Urban Planning for Refugee Housing: Responding to Urgent Needs

Jessica Sadye Wolff

Forced Migration Review, Issue 63, February 2020



This article discusses how the city of Hamburg adjusted its urban planning policy to accommodate refugees, and the implications of their approach. The settlement of 82,000 refugees in Hamburg (a city of 1.8 million people) between 2015 and 2019 exacerbated an already limited social housing stock and the city had insufficient locations for new development to accommodate arriving refugees. To enable accelerated housing development, the Federal Building Code was amended to allow the construction of temporary refugee accommodation in non-residential areas, including industrial areas, car parks and commercial sites, for a period of three to five years.

However, Hamburg’s city government increasingly established housing sites in more remote locations across the city, limiting opportunities for integration and interactions with local residents. There was widespread pushback from local residents who objected to large developments for refugees in their neighborhoods and the lack of customary public engagement processes. To avoid delays caused by legal proceedings launched by residents, city planners intentionally started to locate more refugee housing sites in poorer neighborhoods, with the expectation that local residents either could not or would not be willing to pursue a legal objection.


In comparison with other urban refugee housing programs that offer rental subsidies or incentives for incremental development, Hamburg’s use of urban planning regulations to provide temporary and long-term housing is noteworthy, because it increases the social housing stock, benefiting both refugees and local residents. The author emphasizes that urban planners can have a positive impact on refugee integration by influencing the spatial distribution of housing.