Citing examples of diverse forms of instant cities, it is being suggested here that the solution to many of today’s global ills would be to build more extremely large and dense metropolises across the planet. Looking at Burning Man in the Nevada desert, Kumbh Mela in India, and institutes like the IKEA Foundation, the writer aims to point out the clean and clever way in which these sorts of events/actions efficiently handle vast numbers of people within a brilliantly safe and friendly infrastructure. And furthermore, he suggests that this is something that could equally apply to the creation of mega-cities on a massive scale.

Cities are amazing. Skylines, highlines, big city lights. Agglomerations set in stone, steel, and glass, shopping malls and public parks. Places that nurture the cultural heartbeat and political protest. Collages of an ever-growing number of layers – just refer to the novel Manhattan Transfer. Since 2008, more humans live in cities than outside of them. The metropolis seems to be the destination for one’s dreams to come true. But if this is so, why don’t we scale up the concept (or why is only China doing it)? Lets make more cities, more New Yorks, Londons, Parises, Berlins, Rios, Seouls. Impossible? Think again. The Pop-Up city already exists. Here are three examples:

    • Burning Man is a radical experiment – something between art festival, social happening, and temporary urban planning. Lasting one week only, at the end of August every year, it has grown from a modest 8 to more than 70,000 visitors over the last three decades. The area that the festival inhabits in Black Rock Desert, Nevada compares in size to a small European country, but its horseshoe layout purposely enforces density, to encourage social interaction. In the run-up to its 30th anniversary in 2016, a group called the Black Rock City Ministry of Urban Planning has announced a master plan design competition to challenge and improve the current layout. While the official organisers and founder Larry Harvey have no plans to actually change the layout, they have expressed an interest in reviewing the most promising contributions in the competition. Other urban planners might learn from Burning Man, a mostly car-free city and a place dedicated to the principle of leaving no trace.

    • Kumbh Mela is an event of a greater magnitude. The largest Hindu religious pilgrimage, it rotates through four different locations in India, in three, six, twelve, and one-hundred-and-forty-four year cycles of varying rhythm. Over the course of several weeks, tens of millions of pilgrims are drawn to a vast tent-village, to enact a religious bathing ritual. The most recent edition in Allahabad took place January-March 2013. It was researched in detail by the South Asia Institute at Harvard University, and documented in the impressive book Kumbh Mela: Mapping the Ephemeral Mega City, which came out this year. According to the publication, the Kumbh Mela event utilised 1,936.59 hectares of land to host an estimated total of 12-million people (5-million of which stayed for the full 55 days), with 20,000 water taps, 35,000 individual toilets, 156 kilometres of road, and so on. But even more impressive than those numbers is the fact that the whole city was assembled and taken down again in such a short space of time.

Both of the above projects resonate strongly with the current challenge of providing short-term shelter and mid-term housing for refugees around the world.

  • While architects like Shigeru Ban and institutions like the IKEA Foundation have developed concepts for emergency and refugee shelters, the more complex challenge must be to organise and run camps of various sizes and dynamics. Guidelines for doing this are provided by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in its Handbook for Emergencies. The 600-page document includes advice on basic camp sizes and structures, and on the key administrative processes required to run them. While all such camps are set up as temporary structures, their inner logic needs to be sophisticated, to sufficiently address issues ranging from health, safety, and sanitation to education, conflict avoidance, and religious rituals.

Of course, these are very particular examples and do not exactly provide the blueprint for building a new New York overnight, but in an era in which so many people are on the move, and with the prospect of more such movement and a changing climate ahead, it might make sense to discuss the aspects of shrinking cities as well as to quickly learn from the approach taken for the instant cities mentioned here. On the other end of the spectrum, we are witnessing the explosion of virtual social communities spreading out across the globe, which may also need to be made manifest at some point, eventually requiring a home, an agora, a soccer pitch, a noodle bar. It’s common knowledge that if Facebook were a country, it would be the most populous nation on earth. But let’s start small: what would it look like if Facebook were to build an actual city?

This article appeared in DAM53. Order your personal copy.