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  • Katsiaryna Varfalameyeva, Arizona State University

How to define Recreational Vehicles where they serve a different purpose?

The Phoenix metro area suffers from high summer heat, leading to a rash of indoor heat deaths, particularly among vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, low-income, unhoused, and mobile home dwellers. Data from the Maricopa County Public Health Department indicate that on average 25% of all indoor heat deaths occur in mobile homes. The research faculty and students of ASU's Knowledge Exchange for Resilience are working to understand what are the significant local issues, that lead to the disproportionate numbers of heat-related deaths in some areas. YouthMappers who are on this team are contributing by creating maps on OpenStreetMap for use in this research.

The first step in this research was to identify the regions that suffer the most. By overlaying the map of where people receive utility assistance with the map of indoor heat related deaths, a gap was found in Mesa where people were perishing from heat but not receiving help. From satellite imagery, It can be seen that the central part of Mesa has a high mobile home density in comparison with other cities and urban villages in the Phoenix Metropolitan area.

High-mobile-home dense central part of Mesa that is visible from the satellite (white-colored reflections)

Mostly, this visible feature on the landscape is due to the high number of mobile home parks that are settled in this area. These types of parks accumulate people densely providing small dwellings without any yard or space around. Mobile home parks provide two types of dwellings in parks – mobile homes and RVs (Recreational Vehicles). Both of these types of housing are not designed for permanent living. However, it is a response and solution for affordable housing in the face of homelessness and poverty. People who live in mobile homes, typically are not eligible for utility assistance, even though their bills can skyrocket during the summer because the building materials are not energy efficient. As a result, some people have to turn off the air conditioning and stay indoors, which turns literally into an oven due to the building materials.

Mobile home park from satellite imagery of Mesa

As part of our research it was necessary to define where these houses are located, how many of them there are, and what are the demographics there. Mobile home parks have an owner landlord, so they are set up as a private area. As a result, mobile home building footprints are not typically traced on maps. In this case, OpenStreetMap became a solution and a powerful tool to map mobile homes and RVs.

Results of mapping mobile homes, Mesa. Before there were only roads, afterwards all of the mobile houses, buildings and RVs appear on the map. Aa a result, the team traced 672 RVs and more than 2,000 mobile homes.

However, the issue of using mobile homes and RVs as permanent housing appears to be relatively new for the OpenStreetMap community. This problem has become visible after analyzing the tags that can be used during mapping. According to Wikipedia: “A mobile home (also trailer, trailer home, house trailer, static caravan, residential caravan) is a prefabricated structure, built in a factory on a permanently attached chassis before being transported to site (either by being towed or on a trailer)”. Thus, for mobile homes, OSMWiki suggests using tag “building=static_caravan”. And it is defined as “A mobile home (semi)permanently left on a single site”. It is possible to state that this tag correlates with many of the features in our task goal.

While there is a tag for mobile houses, there is no obvious tag for RVs, which are sometimes also used for permanent living. According to Wikipedia: “RV is a recreational vehicle, often abbreviated as RV, is a motor vehicle or trailer which includes living quarters designed for accommodation.” For RVs, OSMWiki has only one tag “tourism=caravan_site”, and it is defined as: “A caravan site, caravan park or RV park is a place where people with caravans / motorhomes / recreational vehicles can stay overnight, or longer, in allotted spaces known as "pitches" or "sites". They usually provide facilities including toilets, waste disposal, water supply, power supply etc. They may also have some space for tents. If a site is primarily for tents, it should be tagged as tourism=camp_site”. It is possible to conclude that the tag “tourism=caravan_site” fits for the tourist RV rather than for RVs used for permanent living.

Clearly, there is a difference between recreational vehicles (RVs) that are highly mobile and used for tourism and RVs used for permanent living. In the latter case, residents usually are forced to live in a vehicle due to financial problems mainly. In general, RVs are not designed for permanent living, so using and transforming it into a dwelling increases the cost of living. So, how can we define RVs that serve this completely new purpose? The OSMWiki does not suggest a clear tagging convention yet. We believe that this should be defined.

Why is it important? According to the Recreational Vehicle Industry of America (RVIA), 1 million people in the USA live fulltime in an RV. That is a very large group of people who do not exist on the maps and who have no clear definition. The importance of establishing a new tag correlates with the necessity to take into account this group of vulnerable people, to evaluate their impact on the urban environment, and to study critical dimensions of heat resilience.

Katsiaryna Varfalameyeva is a graduate student at Arizona State University doing her Master’s degree in Urban and Environmental Planning. Originally from Belarus, she graduated from Brest State Technical University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture in 2016. She has two years of professional experience being an architect and project manager. Her international experience includes more than fifty residential and commercial architectural projects around Belarus and Israel. In 2018 she was selected to be a Fulbright scholar and was admitted to Arizona State University. Her research areas focus on architecture and urban design, environmental approaches in urban planning, public spaces and community resilience.

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