As scholars, policymakers, and practitioners work towards creating a sustainable urban future, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: the future of cities lies in the hands of the next generation, who has both the most to gain and the most to lose from the way urban development unfolds. Should cities fail to plan for the effects of climate change, should unplanned urban growth continue to promulgate hazardous and unsanitary living conditions in slums, should social exclusion and lack of economic opportunity lead to increasingly unstable and violent cities – it will be the young generation who will face the most devastating consequences. This means that today’s young generation also has the most to gain from an urban development that is sustainable and inclusive, and that it will be increasingly up to the them to continue and to expand sustainable urban development work.

This is why IHC Global believes it is so important to enable and encourage the growth of young scholars in urban fields. Since 2009, IHC Global, first with USAID, then later joined by new partners, Cities Alliance, The Wilson Center, and the World Bank, has been actively encouraging participation of young scholars in urban field-based research through its annual ‘Reducing Urban Poverty’ graduate student essay competition. Each year, hundreds of students submit abstracts for papers on research projects addressing urgent challenges of urban poverty. From those selected to submit full papers, two finalists and a winner are selected with the prize being a trip to Washington D.C., the opportunity to present their papers at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, and the publication of their work.

On March 6th, IHC Global and the IDB are pleased to host the winners and finalists of this year’s competition for an urban research roundtable. The winners and finalists will come together with urban experts and other young scholars, to discuss the importance of urban research, and the challenges and opportunities young scholars face when getting started in field-research. To learn more about this event and to RSVP to attend, visit

Read on below for an exclusive interview with this year’s winners about their research on an incrementing housing model for refugees in Northern Jordan.


From left: Valeria Vidal Alvarado, Francis Goyes and Sera Tolgay

The 2016 winners of the ‘Reducing Urban Poverty’ Graduate Student Paper Competition are Valeria Vidal Alvarado, Francis Goyes and Sera Tolgay. The MIT Masters in City Planning students come from three very different backgrounds- 26-year-old Alvarado is from Lima, Peru, 26-year-old Goyes is from Quito, Ecuador, and 25-year-old Tolgay is from Istanbul, Turkey- but they have pooled together their expertise and experiences to create a project focused on something that they care deeply about. As the refugee crisis remains one of the most pressing global issues at hand, much attention is paid to the journey; where the refugees go, how they get there, and if they’ll be allowed in. Much less focus is on what happens to these families after they receive sanctuary. Their research project does just this; Refugees, Incremental Housing and Shelter in the 21st Century seeks to examine the design and implementation of the incrementing housing model of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)’s Urban Shelter Program in cities in Northern Jordan, and provide recommendations on how it can improve. The paper was selected out of hundreds of entries as the winner of the competition, and Alvarado, Goyes and Tolgay were given the opportunity to present their findings in front of a captivated audience at Habitat III in October, in Goyes’ hometown of Quito, Ecuador. IHC Global International Communications Officer Rebekah Revello interviewed the three researchers about their project, what it means to them, and what they hope it will do for refugee communities around the world.


FG: The NRC program intends to provide adequate shelter for vulnerable Syrian refugees by supplying grants to Jordanian homeowners to increase rooms or floors to their existing houses. Syrian families are then allowed to live in these expansions rent-free for up to two years. After the two year period is over, Jordanian homeowners can decide if they want to continue to renting to Syrian families or use the expansions for a different purpose.

VVA: There is a lack of adequate and affordable rental housing stock to accommodate the increasing number of Syrian refugees, which has put a strain on the capacity of cities in Northern Jordan such as Jerash, Ajloun, and Irbid. Through surveys with participant homeowners, semi-structured interviews with NRC and UNHCR officers, and mapping of social and public infrastructure, we have found that NRC’s Urban Shelter Program increases the total housing stock available in Northern Jordan cities, ensures minimum building standards and quality of materials, and supports the local economy. As opposed to cash-for-rent programs that can add pressure to constricted housing markets, NRC’s approach provides adequate shelter for refugees without disrupting existing urban systems.


FG: I was interested in this project for a number of reasons. Having lived my entire life in Ecuador, I was accustomed to the incremental housing approach the majority of families practiced – houses are built informally, and expanded through time based on the growth in family members and the financial resources they have access to. I was very curious to understand how NRC could draw inspiration from incremental housing to then use it as a solution for housing refugees.

