You’d expect urban settlements to be carefully planned. After all, things like street structures, power grid and, let’s face it, plumbing are all things that require professionals with expertise and knowledge of the big picture.
Or so you’d think. Turns out, there are lots of communities that just spontaneously popped into existence, with no one really supervising their construction. The results, as you can probably imagine, have been mixed, but at least the stories are always interesting. Here are some of our favorite spontaneously created cities.
10. Slab City
The amazingly named Slab City in Niland, California is a spontaneous “alternative living community” located in Camp Dunlap, an old WWII marine base. The base itself has been bulldozed long ago, but several concrete slabs (which give the site its name) remain. Apart from the “slabs,” the military is also present in the modern day: Slab City is located close to an active bombing range.
Slab City is an off-the-grid community that employs solar panels for electricity and has its own waste disposal systems. There’s very little in the way of rules, laws or government interference, which results in the occasional shootout or arson. However, the community is largely peaceful, and the residents have teamed up to create sculptures, live music stages, a library, and a golf course. There’s even a communal shower, fueled by a nearby hot spring.
The community has several full-time residents known as “slabbers,” but it’s largely a seasonal community of mostly elderly people who arrive by the thousand to spend the winter months in the comparatively warm climate of the desert site. It’s also extremely hard to miss, should you decide to see the place for yourself: Visitors to Slab City are greeted by a 50-foot-tall mound called Salvation Mountain, a massive, colorful folk art installation that a Slab City resident named Leonard Knight spent decades creating.
9. Copenhagen’s Freetown Christiania
In 1971, Denmark’s defense ministry decided to close down a large fortress in Copenhagen and left it to its own devices. Recognizing a cool thing when they saw it, residents of the city soon took down the fences and let their kids play in the area. Eventually, squatters arrived, but they weren’t just happy to live in the place — they outright took it over. They renamed the place Christiania and declared it to be an autonomous “free city,” with its own laws, taxes and whatnot.
Remarkably, the Danish government didn’t do the obvious thing and forcefully evict everyone involved. Instead, they went along with the idea, and declared it a “social experiment.” Christiania slowly grew into a settlement of roughly 1,000 people who shaped it into an open, anarchist community where both selling and using drugs is legal. However, in some ways Christiania’s success is the very thing that has ultimately turned it into a failure. Though the freetown was successful in its mission to create a “hippie utopia,” it has ultimately fallen victim to the same thing so many other cool places suffer from: Gentrification. Over the years, Christiania has become “normalized” under Danish law and in 2011, the squatters had to resist the government’s attempts to bring the Freetown back to fold by buying the area’s land from the state. This, combined with a huge interest in the area, has dramatically shifted the area’s economy, and rents have risen so much that original citizens can barely afford to live there anymore: One long-term resident had to move away when his rent rapidly rose from $300 to $1,300.
Yes, that Deadwood. The infamous gold rush mining town HBO made famous for its utter lawlessness and brutality came into existence thanks to the discovery of vast gold deposits in the Black Hills. By 1876, the miners had torn through Southern Black Hills and moved into the north, where they discovered a river rich in gold — and surrounded by a ravine full of dead trees.
A small camp of miners almost immediately grew into a large, lawless town that drew all kinds of fortune seekers and shady characters, as depicted in the HBO show with significant historical accuracy. While Deadwood endured several large fires and severe economic troubles, and eventually became a more or less respectable and law-abiding gambling town, its start as a spontaneous, seedy haven to some of the most notorious names in the Old West remains its most enduring legacy.
Guryong village is a large shantytown located in the most unlikely place of them all: In Gangnam, the extremely wealthy neighborhood in South Korea’s Seoul that PSY made fun of in his smash hit Gangnam Style. Guryong formed spontaneously in 1988, when the officials forced many people to leave their homes when the city hosted the Olympics. They set up shop on a plot of private land in Gangnam as a last resort, and have remained there since.
Residents of the Guryong village have existed in this limbo for decades, and although the government has plans to relocate them (yet again) and demolish the shoddily built village, the redevelopment plan has been delayed multiple times because politicians can’t agree on how to compensate the villagers.
6. Miami’s Umoja Village
Umoja Village in Miami, Florida was a spontaneous shantytown built in the Liberty City area of the town by a bunch of housing activists who wanted to draw attention to the city’s vast housing problems. The cardboard-and-wood construct started out as “part protest, part street theater,” but soon filled up with the area’s actual homeless, who set up gardens and a communal kitchen.
The community attracted a lot of media attention and became the symbolic heart of the city’s affordable housing crisis. When Miami hosted Super Bowl XLI, international journalists visited Umoja Village, presumably to the chagrin of city officials. Unfortunately, the village only survived around six months: In 2007, a candle that had been left unattended torched the whole Umoja Village to ground. The activists and residents wished to rebuild their community, but the city considered Umoja a massive PR disaster, fenced away the area and threw enough red tape at the activists to derail the rebuilding attempts.
5. Trench Town
Jamaica’s Trench Town was born in 1937, but people had lived there much longer. Before it got its new name, it was known as Trench Pen, a farming and cattle area where a great number of poor people started squatting. Eventually, the government decided to build permanent housing to the squatters, and the method they chose was “sub-dividing” the area into several separate plots called tenement yards. Every yard could house roughly 16 tenants, who paid a monthly rent of 12 shillings to the government.
