Managing Diversity: The Zoning of Black Rock City

[Harley K. DuBois is a founding member of the Burning Man Board, with over 15 years of project management, art and city planning experience. As the City Manager of Black Rock City, Harley oversees both the Playa Safety Council and Community Services departments. She originated theme camp placement, the Greeters, Playa Info, and Burning Man Information Radio, and has kindled the development of all other Community Service teams. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

The zoning of Black Rock City began, from my recollection, by about our third year on the Black Rock Desert. There was nothing official about it at first; it was completely casual and self-governing. People simply camped with their friends or other like-minded folks. That meant that people who stayed up late and were loud at night camped together. People that had mad scientific projects involving explosions and fire clustered around each other, and those that liked the sunrise and afternoon activities created a spot of their own.

The First Theme Camp: Christmas Camp, 1993
The First Theme Camp: Christmas Camp, 1993

The origin of theme camp placement was the chaotic debrief meeting after the 1994 event. I raised my hand with an idea (… learning quickly that in the Burning Man culture, you’re likely to be tasked with doing the ideas you voice!). I suggested that instead of lining our city streets like the “default world” does with commercial ventures, why not use theme camps to help define the city? In 1995, there were about 10 camps placed (my personal favorite was Birthday Camp were it was everyone’s birthday every day), and they helped define Center Camp both physically and culturally.

In 1996, the amount of camps doubled, and placement included No Man’s Land. In 1997, when the growing population necessitated our first fully-conceived city layout (see Rod Garrett’s post Designing Black Rock City for more information), I placed theme camps along the Esplanade frontage, delineating the end of the city proper and the beginning of our central art space on the open playa. Placement was done largely to honor those creating the interactive camps, to curate an experience for citizens, and to activate an area that had significance. To this day this is still largely the intent of placing theme camps throughout Black Rock City.

While the intent of placement and zoning was (and still is) to provide the citizens of Black Rock City with an amazing experience, zoning is also used to help facilitate harmony while allowing for divergent interests within a city. It’s the Placement Team’s job to meet the demands of particular elements of the city who have developed different needs and different tolerances.

In 1995, the first rave was brought to our “project” in the desert. It seemed a happy enough collaboration at first, but the rave’s placement caused some difficulties. It was upwind and close enough to make a decent night’s sleep impossible. It was far enough away that driving seemed like a good idea until you realized there was no real road and navigation was a bit dangerous.

Burning Man, 2006
Burning Man, 1996

The next year (1996), the rave was moved downwind and a mile out, with a clearly defined road leading to it. Though the previous year’s issues were resolved, the distance and lack of connection with the rest of the city proved to be problematic. A breakdown of civic standards and community created chaos, ultimately resulting in serious injuries occuring to rave participants. The Burning Man organizers, and I in particular, were devastated by the experience, and vowed that no such incident would ever occur again.

We implemented a number of changes in 1997 as a result, including the adoption of a fully conceived city plan that allowed for a greater level of organization (now an emergency vehicle could locate a place where an incident was occurring in an expedient manner), the development of a radio communication system to meet our needs, and the expansion of our Ranger and Medical facilities. We also banned driving within the city and encouraged walking and bikes, and increased the ratio of porta-potties per person. I implemented a volunteer recruitment team and a placement team to make sure that all participant and organizational needs were met.

Sound and Fury

Speaker Man, 1999
Speaker Man, 1999

We were ready to ban “raves” in order to create a safe event in 1997. If it weren’t for Bob Wallace we would have. He challenged me, and ultimately the newly founded Black Rock City LLC, to examine our (Larry and my?) knee-jerk reaction and consider the issues at hand more carefully. I came to see that it was not “raves” that were the issue, but “sound”. For those wanting quiet, an all-night-hippy drum circle was just as annoying as the thumping of the bass beat of electronic music. An olive branch of a sound meter was extended from Bob to me, and a willingness to make “sound” work within Black Rock City was established.

