Burning Man and the Metropolis

The public works of Black Rock City.

“Intersection,” installation by James Reagant and Charles Fields, 2010. [photo by MadeIn1953 via Flickr]

It’s not exactly the ideal place to build a city. No water, little vegetation, limited animal life. August temperatures climb to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and drop close to freezing at night. High winds kick up powder-fine dust into blinding storms. The place is, in a word, inhospitable.

But year after year in late summer, a small city rises on this ancient lakebed in the Black Rock Desert, in Pershing County in northwestern Nevada. It’s the annual event — or festival, or party — known as Burning Man, an eight-day experiment in self-expression and self-reliance that is now one of the most notorious cultural events in North America. What began as a bonfire attended by 20 friends on a San Francisco beach in 1986 has exploded into a global mega-event with 50,000 participants. They form a sprawling temporary community of tents and trailers that has evolved over a quarter century into a highly planned, intricately organized and fully functioning city.

Summer 2010

On the first night of the most recent Burning Man, Monday August 30, it is 11 p.m. before I get through the lines at the entrance gates. Tens of thousands of people are already here. Some have lived at Black Rock for weeks, constructing the infrastructure and laying out the roads that await the new arrivals. This city is off the grid, so it’s dark when I roll in. And it’s huge: one hundred and sixty blocks — each on average as long as a Manhattan block and nearly as wide — arranged in a semi-circle on the playa. Finding a place to camp is not a problem. Finding a good one takes a bit more luck. “You should have gotten here earlier,” says a scraggly-haired man, just shy of middle age. “All the street-facing plots are taken up. You gotta in-fill.” He’s referring to empty spaces in the center of blocks. “There’s a good spot over here, next to a couple of hot Russians.” He leads me through the darkness.

The next morning, my tent is an oven, so I escape out into the sun and the surreal. I’m surrounded by tents and RVs and plywood huts and geodesic domes and an unbelievable assortment of temporary domiciles. The immediate camp looks familiar enough: people cook breakfast and lounge in camp chairs. But all around us, the party has begun. Strangers in capes and space helmets shake hands, fallout shelters and Old West saloons rise from the desert, bodies are painted, kites fly and drinks flow. It’s not yet 8 o’clock.

Burning Man center camp, 2010. [by Geoff Stearns]

At its core, Burning Man is an artistic event. It takes its name from the main attraction: the Man, a large wooden structure that is burned ceremoniously on the penultimate night. But the week is about much more than just anticipation for the fire. Organized around ten principles that encourage creative expression, the exchange of ideas, self-reliance, community interaction and participation, Burning Man is part gallery and part studio. Huge and bizarre art projects are installed on the playa, the bed of a lake that dried up 9,000 years ago. School buses converted into pirate ships and seizure-inducing light displays are scattered throughout seven square miles, surrounded by a perimeter fence. At night the desert glows like a neon wonderland. Intricately decorated “art cars” glide through the streets, and tricked-out bicycles bump along the uneven ground. I see blasts of kerosene-scented fire and hear dance music in every direction. Revelry flows through the night and into the next day. The vibe is a mix of a rave, a museum, and a drunken stroll on the Las Vegas Strip.

Burning Man is the sort of place where a man in a monkey suit will drive past in a motorized banana and a naked baby boomer with a megaphone will offer you a vodka tonic as you walk down a dirt street. Organizers have in fact struggled to shake the reputation of a drugged-out desert party. But while that reputation is partly true, it’s more accurate to think of Burning Man as a temporary gathering of people living together outside the conventional constraints of modern life. This prospect has turned out to be incredibly attractive to urbanites from San Francisco, Las Vegas and Portland, and fellow rogues from cities around the world. Attendance at the 25th annual event was more than 51,000, the highest in its history.

On the Way to Metropolis

With so many people living together on federal land, outside the jurisdiction of any local government and without any services, Burning Man has necessarily taken on the form and functions of a city. To turn the “party in the desert” into a city, albeit one that exists for only one week at a time, organizers have developed a set of operational and physical guidelines. With its high-resolution urban plan — which resembles the prescriptive master plans of designers like Ebenezer Howard and Le Corbusier — and its departments created and run by volunteers, Burning Man feels like a slice of modern urban life, and in some ways an improvement.

