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UC Planning Student’s Senior Thesis Looks Inside Tent Cities

November 28, 2011

With his June 2011 senior thesis examining tent cities, UC planning graduate Andrew Heben seemingly foreshadowed current “Occupy” protests. That research has already been published in Planning magazine, and Heben hopes to turn his student thesis into a book.

As part of his research for his senior thesis as an urban planning student at the University of Cincinnati, Andrew Heben spent a month during the summer of 2010 living in an unsanctioned tent encampment in Ann Arbor, Mich., set up by the homeless and unemployed.
 
That experience and other research on tent cities became part of his 2011 senior thesis, “Tent City Urbanism,” which recently received coverage in the trade journal, Planning magazine. Heben, who graduated in June 2011, now lives in Portland, Ore. where he is continuing his advocacy for tent cities.
 
In his research, Heben, originally from Dayton, Ohio, found that tent encampments are generally classic democracies practicing self government wherein everyone has an equal voice/vote in forming rules for living and executive committees to maintain order and evict members who break rules. Alcohol, drugs, violence and stealing are prohibited. In fact, according to Heben´s research, individuals with addictions aren´t usually able to remain long in organized tent cities.

He explained, “Tent camps are typically portrayed as chaotic and unorganized. With a closer look, I found that the results are more mixed, ranging from organized to disorganized, sanctioned and unsanctioned. For instance, in the camp where I stayed (Camp Take Notice in Ann Arbor), the community of about 35 members had its own self-governing process that emphasized community dynamics and a horizontal organization instead of the competition and isolation that is often found in more conventional responses to poverty.”
 
Camp Take Notice, where Heben stayed, has had numerous locations due to evictions by the city; however, Heben found three tent cities in the United States that are sanctioned, formally accepted by local municipalities — one in Portland, Ore., one in Seattle, Wash., and one in St. Petersburg, Fla. The ones in Portland and St. Petersburg have become fixed settlements on city-owned industrial land far from the urban core and even suburban development. In fact, the Portland settlement is no longer a tent city, but a 60-member village where shelters are self built from recycled materials.
 
The other, in Seattle, is an itinerant settlement in that it allows a 100-member tent city to locate for three months if the landowner agrees. Its success is largely due to religious organizations that provide space for the encampment, recognizing that despite city expenditures to expand emergency shelters, hundreds were going without shelter.
 
It´s more typical, according to Heben, that city officials employ health and safety regulations to evict tent settlements. “But,” he added, “In the examples I looked at, a city usually only acts on the regulations when NIMBY (not in my back yard) complaints are made. Generally, nearby residents or business owners fear that a tent city means crime, threats to property values and overall community stability.”
 
And because of that, some tent-city residents actually advocate for Seattle´s ℠itinerant camp´ model. The founder of Camp Take Notice in Ann Arbor, for instance, advocates for itinerant camps that must periodically move because he believes that having to move provides tent residents with incentives to transition back into the larger community. And it means that neighbors are less anxious about property values, and thus, less likely to complain about camps. 
 
Heben admitted that at the time of his research, he didn´t foresee the coming “Occupy” protests and encampments, but has since used his knowledge on the subject and background as an urban planner to get involved with the movement in Portland. The encampment there was recently taken down by the police and he is now helping to plan a new one that addresses previous problems and concerns. Now that these demonstrations have placed tent cities in the public spotlight, he hopes to expand upon his research and turn it into a book.

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