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.


Running in Great Cities

[The Reverend Billy Talen is the founder of The Church of Life After Shopping, a project of The Immediate Life, a New York based arts organization using theater, humor, and grassroots organizing to advance individuals and communities towards a more equitable future. Reverend Billy has been preaching against consumerism since 1996. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

And now, fresh from the “Condemned Diner Center for Urban Design” – a traumatized Burner jogs across Amsterdam and gives us a report of strange goings on. He needs so badly to get to Black Rock City this year, where he believes the nature of the staring eyes will change…

Photo by Amsters@m via Flickr

Today I jogged through Amsterdam from the Royal Palace on Dam Square to the mouth of the river. Like many European city centers, Amsterdam has evolved into a super mall, an old surface covered with the images of models posing with products, often in gigantic proportions. There is a spell cast on me, regardless of how much outright disgust I have for corporate marketing. By the end of the run, I’ve had thousands of these mannequin-humans stare into my eyes…

The expressions in the models’ faces are the whole range of human experience, from giddy to aghast. Whatever the emotion, they are intense. They make an emotional zone on the sidewalks or plaza before them. We are in the “view shed” of the eyes of these actors, who seem to see something unspeakably mesmerizing, shocking, threatening… (more…)

The Temple: Sacred Heart of Black Rock City

[Lee Gilmore teaches Religion & Anthropology at California State University Northridge and is author of Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

As travelers, historians, and archaeologists can tell you, great cities contain spiritual and ritual centers–physical manifestations of the human quest for the transcendent and magisterial.  Grand cathedrals, imposing temples, and mosques with soaring minarets–each an attempt to intersect both divine and earthly powers.  For Black Rock City, that heart is perhaps best identified with the annual Temples–each an ephemeral locus of memory and mourning.


Rod Garrett tells us that the origins of BRC’s famous layout of concentric circles lay in pragmatic and organic decisions.  Nevertheless, when viewed through a symbolic lens, its template readily suggests a labyrinth or mandala.  The placement of the Man at the BRC’s center readily evokes what historian of religion Mircea Eliade called the axis mundi–a symbolic manifestation of the sacred center of the cosmos and the location of hierophany–the eruption of the sacred into the profane world. As both the spatial center and temporal apex towards which each annual event is definitively aimed, The Man forms axis of space and time in Black Rock City.

Yet over the course of the past decade, the sacred heart of Burning Man has shifted a few hundred yards outward.  Where the Burning of the Man can bring joy, catharsis, and transformation sharpened into a singular, ecstatic moment, Temples’ rites can engender a deeper and perhaps more difficult self-examination in asking us to consider our own mortality.

The Temples grew out of tragedy and immediacy when Petaluma artist David Best first transformed his 2000 playa installation called the Temple of the Mind into an impromptu memorial for a friend who had died in the weeks just before the event that year.

Temple of Tears, 2001

In 2001, a similar but significantly expanded structure would be called the Temple of Tears where all Black Rock Citizens were invited to inscribe memorials upon ornate wooden walls and to leave behind photos and other objects of personal significance. As my friend and colleague Sarah Pike has noted, through the physical inscription of memories on the Temple’s walls, and in turn through reading the inscriptions of others, participants were able to share, ritualize, and transform private grief into public expression in ways that are generally unavailable to many contemporary Americans.  Finally, on the festival’s final night, the Temple and its tokens were ultimately offered up in flame, dust, and ashes as thousands looked on in reverential silence.


The Street As An Urban Social Space

[Metropol contributor Steven Young received his Masters Degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, where his studies included urban social spaces. He has recently earned his LEED GA certification, and works extensively in the San Francisco Bay Area. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

Great streets of the world have a few things in common: space, people to watch, and places to stop and rest. The resting is usually the best part since it almost always involves eating and drinking. Pedestrian streets in particular have a vibrancy that emanates from the interactions taking place between the occupants. Streets are connectors, not only between places but between people. It is where we meet and it is where we act out our lives as social beings and communities.

Esplinade de Espana, Alicante, Spain
Esplinade de Espana, Alicante, Spain

The Esplanade de Espana in Alicante, Spain is akin to Black Rock City’s Esplanade. Alicante’s esplanade is an expansive street that goes on for miles, where strolling masses emerge from the city’s interior to take in the wonders of their community. It is the face of the city at the edge of the sea, with dense development on one side and the Mediterranean on the other; and it is where the occupants of the city find their connectivity. The Bund in Shanghai is also exemplary of the cultural vibrancy of esplanade walkways. (more…)

The Black Rock Rangers – Part 1 (Origins)

[This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

The Black Rock Rangers are Burning Man’s non-confrontational mediating agency, made up of trained volunteers who help to resolve disputes within our community, and bridge the gap between the ethos and the culture of our citizens and the needs and responsibilities of law enforcement. It didn’t start how you might think …

Burning Man, 1990

Burning Man, 1990

1990 was the first year of Burning Man on the Black Rock Desert. It was a small and intimate affair. Driving instructions for the event were simply: “Find your way to Gerlach, Nevada, drive another 12 miles, get off the asphalt and drive for 16 miles, then turn right and drive another 4.8 miles.” Before the advent of the GPS, it was easy to get lost in the 400 square miles of Black Rock Desert, even with a compass. The camp was small and always over the horizon. An error of 3 degrees for a new arrival or a group returning from a hot springs, could send a vehicle to the other end of the playa 20 or 30 miles away. (more…)

Creating the Black Rock City Café

[This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

Early in 2000, a young restauranteur presented an idea for a huge “Cafe” at Center Camp. His premise was “the larger the structure, the more coffee would be sold,” so if it was big enough it would much more than pay for itself. However, even if this formula didn’t prove out, a grand central meeting space would still be a fine community asset.

A 3/4 sphere of glued toothpicks was the model for a one to two hundred foot high dome, this to be built of timber bamboo shipped up from Mexico. The proposed structure was evaluated by our City Designer, Rod Garrett.

This design proved not entirely practical, as it would have an enormous surface area compared to the usable area within its footprint, and might roll through the city like a giant potato masher in high winds. Further, we had no expertise in building high in the air with bamboo, possibly having to import a crew from Asia. Lastly, the bamboo would simply explode into cracks and splinters in the extreme low humidity and heat of the high desert. (more…)

Designing Black Rock City

[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.

Black Rock City 1992
Black Rock City 1992

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. (more…)

The City of Burning Man

Black Rock City 2003, From 10,000 feet
Black Rock City 2003, From 10,000 feet

[This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

We might view Black Rock City as a great machine, efficiently providing the many hundreds of functions needed to help sustain us in a wilderness almost devoid of life. However, it seems more appropriate to consider it an organism, much more than simply a sum of its parts.

Our city is dynamic, adaptive and reactive. The streets stream with people like arteries seen under a microscope. It’s organic structure milling with the movement of information and materials, with organizing and building, nourishing and removing wastes, finally breaking down and disappearing. Additionally, it references the mythological Phoenix in symbolically burning and being reborn from itself each year. (more…)