Urban Camping

by Mark Cahill

A few years ago while in grad school I was working on a design project for an “alternative hotel.” The problem: It’s super cheap to travel, but too expensive to stay the night. At the same time I was planning a trip out to the west coast for a few days of site seeing and backpacking. Looking for that perfect hostel, I began to think about what exactly to bring. I definitely wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to spend some time in San Francisco, but was also not going to miss Yosemite. I pictured myself walking through the streets of the city with my pack on and my tin cup clanking as I hopped the street car tracks; climbing those infamous hills; roaming about the wilderness of Haight Ashbury.

And it dawned on me: I was carrying shelter in the form of my tent anyway so why shouldn’t I be able to just pitch it somewhere in the city? Why couldn’t this be part of how we travel and how we stay in urban areas. So I used this idea on my hotel design. I had already decided to design the roof as a green roof, so it was easy to designate the area as a “campsite.” And so there it was: Urban Camping.

As it turns out, this has been done before, and is being done now to some extent. In San Diego in 1914, a Hotel placed a “Tent City” on top of their roof to make use of that wasted space. That was nearly a century ago, and it seems that again the idea is gaining some more steam. An Architecture firm called import export have created a mobile multi-level tower (pictured above) that allows for tents to be pitched in urban settings. Another young designer named J. Enrique Enriquez entered this idea into a design competition and it fetched him an honorable mention.

Would you camp in a city?

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12 Responses to Urban Camping

  1. Randolph September 29, 2009 at 7:59 am #

    If it were safe, I definitely would. Actually, in both Florence and Rome, I camped in tents walking distance from downtown. The weather was more predictable there, but it’d be great to be able to camp on a huge rooftop garden or in a park by the riverside. Then again, it might get loud.

  2. Matt September 29, 2009 at 9:45 am #

    I’d definitely camp in the city, and I’m surprised this isn’t more common in places like San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Denver—cities that are surrounded by wilderness areas. Urban camping would be perfect for travelers on their way to Yosemite, Olympic, Hood, etc.

  3. Jeff Thrope September 29, 2009 at 9:47 am #

    absolutely. make it happen, matt. op-ed for SF Mag.

  4. Lisa September 29, 2009 at 10:12 am #

    I’ve tent-camped in or just outside of cities, at campgrounds that were primarily for RVs or campers. Not always lovely, but convenient and cost-effective.

  5. Lindz September 29, 2009 at 11:36 am #

    This concept is brilliant on many levels! Beyond the obvious economical perk, it doesn’t take up nearly as much space in cities already laden with hotels, it’s more private than a hostel and most importantly, VIP seats to the best view of the star-tacular sky at night!
    Who needs a hotel/hostel when you are traveling anyway- you are hopefully traveling to see the sites and outdoor beauties of the city and not to check out the new waterslide in the hotel.
    My friend and I camped in backyards in Portland and on porches in San Fran- this “campsite” would have been the perfect alternative.
    love it!

  6. Colin September 29, 2009 at 12:07 pm #

    Sort of like urban hiking.

  7. Mark Cahill September 29, 2009 at 2:20 pm #

    Great comments all!
    In response, I did omit that the largest problem with this idea is getting past City Zoning and Building Codes. Mostly, that there is a large safety issue here: Fire. The cost of renovating existing buildings for fire protection (exits and suppression systems) on the roof would highly out weigh the revenue generated from camping fees. But this would be relatively cheap/easy on new construction.
    However, I still do think the “idea” is worthy: As Lisa and Randolph pointed out; bringing that open camping space safely and serenly into cityscape via parks/open unused lots. Lindz points out that there could be a system of people (like couchsurfing.com) that allow tents in their backyards to travelers on the skinny.
    Cheers!

  8. Eric September 30, 2009 at 4:50 pm #

    This does look like a great idea. The camping in backyards thing sounds terrific, too.

    Here in Arizona we have a tent city in Phoenix, but it’s a jail :(.

  9. deb September 30, 2009 at 7:44 pm #

    I’d camp in a city in a heartbeat. I live in Brooklyn and have camped on my building’s roof deck. Sleeping bag, no tent. The sun wakes you up good and early, but other than that, it’s heavenly.

  10. mj October 2, 2009 at 6:00 am #

    In a heartbeat. Although having said that, living in South Africa one would have to take crime into account. I’m sure safety would be a concern no matter which city you go to though, bar a few. Even so it seems to me an enormously appealing idea.

  11. Olivier October 3, 2009 at 12:14 pm #

    I did it several times. In public parks or on the grassy embarkment of a river. It was in Scotland and Japan, so relatively safe countries. Anyway you’d better arrive late and go away early to avoid any problem.

    Thanks for your great blog.

  12. Noah October 16, 2009 at 10:24 pm #

    I camp out all the time in my backyard! Not terribly exciting, but good for a nice easy experience

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