Every year, for the past 26 years, something truly remarkable happens: an entire city appears out of the desert. I’m speaking, of course, of Black Rock City, in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, erected for the quasi-ritualistic celebration of art, radical inclusion, and free-to-be-you-and-me-ness known as Burning Man.
Burners will come home raving about barter system and the impromptu wedding they attended in not much more than goggles, but the festival’s most impressive feat may be this infrastructural coup. In a moment when the powers at be can’t even fund the country’s shambling roads and bridges, the 2,000 organizers and volunteers who run Burning Man put together—and then take apart—a 70,000-person city in the space of two months. (That figure does not include emergency workers, government personnel, vendors, or contractors.)
So cities can learn a thing or two from this festival (and not just how to ride a bike through hangover and a dust storm). But the as the festival expands each year, it appears to need a few lessons of its own. How much does a city’s character grow out of its shape, even a temporary one? And when you’re free of certain constraints—like permanent residents and buildings—what kinds of communities can you build?
A city like Black Rock, which exists as a flash in a playa, might be a good place to find out.
The Arc of Bureaucracy
During the first Burning Man festivals, on a beach in California, participants camped in a circle. “We were attempting to recreate some of the intimacy of our original camping circle, but on a much larger civic scale,” urban planner and early Burner Rod Garrett later wrote of the first Black Rock City. Still, the design was not especially intentional. “We were engineering society but we weren’t basing it on some elaborate intellectual construct,” founder Larry Harvey told the design blog Dezeen.
But for a place founded on principles like radical self-reliance and de-commodification, with an anything-goes spiritual through-line, the process of building up and then taking down Black Rock City stays pretty static year over year. This is, in part, because of the rules handed down by the ur-bureaucracy, the federal government of the US of A. The Bureau of Land Management has had a firm hand in guiding Burning Man since the mid-1990s, when the festival first officially alighted upon the playa.
This partially explains why the basic layout of Black Rock City hasn’t changed significantly since 1997, when Garrett designed a half-moon grid with the pseudonymous Burning Man (a giant effigy made of wood) as the central focal and orientation point. The BLM requires organizers develop plans to deal with sanitation, emergency services, security, camping, traffic, parking, water and food supplies, communication, lasers, and fire. (At least two fire engines must be on site.) They have to come up with contingency plans the event of bad weather or “social unrest.” Burning Man must also coordinate with the Nevada Department of Transportation to get everyone in and out of the site. (Black Rock City traffic is legend. Redesigning the massive camp means doing all that work again.
It also explains why Black Rock City has built up its own bureaucracy-with-pizzazz. A Department of Public Works paints, welds, re-jiggers, and outlines the clock-themed street grid, which has named streets identified by “time” and letter. (“Meet me by the gigantic Boeing 747, at 2:30 and G.”) The BLM officially deputizes an in-house DMV—Department of Mutant Vehicles, natch—to hand out “playa only” documentation. (“Art cars with flame effects shall not carry additional gasoline or diesel fuel tanks when in operation,” reads one policy.) Black Rock Rangers provide an informal police force, acting as “non-confrontational community mediators.” There’s a Black Rock City “hospital” where physicians treated 2,300 people in 2011. There’s even a Kidsville. (Just over 1 percent of 2016 participants were under 19 years old.)
It’s proof that cities don’t need professional builders to spring out of nothing-ness. The playa has open pockets of meeting spaces, areas where Burning Man participants can find the friends they’re looking for and the ones they didn’t know they had yet. Vehicles are, for the most part, banished to parking spots within the camps, with foot and dirt-gummed bicycle being the preferred mode of transport. “There are a lot of good ideas from people who are not in the profession,” says Kerry Rohrmeier, a geographer who studies intentional communities like Burning Man at San Jose State University. “There are so many creative things that people have been able to accomplish on the nano-, site-specific scale.”
But there might be a cost to that hyper-efficient layout sameness, and the persistence of the clock grid. “It works, it’s replicable, but there’s not been a lot of evolution or experimentation,” says Rohrmeier. “You can come here, you can practice ideals and identities that you choose, but within these confines.”
Rohrmeier argues that Burning Man might look different, physically, if many more sorts of people made their way to the playa. Seventy-nine percent of last year’s participants were white, and their median household exceeded $94,000 a year, more than double the county’s median. Fifty-seven percent of 2016 Burners were male. “It’s rare today to see in Black Rock City something that’s really pushing your design expectations,” says Rohrmeier. “You see a lot of replication of low density strip development.” The city even has its own “suburbs,” where more spread out, self-contained communities can isolate themselves from the rest of the event-goers.
In 2015, a group of longtime Burners with a penchant for cities launched the Black Rock City Ministry of Urban Planning. It was not, in fact, another piece of centralized quasi-government, but an unofficial design competition, to conceptualize the shape of Black Rock City. One hundred architects, planners, mathematicians, and dilettantes from 30 countries submitted alternate designs, eventually published as the group’s Big Book of Ideas. Burning Man organizers were happy to see the competition happen, but have yet to implement any of the designs.
There are the regulatory constraints, of course, but a bit of out-of-the-box thinking would be nice, says Brian McConnell, who organized the competition. “If you go once it’s kind of overwhelming and interesting, but then it becomes a familiar place,” he says. “What if each year you went it would be a very different plan? A completely new city?” And what lessons about creating novel spaces could all those Burners take home to their everyday cities?