That this city can exist without major catastrophe is due in large part to the organizational skills of its government. Now a proper limited liability corporation based in San Francisco, Black Rock City, LLC, has about 35 full- and part-time staff members and a six-member governing board. They work year-round, applying for permits, awarding arts grants to participants, lobbying local governments and interacting with federal agencies. At the event itself, department heads oversee communications, infrastructure and emergency services, among other city functions. Burning Man has become an Organization — a necessity, perhaps, but one that the anarchist-minded participants of the early years never saw coming.

Left: The Man, 2010. [by Mayhem] Right: Larry Harvey in front of San Francisco’s City Hall. [by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid]

Larry Harvey, who has been involved with Burning Man from the start, is the city’s unofficial mayor — or its benevolent dictator. Even as the festival has ballooned into a massive production and its organization has grown to dozens of department heads and thousands of volunteers, Harvey drives its direction and embodies its vision. Chain-smoking in his San Francisco apartment, he holds forth on the history of the festival while an inch of ash grows on his cigarette. Burning Man might be defined on the ground by the ever growing number of participants, but — he is clear — it’s still his baby.

Harvey is not only the mayor of Black Rock City: he’s also the art director, selecting the theme that guides artists’ work from year to year. Past themes have included the Vault of Heaven, the American Dream and Evolution. In 2010, it’s Metropolis. This is not just an acknowledgement of Burning Man’s increasing city-ness but also an opportunity for critique — both of the city in the desert and the actual cities it temporarily replaces. The early years of Burning Man were defined (and indeed made more attractive to many) by lawless gallivanting on the desert frontier — guns shot off at random, cars driving across the playa at high speeds, unrestricted escape from the rules and regulations of metropolitan life. All that has changed. As the festival grows, it becomes more like the overly organized places some participants had hoped to leave behind.

Burning Man has taken on more order than originally intended, but for the organizers, that’s not a bad thing. The event has evolved and expanded, and that means paying attention to the needs and safety of attendees, the impacts on the land (protected by the federal Bureau of Land Management), and the proliferation of a unique culture. With time, this attention has become institutionalized in a city government. This is what makes Burning Man more than just another festival. What forms in the Black Rock Desert every year is not a campout or a love-in or a bunch of merry pranksters dropping LSD. It’s a physical community — one made of equal doses of utopianism and pragmatism. A look back at the history shows how this community has evolved.

From Baker Beach to Black Rock Desert

The first year, 20 people gathered on Baker Beach in San Francisco, just west of the Golden Gate. The night ended with a ritualistic burning of an eight-foot-tall wooden structure. The next year the crowd grew to 80, the year after to nearly 200. In 1990, Burning Man, now inked in the social calendar of Bay Area bohemians, drew more than 800 people to the beach. It also attracted a contingent of the S.F.P.D. who prohibited the crowd from burning what was by then a 40-foot-tall wooden man. This brief interaction with the local police set the beach party on a path toward the modern Burning Man when, a few weeks later, organizers took the structure far into the wild with a smaller crowd of followers. They burned the Man for the first time on the Black Rock Desert, just outside of Gerlach, Nevada. The event had found a new home.

Black Rock City, 2005. [by Sterling Ely]

The Black Rock Desert is more than 300 miles from San Francisco, so the Bay Area participants decided to camp overnight. Spontaneously, the camp formed into a circle. The next year, spontaneity gave way to bureaucracy, as the Bureau of Land Management, which issued the permit for land use, required that organizers submit a plan for camping areas and roads. This was Burning Man’s first urban plan.

Soon the participants were dabbling in civic organization. In 1992 a team of “non-confrontational community mediators” known as the Black Rock Rangers formed to help eventgoers and mediate disputes before they escalated to the point of requiring police presence. At the time, no one imagined a future city staffed by emergency services personnel, airstrip operators and recycling collectors, but the early public services of the Black Rock Rangers were the first expression of a municipal model that would come to define Burning Man.

By 1993, the third year on the playa, the population had soared to above 1,000. The event was now a full week long. In 1995, 4,000 people attended, and the camp began to be known as Black Rock City. The model of municipality established in the early ’90s is the main reason Burning Man was able to transform itself into one of the most ambitious visions of utopian urbanism in existence today.

