Environment & Urbanization

World leading environmental and urban studies journal

City of Refugees: A Real Utopia

Peter Jay Zweig, Gail Peter Borden

Applied Research & Design



This design-focused book proposes a utopian “City of Refugees” that would actually encompass four cities of refuge on four continents. The aspiration is to create a “new, global multi-ethnic society based upon justice and tolerance: a city conceived as being economically viable in a sustainable, net zero environment. The proposed cities take on the status of a Nation State with their own passports.” (page 14)

To decide on the locations, “Each site required: 1) to be near, or on a river; 2) to be located on the border of two countries on arable but unpopulated lands that could be donated to the United Nations (UN); and 3) were adjacent to hotspots of war, famine, and the associated burgeoning population of refugee camps allowing ready access (walkable) to the new city, rather than requiring the need to be transported over long distances.” (page 176)

For instance, the proposed site on the Rio Santiago in Ecuador, near the Venezuelan border, would act as a bridge city. This carless eco-city would be home to 50,000 people, including many Venezuelan refugees.

Overall, the project would involve overhauls of planning, ecology, capitalism and citizenship; there’s no shortage of ambition here. Implicit in this proposal is the recognition that refugee camps are flawed and need to be reimagined. City of Refuge includes blueprints for these imagined cities, as well as many graphics illustrating the scale of displacement and housing need.

This wide-ranging book feels like many things: a thought experiment, an artwork, a reference book, science fiction, and a modern history text (with more images than text). Perhaps above all, it is a polemic about the forced migration crisis, and the urgency of stretching our imaginations when it comes to responding to this crisis.


Further reading:

Earle, Lucy (2016), “Urban crises and the new urban agenda”, Environment and Urbanization Vol 28, No 1, pages 77–86, available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0956247815620335.

Halabi, Zeina (2004), “Exclusion and identity in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps: a story of sustained conflict”, Environment and Urbanization Vol 16, No 2, pages 39–48, available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/095624780401600221.

O’Donnell, Tommy (no date), Urban Utopias: From Garden Cities to Smart Cities, the Past and Present of Cities of the Future, available at https://urbanutopias.net.

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