Friday, May 10, 2019

Tiny Trailers and Urban Campgrounds of the Future: a Vision

Will city campgrounds become a part of the future?

About sixty years ago, Nobel Prize laureate John Steinbeck published his travelogue Travels with Charley. At fifty-eight years of age (1960), Steinbeck believed he had lost contact with America, that he "had not felt the country for twenty-five years." His plan for reconnecting with America was to buy a three-quarter ton pickup, add a camper, name his rig Rocinante (after the horse of fictional character Don Quixote), and head west from New York.

How does Steinbeck's late-life trek connect to campgrounds of the future? Let Steinbeck do a bit more talking, where he described a particular kind of home he kept seeing.
They are wonderfully built homes, aluminum skins, double-walled, with insulation, and often paneled with veneer of hardwood. Sometimes as much as forty feet long, they have two to five rooms, and are complete with air-conditioners, toilets, baths, and invariably television. The parks where they sit are sometimes landscaped and equipped with every facility. I talked with the park men, who were enthusiastic. 
Steinbeck described the units as having all the modern conveniences, and that sales of these "mobile homes" were on the rise, as much as one in four of the sales of homes. "It seemed to me a revolution in living and on a rapid increase"--and along with the rise of mobile home living was the rise of mobile home parks, where Steinbeck said he regularly stayed overnight as he traveled west. "Could it be that Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection?" Steinbeck left his readers with the thought that maybe these "mobile homes" would have a significant role in how future Americans chose to live.

If Steinbeck had been able to travel forward fifty years, he would have seen an America where mobile homes and mobile home parks are everywhere woven into the fabric of our culture. Where can we travel without seeing a mobile home or mobile home park--if not within a city then certainly at the outskirts of a city, which Steinbeck observed even during his travels--mobile homes and parks cropping up at the outskirts of towns where the land was cheaper and parking more available.

For anyone who follows news stories involving people living mobile lives--that is to say, living in their vans, campers, and trailers--what is common in the news media now is not a new thing called "mobile home" living. What is much more common are news stories about full-time RVers, tiny houses, and the challenge of homeless populations, especially in our larger cities. "Homeless" populations can be categorized as those unable to integrate into society for various reasons, those who are jobless and down on their luck, those who are working yet cannot afford the high expense of renting or buying a home, and those who choose a mobile lifestyle and who already possess or are able to earn the funds to live a lifestyle of the full-time RVing. Most likely, those in the last category would object to being classified as homeless.

Urban campgrounds of the future will, I believe, primarily serve the last two groups: people with jobs who own a camper but who cannot afford exorbitant rent or mortgage payments, and itinerant RVers living the full-time mobile life. These two groups will be the 21st century iteration of Steinbeck's "restless, mobile people."

One significant feature of future urban campgrounds is that along with the common mobile home parks with their 60-foot double-wides, in the future towns and cities will also have affordable RV campgrounds where the owners of vans, campers, and trailers can set up and live, not having to move out every two weeks. Some will be "snowbirds" migrating as a lifestyle, yet most will be people who work in town and just can't afford higher housing payments or who would rather not saddle themselves to a lifetime of high mortgage payments. Some will be single, some married, and some will have children that attend local schools. These folks will be the tiny living version of Steinbeck's new "mobile home" trend that blossomed more than half a century ago. Those who adhere to the new "tiny mobile" lifestyle will be folks who say, "I can't afford to pay $2,500 a month on rent, but I can buy a used 20-foot trailer and live in an urban campground." They will literally be able to pull their own weight in society if cities or private campgrounds provide affordable spaces to rent. They won't have to live by parking their rigs on city streets. They won't be considered nuisance "tiny trailer trash," if you will.

Ironically, Steinbeck also documented in his novels about the Great Depression the migrations of people without homes, working where they could and living out of their cars and in tents. The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row are just two of his novels that chronicle that "land is a tangible, and tangibles have a way of getting into few hands. Thus it was that one man wanted ownership of land and at the same time wanted servitude because someone had to work it." His musings in Travels with Charley still resonate today. Buying or renting a home is a competitive business, and there are people who work full time who simply don't earn enough to afford a home; however, growing numbers are able to afford a small trailer, camper, van, or RV to live in and can, therefore, find an alternative to those too-high rents from those who want "ownership of land and the same time [want] servitude."

