Disaster recovery work is complex, and can require different approaches and processes to those many architects are accustomed to. Barnaby Bennett offers 10 tips based in his research and experiences of working with post-disaster and under-developed communities in Sri Lanka, Vancouver, Johannesburg, Samoa and Christchurch.

Organising Enchantment: Collective Responses to Urban Trauma, 2019 Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism. Barnaby Bennett and Dongsei Kim, supported by UTS.

Working as a designer in post-disaster communities is complex and inherently risky, but it can be immensely rewarding. Each disaster is different. Each place and its communities are unique, and so it is difficult and perhaps even a little dangerous to suggest any firm rules of engagement. But it’s also important to learn lessons from the mistakes of others. So here are ten tips I’ve garnered from reading extensively around the topic and from my own experiences and mistakes.

1. Be careful

While the motivation to support damaged communities is almost always a pure one, it doesn’t mean that the interaction will result in beneficial outcomes for those communities, so care and caution are needed. This is often framed as ‘do no harm’. But over-cautiousness can be problematic too.

Working with people after disaster is categorically different to the normal day-to-day of design work. In conventional projects the clients, budgets, and briefs are relatively stable – or at least only one or two of them vary in a given project. Often when working in complex communities all three of these are emerging, fluid and can rapidly change. You will also be working with people, organisations and communities that have experienced trauma, and this plays out in varied and highly complex ways.

A basic and important lesson is to always ask yourself ‘why are we doing this?’ Being reflective about your own modes of practice and motivations is one of the key aspects of doing good work. You need to be honest with yourself and others about why you are there. It’s ok that some of these motivations are personal or professional, but the way to make sure this is healthy is to be honest about them.

2. Learn to listen first

The fluidity of post-disaster situations means designers have to develop different skills. One of the major lessons I learnt while working with communities while involved with Global Studio in Vancouver and Johannesburg was the value of listening before you engage your design brain. It’s important to keep your own skill set in your pocket for a while and just listen. This is tougher than it sounds. As architects we are trained to draw our pencils quickly in our quest to find the surprising design solution that solves problems. But in complex environments, where the client, budget, and brief are often all fluid, jumping into design too quickly can be damaging.

This listening is a deep and multifaceted skill. Listen to different communities and find community leaders; listen to Indigenous people and their histories; listen to the land and the people that can tell its stories; listen to those who know the history of a place and how it has developed; listen to the people who don’t often get to speak, not just the loudest; listen to your clients but also others who have a stake in the project.

3. Be very careful promising pro bono work

Giving one’s free time to communities and businesses damaged after disaster is an obvious and generous act, but it’s also problematic for a number of key reasons. Firstly, being a good designer requires a commitment to projects that is often very fluid, and this means the relationship isn’t easily started and finished in a tidy measurable time frame. Pro bono work can take a lot more time than originally thought and this can lead to tensions. I’ve seen architecture firms in Sri Lanka take on pro bono work, and then under-resource it when it became more complex than anticipated. Clearly, this isn’t ok. Further, you’ll notice a lot of caring hard work going into communities, by people who are being paid well – and that’s good. However, it’s very frustrating when you are sitting around a table and realise all the other government, council and contractors there are being paid, and often being paid well, for their time and services when you aren’t.

I say this because a key requirement of working after disaster is a commitment. Whatever the project is, it is going to take a long time. Projects that we think will take months take years, and communities take decades to recover.

It follows that real care needs to be taken by architects who are offering themselves to the Architects Assist program being run by the Australian Institute of Architects. It is a great idea to align communities with willing designers. But in the moments after disaster and when meeting clients it’s very easy to over commit and over promise. Disaster research has shown that this is one of the worst things to do to communities as they try to recover.

4. Read Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit

The claim that it is both common and dangerous to make promises to post-disaster communities that can’t be assured is born out of research in the field of disaster studies. In my research, the most accessible and high-quality account of this is a book by Rebecca Solnit called Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.