But that urbanism is grounded in hard realities. The tragic death of a motorcyclist on the playa in 1996, just before the festival began, and a near-fatal incident in which a car ran over an occupied tent a few days later, confirmed the fact that an unregulated, unorganized Burning Man could not survive. It was time to think seriously about how the event worked, and how it could work better. With 8,000 attendees, Burning Man had reached the size of a small town, and organizers began to look to cities and towns for replicable models — and mistakes to avoid.

Burning Man was held on private land in 1997, a move that lasted only one year but which had the effect of accelerating its transformation into a city. Washoe County, Nevada, had jurisdiction over the private land, and its rules for special events and festivals required that organizers submit road plans, and that the event have garbage removal services and lighted walkways. Organizers came up with a road plan, but they felt the other requirements violated the principle of radical self-reliance, and they had to draw a line.

“For the first time, we had to debate with a public agency about our intentions — about not having garbage removal service or lit walkways,” says Marian Goodell, now a Black Rock City board member and director of business and communications. The event organizers won that debate, successfully swerving around the county’s requirements, a success that marked the beginning of a new era of interactions and negotiations between Burning Man and “the man.”

Top left: Black Rock City Post Office. [photo by George Post, (c) 2002] Top right: Black Rock City Department of Public Works. [by Michael Michael] Bottom: Black Rock City Lamplighters. [by Dan Dawson]

Burning Man returned to the Black Rock Desert in 1998, under the jurisdiction of the BLM. Its subsequent growth solidified the relationship with the federal agency, which has had both positive and negative aspects for the festival. One downside — cited by nearly all the organizers — is the government’s allocation of law enforcement, which they contend is larger than it needs to be. The substantial police presence affects the feel of the city and has contributed to the rising cost of a very expensive event. (Black Rock City’s annual event expenditures now total more than $12 million. Ticket prices have risen from $35 in 1995, to between $200 and $360 in 2010. Rising payments to law enforcement agencies are a constant source of contention.)

The upside is a better city plan, with rules and best practices enforced by the BLM. “We need to have emergency services, and we need to have roads wide enough for a service truck, ambulance or fire truck,” Goodell explains. “The same requirements a normal urban area would have. On our own, we’ve decided to have certain protections beyond what’s required.”

Over the years, Burning Man has gradually come to resemble a city not just in physical form but also in the bureaucratic constructs that underlie modern urban systems. Before the event this year a construction team arrived at the site to build the city’s infrastructure. Other teams devised civic structures like the will-call booth and center camp. Road builders laid out the city’s blocks and marked intersections. Emergency service personnel have grown from a handful of volunteers into a team of hundreds. Volunteers formed a “Department of Mutant Vehicles” to regulate art cars. They created an information booth and a post office to deliver mail within the city and to the outside world, and began broadcasting news from BMIR, Burning Man Information Radio. New departments formed to handle recycling, street lighting, toilet paper stocking in the porta-potties and crowd control at the front gates. For nearly everything that needs doing, there is now a designated person or group to do it. This has created an environment of pseudo-public officials at Burning Man but hardly a hierarchy of power. There are paid, professional staff at the top of certain departments, like the Department of Public Works or Emergency Services, but most of the bureaucracy consists of informal groups of people getting specific things done. Organizationally, Burning Man is very city-like in its assortment of arms and duties, but beyond that, there are few similarities with the slow-moving machine of a typical city government.

Black Rock City street plan, 2010.

Burning Man doubled in size every year throughout the ’90s and by 1999 had exploded into a mid-size city of 23,000. With the increased attendance, planner Rod Garrett began to notice some of the fabric of the community coming loose. “We got to a point where I saw people becoming irrationally angry with each other and with the city,” he says. “It occurred to me that this might be an effect of overpopulation, and that we’d hit some tipping point where people were no longer comfortable.” With that, Garrett redesigned the camping blocks into an expandable ring pattern that could accommodate an increasing population without rancor and unpleasantness.

Over the next decade, Burning Man attendance would double again, and organizers have come to rely on the gentle persuasion of urban form to maintain control. “The event’s gone from maybe 12,000 to nearly 50,000, and it’s still basically the same design,” Garret says. So where does it go from here? Nobody really knows. Harvey has no plans to cap attendance, and Garrett believes the same design, with minor tweaks and adjustments, could handle another 50,000. But a Black Rock City with 100,000 residents is just as hard for them to imagine as today’s city would have been 25 years ago.

