The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1931] A Tale of Tent Cities

United States

Although only nine hundred miles of Interstate 5 separate the cities of Portland, Oregon and Los Angeles, they are a universe apart. The rainy climate in Portland, the City of Roses, blankets the city in greenery. By comparison, Los Angeles has had the distinction up until only recently of being the smog capital of the United States. Urban planners often cite Portland for its forward-looking urban policy that in the 1970s successfully brought under control urban sprawl. Los Angeles, on the other hand, is often declared to be the archetype of poor urban planning. But it is more than just climate and urban growth that distinguishes these two cities. For the past sixth months, Portland has been considering a proposal from an encampment of homeless citizens to create a permanent tent city on the fringes of the downtown area. Los Angeles, meanwhile, has lately taken up the enforcement of its anti-encampment laws with renewed vigor despite a severe shortage in the number of beds available to the city's homeless population.

Of course all urban centers struggle to find ways of meeting the challenges of displacement. A myriad of proposals that respond to these problems have been attempted. However, up until the recent success of Portland's Dignity Village, they have met with only varying degrees of success, and more significantly they have all failed to reach a solution that could be applied universally. This essay examines the tent city in Portland and why the burden is on Los Angeles and other urban areas to emulate the successful plan of this thriving community nine hundred miles to the north.

It should be no surprise that Portland would be the creator of an innovative solution to housing the displaced. Home to a little more than half a million people, the greatest percentages of jobs in the city are invested in the high-tech and health-care industries. Intel proudly ranks as the city's top employer with 15,000 jobs. These highly skilled positions have created an average personal income that has nearly doubled over the ten-year period from 1990-2000. Meanwhile unskilled laborers have been faced with an unemployment rate that has increased as well, reaching nearly nine percent last year, while the national average during that time was 6.4%. Increasing unemployment rates, however, have not hampered the booming real estate market in Portland. Between 2002 and 2003 the median home sales price alone rose nearly ten thousand dollars. The resulting displaced population of 3,500 has just 600 beds available to occupy in the city's existing shelter system. These statistics naturally frame the circumstances of the displaced population in Portland.

Dignity Village was born out of hard work and a strong vision, not as a charity. On a seasonably cool day in December of 2000, a group of eight homeless citizens came together on a plot of abandoned public land to establish a community that would respond to the issues that had forced so many out onto Portland's streets. As outlined in Dignity Village's by-laws, the founders of the village wanted to create a "safe, clean, and self-governing community environment for the economically distressed" residents of Portland. From the very beginning the residents of Dignity Village faced challenges that caused them to constantly seek out new land to create their vision of a community. Finally after six relocations, they were granted by the city a one-year lease on a plot of land near the fringes of the downtown area.

Now, three years into the city's experiment, the community is flourishing. The village has grown from the original eight founders to include a population today of 83 residents. Last October they submitted a proposal to the city council that will make the village even more successful. In the spirit of Daniel Burnham's famous remark to "make no small plans," the community's vision is decidedly ambitious. The proposal calls upon the city of Portland to extend the village's lease for an additional ten years, to permit access to an existing sewer line adjacent to the site, and to continue to cover the community's water and utility expenses. In return, the village will provide transitional housing for sixty residents and a volunteer security team to enforce the community's code of conduct. The proposal also includes provisions for basic services including toilets, showers, cooking and washing facilities, community meeting rooms, telephones, mailboxes, computers with Internet access, and a library. To maximize the value of these services, non-residents would be able to use them during the day. Dignity's petition also outlines the services it aims to provide to residents including job training and onsite employment opportunities, continuing education classes, and cooperative healthcare and housing placement assistance in partnership with outside agencies. Issues of civic participation, improved neighborhood and outside community relations, and sustainable design are also discussed in the proposal.

None of these plans would have ever been possible without the conviction of its founders that they knew the issues of homelessness better than anyone, and that if given the opportunity, they could work together effectively to solve them. Jack Tafari, one of the village's original citizens, posted on a page called "Who We Are." Writing on behalf of the entire village, he declares, "We want a place in this world. We want sanction. We want a piece of land where we can build and create something truly beautiful. We are poor but no longer powerless. Our strength is in our unity." These essential ingredients are missing from so many of the good-willed but misguided efforts to ameliorate the conditions of the homeless. It is these principles that foster a community. With the support of a community, the transition to permanent housing is easier to accomplish. Groups such as Dignity Village are best equipped to facilitate the necessary sense of group identity and peer support.