Furthermore, the NRC program was also interesting to me from a city planning perspective. Much attention is drawn to refugee camps like Zaatari and Azraq, yet the majority of Syrian refugees live in urban areas, as there they have greater access to economic opportunities, as well as social infrastructure and networks. However, many cities are unable to accommodate the increased demand for housing, and many refugees are forced into substandard living conditions. Urban programs for housing refugees that provide cash-for-rent assistance intend to solve this condition, yet in turn increase rental prices in cities and saturate the market. NRC’s program increases the housing stock, thus bringing more equilibrium to the housing market.

Given the enormity of the Syrian humanitarian crisis, I also wanted to use this opportunity to draw attention to this innovative program in the hope that it can be adapted in other countries that have also opened their doors to refugees.

VVA: The possibility to make a small contribution to solving the refugee crisis, understanding why projects work, whether these can be replicated or adapted in many other parts of the region that are currently facing a similar problem was the reason why I became interested in this project. Dr. Reinhard Goethert, Professor at the Department of Architecture at MIT was the one who pointed out the great potential that incremental housing, slowly expanding the houses over time, could have to help the refugee crisis which then led me to further investigate if this was a strategy already being taken advantage of.

ST: As part of our research group, Special Interest Group on Urban Settlements at MIT, we had been studying incremental housing models around the world, trying to understand the factors that make housing projects successful. We really took a “shelter plus” approach, where housing is not just a roof over your head but also the accessibility to a bundle of services like transportation, education or markets that make day to day life possible. The NRC project is very interesting because it acknowledges the reality that the majority of refugees in fact live in urban areas (this number is close to 85 % in Jordan). In Turkey, for example, the government has responded to the crisis by setting up state-of-the-art camps, but this has not been a sustainable solution as people have left the camps to go to cities, where they have more access to services and jobs. We thought that the NRC problem recognized this dynamic from the start and could provide a model for providing shelter for urban refugees.


Alvarado and Goyes look on as Tolgay presents.


FG: I hope the NUA increases awareness of urban refugees and internally displaced populations. I particularly wish that the NUA emphasizes the need for a human rights approach to projects intended to help urban refugee communities, and more data about urban refugees is gathered and shared with the humanitarian community.

VVA: I believe that the New Urban Agenda helps urban refugee communities by setting the issue at the forefront of the international community. This then is able to spark discussion and more allocation of funding to help with the different issues such as housing that refugees have to deal with. Creating awareness of the urgency to address this use, as well as setting the guidelines and priorities to do so, is definitely the first towards more concrete solutions, such as funding research, to fund programs like NRC’s Urban Shelter Program as well as do evaluations of such, which is as extremely important as just designing and implementing the project. The evaluation phase helps to keep the program aligned with the changing needs of the refugees.

ST: Similarly the people-centric approach called for in the NUA can also be applied to the humanitarian field, where the complex and multifaceted problems faced by urban refugees require going beyond providing baseline needs.


Alvarado listens to questions from the audience at Habitat III.

Click here to read the complete interview.

To learn more about IHC Global, please visit




Karly Kiefer

Karly Kiefer serves as IHC Global’s Assistant Director for Global Programs. In this role, she works to research key drivers of equitable urban development, promote IHC’s policy priorities, and engage with members in order to advance IHC Global’s mission. Prior to this, Karly worked as a Research Associate at the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, where she supported a number of initiatives related to the role of higher education in international development, including a project on how higher education institutions can contribute to eradicating food insecurity through their teaching, research, and engagement priorities.

Karly has a keen interest in grassroots community organizing in informal settlements and inclusive and collaborative urban development strategies. She has worked with Slum Dwellers International in Cape Town to enhance knowledge sharing among urban poor communities, and has conducted field research in informal settlements in Nairobi on education in the slums. Karly holds a master’s degree in global environmental policy from American University, and a bachelor’s degree in global studies from Azusa Pacific University.


Rebekah Revello

Rebekah Revello is the Global Communications Officer for IHC Global. Originally from Chicago, Illinois, she is a recent graduate of American University with a BA in International Studies. During her time at American University, she spent a semester studying abroad in Brussels, Belgium, where she studied the economics, government and defense of the European Union. With the program, she was able to travel to and study different European urban environments, including Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Pristina, Kosovo. Before coming to IHC Global, she was a Communications and Administrative Intern at Friends of the Earth Europe in Brussels, Belgium, and a Political Communications Intern at Public Citizen in Washington, D.C. She started at IHC Global in January of 2016 as a Communications Intern, before moving into the role of Global Communications Officer. Rebekah is also a trained singer, and has had the opportunity to sing in cities across Russia and the Balkans.