Quartzsite, Arizona

If Kowloon walled city, a jerry-built city of extreme congestion, served as the id for Hong Kong and all other Asian cities, then Quartzsite is the id for Los Angeles and all other generic, horizontal cities of the American southwest. Named after a misspelled local mineral resource, Quartzsite has an official population of 1,876 (1990 census) inhabitants. Every winter between October and March, however, hundreds of thousands of campers bring their RVs to Quartzsite. Setting up camp for anywhere from a few days to a few months, campers temporarily create one of the top ten largest cities in the Southwest.

This is a temporary web page that gathers some of the visual material that we have accumulated on the topic.

Our exploration of Quartzsite began in January 1999.

Quartzsite 2002

Quartzsite 2003

Quartzsite 2004

With new media collective AUDC, we have put together an exhibit on Quartzsite at High Desert Test Sites. More material is available on the AUDC Wiki


If Kowloon walled city, a jerry-built city of extreme congestion, served as the id for Hong Kong and all other Asian cities, then Quartzsite is the id for Los Angeles and all other generic, horizontal cities of the American southwest. Products of mobility, transitory architecture, and relatively little planning, these cities, such as Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, or Los Angeles are typically considered “urban sprawl.” And yet even though they are hated by architects and planners such cities remain popular with people. Exploring Quartzsite suggests that the popularity of urban sprawl is precisely because its lack of hierarchy allows communities the freedom to develop without a direction imposed from above.

Established in 1867, Quartzsite is some 125 miles west of Phoenix at a location now marked by the junction of Interstates 10 and 95. In naming the town after the mineral quartzite, commonly found in the hills surrounding it, its founders made a spelling error, dubbing it “Quartzsite.”

Over the last thirty years, Quartzsite has become a major winter destination for owners of recreational vehicles or RVs. Although Quartzsite has only 3,397 inhabitants year-round (2000 census, which indicates that the population has nearly doubled from 1,876 in 1990) inhabitants. Every winter between October and March, hundreds of thousands of campers bring their RVs to Quartzsite. Setting up camp for anywhere from a few days to a few months, campers temporarily create one of the top ten largest cities in the Southwest. ), every winter between October and March hundreds of thousands of campers bring their RVs to Quartzsite. These “snowbirds,” generally, retired and from colder climates, settle in the more than seventy RV parks in the area or in the outlying desert administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The result is one of the fifteen largest cities in the United States, an urbanized area more populous than Detroit or San Jose and possibly San Diego and Phoenix. The Bureau of Land Management and law enforcement agencies estimate that 1.5 million people spend time in Quartzsite between October and March.

A history of Quartzsite reveals how cities function as emergent systems. Emergence is the theory of self-organization. It suggests that a system can grow to achieve greater complexity than any of its individual elements is aware or capable of, without pre-planning or hierarchy. In an emergent system, each element plays a dual role; consciously it is a single agent that looks out for its own interests. At the same time it is part of a larger organism ”“ an association that it is barely aware of. The consciousness of this larger whole is made up of the collected behavior of all of its individual members acting for their own interests. Even without a strong hierarchy or chain of command, each member’s adaptive behavior is amplified and collected together to achieve a greater organizational complexity that merely the sum of the parts. In an emergent system, agents interact with each other to produce more complicated behavior, even though the consciousness of the individual agents remains largely unchanged.

Quartzsite began with a series of false starts and brief communities centered first around short-lived stage coach lines and then with the mining boom at the beginning of the twentieth century. With the area lacking any significant resources or reason for urbanization, until 1960 the population fluctuated erratically, never finding a stasis or means of organizing itself into proper self-sustaining groups. By 1960, only 50 people lived in the town on a permanent basis. During winter months, however, the population could swell to 1,500 as visitors arrived in RVs to escape the colder weather from other states. Many of these winter travelers arrived on a yearly basis and became immersed in the growing annual community.

Over time, members of the local community began to interact with these travelers and recognized them as a strong and growing market. They formed a loose organization called the Quartzsite Improvement Association (QIA) and decided to create a gem and mineral show to encourage more winter travelers and to maximize their ability to sell to them.

As the event grew, a few individuals decided to market to the needs and lifestyles of the travelers themselves in addition to the planned rock and mineral show. Part of Quartzsite’s emergence as a city is due to the spontaneous diversification of its goods well beyond the initial selection of rocks and minerals. A wide variety of items can be found in Quartzsite: fresh shrimp cocktails hundreds of miles from the ocean are available next to cow skulls. African sculpture is popular, a demonstration of Quartzsite’s role in a global network of nomadic trade. This diversification was not planned. It occurred as a collection of a few individual decisions reacting to local interest. Over time, however this radically changed the nature of Quartzsite and caused the market to grow to include cultural attractions. Many of these revolve around engines, machines, and contraptions. Far from either market intentions or the solitary interests of “rock hounds,” Quartzsite is now a thriving city where a full range of interests and needs can be satisfied. Without planning or bureaucracy, it has achieved not only density, but the diversity of life of a true city.

As an emergent system, Quartzsite has its own life cycle extending beyond its individual members. Patterns of settlement and group behaviors have continued over the course of its thirty year history while the overall organization remains open to chance and modification at the individual level. As an organism, Quartzsite develops to develop. Over time, it grows, evolves and learns, attracting new members and infuses them with an idea that they belong to a collective.

The relationship of the individual and the collective becomes apparent at Quartzsite. Although the RV might appear to be an ultimate manifestation of American individualism, RV’ers generally see themselves as part of a community. Quartzsite is the largest gathering of RV’ers in the nation. At the same time, the average RV’er does not participate in any governance, choosing to let the “gated community” of the trailer park management act for the group. Community, as a shared experience, exists even as any larger idea of the public is lacking.

Our exploration of Quartzsite began in January 1999. The following galleries document Quartzsite over a series of years.

Quartzsite 2002

Quartzsite 2003

Quartzsite 2004

With new media collective AUDC, we have put together an exhibit on Quartzsite at High Desert Test Sites. More material is available on the AUDC Wiki.