by Will Godfrey
Most of us view the urban landscape as a built-in-place environment, and so its various infrastructural components (housing, offices, waste management, utilities, etc.), as a result, tend to be constructed, immobile systems. Populations that inhabit these spaces, however, spike and dip and change, often in unpredictable ways—as do local economies, technology, and all types of things that influence how people live and what they need to function. I, myself have moved three times in the last year, and I probably had different needs than the person who lived at each place before me and the ones who have moved in after me. It follows that a system of infrastructure that’s flexible and can be mobilized when the need arises would provide countless opportunities to deliver services more efficiently, sustainably, and inexpensively. From a planner’s perspective, this ability to acquire a temporary stock of supportive systems would also allow cities and regions to follow smarter patterns of permanent development in accordance with long-term trends.
In some sectors, the concept of mobile infrastructure has already taken root with generally positive results. Among these are mobile command centers used by emergency and law enforcement services to collect information and distribute orders during a crisis. A number of these were employed in San Diego County to map the leading edges of the 2007 wildfires, and to organize the influx of fire crews called in from throughout the southwest. Portable classrooms, food trucks, modular pocket parks (see “Growing the Sidewalk“), and even the port-a-potty also fit into this category of realized and integrated mobile infrastructures, but these are all relatively small-scale systems.
As a more theoretical exercise, it’s interesting to think about how the concept can be scaled up to address existing planning challenges. Massive sporting events like the Olympics and World Cup have become a recurring instance where a region must be able to accommodate and support a huge spike in population for a very limited time. The recent pattern has been for the host city to build up from nothing or redevelop an entire neighborhood of housing into a central village for the event, with the hope that it attracts permanent residents after the crowds are gone. Athens for example, constructed such an environment for the 2004 Olympics—an inland suburban development with the capacity for 10,000. Today it stands almost completely vacant and unmaintained, a largely useless addition to one of the world’s most historic and beautiful cities. Again, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was overall a success for the Country, but even so, vacancies in the retail districts that were developed in Cape Town remain very high, and the residential property market is flooded, with a slow recovery projected. (As a side note and to its credit, the World Cup has recognized this issue and attempted to minimize overdevelopment of host cities by packaging up their smaller stadium venues after the event, and relocating them to parts of the developing world that can put them to regular use.)
The cruise ships that dock occasionally at the piers near the MK Think office prompted a conversation about these patterns of development, and suggested the solution of mobile supportive systems serving as modular city chunks. Shipping by sea is among the most efficient and simple ways to transport just about anything, and each of these cruise ships can accommodate several thousand people comfortably with all the amenities of a luxury hotel. Three or four of these parked on the coast of Rio in 2016 would serve the same function as a constructed residential and commercial village, but have the ability to move along to any number of places after the boom dies down unlike a permanent development. In between massive sporting events, a single cruise ship or similar vessel could serve as housing for seasonal or temporary industries in remote locations, such as oil drilling or mining operations. It could be customized as office space and parked near a city that would like to slow down or pause its downtown growth. Or it could also fill a more humanitarian role and provide shelter to displaced victims of natural disasters or war. The list of possibilities seems to go on and on, but the concept doesn’t quite mesh with most people’s idea of how cities grow or should end up looking. The fact is there will always be new planning challenges in the world, and not all of them will require a permanent solution so it’s at least worth considering leased or borrowed solutions with as many upsides as mobile infrastructures have. Thinking about and understanding space in this way may offer new means of addressing a variety of serious problems more quickly (and less expensively) than years of design and construction, while at the same time conserving resources otherwise spent on logistics, building materials, and energy.