/ CONSULTANTS : tommaso dalla vecchia
/ 2017


The project aims to provide the Za’atari camp’s citizens with not only a market but also an essential common space.

The project consists of a simple structure framing a "state of exception"* a dormant space open to unpredictable crowd-sourced initiatives. In this sense, the market will inspire and reinforce spontaneous collective action.

The building will have two lives: the first one will be directly linked to the market and its temporary rituals. The second one will begin once the camp is dismantled: the structure will stand as a permanent monument to celebrate the resilience of the people who lived there.



1. Solar panels to power 2 light bulbs and 2 USB port / 2. Lightweight semi-hard plastic to last at least 3 years / 3. Metal frame held together by connectors and wires / 4. temporary metal or wooden infill panels. Each business owner will build its own stand / 5. Eaves / 6. Concrete blocks. Produced by the local population / 7. Public arcade / 8. Concrete foundation.

1. Solar panels to power 2 light bulbs and 2 USB port / 2. Lightweight semi-hard plastic to last at least 3 years / 3. Metal frame held together by connectors and wires / 4. temporary metal or wooden infill panels. Each business owner will build its own stand / 5. Eaves / 6. Concrete blocks. Produced by the local population / 7. Public arcade / 8. Concrete foundation.


In order to be feasible and sustainable, the proposed concept has been designed to respond to the site’s strategic needs, by leveraging its existing assets and opportunities for development. It would work alongside the current commercial and social activities in the camp as well as identify opportunities to further support and enhance them.

The Za’atari refugee camp hosts a population of 79,559 Syrian refugees, making it the fourth largest settlement in Jordan. Among the residents, roughly 50% are women, 57% are minors and 41% are kids under the age of twelve. Since its establishment, the Za’atari camp has evolved from an emergency settlement into an informal city. Its residents have customized their households, built new shelters, and established shops. In 2014, 1,438 businesses were surveyed and there are now an estimated 3,000 refugee-operated commercial activities. Complex social patterns have developed beyond pure survival necessities, and the camp has become “a dynamic place, unforeseen by the humanitarian actors running it, which is giving refugees a sense of ownership and dignity.”

Today: a market district.
Despite the temporary nature of the refugee camp, the resident population has proactively invested considerable resources and efforts into the construction of businesses and shops. The main driver behind the formation of this vibrant informal economy is the need for inhabitants to provide for themselves, but also the desire to express and channel their many skills. The residents are able to engage in commercial activities that would otherwise be limited by strict regulations. According to the 2014 census, the market’s activities provide employment for 758 people.

Tomorrow: an urban public space.
The market district and the overall camp’s informal economy have the potential to drive the settlement towards a “[...] more predictable, cost effective and participatory platform for the delivery of assistance.” The number and quality of the services informally provided within the camp are proof of a highly skilled and proactive community that would like to see the whole settlement thrive. However, what is currently most needed in Za’atari camp for this potential to be fully untapped is an essential public space that allows community members to coordinate their efforts and take ownership of the whole settlement’s wellbeing.

For these reasons, we propose to provide the camp with a forum, a square delimited by a simple architectural structure, where different business owners, associations and individuals can organize their gatherings and activities. Designed and built in close collaboration with the local population, the square aims to create a formalized market space while also ensuring that the community has the freedom to tailor it to their needs at any given moment.


Instead of artificially imposing a new social order on the camp, we propose to identify, select, and replicate those dynamics that have proven to be most beneficial to the evolution of the settlement. The main purpose of the new public space will be to act as an open forum to stage activities that are already in action and guarantee the active involvement of all the constituents of the community.

Incubating a thriving informal economy.
The existing informal market has been allowing residents to distribute goods within the camp, prepare or re-package meals and products, as well as purchase and market clothing and accessories. Residents can start up their own activities, services, and manufacturing businesses. They will be able to serve the community with their skills while professionals, artisans, and technicians can express their existing talents; improving the whole community’s sense of personal and social fulfilment. The public space would act as an incubator of these processes; accelerate the growth and success of entrepreneurs through coaching, scouting, networking, and the provision of common services. All professionals, organisations or businesses active in a certain sector could for instance convene a roundtable to discuss best practices, minimum standards, and strategies to better provide for the camp or to reach out to underserved districts. The public space could also help support collaboration between the informal and the formal economy, as the organisations successfully utilising the Cash for Work program have done.