As Burning Man grows, organizers have avoided making rules about behavior (for the most part) and instead have encouraged civic and community activities that align with the ethic of the event. “We’ve shown that you can actually deal with the complexity of urban problems by using specifically cultural means,” Harvey says. “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.”

“Megatropolis: The Life and Death of a City,” installation by Chris Hankins and crew, 2010. [photo by Nate Berg]

Lessons for the Rest of Us

Black Rock City — let’s be honest — is not actually a city. It has city-like qualities and operates in city-like ways, but fundamentally it is a temporary vacation community developed for a specific purpose by a specific subset of people who take time off from their default lives to experience it. The challenges and problems of real cities only begin to surface here, and the intricacies of navigating local politics and policy are hardly broached at all.

But really, that’s not the point. People who go to Burning Man aren’t trying to recreate an urban experience or play City Hall. They are experimenting with new ways of living, as generations have done before them. In the 1960s hippies and progressives checked out of city life in favor of communal living “close to the land.” But they were part of what was already a long American tradition, from the transcendentalists’ mid 19th-century Brook Farm, in New England, to the socialists’ early 20th-century Llano Del Rio in Southern California; even the Pilgrims were escaping from another life in the old country, seeking the utopia of a city on a hill. For one week in August, Burning Man participants agree to try out a new way of existing, and their intentional living spurs an ethic of participation that creates a unique community experience.

If the primary purpose of a city is to meet the needs of its citizens, Burning Man succeeds far better than many permanent cities. To be sure, Black Rock citizens have needs that are not as complex or diverse as those of residents in New York or Bangalore or Lagos. But the way the city has met those needs could be instructive to urban thinkers elsewhere. The main lesson is simple: active participation makes for a better community. In Black Rock City, residents say hello to their neighbors, collect recyclables, and at dusk light lamps on the path to the Man. They set up their own communication systems and emergency response teams. Participation is the organic result of citizens continually taking ownership of their community and their experiences within the community.

“It changes their philosophy of how they want to be involved in their cities, how they want to be involved in their world, how they want to personally spend their time,” says Harley Dubois, a Black Rock City board member who serves as city manager. “That is where the change happens. And that happens thousands of times every year when people come to Burning Man. That’s huge.”

Top: “Astor Place,” installation by Cory Mervis and crew, 2007. [photo by Eddie Codel] Bottom: “Subway,” installation by Matt Ganucheau, 2010. [photo by Matt Ganucheau]

At Burning Man, participants create the city they want. This is not particularly revolutionary — people want more, and they do what they can to get it. What is revolutionary — or at least highly unusual — is the ease with which people, regular people, can effect that change at Burning Man. It’s so different from the typical city of dense bureaucracies, political barriers and uninvolved or disaffected citizens. By encouraging participation, Burning Man organizers grow a culture based on interaction and creation. Citizens are empowered to feel as though they can change their community, and indeed they can. That Burning Man is temporary means that there is only a limited time to act, and a limited time for actions to take effect. How well this ethic survives outside the festival is hard to know, but organizers believe that if participants have a positive experience at Black Rock City, they can translate that experience into the practice of their everyday lives.

So, yes, the event can be about finding oneself, or radically rethinking one’s life, or even eating LSD and walking through the dust. But this individual change is framed in the context of defining what people want from the world around them and how they can bring it about. Burning Man and its organizers believe people can realize that vision simply by living life the way they want to live it, and interacting with others the way they want to be interacted with. And as Burning Man has grown from a small gathering into a temporary city, attendees have become more intimately involved in the community around them, empowered to enact the changes on whatever scale is necessary to improve their quality of life during their eight days in the desert. It’s city-making at the individual level. While that may seem like too small an effort to affect our permanent cities, what it actually does is underscore that one of the scales of the city is the personal: the city as experienced by diverse individuals. Rethinking the city at that scale, it’s easy to find ways to improve upon the urban form. People realize that they can do things — maybe small things — that improve how they experience and interact with their fellow citizens. To create power in that way doesn’t require a political office or city budget, only the desire to make life better. Community improvement through community participation is not difficult to achieve. It happens every year at Burning Man. And possibly beyond.

Editors' Note

“Burning Man and the Metropolis” is part of Nate Berg’s book in progress about places that function like cities but actually are not. Please see also our audio feature, by Nick Sowers, on the soundscapes of the temporary city in the Black Rock Desert.

