Building a City at Burning Man

Greg Scruggs reports from Burning Man, which makes Black Rock City Nevada’s fourth-largest urban area for a week each year. This year’s theme: “Metropolis.”

Greg Scruggs

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DAY SEVEN: Reflection – The Metropolis Provides

We stopped at the Kiwanis in Reno on our way up to Burning Man in order to stuff 30 bikes into the back of an RV for the benefit of our camp. The local branch of the international service organization runs a Big Brothers, Big Sisters program where they teach the younger set how to fix up bikes. Matthew, an energetic 12-year-old, worked with lightning speed to repair a brake, raise a seat, or find tubes for the armada of bicycles we picked out of the hundreds on display in the parking lot. The bikes are for sale to anyone, but Kiwanis has cornered the market for Burner bikes – cheap, sturdy, and decorated – selling them for $30-50 then smartly requesting you re-donate the bikes after Burning Man, since most people have no further need for a dusty mountain bike with a furry seat and rainbow streamers.

It was sadly ironic, then, to duck inside their building and run across an article in the Reno News & Review on why Nevada ranks 50th in the nation for volunteering. The factors cited all add up – namely, the major population center, Las Vegas, drags down their numbers because of high rates of transience and foreclosures. But the statistic was put in sharp relief by our destination two hours north. At Burning Man, volunteerism is de rigueur, and if it were stacked up against its American peers, Black Rock City would probably rank first in a nationwide survey. While Burning Man is a self-selecting crowd – the type of people who want to participate in the building of a city, the “tourists” who show up for the weekend burn notwithstanding – the sheer amount of accomplishment that some civic engagement can produce is beyond impressive.

I heard someone joke about how the organization should have moved Burning Man to April in 2010 so that it would overlap with the U.S. Census. It’s a hilarious thought, exactly the kind of cog in the machine of official bureaucracy that fits with Burning Man’s spiritual roots, The Cacophony Society. While I don’t think the organization would rock the boat at that scale in this day and age, it would certainly have been good for community relations – the goose that laid golden egg for sparse Washoe and Pershing Counties in Nevada (the former is admittedly sizeable because it contains Reno, but the latter has a mere 7,000 residents).

There is a fake U.S. census at Burning Man that spoofed on the questions in this year’s survey, but more importantly there is also a real Black Rock City census. While I can’t find official numbers of respondents, my anecdotal observation is that the census was being dutifully filled out every time I passed through Center Camp, where forms and drop boxes are available. The most recently available results online are for 2008 and they provide a fairly comprehensive portrait of your typical Burner: mostly white (73%), largely urban (55%), slightly male (55%), leaning Democratic (43%), voters (73% always or often), renters (59%), and very artistic (79% always or sometimes). One source claims it would be the most educated city alongside Ann Arbor and the 16th richest city alongside San Jose.

These are demographics more akin to San Francisco, the legal and spiritual home of Burning Man (it began on a San Francisco beach in 1986 and the Burning Man LLC is headquartered there), than the still-struggling cities that could benefit from the Burning Man ethos. Diversity is an issue at Burning Man, as this searing feminist critique rightly points out. However, I still think there are some universal values and lessons that Burning Man, despite its demographic leanings, can share with its fellow American metropolises. Simply put, I agree with founder Larry Harvey’s claim at this year’s press conference that the event has “enormous relevance for the world beyond our trash fence” (Harvey is pictured at right.) Black Rock Solar, Burners Without Borders, and Black Rock Arts Foundation are all official vehicles that exude that relevance, while the chance to rub shoulders with innovative, low-tech solutions to energy issues, breathtaking public art, and the infectious DIY ethic of the Burning Man do-ocracy prove that on a more informal scale. Together they provide a multiplicity of answers to the question of what a temporary city in the desert can teach permanent cities everywhere else.

It is truly a feat to create a “cosmopolitan city in the middle of a howling wilderness,” as the ever-quotable Harvey also claimed, and Burning Man should categorically not be dismissed as just a big party. Harley DuBois, the city manager (she coordinates safety and essential services), explains, “It has taken 25 years of work to be able to compare ourselves to major cities around the world.” That work includes the intricate iterations of city plans through the unique ability to erase and start over every year. Burning everything to the ground only to rebuild is not a Sisyphean task but an invigorating opportunity to start anew. It recalls Nietzsche’s aphorism, “For a temple to be created, a temple must be destroyed,” made all the more poignant by the Temple burn on the last night of the event.

The Man burned almost a week ago, and already next year’s theme “Rites of Passages” has everyone churning ideas for 2011. Burning Man’s temporary nature is essential to its ability to serve as “a testbed for cities” according to city designer Rod Garrett (pictured at left). In a personal interview, he elaborated that Burning Man shows the need for a “maximum zoning code” that is permissible rather than restrictive, given all of the “limitations in the name of public safety” that cities currently impose. “We’re all being crushed by the sterility of bureaucratic government,” he opines. Black Rock City, in turn, is “a model for developing new cities” as much as a place that can provide lessons to existing ones. He told me of one London city planner who comes to Burning Man to study traffic patterns that inform her work planning new communities in Asia and especially the Middle East, where flat desert is the norm. Design students should thus take heed. The fanciful renderings that grace the walls of most design schools need not be academic exercises – in Black Rock City, you can build it and see how a building, schematic, public space, or design feature functions in a living, breathing urban environment. It’s no wonder that Burning Man increasingly shows up on the resumes of applicants to architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning programs.