The advantages of a tent community versus a more traditional shelter facility are numerous. The fact is that most individuals are homeless for a period of less than a year. By their nature, communities such as Dignity Village are flexible and expandable, and are therefore able to accommodate fluctuations in demand. In addition, most cities are either unable or unwilling to devote sufficient funding from their budgets towards homeless shelters. Compared to conventional facilities, tent cities are cheap to construct. They also minimize impact on the site and are easily transported and moved when necessary. When combined with more permanent facilities such as kitchens, bathrooms, community centers, childcare facilities, and offices, tent communities are designed to meet the needs of the temporarily displaced. (It should be noted here parenthetically that the term "tent communities" is not intended to imply that the housing structures be limited only to nylon and metal pole construction. For example, Dignity Village's proposal calls for straw bale multifamily dwellings with community-friendly front porches).

Of course tent cities on their own are not intended to provide residents with permanent housing. Rather their purpose is to serve only as temporary shelters for people moving into more tenable housing arrangements. Existing homeless facilities should therefore be maintained as a diversity of shelters can be used to house the displaced. But in order to bridge the gap between supply and demand, communities such as Dignity Village are designed to flexibly accommodate the needs of the displaced during the interval that they lack permanent housing options.

Portland's Dignity Village is today the most visible example of a city-sanctioned, self-governing homeless commune in the United States, but it is certainly not the only nor the first. Los Angeles, in fact, lays claim to being one of the first cities in the country to give birth to such a community. Founded nearly seven years before Dignity Village with a grant of $250,000 from the Arco Corporation, Dome Village provides transitional housing facilities for up to twelve residents. Inspired by Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome designs, Los Angeles' original homeless village is composed of twenty white omnisphere shells, twelve of which house the residents. The remaining eight domes contain facilities for an office, kitchen, community room, separate men's and women's bathrooms, a laundry, and a computer facility with Internet access. Dome Village also provides access to a social worker, community garden plots, educational workshops, an art program, micro-retail enterprises, and recreational activities. These programs and facilities were designed to assist the residents in their transition into permanent housing.

Although Dome Village has been praised by civic leaders as an urban wasteland transformed into a virtual garden of opportunities, much more could be done. For example, there are no provisions for a day-care facility that would assist single parents with children. Statistics show that homeless residents are typically younger than the general population of Los Angeles, especially in the age groups of children and young adults. When taken into consideration with other statistics, this suggests that the largest group of homeless in Los Angeles is single mothers with young children. Providing access on-site to child-care facilities would not only improve the mothers' employment potential, but it would also create onsite job opportunities for other residents.

The Dome Village plan is also severely limited by the costs of constructing each dome (approximately $12,500) and the number of structures that can be constructed on tight budgets. By comparison, Dignity Village's proposed housing units cost just $1,400 each, or nearly one-tenth the cost of a single dome. At a time when the city's budget is tight, the need for cheap, easily constructed and flexible housing in Los Angeles is already acute, and Dome Village's intensive capital requirements only exacerbate the shortage. This is especially true at the beginning of the year when a spike in the number of people lacking housing occurs. Unfortunately, because the city already has invested so heavily in permanent shelters there are not enough beds available to accommodate all of the displaced seeking shelter.

Three years ago on a plot of frozen land, a group of eight people lacking permanent shelter came together with the intention of creating not only a more comfortable place to sleep, but of creating a community of peers to support and inspire each other in the struggle to get back on their feet and into more permanent housing. The triumph of their vision has been followed successfully around the world reaching today as far as Italy and Japan. But just some nine hundred miles south of Portland, the City of Los Angeles continues to struggle to meet the needs of those displaced persons seeking shelter. Existing shelters are overcrowded and unresponsive to the fluctuating and diverse needs of the displaced. It is now time for Los Angeles to look for a new solution to temporary shelter based on the community model found in Portland. Despite the differences between the two cities, Dignity Village can work in Los Angeles to meet the needs of the displaced.


Statistics on Portland are from the Portland Development Commission Fact Book, 2004.

Information on Dignity Village may be obtained from the community's website at

Additional information on Dome Village may be obtained from the group's website at

Statistics on the homeless population are from the Economic Roundtable's report Homeless in LA available online at

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