Nate Berg, “Burning Man and the Metropolis,” Places Journal, January 2011. Accessed 05 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/110110

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Past Discussions View
  • xpez2000

    01.10.2011 at 17:05

    Having to register your camera, and walk around with a numbered tag while you take a picture is totally FASCIST. Cops are everywhere.
    Its a mini club scene with VIPs and special rooms and venues for special people. Everyone loves the idea of embodying some kind of utopian ideals, with no money allowed. BUT there is a Starbucks cappuccino joint right in the center where they rake in thousands of DOLLARS because thats the only thing they can sell and ICE.... Sure somethings are fun, like dancing, getting loaded with friends, checking out some ACID ART and riding a bike across the playa, but over all its more like a carnival in Panama City, FL. With an endless parade of BOzoS and drunks. It costs way too much to live for 7 days. After a chore like that you realize a nice vacation in Hawaii is worth about ten times more than that place.

  • Ron's Log

    01.10.2011 at 21:10

    xpez2000 should get a camera that doesn't shoot video - then he wouldn't have to register it. The money from coffee sales goes to support local schools.

  • Lovebug

    01.11.2011 at 13:14

    Good article, although the author leaves out one huge piece of what makes Burning Man so special: it's non-commerical. For me, it was a powerful experience to be free from advertising, marketing, and exchanging money (except for ice). I never realized just how much I was marketed to every day until I went to Burning Man.

    And, in response to xpez2000's post: If you are a member of the press or a commercial photographer, you must register your camera and get a tag. This is to protect the privacy of participants and to ensure that Burning Man images will not be used commercially. And, if you shoot video for any purpose, likewise you need to tag your camera. They are strict with their image usage, but for good reason.

  • Shelly Ronen, Design Research Associate, Eleven LLC

    01.11.2011 at 13:21

    The idea of Burning Man is inherently stimulating for any designer or design thinker. A ritualistic event, growing beyond the supportable bounds of its original inception, has evolved into an ordered and partially controlled expression of its participants. Surely any designed product or interact must perform similarly: within the parameters of its social situation and in accordance with the personalities and experiences of its users.

    I personally find the Burning Man city design fascinating: how telling and natural that the city, while representing a "slice of life" would have grown up as a circle. Naturally, the community has such a deliberate commitment to engagement with others in the surroundings, that no other shape would compete.

    And the whole Burning Man experience seems to me to be like an enforced inspirational exercise. The creative process requires trading off between two extremes of mental exercise: pushing oneself outside of one's means while also being rooted squarely within one's known locus of experience. When you successfully flicker between the two, you reveal your own assumptions and expectations, as well as question and broaden them. And breadth of ideas is surely the main ingredient for inspiration. Burning man, you are an intellectual exercise in design thinking. And what's more exciting, you're also a beautifully separate, temporary experiment. The experience has been set up to free us up from the hesitation we might have about truly expressing our ideas in our "default" lives. Freedom is the other key ingredient in the design process, for it emboldens us to really think differently.

  • monkey

    01.11.2011 at 13:33


    "Having to register your camera, and walk around with a numbered tag while you take a picture is totally FASCIST."

    This is to protect the art, artist and participant from commercial (ab)use. http://www.burningman.com/press/pressRandR.html

    "Its a mini club scene with VIPs and special rooms and venues for special people."

    Make your own camp with its own VIP section and allow everyone to come in. Whhhaaaa...

    "BUT there is a Starbucks cappuccino joint right in the center where they rake in thousands of DOLLARS because thats the only thing they can sell and ICE...."

    Like @Ron's Log said, the money goes to charity. Here is where the money went:

    "It costs way too much to live for 7 days."

    It costs a lot to rent BLM land, portapotties, and all the logistical infrastructure to set up an entire city.

    "After a chore like that you realize a nice vacation in Hawaii is worth about ten times more than that place. "

    Apples to Oranges. Burning Man is an experience that one should go to at least once. Hawaii is pretty nice too!

  • janet

    01.11.2011 at 17:53

    Let the so called "anti-fascists" believe whatever they want. Don't invite them. Who cares, keep them away. They will suck the life out of everyone which is why they can't have any fun. Please go back to Detroit or Florida, or whatever shit hole life you want to perpetuate.

    I've never registered my camera btw... cuz I'll do whatever I want!

  • lalanalla

    01.11.2011 at 18:26

    there are some very thoughtful and articulate comments here that i enjoyed reading every bit as much as the article itself. :) thanks!

