This week I found a reference somewhere (I don’t remember where) to Kowloon Walled City, Hong Kong. I did a little investigating, and it’s a fascinating world-building reference for writers of speculative fiction.
It was razed in 1993, but it was basically a high-rise slum, controlled and modified by its inhabitants and subject to its own laws. People added onto the buildings with no attention to building regulations, they dug wells and built plumbing systems that snaked through the alleyways and were subject to no codes. The homes and businesses had no addresses, yet a postal delivery system was developed and postmen left marks by the doors to help them navigate the warren of shops and residences so the mail could be delivered. There were gangs, stores, schools, and medical facilities, all subject to no control from outside political entities. In fact, medical and dental care were supposedly quite good after the Communist takeover of China. Doctors fleeing to Hong Kong without papers ended up in Kowloon, where no one checked your immigration status.
In sum, Kowloon was both an architectural and social entity that built itself, free of outside control. The solutions the people came up with for day-to-day problems and needs are fascinating and a great jump-start for anyone looking for world-building ideas.
Here are some references to get you going:
Kowloon Walled City (article and photos)
City of Darkness (book)