Imagining a Neighborhood for Syrian Refugees

As governors of over two dozen states are seeking to block or “suspend” refugee settlement, mayors from some of the most population-dense cities are speaking out in favor of welcoming Syrian families.

What kind of neighborhoods are best prepared to welcome our share of the 10,000 Syrian refugees expected to arrive in America over the next year?

Here’s the most important question these local leaders should be asking their cities: What kind of neighborhoods are best prepared to welcome our share of the 10,000 Syrian refugees expected to arrive in America over the next year?

After a long and traumatic journey, many of these new arrivals will move in feeling disoriented, isolated, and disconnected from their new communities. The built environment of their neighborhoods will make a major impact on the quality of their new lives.

Let’s try an experiment. Imagine, for a moment, that you are tasked with designing a neighborhood where a group of refugees is soon expected to settle:

  • What sort of public spaces would you like to see? Would there be open seating and areas that inspired refugees to interact with other people in the community? Would there be art and grassy spaces? Would music and community festivals be encouraged?
  • What would the streets look like? Would narrow sidewalks and wide roads with high speed limits encourage a quick bustle to and from work? Or would wide sidewalks, bike lanes, plentiful pedestrian crossings, and restaurants with outdoor seating encourage refugees to stroll more slowly and stop in at local businesses?
  • How far would people have to travel for their essential needs? Would it take refugees without a car an hour and two bus transfers to get to a grocery store? Or would the neighborhood have quality shopping near by? Would there by places to work, shop, eat, and play close to refugee housing?

While there may be some variation in answers, most people will agree that refugees have the best chance at building a new life in neighborhoods with easy access to essential needs, public spaces that encourage community interaction, and streets that prioritize people at least as much as cars.

Critics will, of course, contend that it doesn’t make sense to change an entire neighborhood to meet the needs of a small number of refugees.

But, that misses the point entirely.

Here’s the lowdown on design: the kinds of neighborhoods where refugees will thrive are the kinds of neighborhoods where all Americans (really all human beings) will thrive. The kinds of cities refugees need are the kinds of cities everyone needs.

Most people don’t care about city planning. But they do care about how disconnected they feel – from the places where they live, from a sense of empowerment in their communities, from their own neighbors. Smart planning makes these concerns the heart of its practice.

By intentionally designing places that help people become connected, empowered, and welcomed, American cities create resilience for their current residents and for anyone that arrives in need of a safe place to call home.  

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Jamie Littlefield is the author of an upcoming book about placemaking - the wild and wonderful ways people are re-creating their cities. A former college English instructor, she is now traveling the world in search of inspiring stories from innovators working to create a sense of place and connection with the cities they call home. Follow her on Twitter: @writingjamie.