What Burning Man Taught Me About Cities

burning man

Last week 68,000 people traveled to a desert in Nevada to build a city. Within a few weeks, there will be no remains of the city: Every structure, tent, bicycle, glow stick, and piece of trash will be gone.

As a first time visitor, I initially found Burning Man to be like the SimCity of social experimentation. Everyone is a player, there are few rules, and there is always the chance that a storm will arrive to destroy what you’ve built. Yet, after a week there, I discovered that it’s a “real” city, not only a simulation of what urban life could be like.

Burning Man started as an anti-government, anti-capitalist community, a Temporary Autonomous Zone, a “festal uprising of rebels who temporarily liberate an area from state control and market logic” (Kozinets). Nevertheless, over the past 20 years, Burning Man has become a real city — Black Rock City, Nevada — with a real governing organization and real city problems and opportunities. The only reason I hesitate to classify Black Rock City as a “City” is because of its impermanence. Nonetheless, the sense of place and community at Burning Man is undeniable. I’d argue that it has more authenticity than many parts of Reno or Las Vegas.

Some academics and journalists have written of Black Rock City’s affinity with New Urbanism — picture Mad Max set in Seaside, Florida. Others have compared to a number of other places and ideologies:

Some have criticized Black Rock City as a junction for stark contradictions: a for-profit government over artistic rebels, the highly educated and wealth “playing” in a gift economy, technologists pretending to be luddites, etc ☨. However, I think it’s a error to overly associate the city with one philosophy or phenomenon, as it was born from merry pranksters, avant-garde artists, and anarchists. Moreover, burners are too self-critical to be unaware of the contradictions and to0 capricious to allow for status quo. Realizing the festival had become a paradoxical city, the BRC organization asked for feedback in the months before the 2010 event. The theme that year was “Metropolis” and had the expressed goal of “inspect[ing] the daily course of city life and the future prospect of what we call civilization.”

Black Rock City taught me several things about all cities that I want to share. But it also taught me much about people and community and hence it would be a mistake for me to over-intellectualize the Black Rock City and the experiences that occur within it. Much of the magic of the city occurs during social interactions that are ethereal and extrinsic to the city’s architecture. The culture has shaped the design of the city, not the other way around. The greatness of Black Rock City’s design is in its service to Burning Man’s community and guiding principles.

The Importance of Landmarks

The Man is the Eiffel tower of Black Rock City and it’s one of the few static and reliable landmarks ☨. The Man has different meanings for each member of the community, but this one central landmark provides the city with a common reference point.

There are other landmarks in the city, but they are gradually burned down as the week progresses, leaving only this one structure as the city’s compass. Alas, The Man must burn too! The Burning Man, not unlike Big Ben, is both a location and a marker of time; it’s the culmination of the week’s events ☨. It’s astonishing and saddening to observe the city once this landmark is reduced to ashes. As Selçuk Balamir tells of the aftermath:

“Black Rock City find themselves disoriented without their landmark — without the Man, the city ceases to function properly. Part ritual, part design, the Man literally connects the community to their city.”

In contemporary cities, most people use GPS, mobile devices, and the Internet to get around. The Man shows the importance of common landmarks that help citizens build a mental model of a city and navigate when technology fails.

Map of Black Rock City.

Mythology and the Structure of Cities

The Man represents an infinity of things to the inhabitants of Black Rock City. The Man is the central waypoint of the city, just as the Acropolis and the Pyramid of the Sun where the highest, middle points of Athens and Teotihuacan. As with many symbols of spirituality, there is debate about what the creators of The Man intended it to symbolize. Larry Harvey, a Burning Man founder, for one, was interested in restoring the sacred in everyday life but doesn’t want to give pilgrims to Burning Man a “pill” of exact meaning.

Beneath this obvious landmark exist many other symbols throughout the concentric semicircles of streets and camps. These circles and resulting intersections were intentionally designed for social interaction, not for transportation or commerce. It’s impossible to go from point A to point B without having several serendipitous moments with strangers. Perhaps it’s a cold drink, a smile, a hug, or someone offering you a tongue-in-cheek compliment from a bullhorn. As Yves Béhar, a design professor and founder of Fuseproject remarked:

“A circular temporary city plan built around the spectacle of art, music and dance: I wish all cities had such a spirit of utopia by being built around human interaction, community and participation.”

