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.