Retreating to the individual scale, the kinds of interactions one has at Burning Man once you put aside the costumes, nudity, intoxication, or any other libertine aspects of the event, are remarkable for their friendliness, helpfulness, and frankness. Cities at both the official and interpersonal level could learn from a place where politics and prejudice don’t matter when it comes to building the necessary to tools to survive – comfortably, and with style – in the desert. In short, cities could learn to simply lighten up a little bit and let personal interactions, rather than rules, govern daily life a little more.

To that end, the “metropolis” theme at this year’s Burning Man highlighted not so much the “radical self-reliance” of the event’s Ten Principles, but “communal effort,” “civic responsibility,” and “participation.” While it is important to distinguish Black Rock City – whose citizens are there by choice – from urban neighborhoods where residents may be stuck there by circumstance, the communitarian lessons of Burning Man are nevertheless applicable. Harvey also argues that Burning Man is an “experiment in a generational culture.” As a stroll through Black Rock City immediately reveals, that culture is one that values intense audiovisual stimulation, whimsical street life, and easygoing freedom – where walking around with a beer isn’t a big deal. But closer inspection also reveals that it values basic principles of community. When large groups of people are thrust together (you may choose to be there, but that doesn’t mean you choose who to camp with or near), an attitude inclined toward mutual cooperation and trust rather than suspicion can have tremendous results. This principle works at Burning Man, and it works in communities and neighborhoods across the United States where groups far more different from each other than the Burner crowd are gathered. It points to a positivist vision of urban life, where proximity breeds prosperity, both social and material. “The playa provides,” as a Burning Man shibboleth goes. The metropolis provides too – here and everywhere else – when you work for it.

DAY SIX: Art and Public Space

The inner playa – the ungridded portion surrounded by the city with the Man at its center – is a vast public plaza, bigger than Red Square or Tiananmen Square. “It’s the largest plaza and largest installation of public art in the world,” declares Rod Garrett, the city designer. “American cities could take a lesson in the use of public space,” he continues, given that in most major cities, those spaces become impersonal wastelands. They are intimidating to traverse, usually empty, and only populated for occasional large-scale events. Boston’s City Hall Plaza comes to mind. Yet the inner playa is none of those. There are bikes, art cars, and pedestrians crisscrossing it day and night. The Man serves as a meeting point for rallies and parades (this year I saw processions of cats, bunnies, and Friday’s signature event, “Critical Tits,” a topless bike ride). And the landscape is blanketed with some of the most stunning public art I’ve ever encountered. One of Burning Man’s most successful lessons for urban planning is by far its animation of large public space.

The Man himself is a logical place to begin. He is the omphalos of Burning Man, a sculpture, icon, and lighthouse wrapped into one. Each year the Man is different – variety is definitely the secret ingredient on the playa – drawing newcomers and veterans alike to see the base up close and appreciate the handiwork before it goes up in flames. This year, the Man’s base was studded with wooden gargoyles, a nod to Gothic architecture, and visitors could climb four stories up staircases. The cramped environment, with a sound art installation of piped-in snippets of conversation, reminded me of climbing the Statue of Liberty. It was a remarkable feat to create a claustrophobic sensation in the middle of such open space.

Due east of the Man, at what would be 12:00, lies the temple, this year dubbed the Temple of Flux. While a newer tradition than the Man, the Temple has become an essential feature of Burning Man, a structural refuge from the organized chaos of Black Rock City. Visitors post photos, write letters, inscribe poems, and leave messages for friends and family who have died, who could not make it to Burning Man, or who they simply wish to communicate with publicly yet anonymously. The pristine wood of the opening day is plastered over with these graffiti-esque scribbles by Sunday, the night of the Temple burn, which is conducted silently, a counterpart to the orgiastic explosions of the Man.

Rebecca Anders, Jessica Hobbs, and Peter Kimelman, the architects of this year’s Temple explained that they sought a counterpoint to the explicitly architectural nature of much of Black Rock City in a year themed “metropolis.” Instead, they took inspiration from natural landforms, namely the canyons, ravines, and dunes native to the American West that can be thought of as naturally occurring dwellings. The effect is kaleidoscopic, as each angle on the five structures reveals a different perspective and new surprises, like small nooks that fit only one or two people for more private reflection. Impressively, the entire surface is composed of recycled wood, although new beams were needed for the structural integrity of the interior.

In between, around, and beyond those two main structures, moreover, are a smorgasbord of art pieces. Large, small, interactive, detailed, electronic, static, mobile – they fit into all categories. Art, ultimately, is what Burning Man claims to be about. While many come for the party scene and the sound camps that essentially throw free outdoor raves, the Burning Man organization does not provide them any financial support. To the contrary, it doles out $500,000 every year to full or partially fund 30-40 art projects that are placed strategically around the playa. Art is where the annual theme is most clearly illustrated, as artists use it to provide some framework on the vast blank canvas that is the Black Rock Desert.

