Cities are havens for weirdness. From communities built around garbage to dogs that ride the subway, urban environments have fostered all manner of weird patterns. Here are the 10 freakiest urban ecosystems on the planet.
A while ago, we showed you the Kowloon Walled City — a bizarre, super-dense development that arose as an accident of politics and urban ingenuity. You can't visit the Walled City because it was torn down in the 1990s — but here are 10 other urban ecosystems that still exist. They range from animal life adapting to cities, to developers gone mad, to cities clawing their way towards a new state of being. They include a few urban environments that no longer support people, but still remain intact.
Moscow's Metro Dogs:
Stray dogs in Moscow are nothing new — they've been around since the 19th century. But around 500 dogs have started living in the Metro (subway) stations, begging for scraps from passengers. The dogs have developed a keen instinct for which Muscovites are likely to feed them and which ones to avoid — an important survival trait since one Moscow woman stabbed a Metro dog a few years ago. And instead of the strongest or fiercest dog being the Alpha dog of the Metro dog packs, the smartest one generally is, according to experts who've studied them. Not only that, but some of the Metro dogs have learned to ride the subway on their own, apparently recognizing stations based on the conductor calling out their names, plus sense of smell — and this lets them add multiple stations to their territories. They even have their own website. For other examples of weird urban animals, check out thebaboon gangs of Cape Town and the coyotes of Los Angeles. Photo by Maxim Marmur for Financial Times.
Many cities have weird subterranean structures — Paris and Rome have catacombs, Odessa has miles of weird tunnels that are full of human remains, smuggler gear, leftover war stuff and people's random attempts to grow magic mushrooms — but only Kansas City has succeeded in turning its subterranean infrastructure into tons of office space and businesses. Some 90 percent of the world's "subsurface office space" is in Kansas City, in tunnels carved out by limestone miners, including 55 businesses in SubTropolis. And many denizens of SubTropolis believe it's the wave of the future, because its environmental impact is much lower. It costs way less to heat and cool offices deep underground, and you don't need as much energy-intensive materials like steel and aluminum. The limestone keeps things cool and dry, so it's perfect for storage. And a whole SubTropolis culture has developed, in which people talk about getting a pillar instead of getting a corner office. Image by Kenny Johnson for The Atlantic.
This quaint English village, housing 10,000 people, is just 20 miles outside the center of Shanghai, and a new rail system puts it just 15 minutes from downtown, as part of a rapidly expanding Greater Shanghai. Thames Town was designed to look exactly like a bucolic English town, complete with red brick buildings, a sandstone church, a village green, a market square, and a pub. But it's not a theme park - developers insist it's a real residential community. As the Independent wrote:
Residents can sip their bitter in a traditional English pub, "The Thames Town", as children scamper across the medieval market square to a bilingual school, while red-brick warehouses form a commercial area on the waterfront. Developers are targeting British companies such as Tesco and Sainsbury to add to the authentic high-street feel so the town's...10,000 residents can shop in true British style. There are sporting facilities and everything a town of its size should have.
If you saw the movie Slumdog Millionaire, then you've already seen this Mumbai slum, which occupies 0.67 square miles but houses between 600,000 and 1 million people, smack dab in the middle of greater Mumbai. The tightly packed neighborhood has a strong sense of community, and a booming economy, as the Guardian reports:
Dharavi may be one of the world's largest slums, but it is by far its most prosperous - a thriving business centre propelled by thousands of micro-entrepreneurs who have created an invaluable industry - turning around the discarded waste of Mumbai's 19 million citizens. A new estimate by economists of the output of the slum is as impressive as it seems improbable: £700m a year.
According to National Geographic, the slum's two main streets are called 90 Feet Road and 60 Feet Road, after their widths — even though 60 Feet Road is actually wider. Residents have jury-rigged access to things like water and plumbing, but there's only one toilet per 60 people and everybody uses the local creek. There's a plan underway to redevelop the area and build fancy new housing for some — but not all — of its residents. Photo by Jonas Bendikssen for National Geographic.
