Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA, 2015 AIA President
Photography: Carl Bower Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA, 2015 AIA President

One of the most striking disasters of our time is not an act of nature. It’s a result of political upheaval—hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war in Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. The images are haunting—entire families adrift in flimsy boats, parents protecting their children from the rain and the police baton, all desperate to save themselves and their children.

As architects, our training and design thinking equip us to propose creative responses to natural disasters. This talent has been put to great purpose through the AIA’s Disaster Assistance and Response teams. But what about disasters caused by civil strife? What role can we play in helping those agencies and countries struggling to house those displaced? How can we help to repair the communities and the very land that has been damaged by revolution and war?

For one, architects can continue to create prototype shelters, in cooperation with governments, relief organizations, and the private sector, to house those who have been displaced. We can design transitional education facilities and community gathering places to normalize life quickly. The goal is to avoid creating refugee ghettos imbued with hopelessness and infected by criminal activities and disease, and aim, instead, to integrate refugees into the communities that have accepted them.

The AIA’s growing network of overseas chapters can also work alongside professional organizations in their home nations to find a way to act swiftly and locally to restore hope for the displaced.

At home, the Architects Foundation has created the National Resilience Initiative, which is made up of a network of regional design studios—an outcome of the partnership between the Architects Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation’s “100 Resilient Cities” program. While the initiative was inspired by climate change’s global impact and the housing issues at the center of increased urbanization, it has great potential to address displacement caused by civil unrest through research conducted at its regional studios. It’s work that needs to be done urgently, but it is also work that needs to be done thoughtfully. Human lives, after all, are at stake.

My challenge to architects: Be agents of compassion and healing wherever there is a need. In a world torn by strife, design thinking is a powerful balm.