Once a tiny counter-culture gathering on a San Francisco beach, Burning Man has ballooned into what could be considered an impressive experiment in rapid urbanization. Last year, the population of Black Rock City, which is erected for the festival in the Nevada desert, swelled to over 70,000.
Sure, those people are only there for a week, but that growth has not been without its real-world problems: recent issues include bug infestations, reports of rape, fears of overcommercialization, paralyzing rains, and the ever-impending porta-pottie apocalypse. Now a competition has generated 72 ideas for improving Burning Man’s urban design. The implications of these ideas, however, could reach far beyond the gather of a bunch of drug-addled hippies.
The competition was spearheaded by Brian McConnell, a software engineer and ten-year Burning Man veteran. The original idea was to create a site-specific installation at the festival itself presenting visionary ideas for the urban planning of Black Rock City. But as McConnell quickly realized, thinking about designing a smarter temporary city also surfaced some bigger ideas which might extrapolate into other areas of city-building. McConnell was particularly impressed by the quality and originality of proposals, he said. “There are some designs that have gone completely out of the box.”
What most people might not know about Burning Man is that it is not just a bunch of tents pitched haphazardly in the sand, but rather an actual planned city including parks, public bathrooms, medical clinics, police stations (called ranger outposts), and ice stores. Many of the submissions riffed upon the existing city plan, which is a series of radial and concentric streets with the “playa” at the center and “The Man” who is burned on the last day.
What’s fascinating is how Black Rock City is a microcosm for urban problems everywhere. One of the biggest challenges addressed by the competition is the idea of smart growth—the city needs to remain compact enough so people can easily walk (or bike) to fulfill their daily needs. The desire for more public space in the dense grid of camps is a top concern for some of the submissions, as is the increasingly walled-off infrastructure surrounding more exclusive camps. In fact, many proposals hint at the sensation that there are “better” neighborhoods that don’t mix as well with the greater community. Burning Man gentrification!
Some of the wilder submissions came not from longtime Burners but from unaffiliated people in the urban planning and architecture world, which provide valuable outsider insight. There’s one submission which proposes using the Black Rock City as a model for a refugee camp. With so many of these camps becoming long-term homes to marginalized communities, it’s not difficult to see the humanitarian angle in designing a safe, easily navigable city with centralized amenities. Black Rock City’s inclusive housing plan could actually offer plenty of ideas for how to alleviate the homelessness crisis in the US.
The submissions, as well as all the online comments, will be published in a book that will be available for purchase and will be given to the festival organizers. “The best-case scenario would be that the planners see something that’s very interesting or extraordinary and decide to use it in some way,” said McConnell. But he also loves the idea of delivering annual feedback through the competition format. “The real goal of this would be to make it part of the annual planning process and kind of a ritual,” he said. Planners could offer up concerns and ask for improvements that could be implemented the following year.
McConnell also sees the potential value of completely reinventing the city’s plan each year, perhaps with a layout that responds to the theme, which changes annually. “It’s gotten so large they can’t do radically different things,” he said. “What if each time you went it was a significantly different city plan, and you would have to figure it out?”
Starting from scratch might be Burning Man’s reality if the festival relocates from its current home. Though Burning Man is held on federal land, Nevada keeps tacking on more taxes to use it, which makes talk of moving the whole thing to Utah a perennial topic.
But this is also where Black Rock City differs from real cities. The fact of the matter is that the site simply can’t support many more people due to the impact on the region: Attendance was capped at 50,000 in 2011 by the Bureau of Land Management, then, after an environmental review, a new cap was set at 70,000 through 2016. This reality has spurred the production of smaller regional events. In fact, these communities might benefit the most from the competition as they draw up plans for their own mini-Burning Mans, new temporary metropolises which might soon be dispersed all over the world.