Masters Theses

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Architecture



Major Professor

Avigail Sachs

Committee Members

Katherine B. Ambroziak, Tracy W. Moir-McClean


In Knoxville, TN, in an area of decaying rail-based industry close to a cluster of homeless services, people experiencing homelessness, who cannot or will not use the shelter system, generate outdoor campsites. Every 6 or 8 months, local authorities evict the campers due to complaints of trash accumulation or disturbances. The homeless campers then move to new locations, and the cycle begins anew. Homeless service providers and policy makers discuss what to do about the perceived problem, but they do not condone the urban campsites or ask the campers what they need to improve their situations.

This is a “wicked problem” as described by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber – a problem that involves multiple stakeholders with competing agendas and thus has no single or easily-identifiable solution. I elected to investigate the role of the designer in this problem by exploring community-based design as a pathway to mutually satisfying solutions.

My research, through ethnographic study and community-based design, revealed that the transitional spaces homeless urban campers generate are important for their expression of agency and autonomy. They desire to feel that they have the freedom to make their own decisions. Therefore, offering decision-making power by allowing urban campsites as transitional spaces for members of the homeless community is an important part of addressing homelessness.

This work is an argument for looking at homelessness in a new way and a description of my experience exploring community-based design with members of the homeless community. I intend to generate thoughtfulness among design professionals in situations where they may encounter homelessness in its various manifestations. My analysis may serve as guidance for those who would undertake similar processes.

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