  • jodywysteria

    01.11.2011 at 19:12

    xpez2000-Some people can go to Burning Mann and miss the entire event. You wanna be a VIP? Just dress and act the part. Make it your city by helping to put it together and do a little volunteer work...then you know you belong and own the event...too. Some of us are not so fortunate as I who was dragged there by a dear friend who filled me in on what it is about and what to expect. I had one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.

  • deizei

    01.11.2011 at 21:05

    I have gone twice and will go again...Initially I went because my daughter was enthralled with it and went every year....saying...you just have to go Ma....It is so great...
    As she tells it she started going by accident...She had driven across the country on her motorcycle after having a hard time with her personal life in New York and needing to get away.She met some people who said she would love it there.She took their advice and After that ...She went every single year sacrificing her career and her personal life.. She needed to get there because she wanted to help the others.....this community that worked for a whole month in August ahead of time together to provide a good experience for the people who came to Burning Man the first week in Sept.....She helped to bring stuff to the desert and made thousands of friends
    .Sooo I went and it was exciting...The art, the people, the music ,the generosity, the uniqueness ....and I will never forget it...and it was my daughter who discovered it for me...

  • Issimo

    01.11.2011 at 22:06

    An aspect of BRC I don't read about much amid the tales of life changing experience, warmth of random community, intense creativity and the myriad methods of survival on the playa is that all the atendees WANT to be there!

    It sets BRC apart immediately and, by virtue of where it is and the planning one makes to burn well for a full week, results in sureminded exultation of each day together with the expectation of continuous amazement that is often unreachable in the default world.

    Depite the apparent erosion of the 'happening' that engendered it, Burning Man is still a transcendent cultural event. It is people doing 'people things' for most of the attendees. The lack of money, commercialism, politics, pollution, religious dogma and -for the most part -rules cleanses, inspires, re-energizes and resets like nothing else.

    Despite all the 'stuff' that is there: it is the people that make it. No-one tells them how or what or why. The 'citizens' of BRC choose to do because they want to do.

  • Carole Chooljian

    01.11.2011 at 22:55

    Very interesting, Mr. Berg. I would like to read more about the people you met there, occupations and if you would return next year.

  • Oliver Harris

    01.12.2011 at 03:58

    There is no Starbucks; there is one volunteer run coffee bar in Centre Camp (a huge covered space where people congregate to hear all manner of live music and performance 24/7). Everyone's entitled to their opinion but xpez2000's is completely atypical!

    As Lovebug mentions, the non-commercial aspect is really the beating heart of Burningman. You can't spend any money (other than on coffee and ice), no-one is selling anything/ you aren't being marketed which is an incredibly welcome change. And the resulting spirit of generosity in Black Rock City is absolutely mind-blowing. People toil out in the desert to build and operate their art so that the community at large can enjoy it; you will witness incredible acts of generosity taking place literally everywhere, at all times. It is the most friendly place I have ever been.

    Burningman is the greatest party on earth (nothing even comes close) but it is also a whole lot more.

  • Nancy

    01.12.2011 at 10:47

    Burning Man is the most amazing experience I have ever had in my entire life. I can hardly wait to go home again.

  • Ari

    01.13.2011 at 14:30

    I may not go back - it's too painful.

    My feet hurt for weeks afterwards from all the pedaling my ride across the dusty, fiery playa, walking around seeing incredibly beautiful and artistic things while making tons of new friends giving and receiving gifts of every imaginable type, and the worst part - dancing into the daylight hours. I hate it there.

  • Michael E. Smith

    01.13.2011 at 14:31

    Most of these comments, like most writing about BM in general, focus on the experiential aspects. But what is important and different about Nate Berg's article is applying an urban perspective to Black Rock City. What can this place/event tell us about urban dynamics? Are there lessons that can help urban planners design better cities and neighborhoods today? Can urban theory help us understanding Burning Man and Black Rock City?

    People have barely begun to ask this kind of question, and hats off to Nate for his fascinating article.

  • Jat

    01.13.2011 at 16:35

    i can't believe people actually PAY to go to this.

  • onlyme

    01.13.2011 at 17:15

    As an 'oldie goldie' I was blown over by Burning Man (2009), haven't had such fun in years. We missed last year but will be there next year. It has great ways for a multi-generation gathering to have non-critical give and takes, with everyone learning something new or something they forgot about living life!