Empower the youth through schools, informal and flexible education.
Currently, 28,569 children (5-17yrs) live in the camp. 20,771 are enrolled in only 11 formal schools (1,800 per institute on average). Organisations within the settlement provide further flexible education opportunities for about 5,000 pupils. The proposed public space can foster education, be it formal, informal or vocational. For instance, the square could stage educational activities for students gathering from different districts to complement the education already being provided. These community activities could be interactive workshops, fairs, school project exhibitions, competitions and other events, which would contribute to student retention and learning outcomes. The square could also serve as a space to recruit new teachers from the community, brief them on the camp educational structures and design community intervention policies. Camp residents not formally trained to be teachers may also be equipped with training through peer learning and coaching. A physical school may be also built on the perimeter of the square, allowing for best practices in teaching to be shared with other prospective educators. Close collaboration with the organizations active in the education sector will be paramount for the success of these initiatives.

An adaptive, scalable and replicable public space.
Our proposal provides a high level of functional flexibility as well as clever scalability. It can be easily optimised for the projected growth of the user base and to the users’ evolving needs. We developed a structure that can adapt to different scenarios. For example, we could imagine that the market square is smaller than what we predicted and that the remaining budget is allocated to the construction of the above-mentioned school. If successful, the frame can be easily replicated, on a smaller or a larger scale, to serve other areas of the camp, or to provide for specific needs arising in the future.


The intention of our proposal is not to construct a simple architectural object, but rather an urban scene, which would stage diverse community activities. The local community could actively participate in its construction, but it will play even a more critical role in the development of different essential programs that could take place within this new public place. The market would become a truly social project, a forum, a common space capable of reacting to several communities’ demands. It would enable a more structured dialogue among refugees, district representatives, and local government, as well as national and international organisations. A satisfactory social impact will be considered achieved if the following objectives are realized, which can be measured by their suggested metrics:

More jobs, more equitably distributed.
Commercial and social activities will provide residents with more income-generating opportunities by creating added value. Additionally, jobs will be more equitably distributed among the camp population and collaboration among business owners will be fostered. Metrics: +10% new jobs created; at least 20% of the new employees are not business owners’ family members.

Fostered economic and social inclusion.
A wider range of demographics will be involved more substantially in camp activities. Youth, women and the elderly will be encouraged to contribute to and participate in social, commercial and educational activities within the market, which will be a safer and more open space for interaction. Metrics: at least 30% of the activities organised in the public space are run by or co-led by representatives from these underserved categories.


We perceive any activities that compromise the safety, wellbeing, or equitable wealth distribution of the market’s social framework to be a risk to the healthy functioning of the site. It is paramount to balance the organic development of market activities with a mediating framework that minimizes negative distortions of the market’s purpose and maximizes the positive impact of community activities. Such risks may include:

Uneven distribution of opportunities.
If the activities generated by the market benefit a small portion of the population creating imbalances and consequently threatening peaceful coexistence, such activities should be rotated out of the market in favour of more equitable pursuits.

Security risks for vulnerable demographics.
If vulnerable community members feel less secure at the market due to its distance from their households, relatives and neighbours, a community led informal transit system should be encouraged.

The factors that could jeopardize the project’s impact should also be carefully monitored and addressed:

Perception of unnecessary regulation.
If bureaucracy is seen to discourage entrepreneurs from using more formal settings, then it will be crucial to keep bureaucracy to a minimum and clearly communicate the benefits that the market offers residents.

Exclusion of specific demographics.
If women and the elderly are not being engaged in the activities generated within the public space, organisations should take cues from successful initiatives like the Cash for Work program to intentionally include vulnerable community members.


Our proposal will respect and efficiently employ the $100,000 budget to construct the market. To reasonably estimate the costs, we based our analysis on a project realized by a humanitarian non- profit organisation. The financial sustainability of the project in the long term, however, can be only secured if the community organizations, associations, and individuals take proactive responsibility for the market’s management.


* On the concept of “state of exception” see Giorgio Agamben, Stato di eccezione, ( Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2003) ; Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer, Il potere sovrano e la nuda vita ( Torino, Einaudi, 2005) and Pier Vittorio Aureli, The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture, (Harvard: MIT Press, 2011), 141–176.