It is a moving and incredibly well-researched look at how disaster has impacted cities, and how the field of disaster studies evolved in the twentieth century. There are many great concepts in its pages, but the one that resonated with me most is the concept of elite panic. Solnit carefully documents the ways that communities respond with efficiency and grace to disaster. This is common and widespread. When the worst happens, our best characteristics come out. She also documents how governments are almost always institutionally unprepared to accept this and instead tend to view self-organising communities as a threat that needs to be ordered and organised from above. This claim aligns with Mark Wigley’s observations about crises as being, by definition, the events that happen when normal emergency procedures are proven inadequate.

Solnit argues that this is why the army is so frequently called upon after disaster and why large reconstruction authorities are created to manage the processes, often with poor results. Solnit calls this elite panic. It’s an incredibly important term for designers to consider as we are often part of the forces that are deployed by the elites as part of regeneration schemes, urban renewal projects and upgrades. As such, we need to be acutely aware of who we are working for. Also, read Solnit.

5. Disasters are revealing

One of Solnit’s other important claims is that disasters reveal much of who we are and what our hidden capacities as individuals and communities can be. This is supported by scholarship in other fields such as American sociologist Susan Leigh Star who wrote about digital and tech infrastructures as they were being developed in the 1990s and early 2000s. One of Star’s profound insights was that the infrastructures that underlie much of our day to day existence, that are often either literally invisible or invisible in plain sight, are only made present when they fail. Urban or spatial disasters are an extraordinary illustration of this as communities are suddenly made aware, often painfully, of the complex, layered, intertwined, and surprisingly ad hoc and incoherent infrastructures that sustain our normal non-disaster day-to-day lives. Phones break, the water stops flowing, the road gets cut, political systems fail, crisis ensues, and human communities form to fill in the gaps created by these failures. In doing so, we learn a lot about the character of your neighbours and leaders, but also about the technological and social systems that quietly run in the background of everyday life. Learning to listen in these moments offers rare insights into non-disaster states too.

6. The most valuable resource is the community leader

When the ruptures occur to communities there is a certain kind of person that emerges to lead. I’ve never observed a clear pattern on where they come from or what motivates them. They might be community workers, local politicians, business people, school children, even designers. They are often women. They are also often Indigenous. They tend to have extensive networks in the place. These people are singularly the most valuable resource as they can liaise between power structures and the many various communities that live in a place. It’s complex because they are often not official political representatives and often not in paid positions, so they are also over worked, suffer from fatigue, and are constantly being called to perform their role. There are also fake community leaders, so time, experience and judgement are needed to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

It’s amazing to see these people in action as they command the respect, and fear (from politicians) of the community. It goes without saying that they are also key players in any significant design project. If you find yourself working with one of these leaders, make sure you support them, pay them if you can, buy their meal, arrange cash grants for them. They are invaluable.

This lesson is particularly acute when working in places different to the one in which you normally practice. The recent fires have largely affected rural parts of Australia. Each is different and collectively they might be more different to working in other urban settings in other countries. Finding, supporting and listening to community leaders in places you aren’t used to is key. Also respecting that they are often busy, over worked and underpaid is crucial too.

7. Realise the difference between project and Project

This is a lesson my thesis supervisor Dr Susan Stewart taught me. In architecture and design, we frequently talk about ‘the project’. This is the thing that we’ve been asked to complete that has some determinable scope and a timeframe. Produce drawings of x by y. Help design a school by March. The project can be big or small and they have their twists and turns and dynamic phases. But they are always part of a big, and more profound Project (with a capital P) that is the motivation and drive for the smaller one. This P is sometimes explicit, but often it gets lost in the development of a brief and in the creation of institutions. As designers, and particularly as designers working after disaster, it’s really important to keep trying to find the big P project within the little ones (another way of saying this is the difference between outcomes and outputs). For example, the bigger purpose of a school is to educate and care for children. A school is a good way to do this, but if we think about the bigger picture we might realise there are other better, more effective projects to achieve this. A temporary art project might be seen as a way to engage the community, but really it’s part of a bigger conversation about food security. A street festival might be framed as a way to offer public entertainment to citizens, but really it’s part of a bigger Project to involve the community in the big political decisions being made in a recovery.