This vision of urban campgrounds in this essay does not intend to address the needs of those suddenly without a house and living on the streets, in cars not adapted to tiny living, or in tents. It does not address those homeless because of mental health or addiction issues. And if there exists some mixing of these "homeless" categories, some blurring of demarcations--well, since when has life ever fit neatly into discrete boxes? My brother lives in an long-established mobile home park, and he's told me stories of tenants who sell drugs or who have mental issues, stories that include sheriff cars and flashing lights in the middle of the night. Urban campgrounds will also have such issues, but safe management is possible. Background and credit checks that are a part of current space rental at mobile home parks or for apartments can certainly also be required for long-term space rental in urban campgrounds.

Camp the Future
Recreational campgrounds of the future, according to KOA (Kampgrounds of America) at its virtual reality display premiered at at the RVX, an RV trade show held in early 2019, Campground of the Future,  will include robotic delivery to your site, beachside and cliff-side vistas, and off-the-grid power; luxurious urban campgrounds in the future will be the RV dream of dreams. I hope that such campgrounds will exist for those with the bucks to afford them. I might even spend a weekend in one sometime down the road. However, the greater need for campgrounds, and especially with urban campgrounds, is for affordable, safe options for people honestly living in tiny campers so that they can get off the streets. When cities establish urban campgrounds, affordable and with amenities, people living in these tiny mobile parks will be as common as residency in mobile home parks today. Society and the distribution of wealth has changed. The 21st century is not the 20th century, and cities and towns must change with the times. The small travel trailer, van, or RV will be the lifestyle choice of many, either to avoid huge debt for themselves, or because small is the only living option they can afford. Tiny living by choice, even if by limited choice.

Permanent residence in urban campgrounds is already a dawning reality. I read in one article of the possibility of California's Department of Transportation land being used for campers to get RVs off city streets. That's just one step away from adding water and sanitary facilities and creating an urban campground. Landowners with a bit of land or ample driveway will, with some modifications, have a space to rent to a tiny camper. For those "homeless" that work yet cannot locate affordable housing yet own an RV, providing access to urban campsites for people who have a home on wheels will eliminate some of the housing pressure cities across America are currently experiencing.

The Press Democrat, 2018

I see no reason why there cannot be affordable RV parks to meet the needs of individuals who want to own their home but do not want to be saddled with huge mortgage debt--or who simply cannot afford the high mortgage or rent payments. There are already government programs for low-income housing and for rent rates based on income. Such programs could easily be adapted to individuals who own their RV but need assistance with the space rent.

Llamalopolis, Las Vegas

Urban campgrounds that are the equivalent of mobile home parks are coming. Churches are looking at parking lot options for those needing a campsite. RV parks already exist for snowbirds who need a place to reside during the winter months, assuming they can afford the rent. Many whose homes are on wheels and who work in a city can afford $600 a month for a living space but cannot afford $2,500 or more for an apartment. Cities can provide urban campsites with a shade canopy, an electrical hook-up, access to water, dump stations, and sanitary facilities. They will charge for these, based on income, but even standard rates can be within reach. For a variety of reasons, more people will be living in their mobile rigs; and local, state, and federal governments will have to recognize and react to that reality.

I sent an online camping friend an early version of this article, asking his opinion as a more traveled tiny trailer owner. His response was that housing trends are mostly about economics. She said, "With so many of the issues of housing, it comes down to economics.  If you create the urban tiny house/urban campground areas, they will be used.  In fact, they may draw in many more people than they can hold.  Unintended consequences will occur, and the campground may be what draws countless others to find the inexpensive place to stay.  What is designed to solve a problem could be the thing that multiplies the problem."

I have thought about these "unintended consequences," and, yes, it may very well be true that the demand for urban campgrounds will outstrip the availability--at least at first. I am reminded of the Great Depression, where hundreds of people would be drawn to locations where jobs or housing or assistance were rumored to exist. We cannot fault the company or city (or rumor) for the existence of an overwhelming need. The reality was that people had no money and were desperate for jobs. How is that Great Depression reality different from the current shortage of affordable housing? It is true that a travel trailer is much more easily moved than a 40-60 foot mobile home. That mobility will create greater transience. However, I believe urban campgrounds will be able to be managed as well as our current mobile home parks. That transience is possible to be managed. I've seen campgrounds developed by the Army Corps of Engineers that are like small cities on busy weekends, yet the flow of traffic and people goes as planned.

