Thrust into the global warming era, there’s much handwringing about how to build, and increasingly rebuild our cities to help us weather the worsening weather. Many discussions centre on digging in against an angry Nature, such as building defences against flooding and rising sea levels, like Venice’s MOSE barrier, designed to block the sea from swamping its fragile lagoon.

The challenge of how to future-safe historic sites like Venice stands alongside the immediate reality that, for hundreds of millions of people, no stable home is within their reach; mass instability now defines swaths of the world. People are on the move like never before in history: refugees from war, disaster, genocides and other traumas; and migrants fleeing the collapse of economic and climate systems that were once stable but are now in frightening flux.

Even in our most prosperous and seemingly stable zones, rising levels of homelessness make society’s failures painfully obvious; people are forced to return to the most basic form of camping to survive.

None of this bodes well for a tolerable collective future when crises mount and multiply. But resourceful people facing housing difficulties have plenty to teach us if we’re willing to learn.

What we see on the street often appals us because of the human stress and degradation that can accompany the loss of a home. But sometimes the results are remarkably creative, even inspiring. “Unhoused” people are inventing adaptations and compromises in the way they construct shelters, trade for supplies and organise societies among themselves. If the prosaic camping tent has become the preferred shelter for the homeless, that’s because it’s cheap and it works. People have shown they can construct functional – even poetic – buildings and villages out of trash and odds and ends, and with very little space or time. I’ve seen alternate modes of building survive in the midst of glass skyscrapers and gigantic concrete transport infrastructure. These alternate modes of building can work well. Cheap, fast, often portable, they challenge our long-held conviction that only solid and immoveable monuments to accepted forms of engineering and finance are acceptable as shelters.

We can learn lessons from disaster housing

We assume most homeless people are camping on the streets because of circumstances beyond their control. But talking to them I found a significant number had adopted this way of life by choice. It might seem implausible, or even unacceptable, given our society’s belief in the paramount value of stability. But there are other signs that something fundamental is changing: more and more people, not just at the bottom of the income and power scales but also in the middle, and especially at the top, are choosing to live on the move.

The super-rich have been migratory as long as they have existed, moving between palaces in Rome and villas in Tivoli, summer and winter estates, spas in the Alps, resorts at the seashore. These days their restlessness is supercharged by unheard-of levels of wealth and income inequality. Bond-villain superyachts costing hundreds of millions of pounds wander the seas from one tax haven to another; private jets crisscross the sky, taking billionaires between their private islands, ranches and glass penthouses in the twenty or so cities that now compete to attract the rootless global elite.

More than ever before, that elite prefers to have no country, no fixed address, and multiple passports. Their movement increasingly seems less for amusement or comfort than necessity, to keep ahead of threatening events and avoid any responsibility – financial, civic or moral – that being “of a place” entails. Promoters are already pitching future floating utopias beyond the range of tax collectors [See my column on Utopia: “City Slickers” Perspective #31], but in the here and now, anyone with surplus millions or billions can buy into Gulf State gated island marinas, Asian mall-condo complexes, or luxe over-water bungalows such as those now dominating the privatised waters of Bora Bora and the Maldives. Soon enough, they may be able to eat caviar on the Moon, or voyage to the ultimate évasion, as the French call a getaway: Mars.

The new nomadism at the middle of the scale is the most interesting. Digital nomads roam the planet like latter-day monks, looking not for enlightenment but for a cheap and charming cafe with a decent 4G internet connection. #Vanlife describes and defines success as staying constantly in motion, discovering the world for oneself, like Vasco da Gama or Captain Cook, but in new kit: a Mercedes Sprinter van fitted out with full kitchen, bathroom, satellite uplink, surfboard and mountain bike. The campervans on the beaches of Morocco and the ski slopes of British Columbia are 21st-century updates of the Bedouin tent, Mongol yurt, Sioux teepee and Polynesian voyaging canoe.

You don’t have to be committed to pure nomadism. For people of fairly modest means, Airbnb allows long stays just about anywhere, enabling lackadaisical peregrinations for novelty that were previously the preserve of the idle rich. Golden visas (for those with enough cash) and freedom from fixed workplaces make it easy to change countries for the most whimsical reasons. Live and work from Mexico City or Portugal – why not? On the upside, this new border crossing increases connections among us and arguably decreases nationalist wall-building. But it must be noted that such choices are purely personal, for those who can afford it, and have nothing to do with responding to the environmental crisis in Nature.

However, climate is increasingly forcing the issue. The seasonal migration of “snowbirds” – New Yorkers wintering in Florida, Canadians in Arizona, and northern Europeans in the Mediterranean – is in many places being reversed, as people move seasonally from hot and dry places to cooler and wetter ones. The pattern isn’t new: British colonials moved from the sweltering Indian plains in summer to the cool of high tea plantations in Darjeeling. But it is affecting more and more people, in more and more places.

At one level, the new migration is like the transhumance practised by herders since ancient times, moving their animals with the rains and the season, following the grass. To remain in one place will be to suffer, or perish. We need to be aware of these patterns, because they’ll help us manage what’s coming. People will be on the move. The less we consider this to be aberrant and temporary the better we can understand and prepare for it.

We can learn lessons from disaster housing: the refugee camp may become a new normal, not a temporary crisis form, but an intentional and even a good one, with neighbourhoods and entire cities that take shape quickly, and may even periodically, or seasonally, move. Architects can learn lessons from these camps and the resourcefulness of the unhoused: can build lighter, cheaper, more flexible and more mobile structures, using fewer resources than our current model of concrete, brick, steel and plastic. Our infrastructure should also become less hard and fixed, more flexible, and more adapted to natural flux. Flexibility and mobility will become first principles, allowing managed retreat from coastlines, flood plains and fire zones. These adaptations may be just the beginning: we may need cities that simply are designed to move as circumstances require. Like the ambulatory tracked cities of Philip Reeves’ classic Mortal Engines novels, but without the bloodshed and conquest.

In so doing, we will be returning to the ways of life of our ancestors, who were nomads, reading and responding to the vagaries and fluctuations of Earth for millions of years. The idea of cities as hard palisades with rigid foundations, hunkering in place against dangerous, swirling outside forces, is fewer than 10,000 years old, just a blip in human history.

Wade Graham is an author, environmentalist and academic. He lives in LA

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April 2024, Columns, Walden

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