For spring break, a couple of friends and I are headed south on a brewery road tour of the Northwest. One of my most anticipated destinations is Bend. A beautiful city in the heart of Oregon, Bend is also a beer-lovers haven (like much of Oregon really) with at least 6 breweries in the downtown area and a few more spread out within walking distance of the river. Ideally, we could drive in, park the car, taste beers for hours, and then stumble back to sleep. However, the problem is we are camping. And similar to most urban areas, our campsite is about 10 miles from downtown and the breweries. So instead of a fun and carefree day for all, whoever draws the short straw will have to refrain from beer tasting so that we can get back to our tents in the evening.
The idea of urban camping is not new. In fact, urban camping has been a common practice for as long as cities have existed. Whether it’s parks, back alleys, parking lots, or underpasses, people constantly pitch tents in cities as a cheap shelter close to the action. City leaders are continually thinking up new ways to remove these encampments, but like weeds, as soon as you pick them in one place they sprout up somewhere else.
So my question is, if it’s going to happen anyway, why haven’t we turned this seeming problem into an opportunity? It seems that if set up some actual policies and regulations about urban camping we could funnel it to places we want it and provide more alternatives for overnight stays in our cities. In Seattle we could designate sections of parks, such as Woodland Park, Volunteer Park, Denny Park, or Jefferson Park, as urban campgrounds.
Setting up urban campsites can have a number of public benefits. First, by charging a small fee for use, just like other campsites, we could generate some much needed revenues for parks maintenance. Second, as with the “eyes on the street” theory of city streets, having a formal camp area in parks would provide a sort of night time “park watch’ that would help deter other illicit activities that take place in parks at night.
Urban camping is also an incredibly accessible way to connect with the natural beauty of our urban environment. As someone who doesn’t own a car, escaping into the wild for a night under the stars (or more often clouds) can be a huge undertaking. Being able to pack my bag and hop on a bus when I want a brief respite from the chaos of the city would be a welcome opportunity. Visitors could also find urban camping a more cost effective way to see the city. It would also allow them to better appreciation of not only our urban amenities, but also our natural treasures.
For a city nicknamed the “Emerald City” starting a city sanctioned urban camping program seems all too fitting. In our continuous quest to create efficient, inviting, and sustainable urban communities, it also seems like a great way to blur the lines between “urban” and “nature”.