    Yes it is short-lived, yes it can be hot, dry, dusty and cold. At times some may want to pull back and just observe; stay up all night, go to sleep early, just chill, read a book; all the things we do in life. But the experience it like no other. It is very much worth the time and the effort!!

  • kai

    01.13.2011 at 20:52

    For years I put off going to Burning Man because of the dust and noise. People said: you have to go at least once. So I did and had a great experience, slumming in art cars, dancing, playing tennis on the playa, getting loaded and sleeping (a little) in a friend's van.

    The art was very cool, including the burn of a giant waffle. I got blown away in a dust storm while rollerskating. I met a honey and we rocked the van. The neighbors smiled and applauded.

    The best advise I followed was "take risks." And get out and meet people at many camps and events. Go ahead guys and wear a dress.

  • Corvus

    01.14.2011 at 10:58

    Burning Man is not for everyone -- no single event could ever be -- but it is something not be missed for me, and thousands of others. Berg's blog gives a good feel for what happens there. If it makes you curious, go to the Burning Man site: http://www.burningman.com/ and start with the First Timer's Guide to see if it is right for you.

    @ Ari: Sorry about your feet, though it sounds like you had fun. Were you barefoot? Bad idea, as delightful as the playa feels between your toes in the short term. In my camp we had vinegar footbaths available for counter-acting the alkali dust. Not one case of playa-foot for 200 people.

    @ Jat: Yes, people actually pay money for this. What do *you* pay money for>

  • Vic

    01.17.2011 at 21:38

    I've been attending since 98, missed a few years here and there but in total attended about 8 times. Every year is different, some things better (art, mutant vehicles, theme camps, scale), some not so much (not a fan of the graffiti). I've traveled the world and honestly can't tell you of a better city I would rather live in, for a week. Those who know understand you can't support the level of quality this event brings without spending a little money. Just the permits from BLM cost over $1,100,000. I know the money I invest in gifts, theme camp, outfits, transportation, tickets, etc. is worth every penny. No other event or adventure provides the dreams, memories and personal growth I get from attending my favorite place in the world. It's not for everyone and then again what is!

  • Novia

    01.17.2011 at 22:36

    I love Ari's comments. As moving as Burning Man was for me, can we all just lighten up a little? I was a virgin in 2010 but wish my next one was next week. Yes, to the visual stimulation, art, music, art cars...but come on! It was all about the people, community, society..sharing with every demographic imaginable and getting out of your day to day existence without self restrictions. EXACTLY, what every perfect vacation should be.

  • Leslie

    01.17.2011 at 23:17

    ..."ALL the attendees WANT to be there"...what a wonderful thing to point out. I don't think you could say that about any other place in the world where 50,000 people are gathered. My personal suggestions for who would enjoy Burning Man, having been there two times myself? One who is innately curious, lives their life with a reverence for all living things, and is able to prepare for and even enjoy adverse physical conditions, with the intention of experiencing something wonderful with a bunch of other like minded people. The art, the people and being outside all the time makes it an awesome experience. Also, this is a good article about it.

  • Burntcoco

    01.18.2011 at 02:21

    I'm 51 (a special ed teacher) and took my two kids this year (an Oregon parole officer and a vegan restaurant worker in NC)....we touched, smelled, tasted, felt, photographed, biked, danced, skated, smoked, drank, experienced things we wouldn't connect with anywhere else in the world. We also worked as volunteers.

  • Diana

    01.18.2011 at 03:08

    My experience at BM has been so powerful that it has seeped into my daily life! BM is what you make it. It is a nourishing, stimulating, safe, liberating, and saturated palette for what YOU want to create. It is like LIFE CONDENSED. How fortunate we are to get this playground for our imaginations year after year! Thank you Burning Man and all of you who get it!

  • Proforma

    01.18.2011 at 12:26

    Why does BRC stay stuck in the desert? Other contra-culture events inviting creativeness (Mardi Gras, Exotic-Erotic Balls, Carnival in Rio, etc.) have managed to find an acceptable home. What's wrong with a forest or even the cow palace? These organizers are not as creative as they would like to think--they're stuck in the dust.

  • Dick Harrah

    01.18.2011 at 13:54

    It seems to me that most of the "rules" at Burning Man are imposed by outside agencies. Instead, Burning Man has traditions that evolve over time as a kind of collective response to the creative impulse and the reality principle. It's organic that way. It operates along communal principles, not so much legalist principles.

