The plaza was too big. That was Victoria Mitchell’s thought two years ago as she surveyed a neighborhood in the city where she works as a planning manager and associate director of operations.
A few years earlier, the city had created the plaza in an effort to breathe new life into an underdeveloped part of town. But residents weren’t making use of it in the way the planners had hoped. “I went to the plaza and sat as a fly on the wall,” Mitchell recalls. “I watched how fast people were moving through the space.” The plaza was lined with lots of fun places to grab a drink or a bite to eat, or meet up to socialize with friends, but “everyone just kept zooming by.”
Oh well, she figured. Next year they’d redraw the city with smaller plazas.
Welcome to Black Rock City, better known as the home of Burning Man, the experimental community that arises anew every year in the high desert plains a hundred miles north of Reno, Nev. For most of the year, the sun-bleached alkali flats of the Black Rock Desert lie desolate and empty. But when the 70,000 Burning Man participants arrive every August, Black Rock City becomes — for one week, anyway — one of the largest cities in the state. It’s also one of the most dynamic urban design experiments in the country, and in the world.
Burning Man will mark its 33rd annual gathering later this month, but many people may only have a hazy sense of what it is. A kaleidoscopic neo-hippie celebration of art and self-expression? A counterculture experiment in anti-capitalism and radical inclusion? A Mad Max-style free-for-all filled with fire-breathing jalopies and dust-covered ravers dancing to techno beats until dawn?
The truth is, Burning Man incorporates aspects of each of those. But it all happens against the backdrop of a painstakingly laid-out city, a planned community that aspires to the highest ideals of urban design. There’s a bike- and pedestrian-friendly street grid, with broad avenues and smaller streets punctuated by public gathering spaces. There’s a city core, a grand esplanade, distinct neighborhoods and even quieter suburbs. There are restaurants, bars, music venues and educational facilities. (One of the 10 organizing principles of Burning Man is decommodification, so there’s no actual commerce or exchange of money. Instead, hundreds of theme camps offer up particular goods and services free to everyone, whether it’s a French toast brunch, yoga classes, a line-dancing saloon, a workshop on the basics of soldering and circuit building, or any number of other endeavors.) There’s a post office, an airport, medical clinics and law enforcement facilities. There are street lamps, public toilets — 1,700 of them — and a Department of Public Works.
“Most people think of it as some kind of naked bacchanal, and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Columbia, S.C., Mayor Steve Benjamin, who recently completed his term as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Benjamin accompanied half a dozen other local leaders to visit Burning Man last year, and says he was “inspired” by the scale of the infrastructure and the degree of planning involved. “They build a legitimate city. In a very short period of time. It’s well planned, well thought out, organized incredibly well. It’s amazing.”
Local leaders and planners from across the globe have begun to pay attention. What they’re finding is that there are numerous lessons to be learned from a city that remakes itself from the ground up every year. Black Rock City is a city built of dust, an ephemeral urban landscape that’s forever being dismantled and redesigned, tinkered with and perfected. “There are a lot of planners who go to Burning Man, because we all went into this field with utopian ideas about being able to create an amazing community,” says Joanna Winter, a long-range planner with the city of Oakland, Calif., who attended her first burn in 2007. “And here we get to do it every year.”
That’s what Mitchell had in mind two years ago as she watched Burning Man attendees — “burners” — bike through the plazas without stopping in at any of the camps along the way. “We’re always thinking, what could happen in the space if we change it a little bit this way or a little bit that way? And for us that’s relatively easy to do. We can say, this year we’re going to widen this by 10 feet here, and shrink that over there,” says Mitchell, who joined the Burning Man staff full time in early 2017. “Of course that’s not always the case in a real city, because you have to put budget and resources into making a change.” Still, she says, there are plenty of ways real-world urban areas could, and should, emulate Black Rock City. “We experiment, but they can experiment too.”
The preferred modes of transportation are biking and walking — or approved “mutant vehicles.”
In 1986, a San Francisco man named Larry Harvey and a few of his friends tromped down to Baker Beach where they constructed and set fire to an 8-foot wooden male figure. It was fun; they decided to do it again the next year, and the year after that. They relocated to the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada in 1990. As the years progressed, the burning Man got taller, and the crowds grew larger and larger. By 1996, 8,000 people showed up, and the haphazard campsites and unrestricted driving on the desert sands had become a safety hazard. It was chaotic and needed structure, Harvey told an architecture magazine in 2015. (He died last year at age 70.) “People craved orientation,” he said. “It was a very basic primal need.” The organizers decided to ban automobiles, except for approved art cars and “mutant vehicles.” They also knew they needed to create a more organized layout, in part to satisfy the safety and emergency response demands of Washoe County and the federal Bureau of Land Management, which provided permits for the event. Burning Man evolved from a campout in the desert to an experiment in temporary urbanism. “We needed urban design,” Harvey said, “because it’s a city.”