 The idea that the need for tiny living may overwhelm an urban campground's capacity is a weighty issue. If too few a number of urban campgrounds were to occur, then it would be an indication of the magnitude of the housing problem in that particular town. Towns being overwhelmed by housing crises is not a future possibility; an overwhelming need for affordable housing is a current problem for many cities right now. As my friend said, "It comes down to economics." If wages are so low and living options so limited that people cannot afford a brick-and-mortar home, then that is not a problem caused by the establishment of an urban campground. That is a problem endemic to our society. However, it is true that such an economic imbalance could manifest as challenges for the urban campground--right along with all the other challenges housing inequity present city planning.

Kampgrounds of America may speculate that campgrounds of the future will be environments that utilize technology to enrich the camping experience--for those that desire such "enrichment." After all, we already have campgrounds with water, electricity, sewer, and wifi. However, one significant feature of camping in the future will be the establishment of urban campgrounds for people who have adopted the tiny living lifestyle. Private and governmental bodies will establish safe and economically viable sites for those choosing small "mobile homes" for residency. Tiny house communities (that can include tiny trailers) already exist or are being planned, as indicated by online website The Spruce's article, "15 Livable Tiny House Communities." Micro communities? Why not urban campgrounds?

This new wave of "tiny mobile homes" will house individuals who contribute to their communities, send their kids to local schools, and who weave themselves into the fabric of their towns and cities. This lifestyle will no longer be considered "alternative" Rather, it will be a viable aspect of city planning. Maybe Americans are, as Steinbeck said, "a restless people, a mobile people," and for many, the roots they plant will be within the society where they live, not in land they purchase. They will rent a camping space rather than an apartment. Their footprint will be tiny, not double wide. If Steinbeck were traveling across America today, he would see the beginnings of the tiny house movement, the tiny homes on wheels movement, and he'd say that the movement toward small is growing big. "Perhaps we have overrated roots as a psychic need. Maybe the greater the urge, the deeper and more ancient is the need, the hunger to be somewhere else."

Subscribe--Follow by Email

* indicates required


  1. I appreciate this thought provoking idea. I’m at a stage in life where I often imagine living more from my RTTC Grizzly and less from my house. I’ve done it before when my husband, 2 year old son, and I sold our house and spent 4 months bike touring. I learned then, 25 years ago, that our country is not that welcoming to folks without a house, even those privileged enough to be living that way by choice. I guess for that reason I would encourage you to consider using the term “houseless” instead of “homeless” to help with what you observed as the blurred boundaries between different types of people. It’s not that I don’t want to be called “homeless”, but more in acknowledgement of shared circumstances and humanity. It’s easy to assume the worst and draw a line between the “undesirable” homeless and the “desirable” homeless when the fact of the matter is that people end up without houses for many reasons and all could perhaps be helped by having more urban campgrounds. It really shouldn’t matter whether one is houseless by choice or necessity. Some are houseless due to ill physical or mental health and others are able to consider the lifestyle only because they’ve been blessed with strength and good health. Some plan and save for years to break free and others lose a lease or suffer a natural disaster. Some are truly unable to live in a traditional manner and others are unwilling to, preferring to be mobile and unfettered. Some houseless people find a roof and a bed at a community shelter and others use a trailer. But, we’re really not all that different. What a refreshing perspective to imagine that the world might some day be more welcoming to the houseless and that urban campgrounds might be a step in that direction!

    1. I haven't heard the term "houseless." It is a useful designation. I know, for instance, that there are many who live for a time with friends and family, sleeping in an extra bedroom or on the sofa, who don't have their own place yet are not on the streets. Documentation of the "homeless" has been unsure how to categorize individuals who have a place to live, whether it is on wheels or not, but who are not officially renting or buying a home. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Interesting and the question in my mind is how would the tiny venues be provided to and afforded by the "houseless" in such a way that anpark owner would choose to invest in such a park and then encourage them to be on their land. Campgrounds are not inexpensive to build, buy are own.

    1. Thanks for responding. Your question is one of the practical questions that have arisen from the article. I know that at the mobile home park where my brother lives in Northern California, there are some larger travel trailers living there permanently--or at least for several months. These units are probably about twenty-five feet rigs, not huge yet not tiny, and large enough for the sewer connections. The rent for these spaces, including utilities, is about $450-700, depending on the season. It seems to me a park could be set up specifically for travel rigs, just not the 40-60 foot mobile homes. You are right, though. The matter of building a travel trailer mobile park would be based on the demand for such. It seems with cities as in the California San Francisco Bay area that with housing so high that people working would be willing to invest in a travel trailer of adequate size to live in if there were rental spaces available.

  3. This article from a Pacific Northwest newspaper addresses the topic of what the article calls "long-term RV living."