Of the urban-oriented art this year, my personal favorite was Michael Christian’s Home. The artist explained that the globe is comprised of 15 city maps that have been cut up and stitched back together. He picked them for their shape, not for any symbolic value, but older, more densely packed urban forms ended up on the bottom – Damascus, Fez – and newer, more gridded cities on top – Paris, Washington, Berlin. Up close and personal, feature are distinctly recognizable to those familiar with the cities’ layouts. Viewers can spin the globe, which at night is lit up from the exterior. Light refracts through the various gaps and creates a disco ball effect.

Other standouts include the Nowhere 2 Nowhere Monorail, Tinytropolis, and the Mant Farm. One night, I rode into the deep playa, ducked into a low entrance to a building, and stumbled into an art deco cinema with real theater seats playing the silent film Metropolis. I was told the place is called the Black Rock Bijou Theater, and it was a fitting encounter to stumble upon Fritz Lang’s classic at Burning Man. Closer into the city, I also check out the Minaret, a 50-foot tall, climbable structure. Interactivity is essential to the Burning Man art experience, and the Minaret provided plenty of it, from negotiating with fellow climbers for footholds to exploring the resonant frequencies of the steel tube that you climb for the second half to reach the top, to the intimacy of a group packed into the sphere at the crest. Artist Bryan Tedrick told me, “Cities are a masculine symbol,” thus the aggressively phallic sculpture. As for the title, he always felt that Center Camp functions as a kind of mosque in Black Rock City, so he joined it with a minaret.

As with solar power and construction, Burning Man has spawned an organization that reaches into the default world. The Black Rock Arts Foundation (BRAF) promotes Burning Man art off the playa. It has successfully placed pieces in Reno and San Francisco with more to come. Not only does BRAF provide artists a venue outside of the mere week they can display in Black Rock City, they also raise the bar for public art in urban areas. In particular, they emphasize the importance of transience. In keeping with the Burning Man spirit, they don’t install pieces that will rust over for 30 years. Instead, they are up for a fixed duration. It makes controversial art much easier to pitch – if you don’t like it, it’ll be gone in a month – and keeps the plaza, park, or other public space fresh. Adopting what is already standard practice inside museums and galleries and applying it to public art is clearly a workable model. And cities could certainly use the refresher. From New York to Boston to Portland to Perth, cities are home to plenty of tired public art. What’s the harm in giving residents a change in scenery?

DAY FIVE: Commerce and Community

In discussions of Burning Man, the “gift economy” inevitably comes up. Incredulous first-timers often ask, “Is everything really free?” Other than coffee at Center Camp, ice, and the ticket, well, yeah, it is. Of course you have to invest in the necessary gear to survive in the desert, afford a ride out there, and probably pitch in for supplies when camping with others, but once you are inside the confines of Black Rock City, just about anything you could want is there and no money changes hands. Need to spruce up your outfit? The Black Rock Boutique will provide you with free duds, which you then strut down the catwalk on your way out the door. Want to mail a postcard? A pre-stamped one is not hard to find, which one of the two Black Rock City Post Offices will gladly mail for you. Need a massage? The Heebee Geebee Healers have professional massage therapists on hand taking customers on a first come, first serve basis. Hungry for breakfast, lunch, or dinner? From waffles to crepes to oatmeal to soup to Indian food at my camp, The Sacred Cow Grille, you can chow down.

The notion of the gift is the communal counterpart to the event’s individualistic motto of “radical self-reliance.” It is the social glue that creates community at Burning Man. While everyone should be prepared with food, water, shelter, and protective clothing to survive in the harsh desert environment, Burning Man is a week of much more than just survival. The citizens of Black Rock City create the city and its content – especially the “storefronts” that animate the street life in any permanent city. Consequently, the gift encourages citizens to interact, negotiate, and seek out the company of others. Granted, it is hardly sustainable – it’s expensive to supply even one material thing for a week, much less any longer than that – but in the context of Black Rock City’s temporary nature, the gift becomes a welcome norm.

The flip side of the gift economy can often be hefty lines. An hour-long wait for a breakfast burrito at our neighbors, Kosmic Dust, began to resemble a Soviet-era food queue. While that comparison is not meant to disparage how commerce functions at Burning Man, it can prove a deterrent to taking a theme camp up on whatever it’s offering. Just as often, though, the gift is a reason for social interaction. Bars are plentiful in Black Rock City, but most places don’t just let you grab a beer without a little effort. Spin the wheel or roll the dice, and it’s suddenly a game of truth or dare if you want that gin and tonic as the bartenders ask you to do something outlandish or reveal a personal secret. The experience creates a lively atmosphere – as one friend commented, some of the friendliest bartenders he has ever encountered can be found in Black Rock City, and they don’t even get tips. One night, I biked out to Megatropolis, an art project on the deep playa that built hollow mock skyscrapers, four or five stories tall. Inside one I stumbled on a casino, at which a crowd was playing blackjack for rocks. With every winning hand they hooted louder than I’ve ever heard in Vegas or Atlantic City.

Oftentimes the gift economy manifests itself wonderfully and unexpectedly. Another night, a collection of large art cars had gathered by the Temple, the temporary structure beyond the Man that burns on Sunday, the last night. They connected their sound systems and threw a party that drew hundreds. A guy weaved through the crowd handing out free grilled cheese sandwiches, and on the edge an “elixir” stand was giving away free hot chai. All this and we were at least a half-mile from the nearest part of the city itself. On the first night our restaurant went public, the dinner crowd at The Sacred Cow erupted into a spontaneous standing ovation for our chef. You simply don’t get the same kind of appreciation in the default world for the transactions of daily life.

