Couchsurfing is a planner’s best friend.
I admit it – I thought it was strange and dangerous at first. But then one of my less-intimidating female friends tried it, and not only did she survive; she had a fantastic time. I no longer had an excuse – I had to plunge forward and try Couchsurfing. Once I did, my eyes were opened to a completely new way of travelling. I realized that there are over a million people around the world willing to open their homes to me and show me around their city. Not only does it make travelling cheaper and more interesting, but it’s an incredible tool for planners and urban enthusiasts to learn about cities and how people relate with them.
Generally, spam doesn’t lead to anything good. But when Casey Fenton spammed University of Iceland students in 1999, a movement was born. Fenton had just found a cheap flight to Reykjavik and decided that he didn’t want to spend his trip in a boring old hotel. Instead, he asked 1500 random strangers if he could crash at their place, and he got a torrential response, many offering to show him “their Iceland”. It was at this point that he knew he was on to something.
By 2003, Couchsurfing.org was launched in beta and it ventured to change the way people travel. Members join, and offer strangers a couch (or air mattress, or queen-size bed, or floor) to sleep on for free. Hosting, though, is not entirely a charitable act without returns. Many hosts (myself included) rave about how much they enjoy having guests. It’s a lot like travelling, but without having to do any of the work – the world comes to you, and it works around your daily schedule.
A surfer’s experience can vary wildly by host, but many end up as honorary locals for the duration of their visit. Hosts are usually eager to show their guests around, and introduce them to the city as they experience it – the good and the bad. It’s a sociologist’s dream, and it’s not bad for planners either. It’s instant immersion into the city’s successes and problems. It completely eliminates any false preconceptions one has about a city. I was under the impression that downtown Los Angeles was an empty, unsafe moonscape at night, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. After couchsurfing there with a planning student for four days, my eyes were opened to the urban core’s quickly growing 24-hour culture.
I also use Couchsurfing as a way of diving deep into places that I normally only read about. My first Couchsurfing trip was to Washington DC, but I spent very little time in the District itself. Instead I surfed in a number of the region’s remarkable suburbs. I spent two nights in Ballston, a fantastic example of a sprawly chain-store strip made walkable. My host, a young urban professional, took me on a walking tour and explained to me the perils of the DC real estate market. I also surfed in Vienna, adjacent to the infamous Tysons Corner, which has become a symbol of American sprawl. There, I surfed with an incredibly friendly family of four. The mother, a catholic school teacher, explained how the quality of a city’s public school system can have a huge effect on development and desirability. Up until that point, I’ve always taken public schooling for granted, but her description of DC’s dysfunctional school board made me appreciate the Canadian social safety net so much more.
Anyone that is hesitant to try this out on their next trip should go to a meeting of their local CS group. Most of the people that join Couchsurfing are worldly, open-minded, interesting individuals without any trace of creepishness. The site has a sophisticated system of references to ensure that surfers can know their host is trustworthy. If you’re interested in making connections with planners from around the world, I highly suggest checking out the Urban Planning group, which is often the first I place I look for a host.