Learning from Quartzsite, AZ: Emerging Nomadic Spatial Practices in America

A digital rendering of a large open area with modular buildings interspersed with mobile camper vans. A crowd of people of various ages in the foreground gather around a campfire.

by Mojtaba Nabavi (MAUD ’24)

Quartzsite, in Arizona, is a popular winter home base for vehicle dwellers who identify as nomads. While vehicle dwelling in America has diverse motivations, this thesis focuses on about four million Americans who live in their cars full-time as their sole home and rely on them as a means of seasonal migrations. 

Building on the author’s participation in the nomads’ biggest annual gathering in Quartzsite called Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR), the thesis investigates their spatial practices in urban and non-urban settings. It seeks to shed light on invisible mobile communities emerging from the ongoing decentralization process in the US, driven primarily by economic crises and climate change. 

This thesis claims that houselessness is not homelessness. Since the 1930s, vehicle-dwellers have gradually developed a communal alternative lifestyle, utilizing the country’s capacities in physical infrastructures like highways and, in recent years, non-physical infrastructures like digital networks, which they call “Nomadism.” This lifestyle, using mobility as a survival strategy to adapt to adverse living conditions, leads to the creation of intentional communities outside urban boundaries. These communities, in smaller units called caravans, constantly move towards temporary job opportunities, creating instant urbanism around a migration route. 

This thesis uncovers this cyclical migration route, attraction points, and spatial practices of the US nomadic community. It ultimately seeks the role of design in proposing this mode of houseless living as an alternative lifestyle by enhancing nomads’ visibility and vehicle dwelling reliability through systemic thinking, proposing complementary modular living spaces to address deficiencies along their migration route.