[Editor’s Note: Rod Garrett’s essay Designing Black Rock City, originally written for the Burning Man website, provides a comprehensive history of the thinking and factors that have impacted the evolution of the Black Rock City Plan, and as such is an excellent starting framework for the consideration of Black Rock City as an urban planning Petri dish. We’ve reproduced it here in its entirety, as a foundational document for the Metropol Blog Series.]
The historic origins of what was to become Black Rock City began with the relocation of the Man’s burning from Baker Beach in San Francisco to the Black Rock Desert, Nevada in 1991.
Due to the several hundred mile trip, it was necessary to establish an overnight camp near the Man for the 250 participants who attended. The original form of the camp was a circle. This was not particularly planned, but formed instinctively from the traditional campfire circle and the urge to “circle the wagons” against the nearly boundless space. The following year, an informal plan was required by the B.L.M. for permission to camp. It rapidly developed from a weekend to a week-long event.
Not only was it difficult to find our modest settlement in the expanse, but people exiting our village frequently got lost or mired on the margins of the playa. For practical reasons, four avenues were added, indicating the cardinal directions. Compass headings added to the circle served our need to orient ourselves in that stark emptiness.
At the urging of founder and director Larry Harvey, a hub gradually developed which centralized services and provided a gathering place. By 1996, a second circle called Ring Road surrounded that. Also, a zone called No Man’s Land was established in front of the settlement to preserve the view of Burning Man. This was lined with “theme camps” and opened outward from the civic plaza at about a 60-degree angle. It extended to a point beyond the Man, and continues to be referenced in a feature of Center Camp called the Keyhole.
In 1997, Burning Man reorganized, and we made our one-time venture off the playa into nearby Hualapai Valley in Washoe County. Rod Garrett was recruited to create plans and documents for compliance with County regulations. This instituted a lengthy process in developing the basic scheme from which our present city has grown.
The 1997 plan was to be loosely based on the previous camp-centric schemes, with the Man ancillary to the camp. Additionally, it was to have specified roads and street names, along with other urban amenities. Near to the event, we determined that the land we were promised was not available, and were compelled to shoehorn everything into a strip of private land between the zigzagging property line and the narrow shoreline of Hualapai Flat. The settlement was constrained to an ungainly arc which spread out laterally from the center. This was entirely circumstantial, rather than conceptual, however it unwittingly became a precursor to our eventual design of Black Rock City.
The conditions did establish an external boundary for us. Thick brush and a long irrigation trench bordered the back of the city, fence lines protected our settlement’s flanks, and an impassible isolated playa bordered its front. These natural barriers made it possible to create a secure entry point, a ‘gate’, for the first time.
We had to work quite site-specifically that year, but in 1998 we returned to the freedom of the totally blank canvas of the Black Rock Desert. This is one of the largest alkali/mud flats on Earth, having an area of about 1,000 square miles.
The new plan was to be strongly affected by our experience of the previous year and the example of 1996, with its disastrous consequence of uncontrolled sprawl. Our goal was to express and abet a sense of communal belonging, and establish population densities that would lead to social interactions. Concurrently, we were attempting to recreate some of the intimacy of our original camping circle, but on a much larger civic scale.
Above all, this city needed to work. It was vital that the flow of people and supplies in, out and within were unimpeded. The layout needed to provide for basic services, and be easily comprehended and negotiated. For continuity, it should incorporate familiar features of the previous event sites, and be scalable for future expansion. It also had to facilitate the art and expression of the community, and support past traditions and the principles of Burning Man.
In a conceptual break with the previous camp-centric concept, we arranged the city around a geographic center formed by the location of the Burning Man This position functioned like the fixed point of a drawing compass. From that spot our builders could survey the arc that defined the curve of Black Rock City’s concentric streets.
These streets initially formed less than half a circle and were sub-divided into blocks by a series of radial streets, like spokes projecting outward from the hub of an enormous wheel. Centrally nestled into the populous area facing the Man was the archetypal “Camp Center” of previous years. As with many other cities, a vestige of its beginnings can be found at its heart.
The large figure of the Man became a unique identifier of one’s position by providing a visual bearing at every radial road, even from deeply within the city. We had created an icon and an environment in which it felt as if each participant was co-related — while united by some transcendent principal.
Aside from 1998’s qualitative leap, the current form of our city has resulted from the continuous interplay of many factors: historic circumstance, public safety issues, logistical needs, environmental conditions, politics, social ideals, economic viability, competing or potentially conflicting uses of space within our community, aesthetic perceptions, a need for a kind of spiritual symbolism, and, of course, our own individual inspirations. Rod Garrett has functioned as our city designer, while Burning Man’s chief organizers, representing various departments, have made several significant contributions. In other words, much of the evolution of Black Rock City has proceeded within this scheme exactly as would the development of any other city.
