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BSA News

May 18, 2023

Designing to Help Heal Trauma in Refugee Children

Mavrovouni Playground 01

Mavrovouni Playground.

Photo courtesy of GDIRC and Movement on the Ground.

While media coverage can leave the impression that the over 32 million refugees worldwide are temporarily living in camps, the reality is that refugees, on average, spend five years or more in these encampments. More than 50 percent of refugees are children, many of whom have experienced traumatic events. This data got the attention of a BSA Knowledge Community, which began to explore the question: how can architects design to heal trauma in refugee children? The Global Design Initiative for Refugee Children (GDIRC) is a collaborative BSA and Boston Society of Landscape Architects (BSLA) Knowledge Community that began designing play spaces for refugee encampments in Lebanon in 2016. The Knowledge Community recently held a design charette to explore how to more deeply c­­onsider children’s psychological and emotional experiences in design, seeking to test design as a means to heal.

Designing for Healing

The design charette, co-hosted by the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, brought together academic experts in trauma and play with architects, landscape architects, industrial designers and others to explore “portable play” with an interdisciplinary, collaborative design approach. The task was to create a design framework for an interactive, transportable play environment, balancing the pragmatic aspects of construction and children’s psychological needs. During the charette, attendees examined the potential impact of incorporating rhythm and sound into the design framework to allow multiple ways for refugee children to interact or play on their own. Smaller areas were investigated to offer a place for children to observe, without engaging, and build resilience over time.

The charette marked a pivotal moment for the GDIRC as it sought to take the Knowledge Community’s learnings about the global refugee community and integrate them into their design process. By reaching out to experts across fields they established an interdisciplinary, collaborative design approach that explores psychological and emotional considerations as much as physical structures. This summer, the GDIRC will bring the framework to an intensive design course at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design for further exploration and test scaled designs with local community partners. The designs will then be adapted for outdoor use, durability, and safety.

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Applying the Design to a Transient Community

In conjunction with several partners, the GDIRC plans to test the prototypes in one or two locations. “What we realized over time is that the refugee situation is becoming more precarious, and children have more trauma than we thought or assumed at the beginning,” said Nathalie Beauvais Intl. AIA, AICP, LEED AP, Resiliency Lead; Architecture & Planning; HDR INC; and co-founder of the GDIRC. For most architects, designing to heal trauma can be a shift from normal practice. “With this specific issue of children and play, we realized that [as architects] we like to build stuff and are within the very concrete realm of objects, but that was not sufficient [for this challenge]” said Beauvais.

The Knowledge Community will also modify designs to address the transient nature of the population in the US-Mexico border. The final design must fit into the back of a car and be able to be built almost anywhere from inexpensive, readily available materials since camp sites move frequently. Commenting on how important it is to customize design to the population, Patti Seitz AIA, professor of architecture and chair of the Architecture Program at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and co-founder of the GDIRC, said: “In Lebanon, people might be in camps for 17 years. The asylum seekers in Mexico are really different, though. They change every few weeks.”

Building on the Shoulders of Other Projects

The GDIRC was founded to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis and the unaddressed needs of children and families in temporary encampments. Members of the Knowledge Community began with the question “Can architects use their expertise to help Syrian refugees?” and quickly discovered their focus on temporary play spaces. While refugee encampments meet fundamental human needs, such as water, food, shelter, and medical care, local governments and landowners often restrict the construction of permanent structures or public spaces. For children, safe play is a critical part of healthy development and healing from trauma, and as Beauvais added, “What do you do with a child all day if you are in a refugee encampment for even just one year?”

GDIRC’s first project was two temporary, modular play structures in Lebanon. Each project needed to be constructed locally from readily available materials with the ability to be disassembled and reused or repurposed. After their initial success, the Knowledge Community expanded its response, developing projects for locations including Dorchester, MA and Lesvos, Greece.

Addressing Global Needs

While architecture might not solve the global refugee crisis, the GDIRC is an example of how design can make a difference in humanitarian crises. “Refugees are one of the most critical issues of our time; there are more people in displacement than ever in the history of our world,” Beauvais said. “So not to address this big challenge, as people who are focusing on the human habitat, is unthinkable to me.”

The BSA’s Knowledge Communities tackle some of the most challenging issues in society and are a great way for members to get involved in the BSA’s work. To learn more about the GDIRC and other knowledge communities, read more here.