Instant Cities

Instant Cities: Shifting the paradigm of post-disaster intervention

Instant City: A highly populated settlement created by mass civilian migration in a short amount of time as a result of rapid disruptive circumstances.

AHI's Instant Cities research program is built upon the thesis that instant cities are a twenty-first century urban form.

We intend to shift the paradigm of intervention in post-disaster communities (such as IDP and/or refugee ‘camps’), so that humanitarian and relief organizations approach their work as investment in city-building for uprooted populations.

This is a two-year research program, pursuing three goals:

  1. Engage in discussions surrounding shelter and settlement strategies for displaced populations.
  2. Inform stakeholders and policy makers on the unique feature of these places.
  3. Promote change that leads to better, more improvable, more sustainable living environments.

AHI’s Instant Cities research will expand upon our 2014 publication Zaatari: The Instant City.


Today there are over 50 million displaced persons worldwide. The average lifetime of a post-disaster settlement is 17 years – more than a generation in some cultures, and more than the world has ever seen at one time.

More than 8 million Syrians are internally displaced; another 1.6 million are in Turkey, and more than 2.4 million are scatted across Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and the rest of the Middle East – 12 million people displaced by just one conflict. In Dadaab, the biggest single refugee camp in the world in Northeastern Kenya, over 300,000 Somali refugees live inside the gates, while over 30,000 live in informal shelters just outside, waiting to gain entry.

Far from being helpless, the modern displaced person is often well educated, highly skilled, and motivated to improve their environment given even the simplest of foundational support.

Za’atari, a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, exemplifies many characteristics of an Instant City, including entrepreneurial daily-life, with a pizza delivery service, a travel agency, and over 1,000 registered marriages in 2014.

Kilis, a non-UNHCR Syrian refugee camp in Turkey, is clean, well-run, and even has playgrounds in its suburban-like environment. Turkey treats the inhabitants of Kilis and other camps not as refugees, but as ‘guests.’

The emergence of Instant City responses, even sporadically, leads AHI to believe that the world’s current shelter and settlement strategies – standardized, homogenous, and emphasizing immediate externally provided goods rather than enabling refugee-led development – are failing the challenge. We have the capacity to design better responses and to respond better to disasters existing and yet to come.

If you are interested in getting involved with AHI’s Instant Cities research, please contact Anya Brickman Raredon at