The city plan that has been in use since 1997 was created by Rod Garrett. Garrett was tasked with redesigning the city to comply with local regulation and a growing population.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that Garrett’s career in the “default world” was as landscape designer. His original design of Black Rock City is similar to the Garden Cities planned by Ebenezer Howard in the early 20th century.

Rachel Bowditch also points out the similarities of Garrett’s design with other utopian city plans, especially Thomas More’s Abraxa Island, which is “practically interchangeable with the 2001 blueprint of Black Rock City.” The central square or Esplanade of Burning Man is what Garrett, who passed away in 2012, called the “largest plaza in the world.”

Civic Ownership

One of the core principles of Burning Man is participation. On the surface, participation means that visitors should not be voyeuristic but rather should rather interact and try new things. “It’s not something you watch, it’s something you do” (The Burning Sensation, 2009). As a deeper level, the principle means that aside from a limited government that handles basic infrastructure and emergency services, citizens co- creators and maintainers of the city — civic engagement, in other words. As Harvey has said, “the citizens participate in creating the city. In fact, half of our ‘control’ is based on watching their behavior and meeting their needs. And that’s the whole history of the development of the city.”

American front porch culture is alive at Burning Man and flourishes in the layout of its dusty streets. Many folks set up folding chairs in front of their camp and wave at passersby. The frequent neighborly, sincere behavior reminded me of small lake towns in the midwest, where people vacation in the summer. Again, the architectural goals are interaction and community. This doesn’t eliminate conflict or social tension. On the contrary, some camps are really loud or purposefully obnoxious. One of my neighbors believed in creative destruction. That is, he treated people in a very prickish way, believing that his negativity would bring out people’s positivity. I disagreed, but also understood that Burning Man’s principle of radical inclusion meant that he had a right to be there and be a prick.

I left Burning Man with a sense of civic responsibility in the “default world,” i.e. my life outside of burning man. However, I have few prescriptions of how to replicate this civic involvement in real cities in the U.S. where civic life is highly dysfunctional. I do know that giving people a way to participate, even if in imaginative or impractical ways, is a good first step.

The Importance of Getting Lost

You would expect a remote place in the desert to be strictly governed by night and day. This is true in many ways. Sunrise is breathtaking and campers howl at the sun when it goes below the surrounding mountains. They howl, however, because for the majority of the city’s inhabitants the day is just getting started.

The city burns bright at night. Flames and LEDs, music and sound overtake the populous areas of the city. The disorienting result is a cacophony of stimuli that surrounds the observer kaleidoscopically.

A person who follows any waypoint besides the Man will likely get lost somewhere in the city or in the northeast end of the desert, the “deep” playa. The “deep” playa is an approximately 2 mile area that is empty except for a sparse collection of art projects. From this vantage point, it’s hard to spot the Man. To get home, the traveller must walk back towards the thumping cluster of lights. This sense of being lost was important to me personally, being lost outside the city allows you to have a greater persepctive of what the community has built. The scale of the city at night is astonishing.

People tend to wander around the confines of the city, as well. Several writers have considered Walter Benjamin’s concept of the flâneur in Black Rock City. The flâneur, saunters and lounges around the city aimlessly. The flâneurs has few exact goals or destinations, rather they let the city guide them and follow anything of interest. The architecture of Black Rock City encourages this behavior, as Bowditch writes:

“The overall design of Black Rock City organizes bodies socially and spatially, creating a complex choreography of bodies in space and encouraging the random flow of movement.”

Pedestrians and Bike

The ability to meander — and eventually get lost — is possible because the city is designed for pedestrians, cyclist, and other creative forms of non-automotive transportation ☨. Black Rock City is not carless, but the clear priority is for pedestrians and cyclists. There is a strict 5 MPH speed limit for cars, which the BRC DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles) regulates as slow roving objects for art and music.