At the same time, random strangers will try to give you buttons, pins, stickers, and other trinkets that you probably don’t need. That kind of material gifting receives its fair share of criticism from longtime burners because it’s just as likely to end up as MOOP (matter out of place, aka litter). The more meaningful gift, they argue, would be to show up at a random camp and offer to help them build something. The same lesson certainly holds true outside of Burning Man, as every bumper sticker that reads “practice random acts of kindness” attests. Other immaterial gifts are also popular, from kissing booths to free advice (good, bad, and Jewish motherly were all riffs I saw on that theme). Strategically placed gifts also encourage interaction on the street, as people banter in line or pause in the middle of plaza to help themselves to a free cookie. While stopped at a roadside lemonade stand on a blazing hot day, I was treated to a poem on the joys of going nude and getting covered in playa dust. Nearly every interaction at Burning Man can also entail a performance.

The resulting experience is a reversal of how urban society has functioned since the 19th century, when in growing, Industrial Revolution-era cities it became socially unacceptable for unknown individuals on the street to converse. The notion of “stranger” doesn’t really exist at Burning Man. Finding out someone’s name and playa address comes quickly, and soon the woman wearing a crocodile mask that you just met turns out to be a neighbor, and you wish her well in her quest to chomp on some pirates.

Ultimately, the gift economy calls to mind the resurgent popularity of local currencies, bartering systems, and the whole “buy local” phenomenon. These alternate methods of economic exchange elect to opt out of mainstream consumer capitalism, namely the large corporations that supply most of our goods and services. Black Rock City is to some extent predicated on huge shopping runs at Wal-Mart or Costco before arrival, though DIY, recycled solutions to camp needs are encouraged. But once inside the gates, is an advertising-free zone when it comes to default world companies. The only signage you will see is for theme camps pitching their gifts and events. Unlike most large festivals – and Burning Man assiduously asserts that it is not a festival – there are no corporate sponsors. The refreshingly commercial-free environment is resonant of São Paulo, which banned outdoor billboards in 2007.

Quite to the contrary of a corporate sponsored event, the Burning Man culture encourages poking fun at the carefully crafted brands that litter the American landscape. For example, the ubiquitous Budget rental trucks become, with the help of some duct tape, “Nudge it” or “Fudge dip” or something a little more off-color. Our own RV quickly gained a prefix and became “Tom Cruise America.” At a larger scale, the Mal-Mart theme camp erected one of the tallest structures on the Esplanade, giving visitors an incredible view over the playa. While their critique of the big box store wasn’t clearly articulated – a few mock billboards and such – the very fact of spoofing the brand on such a large scale was significant. It reminded participants that in Black Rock City, certain economic and legal norms of the everyday world do not apply. The end result is a community that is not against capitalism – Burning Man couldn’t exist without it, right down to the purchase price of the ticket – but rather one against commodification. In the absence of top-down control and in the presence of volunteer organization and participation, community emerges in a robust and exciting way. The end result is a bewilderingly wacky but incorrigibly fun city. Disneyland may claim to be the “happiest place on earth,” but after a week at Burning Man, it’s clear that Black Rock City easily lays claim to the title of “funnest place on earth.”


DAY FOUR: Getting Around

Black Rock City may be dense, but it’s also large – the city streets cover 40 odd miles and the whole of the accessible playa is 7 square miles (though a mere speck on the 1,000 square mile lakebed that is the Black Rock Desert). In 1997, the Burning Man organization banned the use of private vehicles following the increasingly dangerous situation on the roads, and the ultimate death of a motorcycle rider. Since then, Black Rock City has become a pedestrian and especially bicycle haven. The playa surface is generally flat, save for the occasional dune, and a sturdy pair of mountain bike or hybrid tires is usually able to plow through everything but the softest spot of playa dust. And there is no lack of life on the street without cars poking around. While at Wednesday’s press conference communications manager Andie Grace called Burning Man a “permission engine,” I’ve taken to calling it a “distraction machine” for the constant stream of visually arresting public art, live music, and performance artists.

Bike-friendly cities are nothing new, but I doubt that anywhere does it with quite the amount of style that citizens of BRC bring to the streets. Even the simplest bikes are bedecked with flashing lights, colorful el-wire, and LED blinkers so that they are visible when the night turns most streets pitch black – camp lights and corner streetlamps don’t provide enough illumination. In the daytime, you’ll see flags, streamers, fake fur, plush toys, or just about anything you can strap to a bike to give it some color and character so you can pick it out from among the hundreds that get parked on the side of the road – most of the time without the need to lock them (Burning Man prefers to think of disappearing bikes as “accidentally borrowing” rather than “stealing”). The “Pimp My Bike” theme camp can help out cyclists who didn’t bring enough decoration with them.

That, however, is really just the beginning. From trailers to haul bags of ice and supplies to retractable shade cover to boomboxes to side-by-side tandems to high-wheeled pennyfarthings to the recumbent socialable pictured above styled as a Victorian-era eolipile made from used parts, the bikes of Black Rock City would turn heads at just about any corner on your average American street. The legality in the default world (the Burner term for life outside of BRC) of spewing fire from atop your back tire notwithstanding, the cycling culture at Burning Man suddenly makes you notice the sheer smallness and plainness of your average city bicycle. In turn, it seems no wonder that bikes are fighting a losing battle with cars, ghettoized to bike lanes that expose them to car doors, potholes, and sudden right turns. On a crowded city street, what car wouldn’t give a wide berth to a dragon cycle made out of recycled kitchenware?

