The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Sawsan Abou Zainedin


I joined the DPU in 2014, when the conflict in my country Syria was at its peak. At the time, I had been working as an architect with private companies in Syria and the United Arab Emirates, while pursuing my political activism for a democratic change in Syria. Joining the DPU was a conscious decision I made to reconcile my political activism with my passion for architecture and urbanism beyond the conventional understanding of space as a technical sphere. Immersing myself in the politics of how spaces we live in are produced was my ultimate aim.

The Urban Development Planning course offered me a solid base to start. It was the space where I was critically exposed to the fundamental values of social justice, and how these would translate in the reality of our world which is highly characterised by inequality and injustice. The great discussions, debates, case studies, and theories I engaged with have significantly contributed to who I am today on the personal and professional levels. I learnt what it means to reclaim agency in an unbalanced power structure; I learnt what it means to manoeuvre authoritarian rigid systems, and I most importantly learnt the virtue of patience… that our struggle for justice is a constant one to create the conditions that allow us to continuously rethink the meaning of justice.. and that this can only be achieved when embracing the idea of “a thousand tiny empowerment”… the only acceptable path to change…

I started my post-graduation career in the NGO sector, working for an international NGO on addressing freedom of expression and the right to information in Syria, and I managed to incorporate the knowledge I gained at the DPU in multiple projects I designed and implemented. I slowly shifted my career towards research while at the same time starting my non-profit social enterprise ‘Sakan Housing Communities’ to develop socially just housing programmes to aid Syria’s recovery. Today, I work as an independent researcher with a number of think tanks, universities, and NGOs on the spatial, political, and socio-economic manifestations of the conflict in Syria and its neighbouring countries. I cover issues of destruction and urbicide, reconstruction and recovery, displacement, conflict economies, politics of international aid, as well as human rights and accountability.

I also consult for few international organisations on developing operational frameworks for their Syria-related work. I am still engaged in Syria’s political developments through efforts targeting policy makers as well as politicians and governments’ representatives in international meetings and conferences. I spoke at different public events and contributed to producing several policy recommendations. At ‘Sakan’, I work alongside my co-founding colleagues with local authorities, communities, and civil society organisations in Syria as well as with international financial and legal experts to develop alternative housing models that are financially self-sustained and feasible within Syria’s heavily sanctioned and politicised environment, while remaining affordable, bespoke and locally owned

Throughout my work in the past few years, I did refer often to colleagues and professors I had met during my time at the DPU, as well as to resources and knowledge I had gained then. I have always found invaluable support and a wealth of expertise that has made my journey much easier despite the immense emotional and technical pressures I had to deal with. Time at the DPU was definitely not just another academic year. It was tough, challenging at times, but it has been fundamentally rewarding ever since.