The following year, (1998) we implemented a zoning plan intended to meet everyone’s desires by creating a “Loud” and a “Quiet” side of town. Theme camps were sorted depending on volume of noise output and preference in experience. This solution lasted two years and revealed three ground-breaking concepts: 1) even the hardest partier wants to sleep at some point, 2) placing your speakers out on a horseshoe-shaped city will carry the sound directly into the front yards of your quiet neighbors across the city, and 3) industrial noise afficionados do not necessarily get along with ravers.

Thus, in 2000, I met with a coalition of committed ravers, drummers, Black Rock Rangers, professional bouncers and sound engineers, and we developed the current sound policy that we still use today. We created the 10:00 and 2:00 loud ends of the city. We officially named the camps habitating that zone “Large Scale Sound Art” camps (LSSA) so as to not distinguish on preference in music, but respect artistry across all (loud) sound disciplines.

The Littlest Burners

Burner Baby on Playa

Simultaneous to this effort, we were taking into consideration other important zoning issues elsewhere in the city. A sign of success in a healthy community is people coming together, and in some cases that means children. By 1998, kids began appearing at our event more frequently, so I started Kids Camp. It was placed close to Center Camp for family access to important services like Rangers, Medical, ice, etc.

Kids Camp’s size and autonomy has grown and evolved steadily over the years, but their relative placement has remained the same. This has encouraged a natural sort of zoning to develop: there is a long-standing practice of placing kid-appropriate theme camps near (what is now called) Kidsville, and placing anything adult-oriented elsewhere. Alternative Engery zone also followed the same trajectory of finding independence and adding an additional layer of zoning for generator-free camps around it.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Because Black Rock City has grown from such a small organic center to its current size and shape in a relatively short period of time (one week a year for 20 years on the Black Rock Desert equals 20 weeks), it’s easy to examine how everything comes together to make a successful neighborhood. We’ve learned that: 1) friends and family camp in an area because they liked it and can find each other easily year after year, 2) people come to parts of the city due to a concept or association (like 4:20) or a rumor (like the amount of dust present) and tend to stay there, their numbers growing every year until a sense of that place becomes identifiable, and 3) the curatorial nature of theme camp placement helped to foster a sense of “there” in an area.

The View to the 9:00 Plaza, 2006
The View to the 9:00 Plaza, 2006

Our population grew and grew over the years, and by 2004 the city size began to edge towards disassociating people from the larger and increasingly unweildy and far-flung community. Plazas came to our aid. Though they showed up as a concept as early as 1997, they were not fully realized until much later. Designing plazas (complete with services such as Rangers, Medical, Ice, information, and a group of theme camps that fully embraced their placement) in 2005 helped create a more localized neighborhood feel, allowing people to identify with a more manageable portion of the larger community. Just as in any large metropolis, one feels a comfortable affinity with one’s local neighborhood, while simultaneously feeling like (for instance) a New Yorker. Along these lines, to expedite the process of neighborhood identity creation, the Placement questionnaire now allows theme camps to pick their preferred area for placement.

Being an old timer and purist, I feel that this development diverges from the original spirit of Burning Man, as the fluid and unexpected nature of change from year to year was certainly exciting. However, it can be argued that neighborhoods will help acculturate people new to Burning Man that much more quickly, and provide a necessary sense of localized identity to our growing population.

We welcome your thoughts and comments.

About the author: Harley K. DuBois

A founding member of the Burning Man Board, Harley K. Dubois brings to bear over 15 years of project management, art and city planning experience. As the City Manager of Black Rock City, Harley oversees both the Playa Safety Council and Community Services departments, ensuring that the citizens of BRC are happy and safe, including ingress, life on playa, and egress. She originated theme camp placement, the Greeters, Playa Info, Burning Man Information Radio, and has kindled the development of all other Community Service teams. Harley also created and maintains a comprehensive training and self-development program for the Burning Man staff, fostering the concepts of volunteerism and cross-departmental communication. Harley is a founding member of the Black Rock Arts Foundation, where she chairs the grants committee and acts as the foundation's liaison with the Burning Man Project. She is fully engaged in program development and works closely with the Executive Director and other staff members in conducting day-to-day operations. Harley has an extensive education and history in the visual and performing arts, has been a fitness director and a San Francisco fire fighter.