The dragon bike, in fact, is one of many unique and trusty steeds at the Kinetic Cab Company, which will give you a ride to many points throughout the city. While pedi-cabs are increasingly appearing on American city streets, they are too often confined to tourist areas and aren’t widely popular. But imagine the effect of bringing in a few art bikes – an eight-seater dragon, or a four-seater picnic basket?

In addition to providing some moveable art, they would bring more visibility to the power of creative, kinetic vehicles. Philadelphia’s Kinetic Sculpture Derby is a great event, for example, but it requires closing down a city street for a one-day event – they generally don’t tool around the neighborhood otherwise.

While private cars are banned, very public vehicles known as art cars are an essential part of the Burning Man fabric. Unlike traditional “art cars” that turn a typical automobile into a piece of art through adornment, the art cars, also known as mutant vehicles, of Black Rock City strip a vehicle down to its chassis and transform it into something completely unrecognizable. At Burning Man I sailed on pirate ships and yachts, cruised on yet another dragon (this one spat fire from its mouth), danced in a Roman coliseum, and rode along in a furry rat. On foot and want to pick up the pace? Just hop on board – art cars are restricted to a 5 mph speed limit. As such, art cars act as a kind of informal public transportation.

While a few ply regular routes, most just amble at random around the city and the playa, destination uncertain. That, however, is the nature of Black Rock City, a place where you generally aren’t – and shouldn’t be – in a hurry to get anywhere in particular. As with most places that operate outside the frenzied logic of punctuality, events at Burning Man tend to run on “playa time.”

The engineering and design feats of art cars are truly impressive, and as with the tricked out bikes, it would be a nice change of pace from standard automobile brands to see a bus transformed into the Beatles’ yellow submarine come around the corner, not knowing – or caring – if it was a Volkswagon or a Mercedes. While public transit agencies would be loath to deviate from their carefully crafted color schemes and logos, the uniqueness of art cars reminded me of Nairobi’s collective vans, matatus, which each sport their own painted decals – usually of American hip-hop stars. Unlike matatus and other quasi-legal public transit that usually is not vetted for safety, Burning Man is actually quite meticulous and requires all engine-powered or flame-spewing vehicles to get certified at the DMV – the Department of Mutant Vehicles, of course. A friend with a flaming bike described it as just like going to the real DMV. There was a long wait in line, very particular questions, a detailed inspection, and oh yeah, the clerk was also shirtless and had nipple piercings.

Finally, while the vast majority of Burners arrived via car, truck, or RV, the vast openness of the Black Rock Desert lends itself to small planes. The playa is actually an open landing zone the rest of the year, but during Burning Man there is an official Black Rock City Municipal Airport with a demarcated landing strip and airplane parking. biked down to the airport on my last afternoon and found a side camp of sorts clustered around the airport, though with just as much sass and irreverence as the rest of Black Rock City. Pilots and even skydivers must still have a valid ticket to enter the event, and a sign at the airport warns that the “Queen of Customs” will flog anyone who does not get stamped for reentry if leaving and returning. They make the TSA look tame by comparison, but it’s just another example of how to navigate the wacky world of Black Rock City.

DAY THREE: The Structures

The Black Rock Desert is a brutally harsh environment. Daytime highs can run the mercury over 100º in bright sun and nighttime lows can dip into the 40s or even 30s. The dust – no sand here – kicks up constantly, making goggles a necessity. Conditions can change dramatically, and a rainstorm renders the playa surface an impassable mud. There are no water sources along the dry lakebed, and nothing grows on it either. Suffice to say, setting up a comfortable, functional camp is no easy task, much less building a radio station, a waffle house, or a yoga studio.

On online forums like ePlaya, Burners debate the pros and cons of hexayurts, various kinds of shade cloth, tents, rebar stakes, and any other kind of building supply you can name. While RVs all look about the same, a stroll through any theme camp or village illustrates a wide variety of sturdy, temporary dwellings – if they weren’t durable, they wouldn’t still be here. The facility of the Burning Man community with preparing for and executing the construction of short-term housing of all stripes in tough conditions and without ready access to missing parts definitely lends itself to major urban challenges, from disaster relief to informal settlements. In fact, a group has sprung up that tackles exactly this problem. Burners Without Borders is the most direct application of the Burning Man ethos and praxis to the world off the playa. [Editor’s note: For an interview with Burners Without Borders’ Carmen Mauk, click here.]

While their activities around the country include plenty of urban playground spectacles, like a shopping cart Iditarod in Chicago for a food drive, there is also a core of BWB folks who use their skills and resources to help with hurricane relief in the Gulf, build a house from recycled materials in Peru, and deliver resources to earthquake-ravaged Haiti. BWB pride themselves on being among the first into a major disaster – as they were in Haiti – by utilizing the Burning Man motto of “radical self-reliance” to simply get it done, red tape be damned.

