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What Burning Man says about cities today

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The lifecycle of Black Rock City is the accelerated lifecycle of cities that are becoming victims of their success 

A satellite image of the Burning Man festival in Nevada, which is organized as concentric arcs with avenues emanating from the center.
Every year, Burning Man constructs a temporary city in the Nevada desert. While being a countercultural space, it’s following a similar lifecycle as permanent cities.
DigitalGlobe via Getty Images

What says American urban planning better than dismantling something and starting all over again? A blank slate has long tantalized city builders who yearn to solve social problems through design, and there’s one place where that blank slate is an annual ritual: Black Rock City, the site of Burning Man.

What began as a bonfire on a San Francisco beach in 1986 has become a week-long festival in a full-fledged temporary city. It’s founded on utopian ideals of equality, inclusivity, communitarianism, self-expression, self-reliance, and environmentalism, among others. However, Burning Man hasn’t been able to escape mainstream 21st-century urban problems: high costs, staggering traffic, insufficient infrastructure, income inequality wrought by tech billionaires, calls for heightened surveillance due to perceived terrorism threats and drug use, and not enough room for everyone who wants to attend.

Oh, and Instagram influencers who are using the artistry and creativity of Burning Man for #SponCon.

Now in its 33rd year, Burning Man has moved from counterculture to commodity, and it’s grappling with the same growth challenges as more conventional cities. Black Rock City illustrates, at an accelerated pace, the lifecycle of cities at risk of becoming victims of their own success.

“Look at the history of how ‘mainstream’ culture has tried to address Burning Man,” writes Caveat Magister on Burning Man’s blog. “First they tried to shut us down, then they condemned us, then they ignored us, then they laughed at us and tried to make us a joke, then they tried to buy us — and because none of that worked, now they are trying to appropriate us.”

In 1990, the first year Burning Man took place in the desert, just 90 people gathered; now Black Rock City’s population has swelled to an astounding 80,000. As it’s grown, the city has morphed from informally organized tents to an enormous, meticulously planned city. It even has its own starchitecture. Safety concerns and navigation challenges eventually led to the current layout of Black Rock City: a series of concentric arcs with avenues radiating from the center, where artworks are installed and the burn takes place. The event’s organizers have experimented with other urban design interventions to help the community thrive, like placing art installations further from the center to draw people outward and encourage exploration.

Thousands more want to attend, but can’t due to permitting limitations. In 2011, Burning Man tickets sold out for the first time. Ticket scalpers and concierge-type services have capitalized on this shortage, charging inflated and often astronomical sums for people who can afford the fees, leaving some veteran community members without tickets. In 2014, a pop-up W hotel charged $16,500 per head. And people paid. Organizers appealed to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees the desert where Burning Man takes place, to add capacity, but the agency denied the festival’s application for a permit to allow 100,000 people to attend, restricting growth.

This hyper-inflated “cost of living” is similar to the housing scarcity afflicting cities with strong job markets. Take the San Francisco Bay Area. Despite attracting nearly 400,000 new residents over a between 2012 and 2017, it only issued 58,000 permits to build new homes during the same period. The only people who can afford to live in these cities have high-paying jobs, usually in the tech sector.

Meanwhile, the gentrification at Burning Man reflects the challenge cities with large artistic communities are facing. The very presence of artists is often a catalyst for gentrification, as the cycle of capitalism turns culture into a commodity. Neighborhoods that artists made cool are becoming too expensive for them to live and work in. Some gentrifying cities are experimenting with programs to help their artistic communities. London and New York have appointed night mayors. Oakland is using community land trusts to help artists buy real estate.

Black Rock City also encapsulates some of the more positive ways cities can evolve. Every year Black Rock City is rebuilt, organizers tweak the layout to improve it and help the community thrive. Burning Man has long been considered a microcosm of permanent cities and all their complexity, which has drawn the attention of urban planners who are eager to apply its practices to the real world. Parklets—those temporary pocket parks inserted into parking spaces—originated from people who attended Burning Man, for example.

How to address the problem of too much success is still an open-ended question for Burning Man—and for superstar cities. But as a recent story from Governing shows, the answer might be found on the playa: “The single greatest lesson Burning Man can impart to other cities may not be anything physical. It’s the collaborative process of planning and design.”

Author Zach Patton spoke to Victoria Mitchell, one of Burning Man’s on-staff planners, who said: “The reason citizens care more in a place like Black Rock City than they might in their own communities is because they have some skin in the game. They have a way to participate. They are asked for their feedback. They get to see what’s happening and then make the city real. We empower them to make the city what it is.”

Of course, not all citizens of a city are interested in collective success. Case in point: San Francisco residents raising $200,000 to block a homeless shelter. But continually centering the residents of the city and implementing policies and practices that will benefit the community as a whole now and in the future is smart planning. It might help Burning Man come up with a solution for the challenges popularity and appropriation has caused, and perhaps break the cycle of cities that are being cannibalized by their success.