Architecture studio designs refugee housing in Buffalo

by Lisa Gagnon (BA English/Linguistics ‘17)

Photograph of Salwa Alawneh giving a presentation.

Architecture faculty member Erkin Özay, a native of Turkey and witness to the in ux of Syrian refugees in Istanbul, is now working to position design in support of Bu alo’s burgeoning refugee population. His work was recently featured in a Metropolis magazine piece on legacy city responses — including design — to these new residents (“Refugees Could ‘Save’ America’s Rust Belt — Will We Let Them?”, Nov. 2016).

New York State is the country’s fourth-largest recipient of refugees, and 1 out of every 3
is resettled in Bu alo. That has translated to 14,000 new Bu alo residents since 2001, the majority of whom have settled on Bu alo’s West Side, where a grassroots support network has emerged. Scooping up housing and starting up multicultural business enterprises such as the West Side Bazaar, these newcomers from Burma, Bhutan, Somalia and Iraq are driving economic growth. At the same time, a ordable housing options are dwindling in this part
of the city, raising questions for how the city can accommodate the thousands of refugees expected to arrive over the next few years.

To address this challenge, Özay turned to Bu alo’s East Side - recognized by many as the city’s next development frontier. Focusing on vacant warehouse buildings in the Broadway-Fillmore district, students partnered with the International Institute of Bu alo and a neighborhood housing agency to consider design in relation to refugees’ social and cultural support needs. 

Rendering of vacant warehouses along the Heat Line.

One group of students focused on vacant warehouses along the city's Belt Line, a former passenger and greight line that loops the city.

Students researched the various stages of refugee life in Bu alo, looking at successful strategies already in place on the West Side and in other cities like Vancouver, Canada. Then, they split up into ve groups, choosing to design either plans for a ‘welcome house,’ or long-term rental housing strategies, all while grappling with the challenges of a tight budget and limited resources.

Any urban project has to serve multiple communities simultaneously,” says Özay. “East Bu alo itself is not a monolithic community. Resettlement is very much a problem of a ordability, so the question for the students was: How can you be strategic about what resources are available? What would create the most impact, both for the refugees who are being resettled here as well as the inhabitants of the areas themselves?”

One group of Özay’s students focused on the city’s Belt Line, a former passenger and freight loop that connects several vacant warehouses around the city’s edge. To create what Özay calls a ‘porous’ community network linked within itself and to the city at large, students proposed courtyards, community kitchens, gardens and daycare centers. Together with existing community infrastructure, such as schools, they create a supportive network of spaces for formal and informal interaction and, for a fragile population with diverse needs, multiple points of intervention. 

On a recent visit to Bu alo, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Powers highlighted the city as a national model for refugee resettlement. UB and the School of Architecture and Planning have played an integral role in this work. In addition to Özay’s studio, current e orts involving the school include an annual Refugee Health Summit co-led by the Community of Excellence for Global Health Equity and a study by the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab on food access for Bu alo’s Burmese population.

Özay references a larger trend in transitioning legacy cities as a new form of ‘cosmopolis’
for which new cultural codes — and design solutions — are needed. “When we think of cosmopolitanism, we think of the Londons, New Yorks and LAs of the world, where absorbing these demographic and cultural in uxes is easier just because of numbers and density. We now have to invent a new mode of ‘rust belt cosmopolitanism’ to address this question of integration in a more careful manner.” 

The studio is just the start of what Özay sees as a bigger conversation on the role of design as a powerful tool for sustainable refugee integration. "This is a first step both for building those relationships and doing more research at UB," he says. "I enjoy the fact that architecture and urban design are now an integral part of the conversation."

MArch student Salwa Alawneh says she was inspired to take her work in Özay’s studio to her native Jordan, where millions of Syrians, Palestinians and Iraqis have sought refuge in recent years. A member of the school’s inclusive design research group, Alawneh will pursue her thesis on social changes to Jordan’s urban fabric, aiming to rede ne refugee housing as a space of possibility, survival and hope. She is now working with agencies in Jordan to develop guidelines for inclusive urban design and social change management.