Their current project at this year’s event is to get artists to make simple, transportable artwork that can be delivered to the next unlucky location where a hurricane, flood, or earthquake strikes. Within a few weeks, once conditions have stabilized, they hope to install the art and provide a measure of hope for the displaced. It might be considered an unnecessary luxury, but Burning Man is very much about welding the utilitarian with the aesthetic in a temporary setting.

I chatted with Carolyn White, a professor of archaeology at the University of Nevada-Reno, about the utility of Black Rock City architecture off the playa in emergency situations. She is studying the material culture and built environment of Burning Man camps, one of a few in academia who apply archaeological methods to contemporary settlements. She pointed out quite rightly, “People out here have resources you don’t have in emergency situations.” I agree, and am not suggesting that we build Camp Upsie Daisium, a three-story open-air tower to the left of my camp, the next time disaster strikes. Rather, Burners Without Borders does point the way to using at least some of the Burning Man skill set elsewhere.

On her point about resources, moreover, it is hard to come to the Black Rock Desert, absolutely empty save for a brave camper or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) official most of the year, and not think about the inordinate amount of materials that are needed to create a place as elaborate as Black Rock City. The fact that it is a Leave No Trace event – the largest in the world, almost certainly – only highlights even more the dizzying consumption necessary to put together even the most basic theme camp. While “radical self-reliance” reigns on the playa, it’s much more a traditional American shopping spree at Wal-Mart, Costco, or any other big box store on the way out to buy everything you could possibly need or want for a week in the desert. That said, Rod Garrett, the city planner and chief architect of Black Rock City, argues that the average citizen still consumes less energy in a week at Burning Man than he or she would at home – especially if home involves a long car commute. Without factoring in the travel to and from, I am inclined to agree. It’s particularly striking how clear the night sky is despite all the seeming light pollution – random burst of fire from across the playa, laser shows, neon and LED sculptures, brilliantly lit structures, and thousands of blinking “personal glow” lights for visibility. Visually, the nighttime playa approximates a Vegas panorama of flashing lights and colors in nearly every direction.

Nevertheless, “Burning Man is the least green thing I do,” John Starbuck told me. He works for Sungeivty, a California-based solar leasing company, and his camp is located in the Alternative Energy Zone, a generator-free village that spotlights less intensive ways of powering a camp. They showed me their reflective shade cloth, which keeps shaded spaces even cooler than the traditional variety, and a 400-watt solar panel that provides lighting for a camp of 20 people. Outside of Burning Man, he believes that solar is really just an economy of scale issue – the cost does not justify the savings if your monthly electricity bill is less than $100. But on the playa, the energy to be harnessed from the intense sun is the silver lining to the scorching heat. While the dust can filter out some light and reduce its effectiveness, the AEZ proves that Burning Man does not have to be such a wonton consumption of gasoline and propane.

Off the playa, solar is yet another direction application of the Black Rock City lifestyle. Neighboring parts of northern Nevada get just as much sun as the Black Rock Desert – and without the dust. To that end, Black Rock Solar was set up as a non-profit to provide solar arrays. Larry Harvey, the founder of Burning Man, likens it to “a latter-day Tennessee Valley Authority” for providing electricity to rural communities. Their map shows where their installations are dispersed across Nevada (as well as one project in Michigan) and their educational activities in cities across the country. Their biggest coup, on the eve of Burning Man 2010, was the announcement of Nevada Route 447, the two-lane highway that leads to the Black Rock Desert, as “America’s solar highway,” a distinction given for having “more watts of distributed solar per mile, than anywhere in the USA.”

The easiest way to reduce waste out here is to simply bring less, and unlike normal cities, you must pack out what you pack in. So while you may purchase an absurd amount of stuff, you nonetheless have to pay attention to your waste stream. Will those stickers you want to giveaway to passersby just become MOOP (matter out of place, the Burning Man term for litter)? Can you remove the packaging from those batteries before heading out to Black Rock City? Without careful planning, the trash can add up quickly, making for one of the biggest headaches of life here. To wit: Burning Man’s April Fools joke this year was that they would provide daily trash collection.

Black Rock City’s other major concern is gray water – soapy water from the shower, dishwater, emptied drinks. Some people haul it out and pay to dump it elsewhere at a receiving facility, but again the desert sun can be your friend – evaporation. While strolling around AEZ I met Camp ILUC2, who rigged up an ingenious little contraption, the Gray-B-Gon, that uses the wind to power a wheel coated with tulle. The fabric soaks up the gray water, which then evaporates out.

The continued existence of Burning Man relies on respecting the playa by not letting anything – solid or liquid – touch it, per BLM regulations that it be left pristine after the event. Port-a-potties are also crucial to this for obvious reasons. While in most cities, waste and sewage is a necessary but nasty bit of infrastructure we try to brush under the rug, but in Black Rock City, one could say the secondary mantra after “radical self-reliance” is “if it didn’t come from your body, it doesn’t go in the potty.” From waste streams to water usage, the unique conditions of the playa foreground some of the most important issues of cities today, especially in the developing world. While it may not be sustainable to light up the desert like a Christmas tree at night – my first view of the Esplanade after dark nearly made me fall off my bike – the whole point is that it’s not sustained. It’s only done for a week, unlike say Las Vegas, which runs 24 hour a day, 365 days a year.