When working after disaster, one of the critical big P projects is keeping the community together and functioning and supporting itself, what is sometimes called social capital. Realising this means that things like temporary projects are sometimes more appropriate than embarking on big serious expensive generational projects.

My own research (and thesis) from post-quake Christchurch suggests that, in this age, infrastructural issues are common and critical big P Projects underlie many of the concerns and motivations in the broader community: how we move, where our food and water come from, how we rebuild trust in politics, how our energy is generated, how we anticipate climate change, the state of our media and so on.

8. Balancing rebuilding and reimagining

One of the most difficult aspects of disaster recovery for designers and planners is balancing the urgent need for a return to normal with the opportunity to build back better. Should we help communities get back to ‘normal’ as quickly as possible by repairing and rebuilding what they lost? Or do we highlight future risks and opportunities and spend time and money re-developing communities in response to these? The first is quicker and cheaper, the latter almost always slower and more politically complex, but can lead to better outcomes. There is no easy answer, and it’s obvious that this is a deeply political and complex set of decisions.

It’s completely clear that communities affected by disaster have every right to have their lives returned to normal as quickly as possible. Indeed, it would be unethical to unnecessarily extend the suffering that comes from constant disruption and delay. However, it’s also unethical to rebuild or repair places without considering their future danger and the health and well-being of the communities that are going to live there. This is particularly complex in our age of climate change.

While I was a little bit critical of the Architects Assist program above, the current President of the Institute, Professor Helen Lochhead, has highlighted a really critical point for designers, which relates directly to this dilemma. She argues that we need to ensure action is evidenced-based. During recovery, there is a tendency to grab the closest ideas at hand. Sometimes this is the status quo, but at other times they are just the tired default thinking of a government (as was the case in Christchurch, which underwent a radical re-think based on twentieth-century urbanism). This is where Professor Lochhead’s call is so important. If architects and designers have anything to contribute, it needs to be our ability to convert contemporary evidence-based thinking about the built environment into tangible affordable projects. Anything less and we are failing in our obligations to the communities. It’s also why working with the community is not always the same thing as doing what they want initially.

9. Be radical

With all the above points in mind it’s important to hold on to the core of what it means to be a designer; we are able to imagine and draw different worlds. This is still a great gift and potential game-changer for communities and places recovering from disaster. If we can shift from this being viewed as a task of the great problem-solving designer and instead the task of collectives working together on complex problems, then truly radical, evidence-based and community-led projects can succeed. I take aim at the idea of the designer being a problem-solver because it’s evidently clear that designers need to be part of the defining and locating of problems (hence the need to understand the difference between the project and Project), not just a service that solves problems that have already being framed by existing and often vested interests and concerns.

10. Enjoy it

For me, the impacts of disaster had a very strange effect on my sense of time. Many things I’d considered unbreakable and permanent were questioned and the recovery process was a slow, punctuated process that constantly confused my sense of linear chronological time: before and after became congested, and causes and effects frequently become entangled and confused.

The only mitigation for all this, and this is supported by disaster psychologists such as the excellent Dr Rob Gordon, is to try as much as possible to savour the present and enjoy the good moments that occur during the processes of recovery. This can be difficult and painful, but they are also stocked full of joy, togetherness and a sense of love that is all too rare in contemporary cities. We, designers and helpers from outside, often frame ourselves as offering and contributing to disaster communities, but in my experience we are the ones that learn and gain the most from these projects, Projects and the amazing people we meet. It’s ok to appreciate and enjoy that. It’s a rare privilege.

Dr Barnaby Bennett has worked in post-disaster and under-developed communities in Sri Lanka, Vancouver, Johannesburg, Samoa and Christchurch. His PhD thesis (UTS) examined the relationship between activism, infrastructure and temporary urban projects in post-disaster Christchurch. In 2019 Barnaby worked with Dongsei Kim (NYIT) and with support from UTS to create an exhibition for the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism titled Organising Enchantment: Collective Responses to Urban Trauma. Barnaby was Creative Director of Christchurch’s Festival of Transitional Architecture in 2018, and Creative Director of the Sydney Architecture Festival in 2019. He is also a co-founder and director of Freerange Press.