Though it nominally transformed from an illegal squat into an officially sanctioned urban township, Trench Town was (and remains) very much a slum — a blocky, dilapidated area with bad prospects and high crime rate. However, it’s also a community that greatly affected the history of Jamaica, and the world in general, by giving birth to a little thing called reggae. Bob Marley grew up there. Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Alton Ellis and a whole host of other reggae legends also hail from Trench Town. Unfortunately, the neighborhood’s fame in music history has done little to improve its conditions, and apart from the occasional Bob Marley mural and the ever-present scent of a certain herb, pretty much the only things that reveal the area’s reggae greatness are the Trench Town Museum and the Trench Town Culture Yard, a colorful compound that was created as “an informal meeting place for musicians.”
4. Right 2 Dream Too
Right 2 Dream Too, a.k.a. R2DToo, might not technically qualify as a city due to only being roughly 80-90 people strong, but it has touted the cause of thousands of homeless people in the area, so it’s just fair to give it a pass. Right 2 Dream Too was created as a large homeless encampment on an empty private lot in Portland, Oregon. It came to existence when a man called Ibrahim Mubarak decided to do something about the city’s homeless, and set up a nonprofit organization to do just that. He struck up a deal with a landowner who had “trouble developing and selling the property,” and voila! A homeless camp right across the street from the city’s high-end boutiques.
As you can probably imagine, property owners and developers started complaining pretty much instantly, and the city started looking into possibilities to relocate the camp to a more suitable location. The encampment eventually relocated to a riverside spot near the Moda Center, and along with other active homeless nonprofits such as Dignity Village and Hazelnut Grove, they seem to have attracted enough awareness to the homeless issue that in 2019, the city of Portland announced a new outreach program to hopefully help the area’s homeless.
Brazil is known for its giant shantytowns, “favelas,” and few favelas are more famous than Sao Paulo’s massive Heliopolis. The massive improvised neighborhood has an estimated 210,000 residents, is located just six miles from the business district, and keeps sprawling in every direction thanks to “puxadinhos,” spontaneously sprouting additions to existing buildings that Heliopolis residents build whenever a relative returns home, a new child is born or some other event necessitates some extra space. While there is technically an architect who “supervises home-improvement projects in the region,” the results can be highly eccentric.
Over time, Heliopolis’ buildings have become sturdier and its infrastructure better — longtime resident Sandra Regina dos Santos says that they have access to electricity and water these days, which wasn’t a given back in the day. Apart from new buildings and annexes popping up constantly, the original buildings from the 1970s have been rebuilt and expanded. What used to be a quickly thrown-together wooden shack may have become a sturdy, three-floor, 2,150 square foot brick building over the decades. Some of the buildings can be up to eight floors high.
2. Cairo’s Garbage City
Cairo’s Garbage City is technically a walled area called Mansheyat Naser, a slum neighborhood that’s home to 262,000 of not only the city’s, but the entire country’s poorest inhabitants. A large number of its residents are Coptic Christians who are known by the derogatory name Zabaleen, which means “Garbage Men.” In the 1940s, the Zabaleen used to be farmers, but poverty and hunger caused them to start migrating from Upper Egypt. By the 1970s, they had settled in an abandoned quarry, and started developing a modest economy by sorting out the giant city’s trash.
Cairo’s waste disposal system is lacking, to put it mildly, so the Zabaleen collect trash from the streets free of charge — and bring it all to Garbage City to manually sort it all out and see what they can use. Metals, plastics, cardboards and fabrics are all separated from each other and sold to the “next layer” of the economy who go on to further process the materials. Even the rotting food found in the trash is put to good use as pig food.
For many denizens of Garbage City, this way of life is quite humble: Their living conditions are poor, and every flat surface (including the roofs of the buildings) tend to be covered by trash. Still, some have managed to acquire a significant amount of wealth from the recycling business, and it’s not uncommon to see young men in fancy suits. The city of trash also hides amazing beauty: the Garbage City features a majestic and vast cave church called Saint Simon Church, which the locals have carved from rock. The elaborately built and decorated cavern can seat over 15,000 people.
1. Kowloon Walled City
Kowloon Walled City started its life as a thick-walled military base in Hong Kong, but a series of establishment changes after World War II left the place open to a massive number of immigrants. Soon, both the British administration and the Chinese authorities discovered they had absolutely no way to control the spontaneously created, dense and massively overpopulated network of existing buildings and new, 10-story makeshift one built by the Walled City’s denizens.
Over the years, the area swelled to a point where its population density was around 3,3 million people per square mile — which meant that the Walled City’s 2.7-hectare area was estimated to house around 35,000 people, making it easily the most densely populated area on the planet. Its makeshift high-rise buildings were all interconnected, and the maze-like structure made sure that you could navigate the area over rooftops, corridors and bridges without ever setting your foot on the ground.
The conditions within the Walled City were abysmal: Sunlight had no place within the complex, which was instead largely lit with neon signs. There was sewage dripping on the surfaces. Law was nonexistent, and the Triads reigned supreme. Despite all this, many residents loved the place and resisted the authorities’ multiple attempts to empty (or at least slightly clean up) the place. Eventually, though, the “decrepit city” was set for demolition, and in 1993 even the most stubborn elements accepted compensation and rehousing. Today, what used to be the imposing, lawless Kowloon Walled City is a public park.
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