While the citizens of Black Rock City could and probably should make better decisions about what they bring, you can only tip your hat to the Burning Man organization for the end result. The ultimate test imposed by the BLM, official stewards of the Black Rock Desert, is quite stringent. After the Department of Public Works spends two weeks combing the entire playa by hand for every scrap of clothing and cigarette butt they can find, the BLM inspects a random acre and the combined trash must not exceed one square foot. Every year, Burning Man passes with flying colors.

DAY TWO: The Layout

The playa is the ultimate tabula rasa, a blank slate with nothing growing on it and no topography. But when ticketholders arrived into Black Rock City this week, they found a largely built city – defined streets, major infrastructure already in place, plenty of camps already up and running. While Burning Man only runs for a week, volunteers have been on the ground for months already making those arrangements. Most of them are with the Department of Public Works, perhaps the aspect of Black Rock City most analogous to its real-world counterpart. They begin earlier in the summer with the GPS-assisted placement of the Man himself, the physical as well as spiritual focal point of Black Rock City. From there, DPW’s team of surveyors demarcates the radial city design.

(To see a map of Black Rock City, click here.)

BRC is essentially a rectangular grid stretched into a circle around the focal point – The Man. The streets are numbered as though on a clock, this year occupying 2:00 to 10:00 at every half-hour, for a total of 240º of city coverage on the playa. In the other direction, there are 12 streets radiating outward. Each numbered street provides a direct sightline onto the Man. 6:00 is the monumental axis that runs directly east to Center Camp – a kind of town center and central meeting point – out to the Man, then beyond that to the Temple (the structure burned on the last night). 3:00 and 9:00 are secondary axes that form civic plazas where essential services (ice, rangers, medic) are located. These plazas reflect the growth of Black Rock City. Nowadays, it is no longer practical to make all citizens come to the center for those needs. Finally, 7:30 and 4:30 are tertiary streets with “keyholes,” splits in the road where they emerge on the playa that are used for art installations.

In the front of the city is Esplanade, 2100 feet from the Man. Esplanade functions as Black Rock City’s Main Street, akin to the oceanfront boulevard in a seaside town – only here the open playa replaces the water. Several of the most elaborate theme camps are placed here, art cars (tricked out vehicles that can resemble anything from a rat to a coliseum to a speed boat) ply the wide boulevard, and folks on bikes or on foot rejoin the city from the open playa. It is 400 feet from Esplanade to Athens (the streets run A-K, this year all named after world cities), then 200 feet each until they end. Due to the radial structure, the length between the numbered streets slightly widens as they fan outward. There are also a handful of superblocks where the numbered streets don’t run – they provide space for villages, which are collections of theme camps. Some of the longer running villages, like Kidsville (plenty of families with children come to Burning Man), even map their own internal streets.

Speaking of Kidsville, one might be surprised to hear of a child-friendly zone coexisting with porn theaters, BDSM dungeons, and some of the more risqué, sex-themed camps. Like in most cities, zoning exists, namely through the placing committee that determines which camps go where. They make sure to locate the adult-oriented content away from, say, Kidsville. Their other major contribution is to designate the 10:00 and 2:00 edges of the city as home to the major dance music camps, so that their sound systems can project out onto the open playa. Other than that, there is blissfully little rhyme or reason. A lifeguard stand next to a contraption that shoots flames next to an Irish pub next to a bike repair shop is not at all unusual. Sometimes, the seemingly random placements are serendipitous, like my own Sacred Cow Grille next door to the Golden Café (Golden Calf, get it?).

The city is dense, and camps in various stages of construction require negotiation. For example, our neighbor at the Black Rock City Cultural Center requested that we not build our restaurant all the way to the edge of our plot so that he has an easement to back out his art car – a giant, furry rat bedecked with neon lights. We happily complied, thinking nothing of accommodating a reasonable request to keep friendly relations with our neighbor. While we only have to get along for a week, it is a lesson worth keeping in mind for our contemporary cities, so fraught with restrictive zoning codes on whether or not you can build a fence or if there can be a bar on the same block as an apartment building. The limited rules in Black Rock City are definitely liberating, and the placement committee has the luxury of rewriting the zoning code, as it were, every year.

Admittedly, the unzoned metropolis is not perfect. Plenty of theme camps planned poorly and gave their RVs, rental trucks, or cars street frontage, which is considerably less helpful for creating the illusion of Black Rock City than a storefront, lounge, or other public structure. But in general, the minimum rules make for maximum excitement on nearly every city block, with the sheer variety of places to visit making a stroll on almost every street a pleasure for the Burning Man flaneur.

Ultimately, Black Rock City is a fascinating contrast between the extremely unplanned – the theme camps initiated by citizens, which are planned internally but certainly not dictated by the event organizers – and the rigidly planned city layout. The latter works remarkably well for compact and convenient navigation, especially with the Man as a beacon. Though come Saturday night he’ll cease to be, which apparently causes a fair amount of confusion, as you have to adjust your psycho-geography of Black Rock City and redraw your mental map.

The plan for Black Rock City sprang from the mind of Rod Garrett, who has been the resident architect/urban designer for almost every Burning Man event. His work has been described by the London Observer as a “beautifully zoned tentopolis, designed with a precision of which the Renaissance city-state idealists or Hausssman would approve.” I will hopefully get the chance to speak with him later this week and get more insight on his design decisions. In the mean time, Chicago-based urban planner Keith Privett, a volunteer with the media camp and my liaison here, pointed out to me the similarities to a Midwestern lakeside town. You can see the comparisons to, say, Daniel Burnham’s Plan for Chicago, especially in the radials that converge on a central point. Garrett just extends that logic past the typical water’s edge.