Harvey and the other organizers turned to an architect named Rod Garrett to draw up a map. “I’d had quite a lot of experience with planning and building departments and with dealing with cities and counties, at least more than they had,” Garrett told The New York Times in 2010. (He died the following year.) “They were in trouble, and I helped.” He made a list of nearly 200 planning goals and set out to create a city design that accomplished as many of those as possible. He envisioned a circle, with the Man in the center surrounded by a wide swath of open-space “playa” reserved for art installations. Beyond that, the inhabited section of the city would form a C-shaped arc, with spoke-like avenues intersected by concentric radial roads. Garrett’s elegant design for Black Rock City provided orientation and a sense of place, while also encouraging participation and interaction among the residents.
Before long, however, Black Rock City encountered a problem familiar to almost every urban area: high demand for a limited slice of premium property. Like high-rises fronting Central Park or oceanfront property in South Beach, the Esplanade — the innermost street facing the playa — had become the most desirable and in-demand place to be. All the large theme camps jostled for placement there. “We had to find a way to start pulling people away from the core, out into the neighborhoods,” says Terry Schoop, the director of Burning Man’s Community Services Department. In 2005, the city began placing large camps, plazas and art installations in less trafficked areas to entice residents to explore less familiar parts of town.
“They’re actively trying some really innovative things to bring people to other parts of the city, to think about how ‘anchor institutions’ can attract people and activate those areas. That’s definitely a model for other traditional cities,” says Marlon Williams, a longtime burner and the assistant director for public-sector innovation at the nonprofit Living Cities. (Living Cities has partnered with Governing on several projects including the City Accelerator and the annual Equipt to Innovate city management survey.)
“We’re constantly thinking about what we can place in the outer rings to bring people out to those areas,” says Mitchell, who oversees the placement team that determines the location of every single camp — a record 1,900 camp requests this year — in the city. “What ‘moments’ can we create, smaller moments that will be just as impactful as the big, loud, fun, bombastic ones?”
Part of that effort speaks to the role that art plays at Burning Man. Every year, there are between 300 and 400 approved art installations on the playa, some the size of a park bench and others soaring several stories into the air. There are hundreds of officially approved art cars and smaller mutant vehicles, which may take the form of a sailboat, say, or a unicorn that shoots flames.
Art and performances are an essential part of Burning Man.
Arts-led revitalization efforts are nothing new in cities, of course. But Burning Man is encouraging them to go further. Since 2001, the nonprofit Black Rock Arts Foundation and, later, the Burning Man Project, have worked to support artists and extend the art and culture of Burning Man to other places. The nonprofits have partnered with numerous cities in the U.S., especially with Reno and San Francisco, and around the world to create more spaces for public art, including pieces that were originally created for the playa. In San Francisco, the foundation has worked with the city to develop a series of “art pads,” permanent spots for art pieces that rotate out every year or so.
Art is one way that cities can enliven the urban environment, but there are plenty of additional ways to energize a neighborhood. “Cities should be thinking about activation of space,” says Mitchell, in ways that encourage people to engage in the world around them. “You see this with an annual street festival or something, but take it to another level and do that once a month,” she says. Even small efforts can have an impact. “Think about when an animal shelter puts puppies on the sidewalk to adopt. All of a sudden there are all these people, and they’re petting the puppies and talking to their neighbors and they’re all so excited. They have a new appreciation for their neighborhood, and they’re going to be a little more civically engaged than they were the day before.”
In other words, Mitchell says, more cities should embrace the concept of “tactical urbanism,” those low-cost, low-overhead, temporary changes that encourage residents to interact with their urban environment in new ways. These projects can take any number of forms: a pop-up park in a vacant lot in downtown Miami, or a temporary protected bike lane in Burlington, Vt. In Philadelphia, the seasonal Philly Free Streets program shuts down blocks of the city to cars on certain days, creating new and engaging pedestrian throughways.
