Learning from the Ephemeral City


Summer is upon us and we’re anticipating the many large spectacles that temporarily enliven Vancouver and bring us together in warmer months to experience performances, fireworks, parades, art installations and marathons, to name a few. Almost five thousand runners participated in the BMO Vancouver Marathon and about forty-five thousand in the Vancouver Sun Run this spring. Large events like these require extensive logistical preparations to divert traffic, close down parts of the city and move crowds safely and efficiently.

In other parts of the world, entire temporary cities are built to accommodate events that draw millions of revelers to normally uninhabitable sites. The annual week-long Burning Man festival in the middle of the Black Rock desert of Nevada transforms a forbidding landscape into a fully-functioning yet idiosyncratic town. Settlements for holding mass events are constructed for religious gatherings like the Kumbh Mela in India, which is built in a flood plain and can balloon to the size of a megacity. In some cases, these temporary cities cease to exist in a matter of days, while others are the first stages of a nascent urbanism. Mass migrations caused by political strife, resource extraction, and natural disasters are some of the man-made and natural phenomena that can leave enduring settlements on the landscape.

Organized ephemeral events and longer term settlements have lessons for managing growth and building resilience. They can be viewed as microcosms of urban environments with all of the infrastructural, administrative and emergency service armatures necessary for a functioning city at a smaller scale. Researchers of the Kumbh Mela have developed an effective early warning system to track and prevent major outbreaks of disease by gathering real time data from patients and storing it in a centralized database. Organizers of Burning Man redesigned the urban plan of the festival site into an expandable ring pattern to deal with the effects of overpopulation, increase safety, and create cohesive communities which participants could take ownership in and share the burden of management.

With the season for large-scale public gatherings kicking into high gear, we’ll be watching to see which lessons learned could be applicable to more permanent community and city building efforts.

Further Reading

Mapping the ephemeral city: GSD students and faculty at the Kumbh Mela

MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program (YAP), Temporary outdoor installation

[Top Image: German Aerospace radar photo of Burning Man. Photo by Devon via Slingfin. ]

June 27, 2014 | No Comments (yet!)

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