Don’t tell Portland, but Black Rock City is “the most bike-friendly city in America,” according Tony “Coyote” Perez, the DPW Site Manager. Bikes are indeed the primary form of transportation in the city. There’s such a demand for expressive bicycles that several companies have been created to custom build, sell, or rent vehicles. Personally, I found that Burning Man greatly expands your imagination of what human-powered transportation could be.

I wouldn’t say the streets are safe, especially at night and during unforeseen dust storms that reduce visibility to a few feet. Still, there is an ordered chaos at crossroads and there are far fewer incidents then you might expect. In these “squareabouts,” people are going in all directions, at different speeds, and in varying mental states. But eye contact, personal lighting, gesturing, and verbal communication reduce most collisions. As Tom Vanderbilt reported in his book Traffic, people tend to go more slowly and give other travelers better cues at intersections they perceive to be dangerous. It’s counterintuitive, but I observed this to be true in Black Rock City. Moreover, streets in the city are not just roads, they are an integral part of the city, intersections where people tend to lookout for one another.

The Problem of Suburbanization

By design, Black Rock City is a sprawling place. Suburbanization is necessary to allow the city to accommodate 50,000-100,000 citizens, but the downside is that it alienates inhabitants on the edge of the city. While some people prefer the quiet at the edge of the city and in the walk-in camping area, other visitors who are not part of an established “tribe” or camp, must find a camping spot on the edge of the city, which is relatively far from the city’s plaza, art, and revelry.

These are still neighborhoods. But when you walk around the fringes of the city, it lacks energy and participation. A more critical problem is that it takes time for these citizens to get integrated into city life and participate. The problem is confounded by the short timeline of the event.

I had the opportunity to listen to a crew leader for the Black Rock City Department of Public Works (DPW) talk about the challenges of scaling the population of Burning Man each year. He stopped short of saying the city needs a new architecture, remarking on how well the current design has held up, but did say that the organization needs to think long and hard about how to keep the structure of Black Rock City aligned with the principles of inclusion, communal effort, and “leave-no-trace” environmentalism.

Change is Inevitable

A question before and during the 2014 event was if Burning Man had become too “douchey.” A concern that people often have for metropolitan neighborhoods elsewhere in the U.S. Burning Man is being gentried I could argue, but then I would have to admit that I was one of the gentrifiers. In at interview at Burning Man, Harley Dubois, a burning man founder, agreed that the city has changed, but said the city “change is inevitable” and that’s how it should be. The size and popularity of the city makes it hard to reach everyone, she said.

There may, in fact, be a little more “default world” in this Home Away from Home. The city has grown and changed rapidly over the past few years, increasing by about 30,000 people since 2010. The rise in population has improved diversity, but has also resulted in trends that are in stark contrast to radical inclusion. Of particular concern, due to a report in the New York Times, is the arrival filthy-rich visitors and reports of gated communities and servants within in the city. Radical inclusion means the rich are also invited, but they should not use their means to radically exclude themselves. Actually, that a pretty good rule for how we should think about 1 percent in the real world.

Burning Man population.

Yet, if any place in the world can manage to overcome these challenges, it strikes me that Black Rock City is that place. The spirit of the city was born from art and anarchy and helps to subdue too much regulation and governance. The limited government and urban planning mostly just keep the city safe. The growth and infrastructure has allowed for more creativity, more participation, and more visitors — who then bring back the spirit of Black Rock City to the “default” world. If nothing else, the sheer harshness of the environment will continue to make collective survival a uniting factor for most inhabitants. As Grover Norquist wrote about his first time experience in 2014, “The demand for self-reliance at Burning Man toughens everyone up. There are few fools, and no malingerers.”

I look forward to going back next year and will do my best to make it an even better city.

Steve Pepple writes about information, mobility and transportation. You can follow him on Twitter here

Featured image via Peretz Partensky

  • Lauri Hart

    Harley Dubois, not Harvey.

    • http://www.thisbigcity.net/ Joe Peach

      Thanks Lauri! Corrected.