The Gowanus Canal
This Brooklyn, NY canal is one of the foulest places on Earth, and it was recently named a federal Superfund site. As housewife Eda Figueroa told the New York Daily News, "Any fish that goes in there dies of poison or if it lives, it becomes a zombie." But the canal's extreme pollution, including cancer-causing agents, may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Two City College professors, the Haque sisters, have discovered evidence that the canal's micro-organisms may have adapted to survive in such a toxic environment. Explains Nasreen Haque, "Despite the canal's toxicity, which includes cancer-causing chemical agents, microorganisms are surviving by adapting to the harsh environment there that shouldn't survive at all. Working in synergy, they seem to sense if nutrients are available; they exchange genes and secrete substances — some of which operate like antibiotics. I believe these substances may provide clues that lead to the development of new drugs to combat human disease." The canal's evolved organisms could provide the keys to curing Alzheimer's, heart disease or AIDS. Photo by Damon Winter for the New York Times.
In 1962, sanitation workers in this town began setting fire to some garbage, near a disused mine opening. The fire spread to a rich underground seam of coal, igniting a blaze that has been going for decades and could continue for up to 250 years according to some experts. The fire expanded and mutated like an amoeba. At first it was nice — the town's residents no longer had to shovel snow off their sidewalks and tomatoes grew in the middle of winter. But then trees started dying and after a child nearly fell down a sinkhole full of carbon monoxide in 1981, the town was evacuated. Now, only a few stubborn residents remain despite efforts to evacuate them. (And rumor has it this town was the inspiration for the video game Silent Hill.) Other urban developments abandoned due to disasters include Chernobyl and the nearby town Prypiat. Top image by Ray Barnett, via Offroaders.
Manshiyat Naser/Garbage City
This area of Cairo, inhabited largely by a community of Coptic Christains known as the Zabbaleen, is completely packed with trash. But it's not necessarily due to a failure of public services or slumlike conditions. It's an ecosystem created by economics. Many of the Zabbaleen make a living sorting the city's trash. People live and work alongside the garbage, and every space not occupied by garbage is taken up with livestock or makeshift gardens. Some families had as many as 100 garbage-eating pigs living in their homes, until the Egyptian government launched a new pig-slaughtering policy. The government also recently privatized garbage collection, giving the contract to foreign companies — which turned right around and outsourced the job to the Zabbaleen, who are getting less money than before. Image at top of post by Helmacron on Flickr. Image above by Bas Princen.
Mitsubishi bought a reef and built it out into an artificial island, a kilometer long, so the company would have a base for undersea coal mining operations in the area. And for many years, it was the world's most densely populated place, with 85,500 people per square kilometer in 1959 — and 135,000 people per square kilometer in the densest areas. The name, Gunkanjima, is Japanese for "Battleship Island," because the artificial island resembles a battleship when seen from the ocean. The island was completely closed down in 1975, when the coal ran out, and now it's quite possibly the world's largest ghost town. It looks like a dark fortress, its shadowy walls looming like death. Image by Saiga Yuji, via BLDGBLOG.
Anyone who has seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade will recognize Petra. Built as the capital of the Nabataeans around the 6th century BC, it was a central stopping point for several trade routes that ran through the area. Built in a rift valley, the city was virtually impregnable and also had the advantage of a steady, well-maintained water supply, thanks to underground cisterns that captured every drop of rainwater. The advent of sea-based trade sent the city into rapid decline under Roman rule in the first couple of centuries AD. The city's remarkably well-preserved and restored, and a burgeoning urban area has sprung up on its outskirts to service the tourists who visit it. You can take a virtual tour here Image by Nabateaa.net.
The Snow Castle Of Kemi
Every year, the town of Kemi in Finland rebuilds its snow castle, including restaurants, an art gallery, a hotel and a chapel. It's believed to be the largest snow castle in the world, and its architecture changes every year. Typically, the castle has occupied between 13,000 and 20,000 square meters, with its tallest tower typically being 20 meters tall. Finnish power-metal band Sonata Arctica performed in the castle in 2007. Here are some polar bears made out of ice guarding a tunnel inside the castle:
Additional reporting/writing by Kelly Faircloth.
A version of this post was originally published on April 16, 2010.