7 Extreme Human Habitats & Unexpected Urban Wonders

Humans have established settlements in the strangest of places, from the base of an extremely lethal volcano in Japan to a platform of oil rigs built on the remains of seven ships in the Caspian Sea. These 7 cities are among the weirdest and most unusual in the world, requiring residents to wear gas masks or sort through trash for a living.

Gas Mask City: Lethal Japanese Settlement at the Base of a Volcano

Eerie black-and-white images depict groups of people – including a wedding party – gazing at the camera through the darkened eyeholes of old-fashioned gas masks. Were these created for some kind of movie or photography project? Nope. Wearing gas masks was part of everyday life for residents of Miyake-jima, a lethal settlement at the base of the extremely active Mount Oyama volcano in Japan. The volcano spews sulphuric gas even when it isn’t in the midst of an eruption, an air raid siren warning inhabitants to put on their masks when the levels get too high. An eruption in June 2000 forced the evacuation of all residents, and the island was closed to human habitation for more than four years, but nearly 3,000 people decided to return in 2005, retaking the abandoned structures they had left behind. A third of the island is still off limits to human travelers, and residents must undergo mandatory health checks.

Neft Dashlari: Floating City of Oil Workers in the Caspian Sea

Neft Dashlari (Oily Rocks) is – was – a Soviet city in the middle of the Caspian sea. Just after World War II, as Russia tried to recover from the Nazi invasion, the nation’s government began to daydream about the vast oil reserves believed to be far below the sea in what is now the independent state of Azerbaijan. In 1949, Soviet engineers struck top-quality oil at a depth of 1,100 meters below the seabed at a location mariners called “Black Rock.” Certain that they had found the answer to their problems, the Russian government began to build an entire city with the foundation consisting of seven sunken ships including ‘Zoroaster,’ the world’s first oil tanker. They constructed a network of oil platforms linked by hundreds of miles of roads, filled with apartment blocks for 5,000 oil workers, a cinema and even a park. For a while, it was a ‘Stalinist utopia for the working class,’ but with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the discovery of more accessible oil fields came neglect. Most of the workers left, and the waves began to claim the architecture. Today, a small number of oil workers continue to live and work there, and the settlement is closely guarded, but it’s only a matter of time before the entire network crumbles.

Makoko: Village on Stilts in the Lagos Lagoon

Highly dangerous for outsiders, Makoko is a shantytown in the Lagos Lagoon of Nigeria with a population of 250,000. The twisting canal system between hobbled-together houses has given sway to the tongue-in-cheek nickname ‘Venice of Africa,’ and while most the residents make a living from the traditional fisherman’s way of life, they’re also constantly at risk of disease from the cramped quarters as well as the threat of local gangs. What began as an 18th century village has ballooned thanks to an influx of new residents from Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city.
In 2013, the Nigerian government declared Makoko illegal and scheduled it for demolition. Men with chainsaws cut through the stilts holding up homes, schools and churches. Left homeless, many residents had no choice but to live in their boats. Can the community be saved? One project that offers some hope for the future is Makoko Floating School by architecture firm NLE, an ached floating structure that can accommodate up to 100 adults, even in bad weather conditions. Currently a school, the design could also be used for events spaces, clinics or markets.

Trash City: Cairo’s Neighbor is One Big Dump

Just on the edge of the largest city in the Arab world lies Manshiyat Naser, better known as ‘Garbage City,’ where residents make a living sorting and processing Cairo’s refuse. Trash is stacked on sidewalks and rooftops, propped against walls within dwellings, and spread out across the floors. It may sound unpleasant and unsanitary, but for the Zabbaleen – literally ‘garbage people’ – it’s a way of life. They recycle 80% of the trash and feed the remaining organic matter to pigs in an incredibly efficient system that’s unrivaled anywhere else in the world. The city has no running water, sewers, electricity or official governing body; it was established by Coptic Christians known for herding swine within the city. However, the pigs were removed by the Egyptian government in 2009 due to the threat of swine flu, putting the Zabbaleen’s system in danger of falling apart. Without the pigs, managing the trash has become much more of a challenge, especially as Cairo produces more waste than ever with each passing year.

Yaodong Underground Cave Dwellings, China

Over 30 million of China’s residents live simple, low-income lifestyles in caves known as yaodong. Dug into the mountains of the Shaanxi province, these earthen dwellings range from the most basic of bare dirt rooms to higher-end caves with bricked walls, multiple chambers, electricity and running water. The former rent for as little as $30 per month, while the latter can sell for $46,000. The soft yellow earth of the loess plateau makes it easy to dig out these humble residences, which formerly made up the communist revolutionary base of Yanan. The caves stay naturally cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
While many rural Chinese have been encouraged to move to the cities to live more modern lifestyles, those who have enjoyed the simplicity of the caves have a romantic attachment to the tradition and intend to stay well into the future.

Sealand: The World’s Smallest Nation

If you sail to an old abandoned fort in international waters, can you claim it and become king of your very own micronation? It sounds absurd, but it has really happened (more than once!) with the Principality of Sealand as the prime example. Formerly HM Fort Roughs off the coast of Suffolk, England, the world’s smallest nation is not officially recognized by any established sovereign state, but it has been occupied and governed by the family and associates of Paddy Roy Bates, who seized it from a group of pirate radio broadcasters in 1967. Bates ultimately moved back to mainland Essex at the end of his life, and his son took over after his death.
Infighting led to a civil war of sorts in 1978, when a man who described himself as the Prime Minister of Sealand hired German and Dutch mercenaries to spearhead an attack on the settlement. He was captured and charged with treason, and the resulting involvement of Britain and Germany was deemed by Bates to be de facto recognition of Sealand’s sovereignty. In 2006, Sealand caught fire, though all damage was repaired by the end of the year. Sealand operates as a controversial data haven and intends to open an online casino; it’s also open for tourist visits by appointment.

RIP: The Terrifying, Dystopian Kowloon Walled City

There’s never been anyplace in the world quite like Kowloon Walled City, an amazingly dense, lawless settlement packed with at least 50,000 inhabitants in just 6.5 acres. Known for a period of mob rule and sky-high rates of prostitution, gambling and drug use, Kowloon was demolished in 1993, the site now a tranquil public park. It was first created as a military fort nearly century ago and was passed back and forth during the conflict between Britain and Hong Kong, though neither government wanted responsibility for it, especially as its population grew. The city became so compact that residents just kept building up, enveloping the lower levels in complete darkness even on sunny days. To see the sky, inhabitants had to access the rooftops. The dystopian feel of the city has popularized it as a setting for novels and games.

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