United Nations peacekeeping operations unfold today on a large scale alongside hundreds of inhabited sites in conflict-affected regions. Their bases, camps, super camps, headquarters, logistic hubs, and airfields are designed and built by military engineers to support peacekeepers for the duration of UN missions, providing them not only with safety but with direct access to resources such as water, electricity, food, and medical services. Surrounded by fences and walls, these spaces are designed to operate as self-contained islands, yet they invariably impact their surroundings – at times in long-lasting and even harmful ways. In addition, the expanding scope of missions, their personnel, material footprints, and dependency on global supply chains contribute to an increase in the UN’s environmental impact and accelerated growth of carbon emissions.
Current UN missions are situated in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahel, areas that are struggling with a harsh daily reality of the climate crisis – desertification, intensifying droughts, mudslides, and floods. At worst, they risk increasing the devastation of lives and resource scarcity, exacerbating violence, armed conflicts, and wars. With careful planning, however, they have enormous potential. Beyond the mandates, infrastructure, technology, and resources that a UN mission brings to bear, it can open up new opportunities in some of the world’s most impoverished and imperiled areas. Growing recognition of the interplay between peace, development, and prevention – coupled with mounting calls within the UN for inclusive, longer-term approaches – has created space for new ways of thinking about the physical and technological footprint of peace operations. As the UN draws down and closes missions from Liberia to Haiti and develops transition strategies for operations in Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the question of imaginative uses for this infrastructure takes on a new salience.
Design for Legacy includes research findings and recommendations for UN agencies and troop-contributing countries. It is a design intervention on a policy level that aims to introduce holistic design thinking into the processes of planning, constructing, liquidating, and repurposing UN bases. The UN itself talks about “guidelines for a cross-pillar integrated approach”– combining peace, development, and prevention– with the 2030 Climate Action increasingly weighing in at all levels of UN activities. It is in the material form, the architecture of missions, where legacy is made and where policies, bureaucracies, and financial systems are being materialized and translated into a built environment and an inhabited world. Integrated and regenerative design in missions can contribute to resilient and equitable environments that systemically integrate the needs of society with the integrity of nature.
UN missions should advance community empowerment and environmental awareness in their mandates and help instigate alternative visions for the future of the vulnerable areas they occupy. In the end, the missions will be gone, but the infrastructure, resources, and knowledge will remain with the local populations.