedness demand innovative and long-term solutions that are not only effective, but improve upon the original, pre-crisis condition.

Be it a floodwall that doubles as a community park or a water, sanitation and hygiene programme that improves upon existing infrastructure, both urban planners and humanitarians must be visionary in their actions, even in emergency response. 

10. Have a long-term plan 

It's in the name. Good urban planning addresses immediate needs while striving to achieve a city's unique vision of the future. Long-term visions are rarely achieved through an uncoordinated application of projects.

By establishing a plan and working towards a comprehensive vision, urban planners ensure that their impact is valuable, desired, and lasting.

The big picture

The good news is many of the principles listed here are already well practiced by humanitarians. And while urban planning may not share every principle with humanitarianism, the big picture goal is the same.

Each seeks a higher quality of life for those they serve and each tries to improve on how it's done. And both urban planners and humanitarians must increasingly look to each other to achieve their shared goal.

The upcoming World Humanitarian Summit and Habitat III will provide excellent opportunities to do so. Interesting ideas will come from the exchange. 

Samer Saliba ([email protected]) is the urban learning manager at the IRC and is currently gathering evidence around how to improve urban humanitarian response.