23 thoughts on “Managing Diversity: The Zoning of Black Rock City

  • As a 7-time burner who first burned by covering BM ’96 for the LA Times and this year is bringing his kids (for their 4th year) and a sound-oriented art car (XyloVan) art car, I’ve developed a pretty broad, if organic, appreciation for the organic evolution of BRC zoning. This excellent post lays out beautifully what I’ve suspected all along – that this cultural mosh-pit of a city is scaling gracefully only because the core team has full respect for the insane breadth of our cultures and needs. It’s quite a deft balancing act. Massive props, folks.

    Report comment

  • from chaos springs order and order falls back into chaos. no need to worry that the momentary order will last forever and destroy creativity, neither in default world, nor at BRC. btw BR has special significance for me since as a muslim my main “mekka” ie holy site also contains a sacred black rock! Believe me I head out west instead of east because i believe BRC is as spiritual and pure an event as can be achieved on the planet at the moment. Great Article and Great Job guys and gals!

    Report comment

  • What a fascinating, insightful and edifying essay on the process of evolving a city. I wish Kevin Lynch was alive to enjoy this. Maybe she is channeling him as she is certainly thoughtful and articulate about learning and modifying from things that didnt work.

    Report comment

  • Nice post. I sense that the zoning issues you are talking about tend to see the city as symmetrical about the 6-12 o’clock axis, with large sound camps down wind at 2 and 10 and center camp and kids up wind near 6.

    As a gay guy, my 3 years at BRC have focused on the 6-10 section as that seems to be where the major gay camps have been set. So I feel I’ve known the city in a rather lopsided way. Maybe I just have snooped around enough :-)

    Report comment

  • wow, thanks for posting this Harley. the design and organization of our city is really something to marvel at. this intelligent and professional planning really creates a space that allows us to have our amazing personal experiences. your efforts are truly appreciated, thank you!

    Report comment

  • It’s fascinating to follow the evolution of the city and to get a sense of the interactions between spontaneity and structure evolving from the tensions between competing needs and communal goals. Thanks for putting that history together for us!

    Report comment

  • I”m with Sunshine, who wrote on May 25, 2010: where’s the mellow zone for old hippies? I felt like leaving last year after the first night of ear-drum splitting, mega decibel music in the next camp blaring all through the night. Gratefully that stopped the next night! Is there a camp map available yet? A quiet, low-key area would be wonderful.

    Report comment

  • To Sunshine… LOL… I know it’s trite, but you truly made me laugh-out-loud from the core of my being…
    I’m an old hippy too, but once I gave Electronica a chance to infect my brain, I began to hear the frantic bass as the orgasmic, pumping heartbeat, and let my mind follow the multi-layered complexity of sounds and rhythms, into a trance of exquisite bliss.
    Why do so many people stay stuck in the same music they learned to like as teenagers??? I think it’s ok to like new music.
    Why would anyone want to be quiet and low-key in BRC? Isn’t that why people build churchs and monestaries? It’s just one brief, chaotic, glorious, week.
    I imagine camping next to kidsville might be more mellow.
    Thanks Harley for doing a superb job on the blog and the city! Metropolis rules.

    Report comment

  • In 6 years of burning I have found the outer 2 blocks are quite quiet at night. This is with the exception of the block next to 2 and 10. I camp about E or F and 8:45. I like the neighborhood and wear ear plugs to bed if the noise is loud.

    Excellent post.

