New gardening methods, especially urban gardening or guerilla gardening became popular in the beginning of the 21st century, when the notion of rapidly growing cities and mega structures grew. Today designers are becoming more aware of the trend and it is increasingly present within social media blogs, where urban gardeners come up with creative methods to garden their concrete dominated environment. An environment less frequently showcased in this fashion are the desert regions that inhabitants have to flee due to war and grievances in their homeland.
The graduation project Desert Pioneers in the field of "Man and Leisure" from the Dutch designer Thom Bindels concentrates on a self sustaining, durable future targeting the refugee camp Zaatari in the area of Jordan. Being one of the biggest refugee camps in a dry desert area, it offers a place of shelter for approximately 80.000 people.
Desert Pioneer is a foldable garden, developed for degraded landscapes, that holds nested seeds of pioneer plants to kickstart a new ecosystem. Bindels vision for the foldable honeycomb-shaped structure of the Desert Pioneer, is to allow small communities in refugee camps to create erosion barriers.
Among the largely product-oriented pieces of this year's graduate show, which often appear more provocative than solution-oriented, Bindels project stands out not only for its simplicity in shape and material, but also because it is geared towards arguably the most important „consumer group“ at present. The refugee issue has lost its presence in the media as the ongoing Syrian conflict lacks progress, and news of fear and terror has unfortunately become the norm. Nevertheless, for millions of people, this condition has become the norm.
Design's involvement with humanitarian aid is essential, especially now that many refugees are not only temporarily living and working in camps, but face an average exile duration of 17 years. These camps are often lacking in terms of planning strategy. Refugee camps are defined as temporary protection measures for refugees built by state or non-governmental organizations. Terms like „shelter“, „temporary“ or „protection“ are complex and need to be questioned. The author Jeanjo Agambem, who has put the refugee issue into an academic spotlight, claims that the camp has, so to speak, replaced the city as a paradigm of contemporary spatial shaping. The camp, he says, is the space that is opened. When the space of exception begins to become the rule, the camp, which was essentially a temporary suspension of the rule of law is now given a permanent spatial arrangement. It is therefore necessary to observe precisely how refugee situations are planned, and one must ask themselves what problems arise in the architectural or spatial planning of such places.
Thom Bindels focuses his work on a camp that has been thoroughly researched to allow for a wide frame of reference that helps develop an adequate product idea for Zataari. While neighboring Iraq and Syria are plunging into war and chaos, violence increases in Lebanon, and the Gaza war recovers, Jordan seems almost like a peaceful island in the middle of tumult. For years, the Kingdom has managed to prevent the multiple crises from spilling over. 680,000 refugees from Syria live in Jordanian communities or camps – an enormous challenge for the country. One of the main problems for Jordan – being the conservation of its already overused water resources – has been exacerbated by the influx of refugees, forcing them to seek out external help. In May 2013, the Agency for Technical Cooperation Development (ACTED), in partnership with The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) trucked 3.8 million liters of water into the region daily. According to the UN, 2 billion hectares of substandard land is restorable, and could lead to an immense the impact on climate, agriculture, and living.
Taking these developments into account, the Desert Pioneer provides an answer for how refugee camps can not continue to exist as independent formations, but must become self-sustaining communities. It is not only important to look at the solution of a supply problem, such as fighting the symptoms of a disease, but especially to investigate the cause of it – namely: undersupply. Thom Bindels choice of materials and content takes this necessity into account. Production of cardboard is scalable, which makes it affordable after a small investment, he describes. An efficient industry, due to its yearly cradle to cradle 'waste' management, keeps the product environmentally friendly. Also, the structure of interlinked cells is efficient in transportation and measured to fit the standard shipping sizes of pallets and containers making it easy to use and quick to apply. The overall appearance of the greening module is based solely on its functionality, the designer says.
Bindels sees his work as the first step in a process that still requires a lot of research. His concept not only demands more expert opinion, but also a further step towards real-world deployment. Claiming, his exhibit is not a "final solution". Rather, he wanted to show the importance of thinking about planting greenery in "non-plantable" regions – like Jordans desert – as they would have a considerable positive effect on our environment. In the future, Bindels wants to focus more on the modification of implantable ecosystems without referring to too much social context. According to him this is always important, but should not demonstrate the significant main part of his research.
The well-intentioned idea of improving refugee camps must always be geared specifically towards certain cultural habits of consumers, such as suburbia homogeneity or necessity of greening environments. Taken into consideration are people's nutritional preferences, which vary based on a nomadic or sedentary lifestyle. Bindels is very responsive to this problem, since his design is oriented towards its functionality and his work effectively meets such criteria, as it is designed for the planting of indigenous plant species.
In addition to well thought-out functionality, the project equally attracts attention and raises sensitization. According to UN refugee aid, 65.6 million people worldwide were displaced at the end of 2016. There are more than a thousand refugee camps worldwide. For all refugee camps spread across every continent, in all climatic zones, there is one manual of the UNHCR – the "Handbook for Emergencies", which consists of 526 pages. On only 16 of these pages (Chapter 3, Section 12), the handbook specifies how to plan refugee camps. In short, it is about modular planning of bearings, through different units and modules. Starting from ideal basic building blocks, the various units are assigned functions ranging from "sanitary" to "education".
We see planning method that is very concise and hierarchical, which reminds us in its form of an almost modernist idealistic planning, as it was perhaps developed in the first half of the last century. Planning ideologies that are deeply rooted in the modern age – a separation of units and functions as seen from above. It was precisely this "from above" planning issue that set the inspiration for Bindel's research. For him, functionality is important in times of crises, though he did not want to become a totalitarian, almost colonialist ruler. Instead providing a timely solution to the problem. According to the designer, green surroundings not only have a positive effect on a community, but would also make it easier to produce goods of one's own. Terms such as permaculture, social empowerment and regenerative eco thinking are essential for a product culture that deals with new spatial and urban formations. Although, landscape often comes as a decorative afterthought, putting plants first can effectively guide the rest of development.
For the future, it is expected that he will not only optimize his design, but is also looking to integrate the problematic situation of refugee campers, in order to show how big the impact of greening deserts and degenerative environments really is.
It is not only evident that an interest in camp improvisations is developing, but also design strategies in western cities. Among others worth mentioning, a garden project in Berlin Tempelhof area has set itself a similar task of greening the city and providing job opportunities for refugees. The subject of agriculture and design is therefore relevant on both sides of the developmental level, and should be focused on in future-oriented design.