  • Murphy

    01.19.2011 at 02:21

    Proforma : In great part, the Playa is a blessing to BRC. While a metric ton of effort goes into making sure that no trace is left behind, the nature of the desert makes that possible. Look at other major counterculture events with similar populations set in more acceptable homes, and see how much more destruction is left behind.

    Few other surfaces could put up with the beating that 50,000 people can deal out and recover in weeks rather than years. Not to mention that the leave no trace and greywater policies that are enforced by the BLM on the Playa would be quite tricky to manage in a temperate environment.

    That said, there are a lot of regional Burns that are in different environments that manage quite well with lesser numbers. :)

  • Mercurial

    01.20.2011 at 19:29

    Burning man is beyond anything you will ever experience. You walk (or bike) through the streets, meeting new people and having the best time you can imagine.
    The inspiration you get from all the creativity and good energy around you is overwhelming, and quite frankly, addicting.
    Everyone has their own approach to the burn, and everyone has their own experiences.
    For some people it's the pure generosity and happiness, mixed with the playa dust that the wind blows around your head. For others it's spiritual and relaxing. For me, it also is a wake-up call once a year, reminding me what is is important in life: community, love and laughter.
    If 50,000 people can live in peace in a desert under those harsh conditions , why can't we as humans manage to live together in what we call a technologically advanced age?

  • B. L. Chooljian

    01.27.2011 at 17:48

    What an amazing place. I happen to see some video clips on a cable channel last fall. I say a real good cross section of people. I am encouraged by what Mr. Berg says of the event, and just how right on he is as I recall the video. Thanks for putting it all together for me.

  • Jeff Ericson

    01.30.2011 at 15:09

    As an architect who is fundamentally interested in the nature of cities, Burning Man is an amazing study. It is an opt-in environment, and commercial free, both of which allow for a lot trust in and engagement by the citizens, even when they are crazy.

    Which is in stark contrast, unfortunately to our permanent cities. More and more I find myself engaging zoning rules that mandate inefficient, wasteful, and lifeless designs. We've become so uptight and fearful of our citizens (not the crazy Burners, but the everyday working-folk) that our cities are becoming commercial-only entertainment zones instead of fostering community (interaction) and personal investment. Easements get wider, so that the public works staff can get lazier, street lanes get wider so that distracted drivers have more room to wander (and less incentive to stop texting), building setbacks get bigger to accomodate more parking, and the poor occupant/resident/taxpayer gets the shaft, or at least a much less livable city. I think all of our cities could learn some lessons from the really remarkably sane and people-centered design of Burning Man.

  • roissy

    01.30.2011 at 16:59

    @Proforma: Have you ever attended Decom or any other Special Event held off Playa??? As a member of the BM Special Events team, we look into ways of bringing the Playa experience out of the wilds... Besides there is not any location around the Bay Area large enough to accommodate the main event. Trying to do fire art on the scale of BM is impossible anywhere else.

  • LSamuels

    03.07.2011 at 11:14

    This article is a proficient and compelling summary of some of the regularly discussed issues on Black Rock City as a place -- infrastructure, order, individualism. I would argue that it is a highly collaborative place, where non-commercial economy is really a sub-text for an economy based on real publicness -- interactions with strangers (though the 'difference' of Burning Man's population comes nowhere near the diversity of a long-term city). The significance of BRC's rules do make us all (those of us who have lived in this desert for the week or longer, and hopefully others) think about waste, trace, preservation, and conservation. You certainly pay more attention to your water use when you can't let toothpaste-tinged water touch the playa.

    One thing really missing in this piece, though, is any comment on the theme-based built environment. I was hoping to go to 'Metropolis', thinking it would generate some intentionally architectural works, but all the images I have seen are cartoons of architectural environments -- boxy, unsophisticated stereotypes of buildings, graffiti, Venturi-era decorated sheds. Is this what we -- architects, urban designers -- think a metropolis is? And do we have more to say about the burning city? The great moments in Burning Man are certainly the crazy towers climbable pieces, the parts that remind us all of the scaffolding we like sometimes better than the building behind it. But what does that mean for the design profession? It is the next generation of Ant Farm and Archigram, but we have only hinted at building THAT on the playa.