    Report comment

  • For those who desire a quieter Burn: seek out areas near (isn’t it obvious?) Hushville and Alternative Energy Zone (AEZ). They LOVE quiet neighbors! Also, away from 2:00 LSSA, try walk-in camping at the back of the city between 2:00 & 5:00. Things won’t change too much from last year’s city plan: http://www.burningman.com/preparation/maps/09_maps/index.html

    Walk-In Camping
    A marked area immediately behind the southeast side of Black Rock City will be reserved for Walk-In Camping. You will need to leave your vehicle and carry your belongings to your chosen spot. No vehicles or RVs will be allowed in the Walk-In Camping area. The sheer difficulty of this exercise will keep the area sparsely populated and your efforts will be rewarded with a solitude unavailable in other parts of the city.
    http://www.burningman.com/preparation/event_survival/community.html

    Report comment

  • Great post, Harley. After a few city planning meetings I’ve watched or participated in here in the default world, I never went back because they were SUCH A CRUSHING BORE! It’s clear from your words that you have a passion for your work and appreciate challenges to your perspective. Do you think more creative, inspired people such as yourself would volunteer in local zoning and planning if it were not so mired in politics, backstabbing, and fear-based leadership? If so, how best to infuse them with our culture? “Making a difference” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot these days. One quickly finds the old “You can’t fight city hall” to be more the truth here in Default-Polis.

    Report comment

  • Sunshine & D,

    Old hippies can be found sprouting like onions up at the airport. Quiet, good vibe at night, hustle and bustle during the day like any busy airport. Check it out.

    Agent Nation

    Report comment

  • Harley,

    Thanks again for this really great piece on evolution of the planning of BRC. I think this article really helps to communicate the huge amount of thought and effort that goes into setting up BRC. Oh yes, for peace and quite camp along the outer streets of the city :)

    P Hall

    Report comment

  • As pictured in Harley’s essay, Black Rock City’s first theme camp was created in 1993, and I offer this historic reminiscence. Christmas Camp was organized by Peter Doty, Lisa Archer and Amanda Marshal. Peter dressed as Santa Claus. Clothed in this bulky costume, a flowing white beard glued to his face (and facing 100 degree temperatures), he exhibited a degree of jovial fortitude that is difficult to comprehend. The camp was decorated with Christmas lights and an incessant stream of Yuletide music issued from its speakers. Santa was surrounded by costumed elves who offered every visitor a brimming cup of eggnog. In order to obtain this cloying alcoholic treat, participants were first required to consume a slab-like wedge of fruitcake. A photo from that year exhibits Santa arrayed upon his throne. One hand clasps what is apparently a shotgun, and two naked women sit on his lap. Peter was a veteran Cacophanist, and this joke was typical of his performance strategies. The obligatory fruitcake and the obnoxiously incessant music burlesqued the passive-aggressive coercion that’s often a feature of forced family gatherings. Near the end of the event, presents were exchanged in Christmas Camp. As it happened (or is said to have happened) no one remembered to give Santa a gift. Doty then proceeded to visit every other camp in the vicinity, bitterly complaining, “I give and I give and I give…and I get nothing!”. In retrospect, certain key features of many future theme camps were present here. The camp was deigned to lure others in. It offered an activity and, in turn, this activity generated widespread social interactions throughout the community (it was infectiously funny).

    Merry Christmas,

    Larry

    Report comment

  • As just a 2-year Burner, I’m can’t wait to get back to the Playa this year. The mention of 9:00 Plaza in Harley’s post just brought back a wave of memories ’cause that is my ‘hood….last year, the Seven Sins Lounge was a great place to hang late at night and they were so friendly when they finally had to kick us to the curb at about 4 am…the Tokyo Post office, then down the street the Duck Pond, Rock Bottom, The Slut Garden. And for refreshments, the Tequila Shack and Nacho Mama’s and who can forget the Slushies. Yes, I did get out of the hood occasionally but it was great to come home every night with Bob’ radio antenna as our beacon home. This hood reminded me of my home in Hell’s Kitchen on the westside of Manhattan, a little gritty, a little loud and lots of fun. Thanks Harley for your insight.

    Report comment

  • Thanks for sharing your experience and insight. Fascinating to see this angle on the evolution of a growing city. If you respond to these comments, I’d love to hear your thoughts about what it’s been like to be able to redraw the layout of BRC every year, in contrast to our off-playa cities that are year-round and not so easily reorganized.

    Report comment

  • Leave a Reply