Whipping Black Rock City into shape, from conception to implementation to removal (the ultimate goal is to make the playa look like nothing ever happened here), is an intense feat that few participants can appreciate. It’s no wonder that the DPW crew can be a bit surly – generally demanding beer to placate them – after spending months in the blazing desert heat to build on a surface that might as well be the moon. The building entries on the Burning Man blog offer both a bird’s eye perspective on the process, as well as get up close and personal with the brutal conditions that volunteers endure just to make a week’s worth of city life possible.

DAY ONE: Background

The Burning Man Project begins today as nearly 50,000 people already have or soon will converge on the dry lakebed (known as the playa) of the Black Rock Desert. Burning Man takes its name from the eponymous, culminating act of burning a statue of a man on the penultimate night. Before that happens, however, an entire city is built in the desert, and ultimately taken down in what may be the world’s largest “leave no trace” event.

Black Rock City, as it is known, becomes the fourth largest city in Nevada during the week leading up to Labor Day. During that time, it is home to much of what you would expect in a permanent city: streets, monuments, public and private transportation, post offices, police force, public works, zoning, an airport, a radio station, stores, restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. That said, most everything is a bit different from the real world – at turns more imaginative, ironic, humorous, transgressive, vulgar or just plain strange. Participants get access to all of this for the price of a ticket ($200-360, depending on when it was purchased), and once inside, it’s all free with the exception of ice and coffee. Burning Man functions on a gift economy, with restaurants cooking up free dinners, boutiques outfitting citizens in free attire, nightclubs throwing free parties, and bars serving up free drinks.

In addition to the bustling streets full of theme camps and villages that offer the above services (and many more, from fresh fruit to massages to movies to just about anything you can imagine), Black Rock City and the surrounding open playa is peppered with extravagant public art projects. The sheer space and lack of restrictions that Burning Man presents to artists leads to breathtaking works, whose size, scale, and interactivity cannot be replicated in other settings. The Burning Man LLC supports this public art through grants, as well as provisions for the basics of Black Rock City: a street plan with demarcated space for registered camps, portable toilets, the Black Rock Rangers who help mediate conflicts. (Check out a Burning Man infographic here.)

The rest is up to the citizens of Black Rock City. “Radical self-reliance” is the motto of Burning Man. The result is a tremendous mix of creativity, DIY spirit, and serious investment – larger theme camps with sound systems may spend upwards of $50,000. Some participants use this freedom to go overboard on free parties, but focusing on the syndrome of NPRAOD (naked people running around on drugs), as “The Truth About Burning Man” argues, is really missing the point about what the Burning Man experience means. With minimal rules imposed by the organizers (though local law enforcement has been cracking down on everything from health permits to underage drinking in recent years) and a culture of cooperation to survive in the harsh desert environment, Burning Man has been interpreted by some as an experiment in libertarian and communitarian ideals. Brian Dougherty, in his history This is Burning Man, makes that argument, also proposing that Burning Man is a successful implementation of “temporary autonomous zones.”

Black Rock City offers much of interest to urban planners, designers, and observers of city life in any given year, but 2010 is exceptional. The theme this year is “Metropolis,” specifically foregrounding the urban aspect of the Burning Man community. Burning Man’s founder, Larry Harvey, who first burned the effigy of a man on a beach in San Francisco with some friends in 1986 before moving the annual ritual to the playa in 1990, suggested in a speech on this year’s theme that “Burning Man project is a kind of portable Zócalo – adapted to produce culture in the 21st century.”

The organization also frames the theme as you pass through the gates. The entry road is festooned with quotations about cities from Theodore Parker, Jean de la Bruyere, Mignon Parker, James Agee, Richard Hoagland, Walter Benjamin, and a heavy dose of Jane Jacobs. They reflect on the variety and diversity of cities and speak up for the rich theater and spectacle of urban life.

Black Rock City embodies all those notions of urban life and much more. All this week, your very own dusty reporter will filing from the Media Mecca as he covers the Burning Man beat, checking out what makes this offbeat city tick and discovering what lessons a temporary city in the desert can offer to permanent cities everywhere else. But since there are no full-time observers – everyone must participate – I’ll also be building a 1940s Bombay restaurant and speakeasy, The Sacred Cow Grille, and once it’s open, DJing Bollywood beats and bhangra for the dinner crowd. Between the two, it will be a busy week, but expect dispatches on the city layout, zoning, infrastructure, transportation, commerce, and public art. Until then, it’s back to work – cities don’t build themselves!

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Gregory Scruggs is a Seattle-based independent journalist who writes about solutions for cities. He has covered major international forums on urbanization, climate change, and sustainable development where he has interviewed dozens of mayors and high-ranking officials in order to tell powerful stories about humanity’s urban future. He has reported at street level from more than two dozen countries on solutions to hot-button issues facing cities, from housing to transportation to civic engagement to social equity. In 2017, he won a United Nations Correspondents Association award for his coverage of global urbanization and the UN’s Habitat III summit on the future of cities. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.

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