Perhaps the most widespread example of tactical urbanism in recent years is parklets: carving out mini urban oases within one or two curbside parking spaces. In the past decade, these pocket parks have become common sights in cities across the globe, including more than a dozen U.S. cities from New York to San Diego, from Dallas to Minneapolis to Ames, Iowa. Parklets aren’t just a good example of the Burning Man ethos; they can trace their lineage back to Black Rock City. In 2005, inspired by the Bay Area art projects that had begun to make their way back from the Nevada desert, a group of urban design friends in San Francisco staged a one-day guerrilla installation of a tiny park — fake turf, a potted tree, a bench — in a parking space in the city’s Mission District. The idea of an annual Park(ing) Day soon spread to other cities. In 2008, when San Francisco wanted to create a more permanent form of parklet, the city approached the same group of urban designers to prototype it. That effort grew into the city’s Pavement to Parks program, rechristened in 2017 as Groundplay, through which San Francisco has launched some 75 different temporary installations. Many of them have been supported by grants from the Black Rock Arts Foundation and the Burning Man Project.
The underlying point of tactical urbanism is finding “even a teeny, tiny bit of room to make something a little more creative, a little more memorable, a little more artful,” Mitchell says. “Cities that are pioneering that idea have a close connection to Burning Man, whether they know it or not.”
Burning Man is guided by 10 principles that were crafted by Larry Harvey in 2004. No single one of them is more important than the others, but there is perhaps one idea that seems to reverberate through all the other nine, a throughline that defines the essence of what it means to be a citizen of Black Rock City: participation. No one at Burning Man is a spectator. Everyone is a creator. Everyone is expected to engage.
That expectation of participation is woven into the fabric of the city. The organizers may plan out the infrastructure and the backbone of the community, but everything else — every note of music, every art car, every morsel of food, every party — is created by the people who show up. Even the meticulous planning of the city is done almost exclusively by volunteers, and in constant consultation with surveys and feedback from the 70,000 residents.
This is civic engagement taken to its purest and most extreme form. This is also not how cities historically undertake planning efforts. For the most part, people tend to expect their government to do the planning, and the government expects to do that work. “We might occasionally go out and get input,” says Winter, the planner in Oakland, “but for the most part, we merely inform people about what’s going on. But if we could have the public feeling more inspired and empowered — if they could actually imagine an outcome where what they are doing is visible and tangible and creates the kind of community that they want to see — well, that’s sort of the opposite of how we traditionally have done planning.”
In that sense, the single greatest lesson Burning Man can impart to other cities may not be anything physical. It’s the collaborative process of planning and design. “The reason citizens care more in a place like Black Rock City than they might in their own communities is because they have some skin in the game,” says Mitchell. “They have a way to participate. They are asked for their feedback. They get to see what’s happening and then make the city real. We empower them to make the city what it is.”
Of course there are a thousand ways in which Black Rock City isn’t like a “real” city. It doesn’t have schools. There’s no homelessness. It doesn’t levy taxes or pave roads or provide affordable housing. All of its 70,000 residents not only choose to be there, they have paid to be there and have worked extremely hard to make that happen. On top of that, there are some serious critiques of Burning Man, namely that, for a community that prizes radical inclusion, it smacks of elitism. Its population is far whiter, richer and more educated than most of the rest of the country. According to the event’s 2017 census, 77 percent of participants are white; the median household income is more than $94,000; and 74 percent have a college degree. Those are legitimate concerns that the organization is making a great effort to address.
Burning Man also faces a somewhat uncertain future. With demand rising, the city had asked the Bureau of Land Management to increase its population cap to 100,000; earlier this year, BLM denied the request and issued a 372-page environmental impact statement detailing several onerous new steps Burning Man might be required to take in years to come if it hopes to continue receiving a permit. Burning Man said that some of the proposed requirements, such as erecting a concrete barrier around the entire periphery of Black Rock City or allowing federal agents to screen people as they arrive at the entry gates, “would forever negatively change the fabric of the Burning Man event, if not outright kill it.”
For now, though, Black Rock City expects to go on as it has for the past several years. Local leaders from across the world will continue to draw inspiration and insight from it. “For me, Black Rock City really underscores the idea that the greatest contribution any mayor can make to building great cities is to focus on the public realm,” says Mayor Benjamin of Columbia. “Twenty years from now, people won’t remember if I had a budget surplus, or if I increased funding for this department or that one. They won’t remember unemployment rates. But the fundamental changes you make to the public realm — the ones that change the way in which citizens interact — will forever influence the health and viability of your city.”