We began zoning space within our city in 1997 because of the need to locate theme camps in some coherent way. Since then we have gone on to designate various special areas, such as Walk-in camping, our airport, DPW and law enforcement headquarters, and large-scale sound installations at the ends of the city. Various issues caused us to create a zone around the Man, within and beyond the arc of Black Rock City, reserved for large-scale art installations. As our plan has grown, we have learned how to differentiate and separate various specialized, and potentially conflicting uses. This involved an empirical study of our social needs as they’ve naturally emerged from an increasingly sophisticated social reality.
In 1999, we oriented the blocks annularly in order to better provide for future expansion. The theme that year was the “Wheel of Time”. As the radial streets had been laid out in 15 degree increments, we were prompted to name them for numbers of the clock face. When combined with the concentric street names, this turned out to be a conceptually graphic and easy-to-use system of location. Although the theme changes each year, we continue with the time analogy in naming these streets.
By mid-2000, population growth had developed from the once thin line of theme camps along the Esplanade into a thick band, fostering “insider” and “outsider” cliques. In addition, the city had grown vastly, losing the sense of human scale. All this seemed to lead to a vague but general disharmony. In 2005 we decided to affect some social engineering, and the theme camps were rezoned, limiting them to a one block in depth. These narrowly lined the Esplanade, but additionally lined certain radial streets. This defined the borders of several “neighborhoods”, and broke the city down into more comprehensible and homogenous areas.
The site of our city has been largely determined by political considerations, along with health and safety issues. During the early 90’s Black Rock City had been deliberately hidden in the desert vastness. Participants were directed to a station called the gate, and here they were provided with coordinates by which they might locate our settlement. As attendance increased, however, it became apparent that large numbers of vehicles could not safely traverse this space. Frequent whiteouts, occasional drenching thunderstorms and the tendency of drivers to accelerate to unsafe speeds in trackless space dictated a location closer to the county highway. Accordingly, in 1998, we sited Black Rock City near the southern end of the Black Rock Desert a few miles outside the town of Gerlach. The subsequent moves to our current location were determined through complex negotiations with the BLM for locations which did not interfere with the needs of other recreational land users.
Additionally, there were unresolved factors of security. The pentagram that marks our city’s external boundary was dictated by (a) the need to minimize our footprint in the surrounding environment due to the concerns of other recreational land users, (b) the economic need to create one controllable entry point at which we could charge an entrance fee (sorely lacking until ’97), (c) the need to protect our community from the depredations of rogue vehicles, and (d) containment for wind born debris (Burning Man being the largest “Leave No Trace” event in the USA).
The most efficient and obvious solution was a circle, but that was unworkable in that it lacked straight lines of sight for security. A triangle or square, while requiring the minimum number of vantages for sight lines, enclosed too much unused space in its angles and created an unnecessarily large perimeter. Six sides or more required too many security points, so the present shape was determined by default.
The aesthetics were not a large criteria, but were primarily born out of objective process. Oddly, we often found we could judge the practicality of a solution by whether it seemed to “fit”. Angles and distances took on significance; the divisions of space were comprised of sequential round numbered radii and 15° angles, true North ended up 45° off the city’s main axis, and so on. Given the gate approach and the Man’s location, the city’s bi-lateral symmetry provided optimum distribution for vehicular traffic.
As mentioned previously, large artworks were placed in a zone outside the precincts of our city. This was meant to lure participants away from our settlement and into the great silence and open space. Similarly, the open side to the circular scheme of the city takes on spiritual and psychological importance. Instead of completely circling the wagons, we invite the natural world to intrude. We will never further close that arc, as it is humbling to have the vast desert and sky intrude into our self-styled small world. Our hope is that by glimpsing the minute place we occupy in the infinite, we will also sense our unity with it.
The five annular streets created in 1997 grew to thirteen in 2007, and the arc of our city, originally less than half, now extends to two-thirds of a circle around the Man. A city designed to accommodate 9,000 participants in 1998 developed a capacity for 50,000 in ten years. In 2008, the site covered 5 square miles. If one were to overlay it, our city would cover most of downtown San Francisco.
The city of the Burning Man continues to grow, but though it further develops each year, the plan of 1998 remains the basic framework. This referenced ancient megalithic sites and city-states, as well as various Renaissance and contemporary planning concepts. However, while there may be similarities between this and some current idealized or utopian cities, Black Rock City has a home, a storied history, and a culture to inhabit it, albeit fleetingly. It is at once a very real and yet extremely ephemeral phenomenon, as it must annually arise from nothing, flourish for a few days, and then vanish completely.